Electric guitar

Evolution of electric guitar technology over the decades

California has always been the ideal place for young Americans: Hollywood, surf music, pop music, psychedelia, hot rods, biker culture and glam metal. The Golden State’s only real pop culture competition has traditionally been New York, and we know the beaches and forests are better on the Pacific side. Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring that by 2035, all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the state be zero-emission vehicles. Once again, Cali leads by example, and what was once unthinkable becomes reality. Strangely, this EV revolution reminds me of the emergence of the electric guitar.


The electric was born both from a technological opportunity and a real need. Guitarists in orchestras and large brass bands suffered from a volume deficit compared to the piercing tones of the brass. Even in the smallest settings, the booming voice of the piano could easily bury the sound of a 6-string. As is the tradition now, guitarists just wanted more volume, and electric was the answer. Long before electric blues or rock, pioneering jazz guitarists like Tiny Grimes and Charlie Christian embraced the new technology. In doing so, they wrote the book on how guitarists could be standout soloists in any environment.

I’m old enough to remember thinking an electric guitar was weird, but somehow cool in the space age. How did it work? Did you plug it into a wall outlet, and it just worked as a tabletop radio? It sounds laughable now, but electric guitars were the butt of derision from “serious” musicians because they were used in this new kind of rock ‘n’ roll, a decidedly low form of entertainment. Nor did electricity exist in the music schools. Relegated as the vulgar musical cousin of the hot rod and the motorcycle, it naturally piqued its appeal with some. The electric guitar was central to the booming rock sound, so volume levels increased with the size of the crowd. But the transition has not always been smooth. As bands struggled for more and more decibels, the big stacks of amps and massive sound systems with power-hungry amps sometimes exceeded the capacity of the venue’s stage takes. Eventually the situation was sorted out and even the smaller clubs implemented significant wiring upgrades. Festivals and tours sported massive stacks of speakers to reach levels that dazzled crowds.

If you had told me at the time that I could play a gig with equipment that could fit in the trunk of a mid-size SUV, I would have considered you crazy.

Later, something counterintuitive happened. Technology intervened again. Audio systems have become smaller, lighter and more efficient. Guitarists could play theater with a 50 watt half stack and then a 2×10 combo. Now a group can play in an arena without any amps on stage. What a difference a few decades can make.

Modern portable battery-powered systems can sound better than the stacks of bent horn cabinet tapes used to haul in a 24-foot box truck. If you had told me at the time that I could play a gig with equipment that could fit in the trunk of a mid-size SUV, I would have considered you crazy. But that’s always how the future is. Some were terrified of the locomotive when it was invented, and otherwise smart people swore humans couldn’t travel faster than 50 miles per hour without dying.

We can have that mindset when it comes to musical instruments. I’ve been the biggest snob about vintage guitars ever since they were just called “used” gear. But I have to admit, there’s a lot to like about the new instruments and modeling amplifiers. I have a digital pedal that’s 90% of my analog ideal but weighs a tiny fraction of a Leslie 147. When you don’t have the space (or the physical strength) to justify heaps of ‘giant equipment, you begin to appreciate new technologies.

That’s not to say that I think there is no compromise. Yes, you can cram 5000 songs into your phone or stream everything recorded, but when you listen to analog recordings on a proper audio system in full chat, it’s a whole different experience. When you stand next to a real rotary speaker, you witness something that still hasn’t been improved, but the audience doesn’t notice. I used to think that until you stood on a stage and felt the power of two 100 watt batteries, you hadn’t really lived. And so on. We move forward with efficiency and convenience while sacrificing something that can’t always be measured – and we’re getting used to it. As much as I want to pull those big amps out of storage and shake the walls, maybe I’ll just drive down the Pacific Coast Highway in an electric car listening to an old recording and enjoying the memory instead.

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