Midcentury Modern, Shredded

The images in here can double as my Christmas list

Hey, there,

We had so damned much fun last week talking about industrial design that you know what, we’re gonna do it again! But this time, instead of boring stuff like schools, we’re gonna talk about something rad: the design history of the electric guitar (cue Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”).

For real, though, the evolution of the electric guitar is a pretty fascinating case study in the steady drift of 20th century design; as I was trying to argue last time, in the industrial and post-industrial age, mass-production design is sneakily the most common way art manifests in our lives. And I’ll actually be sneaking a pretty stark line-in-the-sand cultural history idea into the middle of this. Let’s dig in.

Bizarrely, the origins of the electric guitar lay in a couple of early 20th century musical crazes, neither of which seem particularly rocking from a distance. On one hand, there was a widespread, hard-to-imagine-now desire for Hawaiian music featuring guitars in nonstandard tunings, played with pipes or bars across the strings to produce awesome slide transitions between chords. Ideally, this setup calls for a small stringed instrument laying on the lap of the player. Traditional guitars were ungainly for this, with their large hollow wooden bodies, which were needed to amplify the sound of the vibrating strings.

That is until designers at what would become the Rickenbacker corporation designed a very Bauhaus-y “frying pan” electric guitar, which had electromagnetic pickups mounted *over* the strings to convert the vibration into an electric signal that then-cutting-edge radio-speaker technology could convert back into sound:

Minimal, geometric, come one. This isn’t from the Bauhaus, but it’s very much growing out of the same soil.

In the stretch after this, big band music came to dominate. The guitar seemed like a natural instrument to include, given its versatility, but acoustic guitars tended to get lost in the sound of a big band. The first attempt at a “Spanish” (read: played the usual way, not across a lap) guitar that could cut through a big band was the resonator, a guitar whose strings rested on a metal cone set into the body of the guitar, amplifying the hell out the vibration. Resonators have stuck around, and, awesomely, they’re still generally made with an early 20th century Art-Nouveau-Gets-Industrial aesthetic:

A 30s-vintage Dobro Model 55 with three resonating cones- 1 huge, two little.

But before long people figured out that the pickup system in those Hawaiian frying pans might be an even better idea, and soon acoustic guitars with pickups in them were popping up; in this era, Charlie Christian became the flashy lead player for Benny Goodman’s big band.

Charlie Christian with a machine that produces hot licks but also a ton of feedback.

An acoustic guitar with pickups in it has a lot of problems, though; the whole point of the cavernous wooden body is that it resonates; but if that resonation is being amplified, the amplified sound can get the body resonating further, which in turn gets more amplified sound, which leads to further resonation, and soon you’re drowned in uncontrollable feedback.

The best way to combat this, of course, is with a guitar whose body is a solid block of wood. So around the 40s, individuals started experimenting with hand-built versions of these. My favorite is the Les Paul “Log.” Les Paul, who was both an amazing guitarist and kind of a technical genius, put a pickup, a neck, and the appropriate strings and wiring on a hunk of wood, allegedly from his fence. To make it look better, he then sawed a regular guitar in half and attached the halves as “wings” to his slab of wood; but he was fond of trolling audiences by taking the wings off during performances to freak them out by the fact that he was playing an electrified fencepost.

Les Paul in mid-troll with the Log

Another notable design from the handbuilt era was the guitar Paul Bigsby made for the country guitarist Merle Travis. The Bigsby/Travis guitar is historically very important, but is also butt-ugly (but endearingly handbuilt):

After World War 2, a California electronics repairman named Leo Fender, who also hung out a lot with Les Paul and Paul Bigsby, decided to get into the game by designing a solid-bodied electric guitar similar to Bigsby’s that could be mass-produced with a good balance between quality and price. This resulted in the Fender Telecaster and, shortly afterwards, the Fender Stratocaster.

A Telecaster; that body shape could not possibly be more 1950s-industrial

The Stratocaster is even swoopier and more streamlined than the Telecaster; to heighten the futuristic feel, Fender also often painted them in car-paint colors.

With their biomorphic, aerodynamic, swoopy forms and their bright paint and shining chrome, these guitars absolutely SCREAM “American midcentury industrial design,” as do the subsequent guitars Fender designed:

The Fender Jaguar, very much in the same aerodynamic, biomorphic tradition, with another extremely postwar paint job.

I promised a big cultural-history argument in this newsletter, and here it is: in art history, Marxist analysis means something a little different… it’s looking how material conditions and market forces affected the creation and reception of art. So, from a Marxist analysis point of view, I think we *ridiculously* underestimate how important Leo Fender was to American (and European, and probably to world) culture in the back half of the 20th century.  He didn’t ground-up invent anything (and Bigsby always claimed that the Telecaster was a straight ripoff of his design), but he designed a guitar that could be made at high quality but cheaply enough to sell. And Fender guitars and their matching amplifiers started flying off the shelves.

Startled by the volume Fender was moving, the Gibson and Gretsch corporations both pivoted from their previous “this solid-body electric guitar thing is a cheap, silly fad that will pass” stance into trying to develop stuff for the market. Gibson’s electric models also scream midcentury industrial design, albeit with some differences from Fender’s:

Gibson’s first solid-body electric, the Les Paul, is a more conservative application of midcentury modern. Confusingly, the guitar is named for Les Paul the guitarist/inventor, but it was just an endorsement deal and Paul had nothing to do with the design of the guitar.

Gibson subsequently let their modernist freak flag fly with the Flying V and the Explorer, among others.

Gretsch’s models almost look like 1950s cars, and are so tied up in being cutting-edge that many of the models have “jet” in their name.

Gretsch leaned even harder into the car-paint thing that Fender did.

But getting back to my argument, Gibson and Gretsch got into this market in direct response to Fender. It’s not clear at all that the modern electric guitar would exist in its current form without Leo fender farting around in an electric repair shop. Maybe someone else would have sparked a boom, maybe not. It’s unknowable.

But stop a second and think about how utterly woven-into-the-basic-fabric dominant the electric guitar has been to American culture since 1950. All of rock music, most of country music, every cultural element in other media that derives from these two massively ubiquitous musical genres. It’s staggering if you stop and think about it.

And while lone-genius stories are usually gross oversimplifications, in this case Leo Fender (who, hilariously, did not play the guitar) really was deeply, centrally involved in the design of the classic-era Fender guitars. He had help, of course (and, being a huge country music fan, he talked to a lot of musicians about what they liked and didn’t like about instruments, what they’d want to see, and so on), but he was the rare case where maybe Ayn Rand’s model of the single heroic person animating a company actually worked (no company in any of Rand’s fiction makes anything as fun or cool as an electric guitar, though).

So yeah. If you want to lionize an industrial designer or a heroic CEO, honestly, tell Steve Jobs to go pound sand (he was a dick), tear up that picture of Elon Musk (he… let’s talk about Elon Musk over drinks some time, I guess), and instead raise your mug to Leo fuckin’ Fender, who really did change the world with his beautiful and functional midcentury modern design.


Did you know that you can, for about $15, get a software emulation of a MiniMoog Model D synthesizer for an iPhone/iPad? I *promise* you hours of fun making noodly psychedelic noises with it, even if you don’t play instruments. Unleash your inner Flaming Lips, or your inner Yes, whichever way you swing.


Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer/manager/chief enforcer died this month. This profile of him is *insane*. I guess it’s easier to be as chill as Willie Nelson when you have a colorful semi-psycopath taking care of stuff for you.

Like every English major in the 1990s, I revered David Foster Wallace as a younger man; the stories keep coming out that reveal he was an utter shitheel as a person. This review of Adrienne Miller’s memoir In the Land of Men is very much in that vein, while also going a lot into another book that I liked quite a bit, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry.


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

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