During the first three decades of the 20th century, guitar players wanted more volume, so guitar makers built larger-bodied instruments, using steel instead of gut strings, and metal instead of wood for the guitar body.
In the 1920s, innovations in microphones and speakers, radio broadcasting, and recording made better electronic amplification for guitars possible. The volume was suddenly able to go way up.
The first commercially advertised electric guitar guitar was offered in 1929 by the Stromberg-Voisinet company of Chicago, though it was not a smash hit. The first commercially successful electric, Rickenbacker’s “Frying Pan” guitar of 1931, had an electromagnetic pickup — a device that converts the strings’ vibrations into electrical signals that can be amplified. But the pickup was bulky and unattractive, and the instrument was designed to be played in a musician’s lap with a sliding steel bar. It wasn’t an immediate hit beyond some Hawaiian, country, and blues musicians.
Spanish-style electrics, which you could sling in front of you while standing and singing, proved much more versatile. Gibson’s 1936 ES-150 (E for Electric and S for Spanish) had a sleek bar-shaped electronic pickup that was mounted into the guitar’s hollow body for a more streamlined look. The pickup earned the nickname “the Charlie Christian” thanks to the jazz virtuoso who is generally credited with introducing the electric guitar solo when he stepped out in front of Benny Goodman’s band in 1939.
Former radio repairman Leo Fender was the first to mass-produce and sell a successful solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar: the 1950 Fender Broadcaster (renamed Telecaster as the result of a trademark dispute).
The 1954 Fender Stratocaster, (the guitar most associated with rock and roll), featured a distinctive double-cutaway design that allowed musicians to play higher notes by reaching higher on the fingerboard, three pickups (which allowed for a greater range of sounds since previous guitars had two pickups at most), and a patented tremolo system that allowed players to raise or lower the pitch of the strings. The Stratocaster and it's smooth ergonomic design, set a new standard for electric guitars.
Rock guitarists loved the versatility of the Stratocaster. They could manipulate the sound by playing close to the amplifier, grinding the strings against things, and using special effects accessories like the wah-wah pedal.
By the ’80s Van Halen was pushing his self-built “Frankenstein” (based on a Stratocaster but with a mish-mash of guitar parts) to the limit, experimenting with “dive-bombing,” which uses the tremolo arm to drive the guitar’s lowest note ever lower. Jimmy Hendrix had done this but forced the guitar out of tune as a result.
It’s ironic that Leo Fender, creator of the most influential instrument in rock music, wasn’t a fan of rock and roll; he preferred country and western. It didn’t matter. Once something new is out there, you can’t stop makers and players from reinventing it, adapting it for new purposes, taking it apart and putting it back together in new ways. The electric guitar is a prime example of unintended consequences.