Originally guitars were all acoustic, and the volume achievable by such guitars was quite enough for the environments in which they were played. However, as music developed and the locations in which it performed grew larger, and with the introduction of accompanying instruments, it became necessary to increase the volume and sound of the guitar. Especially with jazz gaining in popularity, the brass instruments would simply drown out the guitar, and so solutions had to be found.
It was Les Paul, a major innovator in the world of guitars, experimented with attaching microphones to guitars, and this led to some of the earliest electric guitars, although these were generally simply hollow acoustic guitars with tungsten pickups. In 1931 these were being manufactured by the Electro String Instrument Corporation, and the design of an acoustic guitar with a hollow body and a tungsten pickup was devised by Harry Watson, and this model was called the Rickenbacker. This was officially the very first electric guitar, although still a very long way off the ones we see today. Although they were used, and popular, straight away, the first documented record of an early electric guitar being used in a public performance was in Kansas in 1932, when Gage Brewer helped to publicise this new type of guitar in a special Halloween performance.
The first recording of an electric guitar is often attributed to Eddie Durham, but in fact this is incorrect, and fifteen days earlier George Barnes, a jazz guitarist, recorded Sweetheart Land and It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame in Chicago in 1938. It was Durham, however, who introduced the early electric guitar to Charlie Christian, who became one of the most significant influences for many decades on electric guitars in jazz music.
The electric guitar we know and recognise today usually has a solid body, although not always. The solid body electric guitar is made of wood - often a single piece where possible. The earliest solid body electric guitar was not made of wood however, and was in fact made of cast aluminium, with steel strings. This was officially named the Rickenbacker, but was more commonly referred to as the Frying Pan or Pancake Guitar for obvious reasons. The sound of this guitar was quite aggressive, with a very modern feel to its voice.
In the 1940s Les Paul was still developing ideas for the electric guitar, and in his own time he created the log guitar, which derived its name from the fact that it was constructed from a simple 4x4 wooden post, with a neck attached to one end. The pickups were home made, and there were two halves of the body attached purely for appearance sake. This guitar was patented, and was the first of its kind, although the Gibson Electric Guitar designed later by Les Paul shares no characteristics at all, and it seems to have been a one off.
The next major development in the world of the electric guitar was in the mid 1940s when Richard D Bourgerie, who was employed making electrical equipment during the second World War for the US military at the Howard Radio Company, created an electric guitar pickup and amplifier combination for George Barnes. Barnes in turn showed this new design to Les Paul who requested another be constructed for himself.
Today there seem to be as many different makes and models of electric guitar as there are players, and if you are entering the world of the electric guitar yourself for the first time, you may be slightly taken aback by the sheer range of options, features and designs available. Essentially, however, they all share more or less the same basic features, with a body that is either solid or hollow, usually six steel strings, and perhaps the biggest and most significant choice, the pickup. Depending upon the type of pickup, the guitar may well sound quite different, and this is perhaps the one place to look most carefully.