The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques

Have you ever wondered what pop music would’ve sounded like if the electric guitar had never been invented? Used in practically every other pop tune, this massively popular instrument has allowed many musicians to reach a legendary status. If you’re wondering who some of those famed and influential guitarists are and what it takes to become one of them, then simply dig into this humble article and read up on the history, sounds and various playing techniques of the electric guitar.

Direct Contact

“There’s nothing as direct as the human voice, but the strings of an electric guitar are a close second,” says guitarist Jaap Berends. “The strings put you in direct contact with the instrument and can be played in many different ways to shape just as many different sounds for freedom of expression. You can put so much feeling into the electric guitar – not only when you’re playing solos, but also when you’re playing chords.” Needless to say, the acoustic guitar came before the electric guitar. But what’s the big difference between the two? Well, electric guitars are equipped with pickups that capture the vibrations of the strings and turn them into an electric signal that can then be sent to an amplifier. There are also guitars that come equipped with what’s called a piezo pickup. Since piezo pickups are essentially tiny microphones, these guitars aren’t the same as ‘real’ electric guitars but are in fact called electro-acoustic guitars: acoustic guitars with a built-in pickup. More on guitar pickups later though, let’s start with a brief history of the electric guitar.

Competing Pioneers

The history of the electric guitar starts in the 1920s – the era of big band music. Due to their loud nature, big-bands were looking for a way to boost the volume of their acoustic guitars since growing them in size and fitting steel strings would only help so much. At some point, the idea of capturing the vibrations of the strings with magnetic pickups started floating around and, in 1931, guitar-builder Rickenbacker was the first to turn the concept into a ‘mass-producible’ guitar. There was only one problem: the hollow body of the guitar turned out to be exceptionally sensitive to feedback. As such, guitar builders all over the world started experimenting with solid-bodied guitars. One of those pioneers was Les Paul, who’d later inextricably link his name with Gibson, despite the fact that he was turned down several times by the guitar brand during the 1940s. Seeing how popular Gibson Les Paul guitars are nowadays, it’s crazy to think that the original LP concept almost died a quiet death.

Fender vs. Gibson: wat zijn de verschillen?
Eric Clapton (l) playing a Fender Stratocaster & Slash on a Gibson Les Paul Photo Eric Clapton (edited): Eric Clapton Rotterdam June 23, 1978, by Chris Hakkens, licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Fender and Gibson

At the start of the fifties, it was Leo Fender who managed to be the first to factory-produce solid-body electric guitars. Fender had designed the production process in such a way that he could build huge numbers of guitars – Fender Esquires and Telecasters – at the lowest possible cost, making the electric guitar accessible for the masses – youngsters in particular. The twangy sound of the ‘Tele’ turned out to be perfect for styles like blues, R&B, country and rock-and-roll, and its popularity made Gibson realise that they needed a solid-body electric guitar of their own, so they called up Les Paul. Together, they built the original Gibson Les Paul which, just like Fender’s archetypical models, have been copied countless times since. While some guitarists have a strong opinion on which brand is better, one isn’t necessarily better than the other. That said, Fenders do sound different compared to Gibson guitars. A Fender guitar generally shapes a more treble-rich, mix-cutting sound while a Gibson guitar has a warmer and rounder sound. That’s because almost all Gibsons have a set-in neck, while most Fenders have a bolt-on neck. Gretsch guitars, by the way, also have a very defined signature sound. See our blog Fender vs. Gibson: What’s the Difference?’ for more in-depth info.

The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques

The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques

The Pickups

The pickup is a crucial part of any electric guitar. Guitar pickups are fitted with little magnets that have coils wrapped around them. Every pickup has a magnet for each string, which intersects and warps the magnetic field of the magnet when it vibrates. These vibrations cause induction, which in turn generates an electrical voltage in the coil around the magnet. That electrical voltage can then be routed to an amplifier, where it’s basically turned into sound. There are different types of pick-ups. The two most important are the single-coil pickup and the double-coiled humbucker. Invented in 1955 by an engineer working for Gibson, the humbucker came after the single-coil pickup and was initially contrived to solve a classic problem that its counterpart came with: hum. Hum is caused by interference induction as a result of, among other things, picking up the magnetic field of the amplifier. The humbucker has two rows of magnet-and-coil combinations and, as such, each string has two magnet-and-coil combinations that convert the vibrations of the strings into an electrical signal. Since the two magnet-and-coil combos are out of phase, any hum is extinguished. Meanwhile the ‘string signal’ isn’t killed off but doubled, because both magnets feature opposing poles.

Added Benefits

What’s great about humbuckers is that they sound extra full, fat and warm when compared to single-coils, which sound brighter by design. “Back in the day, manufacturers weren’t concerned with the sound. They were focussed on solving technical problems,” Jaap says. “It was the musicians who then unravelled the sonic potential of the new technologies and started experimenting. At some point, Fender presented a Stratocaster armed with three pickups you could toggle between. Guitarists were now able to blend and combine the sound of various pickups, and they loved it.” The story goes that the decision to fashion the fretboard out of wood was a matter of aesthetics. The most commonly used woods are light maple and dark rosewood, both of which shape a slightly different sound that they add to the overall acoustic foundation sound. For more info on fretboards, see our blog: How Much Does the Wood of a Guitar Fretboard Matter?

Solid, Semi-Hollow and Hollow-Body Guitars

Electric guitars can be roughly divided into three types of models: solid bodies, semi-hollow bodies, and hollow bodies. Semi-hollow guitars – like the Gibson ES335 that B.B. King used to play – feature a solid block of wood in the centre of the body. The hollower a guitar, the more the body ‘partakes’ in the sound. If the body is solid, most of the sound will come from the strings. In fact, if you had a guitar made of concrete, you’d hear very little besides the sound of the strings. Hollow body guitars sound warmer and denser than solid body guitars and are also a bit more percussive, meaning there’s more ‘punch’ in the sound which is something that’s made them popular among jazz guitarists. That said, hollow body guitars are limited in terms of amplification and, since they’re sensitive to feedback, their sound can’t be boosted like the sound of solid body guitars.

The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques
A guitar amplifier

The Amplifier

When it comes to electric guitar amplifiers, there’s a lot to choose from and with prices that vary greatly. Guitar amplifiers can be roughly divided into two groups: valve amplifiers and transistor amplifiers. An important difference between the two is the way they sound. Valve amps are better at retaining the natural sound of your guitar, especially if it’s a point-to-point amplifier, so a model based on connected wires instead of connected circuit boards. The more direct sound of valve amps is also more dynamic than the sound of transistors, so the differences between quieter and louder sounds are bigger and more noticeable. Jazz guitarists often opt for a transistor amp because it’s better at compressing the sound and balancing out swiftly-played chromatic jazz lines. The downside of valve amps is that they’re more expensive as well as more delicate. “I usually stick to cheap modelling transistor amps when I go on tour,” Jaap explains. “These days, they’re more than capable of getting really close to the sound of a real valve amp.”

The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques
A pair of vacuum tubes inside a valve amp

Fingers or a Plectrum?

While the guitar, amplifier and any effect pedals you’re using largely determine your sound, there’s one thing you can’t underestimate. Jaap: “Your fingers are the single most decisive thing for your sound. That goes for the fingers of both of your hands and it’s something that a lot of players underestimate.” The strings can be played with the fingers, a plectrum or a combination of both. “Playing with the fingers can mean playing with the nails or your fingertips,” Jaap explains. “The difference in sound is huge. Playing with the fingertips will add more warmth to the sound.” Even though electric guitars are generally played with a plectrum, your hands are still crucial. “The sound is determined by the thickness of the plectrum, the way you grip it and where you let it land on the strings.” In the end, these things are more important than how fancy your gear is. I once saw guitarist Robben Ford play a gig in Germany. He always lugs high-end Dumble amps to shows, but this time, the amp he brought had short-circuited so he was forced to play through a low-end transistor amp. Truth be told, it sounded amazing, and I was shocked to hear it made almost no difference compared to a high-end valve amp. Also, I personally played my best gig as a guitarist when I had no choice but to play over the vocal PA system. That said, live sound will never be as detailed as a studio recording.” And that brings us to what Jaap calls ‘the big guitar disease’ – something you may already know as Gear Acquisition Syndrome: the tendency to think that buying new gear will instantly fix the flaws in your sound. “It’s a much better idea to invest all of that time spent browsing through gear in actually honing your skills. Don’t lose yourself to GAS because, like so many other guitarists, your amp is going to sound different in different rooms anyway. There’s no point in picking up a different amp if what you have is good enough. My advice would be to grab some good gear and stick with it – the gear and frequent practice I mean.”


Most guitarists have a tendency to play loud and Jaap believes there’s a technical explanation behind their reasoning. “Valve amps have to ‘push’. The way their volume graduates includes a kind of tipping point. Once that volume threshold is passed, the valve-driven sound really starts to take shape. In that light, it’s understandable that guitarists want high volume, it’s just that there’s really no need for overkill.” Jaap has also seen that plenty of players aren’t fully aware of the fact that they’re supposed to play two roles in the band: backing artist and solo artist. “When I’m backing on guitar, I want my sound to have a balanced place in the mix. When I start a solo, I want my sound to be on top. That’s why I always bring a volume pedal, which is indispensable if you ask me. I sometimes see guitarists play a show, never once tweaking their volume. As a result, the backing parts are too loud, and their solos don’t come out on top of the rest of the band. A volume pedal is the perfect aid here, and it won’t change the sound of your guitar at all.” While it isn’t stepless, a clean boost pedal can also serve as a volume pedal by the way.

The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques

Rhythm Guitar

In practice, the role of the electric guitar as a backing instrument involves playing rhythm guitar. Jaap: “Eighty percent of the time, you’re going to be playing rhythm parts as part of the rhythm section of the band. And playing rhythm guitar isn’t necessarily easy; the trick is to keep a consistent rhythm and keep up with the drums.” Playing rhythm guitar will be even harder if you’re not actually strumming on every eighth or quarter note. Jaap’s advice: keep ‘sweeping’. In other words, continue making the strumming motion with your hand whether you’re touching the strings or not. This should help you to maintain a constant strumming pattern and a catchy groove. This technique works for chords as well as single notes.

You may also opt to play ‘dead notes’ in between, just like drummers do. Jaap: “Drummers will make moves that don’t necessarily lead to any sound but do support the groove. Keyboard players also like to occasionally ‘strike’ the keys for the same reason. Bassists are the worst off here, since bass guitars generally don’t support the technique.” According to Jaap, timing is the biggest issue for most musicians. “Play along to a drum machine, record yourself and then listen back to your performance. It’s unbelievably confronting. I actually spent years working hard to get my timing right. Recording yourself can definitely help.”

Playing Solos

What’s the hardest part about playing solos? “Listening to what the rest of the band is doing while you’re at it”, is Jaap’s answer. “Your brain requires a certain amount of its computing power for the solos which can make you lose your ‘sync’ with the rest of the band. Practise solos with the help of a drum machine or backing tracks and make sure to record yourself – it’s infinitely useful.” And Jaap has another trick: “I’ve learned a lot by singing my parts. Singing teaches you how to phrase, so forming musical sentences. During solos, it’s also important that both your hands work together closely, so practise, practise, practise.”

“And if your timing is currently off during rhythm parts, it’ll likely only be worse during solos,” Jaap knows. “Most guitarists lose themselves in quick riffs and lose their timing in the process. Skip the licks for now and start by learning to play in time. The problem is that a lot of guitarists think their timing is okay. The thing is, you have ‘listening ears’ and ‘playing ears’. Both need to be fully synced up if you want to be able to assess your own timing, which is something that requires a lot of time and training. Again, recording yourself is the way to go here. As famed guitarist John Scofield says, timing comes first, then tone, then individual notes. The tricky bit is that timing is always the hardest part.” To learn more about playing solos, check out our blog: How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions.

American Guitarists

During his studies at the conservatorium, Jaap spent a year in the United States, enrolled in the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles. It was there where he received lessons from, among others, Scott Henderson. Jaap calls his time in L.A. a massively educational experience. “At the time, I was chasing the sound of famed American guitarists like Steve Luthaker and Scott Henderson, who were known for their use of effects. I had no idea how it all worked or how any of it was hooked up, and I couldn’t figure it out on my own. I wondered if they used mixers and asked around in a local music shop, where they looked at me as if I was crazy. Later, after I received the scholarship that allowed me to study in L.A., I quickly found out that the pros were indeed using a mixer”, Jaap recalls. “Nowadays, you can find everything you need to know on the internet, but back then, there were no resources of the sort.” So Jaap was forced to go to the source. “Every great American guitarist ends up in New York or Los Angeles, while country guitarists are literally drawn to Nashville. There are big concentrations of good guitar players all across the States, while Europe is home to more wide and thin spread groupings of guitarists. The culture is different too. In Los Angeles, shops like Bob Bradshaw’s Custom Audio Shop are hallowed meeting, greeting and breeding grounds. The expertise is great and the staff is very knowledgeable. They also know more about guitar sound in America than they do in Europe. Did you know that you can play any ‘classic’ sound with just your fingers, regardless of what amp you’ve got? As I said before, it’s all about practice and the right technique. I’ve also noticed that the more I grow as a guitar player, the less concerned I am with my choice of amp.”

Good to Know

Influential Guitarists

The past seven or eight decades have seen countless awe-inspiring guitarists come and go. Here’s a small overview of some of the most iconic guitar-wielding grand-masters the world has seen so far.

In addition to being a great guitarist, Les Paul (1915 – 2009) was an important pioneer in the development of the electric guitar. That said, ‘LP’ never developed any kind of signature sound since he would usually play electric guitars unplugged.

B.B. King (1925 – 2015) was the first guitarist to make everyone’s jaw drop. The legendary blues guitarist invented his own sound by hooking his Gibson ES335 up to a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. The story goes that King was also the first to start bending strings.

The late Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970) is an almost mythical guitarist who did just about everything he could think of with and to his guitars in order to create unique rock sounds. Sadly, Hendrix died of a drug overdose at the age of 27, leaving little, if anything, for the rest of us to discover about the electric guitar.

Eric Clapton (1945) is arguably as famous a guitarist as he is as a songwriter and singer. Rooted in rock and blues, the British guitar virtuoso may not be considered of equal importance by all guitarists but he’s definitely earned his place in our list.

Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954 – 1990) is generally believed to be the ultimate blues guitarist. Undeniably influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie had a fiery sound, impeccable tone and timing, and he really knew how to make his guitar swing. Sadly, ‘SRV’ died in a helicopter crash.

Allan Holdsworth (1946 – 2017) mastered a virtuoso technique that, while almost no one is able to imitate it, has left a lasting mark on rock and blues.

Born in the Netherlands, the ever-experimenting Eddie van Halen (1955 – 2010) basically invented tapping. A bona-fide rock legend, Van Halen is known for his instantly recognisable sound and style.

Chet Atkins (1924 – 2001) was another guitar-playing pioneer that can’t be overlooked. Atkins played an important role in developing fingerpicking styles.

Mike Landau (1958) can be heard on countless records and is one of the best players in the world when it comes to seeking the right sound for the song.

Representing the electric guitar in jazz, George Benson (1943), Pat Metheny (1954), John Scofield (1951) and Mike Stern (1953) more than deserve a shout-out.

English guitarist Albert Lee (1943) and his American counterpart across the big pond, Brent Mason (1959), have been important pioneering guitarists in country music.

West Coast-guitarists like Robben Ford (1951) and Larry Carlton (1948) can also be heard on countless records.

Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs and Tapping

A well known technique involves playing hammer-ons combined with pull-offs. To play a hammer-on, you literally hammer on the strings with the fingers of your left hand. A pull-off is basically the opposite: quickly pulling your finger off a string to play the fretted note – as if you’d plucked the string normally. Hammer-ons and pull-offs can help you create tempo in case your right hand can’t keep up, but they also allow you to play an entire scale without playing any string more than once. This is important because it sounds more harmonious and lyrical when compared to playing each note of a particular scale separately. Tapping, lastly, is a playing technique that actually extends beyond the guitar since it applies to practically any stringed instrument. In fact, hammer-ons and pull-offs are a staple of tapping styles.

Sliding, Bending and Slide Techniques

A famed technique that blues guitarists like to incorporate into their sound involves slides and bends. Sliding adds a lilting layer to the sound, while bending is all about playing with the pitch. Both techniques can be executed in different ways and are indispensable for pop, rock and blues solos alike. Bends are often combined with vibratos, which is an artform in and of itself. Playing with a slide is a technique stemming from early blues musicians. Back in their day, the strings were still too thick to bend. Also, many different slide techniques have since been invented, and some of these work with specific tunings only.

Lessons or Self-Taught?

A lot of guitarists got to where they are today by learning to play the guitar on their own. Would taking lessons have been a better idea? Jaap: “It may sound strange coming from someone who used to work as a head teacher at a conversatorium, but I think there’s a lot to say for figuring out how to play the guitar on your own. There are no laws or rules set in stone when it comes to playing guitar. There’s not a single method that works best for everyone. I personally started improving after I started holding the neck at more of an angle. For me, this feels much better than the classic, upright position. The same goes for posture. Sitting up straight hurts my shoulder while, if I bend forward a little, I’m completely pain-free. It’s different for everyone.” Jaap’s advice: “Look at guitarists you adore and see what they are doing. Invest plenty of time in honing your guitar playing technique or, if you keep running into brick walls, find a good teacher.”

Set-Up and Amp Placement

Dialling in a guitar amplifier isn’t as straightforward as most people think. “Guitarists often dial in too much treble which thins out the sound too much,” says Jaap. Amplifier placement is another story. Usually, guitar amps are placed on the floor. The problem is that the sound of a guitar packs a lot of mids and highs, which are directionally sensitive. As such, when set up on the floor, a guitar amp will ‘blow’ the sound past the player at knee-height, causing them to be the one who hears the least of their own sound. This, in turn, will often lead to players racking up the treble some more. Placing the amp at ear-height isn’t the solution either. At that height, you’re picking up a lot of dynamics, which actually doesn’t help. “A guitar amp should be set up at knee height at the least,” Jaap feels. “The best height is probably the same height that your guitar sits at.” For more help placing and configuring your amp, check out our article: Setting Up a Guitar Amplifier: 5 Tips for Beginners.

Do the Resonance Test

During his time in the US, Jaap was taught something very important and highly useful: a basic electric guitar check anyone should do when they’re holding a guitar that they’re interested in buying. The test involves holding the guitar by the neck and letting it hang loosely. Then, hit the strings with your other hand and touch the body to see if you can feel it resonate. If the body doesn’t resonate while the strings vibrate, something’s up with the guitar.”

A Basic Collection of Effect Pedals

The number of stompboxes you can get is about as big as the number of electric guitars out there. So, which effect pedals are a must-have for fresh guitarists? “In the very least, you’ll need some kind of overdrive pedal. I personally use an Ibanez Tube Screamer, which I can set up as a distortion pedal or engage for a clean boost. A delay pedal is standard-issue as well and, if you’re playing pop music, you’ll also need a chorus pedal for double rich sound. Country-focussed guitarists, on the other hand, will want to pick up a compression pedal.” Jaap’s go-to rig also includes a volume pedal, which technically isn’t an effect pedal. “And don’t forget to bring spare gear like power supplies, batteries, cables, stands, adapters, picks, Euro plugs, cable reels, etcetera. I keep most of that stuff inside a special case I’ll bring to every show.”

The Electric Guitar: History, Sound and Playing Techniques

See Also

» Electric Guitars (Solid Body)
» Semi-Acoustic Guitars (Hollow Body)
» Electric Guitars for Kids
» Lap Steel Guitars
» Electric Travel Guitars
» Guitar Amplifiers
» Guitar Effect Pedals
» All Guitars & Accessories

» What is the Best Electric Guitar for Me?
» What is the Best Guitar Amplifier for Me?
» Open Tunings on Guitar: Give Them a Try!
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Learning To Play Guitar Chords For Beginners
» Setting Up a Guitar Amplifier: 5 Tips for Beginners
» How Can I Connect a Guitar to a Computer?
» How To Change Electric Guitar Strings
» Acoustic or Electric Guitar? Where’s the Best Place to Start?
» Fender vs. Gibson: What’s the Difference?
» Guitar in Drop D Tuning: how and why
» How do I become a guitarist?
» Set Up Your Electric Guitar
» Ordering a Guitar Online: Why Hasn’t It Been Set Up Already?
» How to tune your guitar or bass
» Stratocaster versus Telecaster: what are the differences?

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