Music History

The complete story of how we came to have loud, fuzzy, distorted guitars

[This was my weekly column for – AC]

When Les Paul and Leo Fender introduced their electric guitars in the early 1950s, they were looking for a way to compete with louder instruments like horns, drums, and even the piano. Winding wires around magnets turned into pickups, which then sent pure, clear tones to an amplifier.

In 1954, this was considered the ideal sound for the electric guitar: a louder version of a steel-stringed acoustic.

Others weren’t so sure this was the best use of electricity.

Junior Barnard, a Western-swing player, tried to dirty up his guitar sound as early as 1945 by messing with his pickups and amplifiers in ways that surely voided any warranty. Bluesmen like Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters also experimented with getting fatter sounds off their guitars through the 1950s. And there were also some happy accidents.

In 1951, Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm were heading up to Sun Studios in Memphis to do some recording when their amplifier fell off the roof of their station wagon. They retrieved it from the side of the road and hoped it still worked when they reached the studio.

It fired up fine, but there was something wrong with the circuitry or perhaps the speaker cone. No longer did it deliver a pure sound from the guitar. But it did sound kinda cool.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38170 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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