- Innovation is about more than the people who create a product, or the companies that back them.
- The history of the electric guitar shows that the musicians who worked the instrument were as much a part of the process as the people who created it.
- The 37th episode of the “Brought to you by…” podcast by Business Insider featured author Ian S. Port, who described the rivalry between Fender and Paul, and the history of the electric guitar.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
To hear the impact of Leo Fender and Les Paul on rock n’ roll, listen for the distinct sounds of their electric guitars.
In the ’40s, electric guitars on the market were just acoustic guitars you could plug into an amplifier. Fender and Paul independently looked to develop solid-body guitars, or instruments that weren’t hollow, to provide louder, clearer sounds.
The versions of the electric guitar they would develop, the Fender Telecaster and Gibson’s Les Paul, would be integral to the sound of rock n’ roll. Yet though Paul and Fender worked on innovating the instrument, they were both detached from producing the sounds that their guitars would be famous for. Another version of innovation, playing the Telecaster and Les Paul in novel ways, would come from the hands of musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
The story speaks to how innovation isn’t just a matter of following what an inventor “had in mind,” but what creative people do with a product when it’s in their hands, like using Coca-Cola to bake a cake or vinegar to clean a coffeemaker.
Fender didn't play the guitar, or any instrument. According to Ian S. Port, author of "The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll" his "lack of player's romance" meant that he viewed the electric guitar in terms of technical output.
"He looked at it almost just as a problem to be solved," Port said on episode 37 of BI's "Brought to you by…" podcast. "And so he would think about mechanical details and the practicality and how sturdy it would be and how long it would last."
This technicality translated to Fender's Telecaster, which launched to market in 1951. It had a noticeable sound, "thin, spanky, twangy, classic," according to Port, which featured in the music of Buddy Holly, among others.
Paul's response to the Telecaster
Paul received an early Telecaster straight from Fender's business partner. As one of the biggest pop stars of the early '50s, with sold-out shows across the country, multiple number one hits in the top 10 charts, and his face on every magazine, Paul had influence. Fender was courting his endorsement for the Telecaster.
Paul took a look at the guitar, but declined to endorse it. Right after, he went to Gibson and told them to build an electric guitar like the Telecaster, because if they didn't, Fender would take over the world.
Gibson listened, and their Les Paul electric guitar came out in 1952, with a warmer, growly, somewhat mellower sound that distinguished it from the Telecaster. It had a thick wooden body, with barely contained power that made it well-suited to the spotlight. You can hear it in Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes."
Now rock n' rollers had a choice: "They could sound like Fender or play like Paul," Port says.
Although Fender's electric guitar took the stage in the '50s, the Gibson Les Paul dominated sound in the '60s when Eric Clapton recorded "Stepping Out" with it.
"With this Les Paul guitar, you can blow out an amplifier so hard that it makes this beautiful distortion," Port said. "And no Fender or other instrument at the time was really capable of producing that kind of sound."
The latent power in the Les Paul, the ability it had to communicate aggravation or fury, made itself known in the music of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Then Jimi Hendrix brought back the Fender in all of its technical glory. Port says Hendrix made the Fender Stratocaster the Gibson Les Paul's equal in hard rock, creating wild, memorable sounds by using all of its capabilities. Not long after seeing Hendrix play, Clapton himself actually switched to a Fender.
Musicians like Clapton and Hendrix took the electric guitar and allowed it to resound in novel ways.
Innovation in this context was about more than the rivalry between Fender and Paul, or the companies that backed them. It was about taking the instruments they produced, placing them into the hands of innovative musicians, and changing the sound of movements like rock n' roll.