Why People Experimented
Guitars have always been popular instruments, but they have one problem that prevented them from being used on a large scale. Acoustic guitars are not very loud, so they aren’t suitable for live performances in large venues without some sort of amplification. Playing them in an environment with good acoustics can help with that problem, but it can’t solve the problem entirely.
That was the issue that motivated people to start experimenting with amplified instruments. Many of the early experiments focused on guitars, but others tried to amplify banjos and other stringed instruments that faced similar issues. As is often the case, musical hobbyists were responsible for most of the early attempts at creating an electric guitar, since they had the motivation to do so but were not concerned about the ability to make a profit off of their innovations.
How It Started
The earliest electric guitars bear very little resemblance to modern guitars, and most of them were not very good. The first experiments attached carbon button microphones to the bridge. That did pick up some sound, but they could register the vibrations that traveled up the instrument’s neck. That meant that they lost most of the signal before they could capture it. Other early experiments put telephone transmitters inside the instruments, which got a stronger signal but lost some sound quality.
All of those efforts could be considered electric guitars, so it’s hard to say who created the first. Crediting the inventor of the first successful electric guitar is significantly easier. George Beauchamp and Paul Barth created their design in 1931, and it was good enough to find commercial success. Their model, along with several others that appeared at around the same time, quickly became popular with big bands and Jazz musicians, which proved that companies could turn a profit by experimenting with electric guitars.
Les Paul created his first electric guitar in 1940, but it was a fairly primitive design. The first of his more famous guitars in 1952. These guitars were notable because they included a solid body, which helped to reduce feedback when the instrument was played. Other manufacturers had used designs that were functionally similar prior to Les Paul’s works, but none of them had achieved the same level of quality. His famous guitar set the standard for later production, so it’s safe to say that he was responsible for the first of the modern electric guitars, even if he was drawing on an older tradition.
Later advances refined the electric guitar without making huge changes to how they work. The biggest improvements appeared in the amplifiers, rather than the guitars themselves, especially in recent years when they started to take advantage of modern computing power. When the guitars did change, it was usually to fill a specific need with a specialized guitar, or to make small improvements to their tone. That sort of development is still ongoing, so the modern electric guitar is simply one stage in a continuous evolutionary process.