Amplified: A Design History of the Electric Guitar by Paul Atkinson
Professor Paul Atkinson‘s new book Amplified: A Design History of the Electric Guitar traces the history of the design and development of the electric guitar as it became a mass-produced object made, sold and played all over the world. Paul shows how, over the years, amateur makers, part-time tinkerers, musicians, enthusiasts, designers and corporations have developed its design, its looks and its sound.
One of the most rewarding aspects of putting a book together is in finding long-lost or unpublished images, and tracking down the stories behind them. It relies a lot on serendipity. When I first started writing Amplified: A Design History of the Electric Guitar, I recalled an advert for Wharfedale loudspeakers that I saw on the London Underground around 40 years or so ago. Wharfedale still make loudspeakers, but they were bought out by a larger company many years ago and they had no internal archive of the company’s marketing material, and nobody there knew anything about the advert. It took quite a bit of searching, but eventually I found a copy of the image in the collection of the History of Advertising Trust.
To find the story behind it, though, was harder. Many years ago, as a practising designer, I worked in the Hi-Fi industry, and I still had a wallet of old business cards, leftover from before the days of email addresses. I found one from a Wharfedale rep who remarkably, still had the same telephone number. He put me in touch with someone else who used to work at the company, and in turn, that person put me in touch with Fred Clayton, who, long before his retirement, was Wharfedale’s marketing manager. He remembered commissioning the advert from Saatchi and Saatchi, and was happy to regale me with stories of the campaign concept, the various arguments and the hugely expensive business lunches involved in its creation.
One of the research trips for Amplified took me to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC, which holds a collection of historically important electric guitars. The vast majority of these are not on public display, but carefully stored in special air-conditioned cabinets in behind the scene storerooms. I was given a tour of these rooms, and when the lights were flicked on, the treasure trove was revealed: rows and rows of famous guitars, including Gibson’s first commercially successful electric guitar, the ES-150 from 1936. I was building up the courage to ask the curator if I wore gloves, would I be able to hold it, when he took it out of the cabinet, held it out to me and said “Have a go on that!” So, there I was, sat happily playing the Gibson ES-150 made famous by one Charlie Christian, ‘the world’s first electric guitar hero’. I played a few others, too, including a rare Parker Fly and a handmade Les Paul called ‘Old Hickory’ carved from trees from the garden of the tomb of Andrew Jackson, the 7th US President. Finally, I played Prince’s ’Yellow Cloud’ guitar, which had been built to his design by two luthiers in Minneapolis. Playing these instruments while scanning the museum documents detailing their provenance really brought the subject to life and stopped it being purely a research exercise. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Often, a breakthrough in material for a book comes from happening across the right person. When I started interviewing people for Amplified, a number of them suggested I should talk to a certain Trev Wilkinson. He is one of those figures that knows everyone in the industry and knows everything about electric guitars. When I asked someone if they had ever seen a particularly rare electronic guitar called the Bond Electraglide, he replied “Yes, Trev Wilkinson has got one.” I eventually tracked Trev down and arranged to meet him and take photographs of the carbon fibre rarity. While taking those shots, Trev and I were chatting away and I mentioned some other very rare guitars I was writing about that the Japanese company Ibanez had made in the 1970s. These were direct copies of Gibson designs for which Gibson sued Ibanez. The trio of ‘Lawsuit guitars’ as they are now known, were withdrawn from sale and so are now extremely difficult to find. Trev said “I’ve got two of the three. Would you like to photograph those as well?” Wonderful.
Many more of the images in Amplified have similar stories attached to them. Long searches followed by everything suddenly falling into place, finding images in the most unlikely of locations, and people going out of their way to help; even taking fantastic photographs of guitars in their collection especially for me. To all of those people that were so generous with their time, I extend a huge thank you. The book would have been so much harder to complete without you.
Amplified is available in Hardback edition from Reaktion Books from 15th February 2021 for £25.
About the author
Paul Atkinson is Professor of Design and Design History at Sheffield Hallam University, and editor of two journals, The Design Journal and Design For Health. He is the writer of the BBC guitar documentary Cigar Box Blues: The Makers of a Revolution (2019) and author of Computer, a design history of the computer.