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Electric Guitars: Turning a Magnet into Music
Skilled music instructors can teach you how to master the electric guitar’s power. To learn what supplies that power, read on.
It’s a common high-school experiment: moving a magnet through a coil of copper wire to create a tiny electric current. But like anything else found in high schools, this principle proved ideal fodder for rebellion and exploration. Electric guitars create sound when metal strings vibrate within a magnetic field generated by the pickup. The current generated by the now-magnetized string is fed into an amplifier, which then broadcasts the pitch of the plucked string. These complex interactions make the electric guitar’s sound more expansive and unpredictable than other instruments, making it a key character in the story of early rock ‘n’ roll.
Players discovered one unique property of the instrument early on when they overloaded their speakers with volume, clipping the tops of the sound waves and creating harsher, fuzzier sounds. Later, players began intentionally applying effects devices, such as the wah-wah pedal, which modulates sounds into a register that resembles a trumpet or human voice. Other distinctive enhancements include the whammy bar (also called a “tremolo” or “vibrato arm”), which modulates pitch at the touch of a hand by tightening and loosening the strings to create the “dive-bomb” sound made famous by surf guitarists and such psychedelic innovators as Jimi Hendrix.
The first truly modern electric guitar arose in the early 1930s. George Beauchamp, a Los Angeles musician, was dissatisfied with early experiments with attaching amplifiers to acoustic guitars—they created feedback and their signals were weak. Working at home, Beauchamp created a primitive pickup by coiling his wire with such improvised tools as the motor of his family’s washing machine. The resulting guitar had a tiny body taken up almost completely by the ad hoc pickup, earning it the nickname the Frying Pan.