This web site traces the evolution of the electric guitar from the perspectives of both the engineers and inventors who brought it into being, and the great players who have defined the way we percieve it. From it's origins in the 1920's and 30's up until the present no musical instrument has more clearly encapsulated the American mythos than the electric guitar. It is the archtypical symbol of American freedom, independence, and rebellion. Here we will discuss both the technological advances that made it's creation possible, and the social context out of which the most influential guitar players have arisen.
The way any guitar player approaches their instrument is the result of essentialy two things, the physical limitations of the instrument and the social context in which they learn to play it. This is true of any instrument from the violin to the piano but the guitar has one characteristic that no other instrument has, independence. It is this characterisitic that is responsible for making the guitar the great American instrument that it is. It's not very expensive, and it's small enough for a cowboy to pack into his saddle bag and carry from town to town. With the exeption of the piano which is not particularly portable, it is the only instrument on which you can accompany youself vocaly. This makes the modern guitar player the equivalent of a travelling minstral, travelling from town to town, singing songs and telling stories of distant places and far off events. When the rock and roll circus comes to town all the little children come out to play.
The four guitar players discussed in this essay, Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, and Jimi Hendrix, may not neccesarilly be the greatest guitar players of all time although in some cases they argueably could be. They are however unquestionably the most influencial electric guitar players of the twentieth century. Each of these players was at the cusp of some technological change in the instrument either mastering or expanding it, and it is noteworthy how many great social changes seem to follow great technological inovation. Every shift in style in twentieth century electric guitar playing can be traced to one of these players. To be sure there were those who took the raw inspiration and refined it, but when you ask any serious guitar player who it was that influenced them you can be certain that no matter what style they play in Jazz, Rock, Blues, or Country, they will mention one or more of these players. These were the guitarists who defined the playing styles of their respective generations.