Physics of Electric Guitars

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Electric guitars play a very important role in today's music. Without it, we would be stuck with the acoustic guitar, which has limited volume, and a narrow range of sounds it can produce. Understanding just exactly how the electric guitar works isn't as intuitive as with the acoustic. With this website, I attempt to brighten the knowledge people have on the physics behind the electric guitar, since one cannot appreciate something, truly, until he knows how it works.

The Acoustic guitar, originating from Spain, has been around since the 1500s. It wasn't till the 1920's with the advent of swing and big band music that musicians needed louder instruments. The acoustic guitar, even with steel strings, was simply too quiet.

At this time, Los Angeles musicians, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera started working on figuring out how to make the acoustic guitar louder. After a few failures, Dopyera came up with the idea to put aluminum disks onto the body of the acoustic guitar. These disks would then resonate and increase the volume about 3 to 5 times. In 1927, the two founded the National String Instrument Co., which patented this resonator design. Due to internal problems, Dopyera fired Beauchamp in 1930 and then eventually even sold the company, patenting the resonator with his brother under a new company named "Dobro".

Beauchamp, a bit unhappy about being fired, set out to figure out a different way to increase the volume of the guitar. Even before, as early as 1925, he had been experimenting with phonograph needles and produced a single string electric guitar that would "pick up" the vibration in the string and turn it into sound. He then started experimenting with ways to pick-up the vibration of all 6 strings, each string seperately. After months of experimentation he and Paul Barth developed a working pick-up made of 2 horse-shoe magnets and 6 coils of wire with electric current running through them.

With this new pick-up, Beauchamp had Harry Watson carve a body for his first electric guitar. They called this the "Frying Pan" due to its similar shape. This was the first guitar fitted with an electric pick-up.

Around the same time, Llyod Loar, acoustical engineer for Gibson, had started marketing a new Spanish style acoustic electric guitar. Loar, famous for the mandolin, headed the subdivision of Gibson responsible for producing these guitars, named Vivi-Tone. This guitar actually failed, but had left the idea that acoustic guitars with electric pickups were the way to go for Gibson.

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