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The Pickup Story, Part I: the 1920s

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