The early days of pickups: beginning in the late-twenties and early thirties
While even knowledgeable gearheads will begin the story of guitar electronics after World War II, the true genesis took place in a wave of innovation between 1928 and 1936. Single-coil, dual-coil, and hum-canceling pickups; tone and volume circuits; tone-shaping effects and amplification; all were first developed during this period. This month, we’ll explore the early days of electric guitar pickups, looking at how and why it happened.
The widespread availability of electricity that began in the early 1920s was an advancement so important it’s hard to find comparable events. Now you could flip on a light, switch on a radio and keep your beer cold in a refrigerator. Electricity gave Americans a whole new way of living. Tinkering with electronics motors came to rival sports, outdoor activities, and even making music in popularity. Leo Fender, Seth Lover, Walter Fuller, and Ray Butts, all to be revered one day as the great innovators of electric guitar, learned electronics in the 1920s and ‘30s in part by tinkering. But it was the generation prior who first saw electricity as the solution to the guitar problem. The great guitarist Alvino Rey; Rickenbacker’s George Beauchamp; Lyon & Healey technician John Kutilek; and Frederick Dierdorf, who sketched out and applied for a patent on an electrified violin in 1924. These and hundreds of other “tinkerers” contributed to the eventual electrification of the guitar.
By the end of the 1920s the guitar was more popular than ever. But, because it could not compete in volume with the drums and horns of the jazz age, it was limited on the bandstand. Microphones were in wide use, and amplification was an accepted technology, particularly in entertainment. PA units with amps and speakers were used to add volume to vocal performances, phonographs, and radios. Many guitar players had stepped up to the microphone and had their playing amplified. But this setup had limitations, so guitarists looked at ways to combine microphone and amplification technologies specifically for guitar. They experimented with telephone mouthpieces, microphones, phonograph tone arms, and reverse-wired speaker coils. Alvino Rey, who became one of the first stars of electric guitar, recalled that during this period more than one person was experimenting with rudimentary electromagnetic units.
Still, the right combination remained elusive. Several technologies seemed to be viable: carbon button, piezo, condenser, electrostatic, electromagnetic. For the most part, these technologies were uncovered years before their musical application. The telephone, introduced by Thomas Edison in 1877, could be thought of as a pickup and amp combo, with the mouthpiece as the pickup and the earpiece as the speaker. Early electrics historian Lynn Wheelwright makes an interesting observation, saying, “I am sure that, long before amplification, somebody played their violin or piano over an early telephone so grandma or a fellow band member could hear it. In my mind this is an early electrified, although not directly coupled, instrument.” Telephones used a carbon button transducer in the mouthpiece, a sandwich of two metal plates with carbon crystal, a soot-like material, in the middle. When one plate moves from sound vibrations, it acts as a variable resistor, allowing voltage to pass through at different rates. The crystals convert the sound impulses into electrical impulses (but do not actually produce current). It didn’t take long for instrumentalists to begin experimenting with carbon button units from telephones, attaching them to, or placing them inside, instruments.
Three years after the emergence of the telephone, in 1880, the Curie Brothers, French physicists, proved the existence of the piezoelectric effect, a phenomenon wherein certain materials such as crystals, salt, even bone, produce electricity when moved, compressed, or shaken. In the case of stringed instruments, piezo pickups sense vibrations and produce a small current output. Piezo technology was used in early electric phonographs and microphones. One of the first uses of a piezo pickup on a musical instrument came in the early 1920s in Germany, in an attempt to amplify a piano. Because the piezo output is so small, a preamp is required. This limited piezo utilization in the 1920s.
The condenser pickup consists of two plates holding an electric charge. When affected by sound waves, the thinner of the two plates, known as the diaphragm, changes its distance from the receiving plate. This change in distance effects the voltage strength of the charge, creating a pulsing current. Condensers, widely used in microphones, were experimented with in musical instruments in the 1920s and '30s with limited success. Gibson’s Lloyd Loar was rumored to have experimented with condenser pickups as early as 1924, but a 1936 interview places the date late-1927 or early 1928.
In late 1928, the Stromberg-Voisinet Company of Chicago, IL, introduced a new electrified guitar, generally regarded as the earliest known electric guitar offered to the public. The pickup in this guitar looked very similar to the driver of a speaker. Significantly, it was an electromagnetic pickup. Electromagnetism, the phenomenon where a changing magnetic field produced a changing electric impulse, had been discovered as early as the 1820s. Connected to the top of the guitar by a small, thin rod, the pickup in the Stromberg converted the vibrations of the top of the guitar into electrical signals. Unfortunately for Stromberg, while the electromagnetic pickup was destined to become the standard for guitars, sensing the vibrations of the instrument was not the best way to go about it. Picking up the vibration of the strings, not the instrument would become the standard for all guitar pickups.
In the next installment: were it not for the perfection of the electromagnetic pickup, electric guitar might not have become the dominant instrumental force in 20th century music.
Wallace Marx Jr.
Wallace Marx Jr. is the author of Gibson Amplifiers, 1933-2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Flare is a dual-function pedal with a tube-like booster and a 1970s-style ring modulator effect that can be played separately or together.
Flare’s ring modulator is based on the iconic tone of the original Dan Armstrong Green Ringer. This vintage classic was made famous by Frank Zappa who loved the unusual modulations created by generating a harmonic octave over notes. Messiah’s version offers two control knobs: a “Sparkle” tone attenuator and output Level control. Its taupe-gold body, purple and green knobs and stick-figure rock ’n’ roller holding up a flame convey an appropriately rockin’70s vibe.
In a unique twist, Messiah’s Flare pairs the ringer with a warm tube-style boost instead of a fuzz. Flare feeds the booster into the ringer for an extra punch, while preserving the Green Ringerspirit. The ringer side also turns any fuzz into an octafuzz, and it has the ability to quiet signal background noise fed through it.
The booster side features a single Boost knob to control the MOSFET circuit, making it very tube-amp-friendly with a warm, organic boost and gain of up to 32dB.
The pedal is a distinct improvement over the 1970s pedal that inspired it. “Most ringer pedals don’t track well,” Tom Hejda, owner of Messiah Guitars. “The player can’t rely on repeating the same effect even with the most consistently played notes. We carefully matched the components, so our ringer follows your every move, producing that slightly dirty octave you expect on demand.”
Messiah developed this vintage octave pedal with flexible features so that people who love that messy, dirty Zappa-esque sound can get there with ease but there’s also something for those who have not fallen in love with fuzz or the Green Ringer alone. Flare offers an array of sonic options while retaining simplicity in the controls.
Each Flair Pedal Includes:
- 3 control knobs: Boost, Sparkle, and Level
- Two effects – Ring Modulator and Boost – can be used together or separately
- Space-saving top side jacks
- Durable, cast aluminum alloy 125B enclosure with fun artwork
- Easy to see, illuminated True-bypass foot switch
- Standard 9V pedal power input
Flare Pedal Demo
Messiah Guitars pedals are designed with an explorative player in mind. Like their custom guitars and amplifiers, Messiah’s pedals are hand-crafted in Los Angeles for a long life with guaranteed quality.
Flare retails for $199.00 and can be purchased directly at Messiah Guitars or you can hear it in person at Impulse Music Co. in Canyon Country, CA.
For more information, please visit messiahguitars.com.
This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal.
If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and QUACKS like a duck, then it must be a duck. That's how we came up with the name for our new envelope filter. This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal. Trevor explains how this is possible in the launch video, as well as gives a demo on Le Canard’s operation.
The attack control determines how quickly the filter responds to the envelope, and the decay sets how quickly the filter releases afterward. The range controls which frequency spectrum the filter does its magic on. Add to this relay-based full-bypass switching with failsafe, and you've got one crazy little quacky beast. It is so expressive that you'll want to give up on your rocker-wah forever.
The MayFly Le Canard envelope filter features:
- Super fast responding envelope follower. Touch it and it jumps!
- Range control to dial in the character of the filter
- Attack control to control how fast the filter moves on that first touch
- Release control to control how slowly the filter slides back to baseline
- Full bypass using relays with Fail SafeTM (automatically switches to bypass if the pedal loses power)
- Cast aluminum enclosure with groovy artwork
- MSRP $149 USD ($199 CAD)
Introducing the MayFly Le Canard Envelope Filter
All MayFly pedals are hand-made in Canada.
For more information, please visit mayflyaudio.com.
Outlaw Effects introduces their next generation of NOMAD rechargeable battery-powered pedal boards.
Available in two sizes, NOMAD ISO is a compact, versatile tool that offers the convenience of a fully powered board plus the additional freedom of not having to plug into an outlet. NOMAD ISO is ideal for stages with limited outlet availability, quick changeovers, busking outdoors, temporary rehearsal locations, and more.
NOMAD ISO builds upon the legacy of the ultra-convenient and reliable NOMAD rechargeable pedalboard line originally launched in 2018. The brand new NOMAD ISO editions feature eight isolated outputs (1 x 9V DC, and 1 switchable 9V/12V DC) for even more versatility and clean, quiet power. With an integrated lithium-ion battery pack boasting 12800mAh capacity, NOMAD ISO can fuel a wide array of pedals, and will last over 10 hours* on a single charge.
Each NOMAD ISO pedal board includes adhesive hook & loop pedal-mounting tape, eight (8) standard DC connector cables, and one (1) reverse polarity DC cable, giving you everything you need to build your ultimate "off-the-grid" rig. A rugged, road-ready padded gig bag with shoulder strap is also included, to safely protect your gear while you're on the move.
NOMAD ISO S
NOMAD ISO S: MSRP $309 / MAP: $249
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 5 ¼"
NOMAD ISO M
NOMAD ISO M: MSRP $349 / MAP $279
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 11"
More info: https://www.outlawguitareffects.com.