Classic Guitars of the 50’s and 60’s
by Robin Bell
The 1950’s was the decade that saw the birth of rock’n’roll,
transistor radios and stereo recordings. It was the combination of these
events that led to the incredible upsurge in the popularity of the
As musicians struggled to come up with new and exciting sounds,
the guitar makers responded with equally new and exciting innovations in
guitar manufacturing and development.
Most of the guitar manufacturers at the end of the 1940’s and the
beginning of the 1950’s were producing hollow body electrically
amplified guitars. Guitars which could be loud enough to force their way
through the rest of the instruments in a band in a way that was
completely impossible for a simple acoustic instrument.
Guitar models such as the Gibson ES-295 were still based on the
pre-war arch top designs, even though they were fitted with electronic
Before the mid 1950’s the predominant instrument in those early
rock’n’roll songs was the saxophone, but by 1954 a survey in America
revealed that the guitar was being played by 1.7 million people.
The demand for guitars which could be manufactured quickly and cost
effectively was the key behind the development of the first commercially
successful, solid body electric guitar, the Fender Broadcaster.
This, because of copyright reasons, was renamed as the
Telecaster and soon revolutionized the guitar world. It featured a one
piece neck, which could made as a separate part, and then simply joined
to the solid body with screws. The combined pick-up and bridge unit,
which was mounted on a metal plate, gave the Telecaster its
It was the outstanding success of the Telecaster that prompted another
famous guitar manufacturer, Gibson, to develop their own solid body
They enlisted the help of the guitar and electronics wizard, Les Paul,
to design their reply to Leo Fenders Telecaster and honored him by
calling their guitar the “Les Paul” model.
Perhaps the guitar that is most associated with the 1950’s and 1960’s
though is the Fender Stratocaster, built in response to the Gibson Les
Paul model. While the Fender Telecaster was a solid slab guitar, Fender
wanted to produce an even more innovative guitar.
The Stratocaster featured a tremolo arm to raise and lower the pitch of
the notes and a modernistic double cutaway solid body with contours on
the back and front to allow the player easier access. Three pick-ups and
a pick-up selector switch enabled a variety of tones to be produced,
from the harsh treble of the bridge pickup to the more mellow tones of
the neck pick-up.
It didn’t take guitarists long to catch on to the fact that the three-way
pick up selector could be wedged into a position with a matchstick which
enabled the signal from two pick-ups to be combined. This extra
versatility was later incorporated by Fender in a five-way pick-up
But the solid bodied electric guitars didn’t have the stage completely
to themselves. There was still a demand for the “electrified acoustic”
guitar and in the latter half of the 1950’s Gibson and Gretsch guitars
both produced popular semi-acoustic guitar models.
The Gibson ES-355 is a true classic – a double cut-away body which
incorporated a solid maple block within the thin body to blend the
sustain available from a solid body with the resonance and tone from a
Gretsch guitars were popular with both country and
rock’n’roll guitarists – Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy favoring the
Gretsch 6120 while Chet Atkins had his own “Country Gentleman” signature
model produced by the same company.
As rock’n’roll made its way across the Atlantic to Europe, so the
interest among the young people in the guitar began to emerge there
also. Many of the early popular musicians in the United Kingdom wanted
to use American guitars, having seen the Fender, Gibson and Gretsch
guitars played by the visiting American musicians, but an embargo on US
instruments until the summer of 1959 made this virtually impossible.
Instead they had to rely on a small number of European guitar makers. Of
these, the best known are probably Hofner, the West German maker,
favoured by Bert Weedon and Tommy Steele in the late 1950’s and Burns,
made in England and made popular for a short time by Hank Marvin of The
Shadows, who exchanged his Fender Stratocaster for a Burns Marvin
signature model in the mid 1960’s.
In the 1960’s, the rise and rise of the British “Beat Boom” increased
the popularity of the guitar even more. While artists such as Eric Clapton played the classic instruments such as the Fender Strat and the
Gibson Les Paul, other brand names began to appear as players searched
Guitar makers such as Rickenbacker, with their twelve
string 360/12 model played by Beatle George Harrison and Byrd Jim –
later Roger – McGuinn and Vox who could boast Hollie Tony Hicks and
Rolling Stone Brian Jones amongst their clientele.