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Four Pieces of Guitar Gear That Changed Music

Guitar gear is somewhat of a catch-all phrase that essentially refers to all things related to playing the guitar—from strings and straps to picks and polish, cases and stands, cables and amps, pedals and tuners and capos, even light and stage accessories if you happen to be in the performance business. Simply put, stuff.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not a gear hound nor am I tech-minded. I don't know everything about guitars and equipment. But I know what I like and what I think sounds cool. In any case, and in no particular order, here are four pieces of gear that I have used personally and consider to be gear—among a mountain of other gadgets and gizmos—that has revolutionized the way we make, and experience, music.

Solid Body Guitar

Although there's controversy over who invented the solid body guitar—Les Paul was the first to build it, Leo Fender, the first to commercially market it—it tops this list for how drastically it changed music. Volume was no longer a function of the guitar, but the pickup and its associated electronic circuit.

The evolution of the guitar came about as the limitations of the acoustic to project over the horns of the big bands of the day, as well as on phonograph recordings and commercial radio, made it hard to be heard. Quite simply, people wanted louder guitars.

Guitar makers began not only building larger flat top and archtop guitars, but increasingly experimenting with different materials and designs. The idea of using electricity to create louder string instruments already existed by the end of the 19th century, but it was only during the 1920s and 1930s that engineers, makers, and musicians began to solve some of the challenges of electronic amplification.

Solid body electric Hawaiian guitars had been around for awhile before George Beauchamp took up the cause around 1931. Beauchamp, working with Adolph Rickenbacker, produced an electromagnetic pickup in which a current passed through a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet, creating a field which amplified the vibrations of the strings. Introduced on a lap-steel known as the Frying Pan, the pickup made this guitar the first commercially viable electric.

By the late 1930s the new technology was adapted to the more traditional Spanish-style hollow-body wooden guitars, which were troubled with distortions, overtones, and feedback. Inventors began trying to address these sound difficulties by experimenting with solid, rather than hollow, guitar bodies.

In the 1940s, Les Paul created a guitar called the "Log," which came from a 4x4 solid block of pine he had inserted between the sawed halves of the body. He then carefully rejoined the neck to the pine log using some metal brackets, and added some pickups that he'd designed. Paul shopped his guitar around to various companies but was roundly rejected.

While Les Paul was looking for someone to manufacture his "Log" guitar, Leo Fender was working on his own solid body. Fender's Broadcaster guitar came out in 1950. Widely considered to be the most important guitar ever made, the Broadcaster was blonde in color and had a slanted pickup mounted into a steel bridge-plate carrying three adjustable bridge-saddles. Two single-coil pickups introduced the clean, bright Fender sound, which was developed out of Leo's love of the lap steel guitar and its Hawaiian twang. With its basic, single-cutaway solid slab of ash for a body and separate screwed-on maple neck, the Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster to avoid a potential trademark conflict with Gretsch) is considered to be the world’s first mass-produced, commercially marketed solid body electric guitar.

After the Telecaster caught on, the Gibson company contacted Les Paul and had him endorse a guitar named in his honor—The Gibson Les Paul. It came out in 1952.

The many famous artists who have played the Telecaster—Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Muddy Waters, David Gilmour, Jimmy Bryant, Buck Owens, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and a host of others—helped propel it to classic status.

Marshall Amp

Many of us grew up with posters on our bedroom walls of our guitar heroes shredding away in front of a wall of Marshalls. The amps, known for their signature "crunch," were at the forefront of the loud, aggressive, fuzzy aesthetic of rock music. A Marshall stack is synonymous with heavy rock and metal, and is in no small measure responsible for significant hearing loss among musicians and fans alike, including yours truly.

There are only a few people who can truly be credited with shaping the sound of music as we know it today. The late Jim Marshall can certainly be counted among them. His breakthroughs in amplifier design earned him the title "The Father of Loud." Marshall, along with the late, great trio of Leo Fender, Les Paul and Seth Lover (inventor of the humbucker pickup), is one of the cornerstones of all things rock.

By today's standards, early amplifiers were pretty meek. From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, amps had an output of 15 watts or less, and they used radio technology, vacuum tubes, and small loudspeakers. As the popularity of the electric guitar grew, there was a corresponding demand for louder amps. Output rose to a reasonable 50 watts with twelve-inch speakers, but guitarists wanted more still. They wanted an amplifier that would make the guitar the primary driving force in a band.

Guitarists would often come into Marshall's drum shop complaining about the amps on the market at the time not having the right sound. They dreamed aloud of something noisier and dirtier. One of those guitarists was a 20-year-old Pete Townshend, who asked Marshall to make him a 100-watt amplifier so that he could hear himself over The Who's audience and rhythm section.

Using Fender's revered Bassman amp as a model, Marshall and his team made several prototypes before they finally hit on what Jim called the "Marshall Sound." He replaced the Bassman’s 10-inch, open-back speakers with an equal number of 12-inch, closed-back speakers with more powerful bits and pieces connecting the essential parts. To create the volume he was after, Jim produced a 100-watt amplifier which he connected to two cabinets each bearing four speakers, a.k.a. the Marshall stack. The result was a louder amp with high overdrive that introduced the world to distortion.

The Marshall stack became de rigueur for rock concerts. Guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page helped bring the British company worldwide recognition and made the Marshall amp the symbol of rock.

Effects Pedal

The Stones' "Satisfaction." The Beatles' "Taxman." Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" and "Purple Haze." These classic songs, plus thousands more, owe a huge debt to a little gadget called the stompbox.

Stompboxes are fuzz boxes, talk boxes, wah-wah pedals, reverb, and other add-on devices electric guitarists use to distort and sculpt their instrument's sound. They're called pedals or stompboxes because most are housed in a box that sits on the floor and have a simple foot switch to either engage or bypass a particular effect. These devices alter the sound quality or timbre of the input signal, adding a whole new dimension of sound.

The music your electric guitar makes has as much to do with the equipment you use as the way you play. Oftentimes, rock 'n' roll is musically simplistic but technologically complex. By combining multiple effects pedals, a rock guitarist can make even simple, conventional songs sound powerful and unique.

The origin of guitar distortion goes back to the earliest electrified blues guitarists. They didn’t care that their primitive tube amps were breaking up and distorting, as long as they were loud. Soon, blues guitarists grew quite fond of those nasty, gnarly distorted tones, and they sought to replicate them by any means necessary.

In the early days of electric guitars, musicians were limited to only a few effects they could use in the creation of their craft. In some cases, this meant using a clean sound and alternating that with distortion. Typically, this was done through a button on the amplifier itself (although in some cases a switch on the guitar made it possible to change between the two). Today, there are a multitude of effects for electric guitars and effects pedals make it that much quicker and easier to change between them.

The first and most obvious kind of pedal is called an overdrive or distortion pedal. This is the sound of rock, and most amplifiers already have this sound built in. However, sometimes the amp's own distortion is not all that great, especially for cheaper amps, and some very old-fashioned amplifiers do not distort at all unless you turn them up to ear-bleeding concert volumes. Hence the purpose of the pedal. Overdrive and distortion are essentially different amounts of the same thing. The former is basically lighter and less severe than the latter.

Another popular electric guitar effects pedal is the reverb or delay pedal. These pedals layer a guitar's natural sound to simulate either a soft ambiance or a hard echo. The reverb pedal allows you to create the sound you would hear while playing in a wide variety of locations—from small, intimate jazz clubs, to full-sized arenas, to deep, echoey caverns.

The wah-wah pedal, or cry baby, produces voice-like sounds when you move the foot-rocker. Chorus or flange pedals repeat a guitar's input signal, affecting the sound of multiple guitars, while phasers add swirly, otherworldly sounds. A common choice for beginners is a multi-effects box, which is a digital unit that contains decent approximations of all the popular effects.

It's important to keep in mind that exactly how these effects pedals sound depends on many different factors, including the guitar and amp you're using and the genre of music you want to play. Multiple effects pedals can be used at the same time to craft a sound that is totally unique.


When I was an 8-year-old girl, newly enrolled in guitar lessons, I was completely enthralled by the sounds emanating from the room across the hall from me, where a teenaged boy was gracefully sliding a glass tube over the strings of his guitar, making music that was fluid and spacey and so damn cool—unlike the plodding "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" I was wrestling. The simplicity and elegance of that glass bottleneck sliding the length of the instrument, and the dreamy music it produced, made a huge impression on me. I couldn't wait for the day when I could get me one.

The slide guitar, also known as bottleneck guitar, is probably the most organic of any guitar effect, and is likely the cheapest piece of gear you’ll ever own. Slide guitar is also a very specialized way of playing. A tube is placed over one of the fingers of the fretting hand, usually the pinky or ring finger, and used to slide over the strings to change the pitch of the notes, allowing you to move between any two notes (or chords) with a continuous rise or fall in pitch, rather than in semitone increments. The slide actually imitates the human voice on the guitar.

From the origins of slide guitar in West Africa, where some sort of object was used to move between notes on a single string; to the vichitra veena, a fretless instrument of India where a glass ball is moved up and down the strings to achieve different tones; to its American connections in the late 1800s to early 1900s when former slaves migrating to the Mississippi Delta at the end of the civil war were seen sliding penknives or pocket razors along the strings of acoustic guitars and homemade diddley bows; to the foreign object some believe was first used to play slide guitar on the Hawaiian islands; to today’s high-tech slide guitar wizardry, every conceivable type of cylinder and bar imaginable that could coax a whine from guitar strings has been tried.

The list of materials from which to make that perfect tube is long—traditional recycled wine bottle necks; pocket razors and penknives; a vast array of metals (bronze, brass, stainless steel, copper and aluminum, with variations of weights and lengths); porcelain and ceramic; medicine bottles and test-tubes; spark-plug socket wrenches and even wood and polished bone have been seen on the digits of many influential slide guitarists throughout the years. Duane Allman once used a glass Coricidin cold remedy bottle. There really are no rules dictating which is the best slide. It's purely a matter of using your own fingers and ears to find the slide tone that works best for you.

Each material produces a distinct tone. Glass slides have a rich sustain and warm tone. Authentic bottleneck slides give a thicker, more "top-end" tone with plenty of bite. The actual color of the bottle glass can also affect your slide tone. For example, blue glass gives a harder, less mellow tone than green glass, which is considered to have the best glass quality for optimum warmth and sustain.

Handblown lead crystal slides are considered by many to offer the sweetest, clearest tones, while metal slides produce a brighter, much more aggressive and dirtier sound due to the extra string noise they make. Porcelain and ceramic slides, meanwhile, produce a smooth tone and sustain, albeit noticeably quieter than glass or metal.

Slide guitar has become commonplace in many music genres including blues, country, Hawaiian, and rock, whose icons like John Lennon, The Stones' Brian Jones, and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour have all incorporated the technique into their music. At some point in my youth, I did as well.

The ever-evolving world of guitar gear continues to change the way we hear music. The key is to get out there and experiment with all the gadgetry that's available today. There's a whole sonic palette at the guitarist's fingertips and toes. Getting your hands on some gear helps to develop your ear as you hear and analyze the difference between tonewoods, pickups, amp designs, effects, etc. And improving your tone makes you want to play more. Plain and simple.

I play mainly bare bones guitar these days, save for an occasional amp, maybe a pick from time to time, a capo when necessary, and a slide for kicks. So for those of you with more sophisticated taste in gear, what would you add to the list and why? What guitar gear has changed the way you play music?

image By MaGIc2laNTern (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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