Where would we be without innovation in this fast-paced, ever-changing world? It was bright minds and skilled engineers that gave us the electric guitar in the first place, along with all the magnificent technological developments throughout the years that transformed and honed the quality and playability of the instruments we enjoy today.
But not ALL the ideas that have been physically applied to electric guitars during their 70 year history have become standard features. Let’s examine a few that you won’t see on every axe in your local guitar shop, for better or worse…
Adding on Lights
Why on earth would you need lights on a guitar? Most musical instruments are played in locations where musicians have ready access to natural or artificial light, and visually-impaired artists such as Doc Watson and Jeff Healey used their phenomenal skill to cope perfectly well without even that level of assistance.
However, building lighting circuitry into an electric guitar has proved useful for some players for a couple of reasons;
- Finding the frets more easily. The idea of replacing fret-marking inlays on the guitar neck with LED’s has actually been around for many years now. Although it’s definitely not a common feature across all manufacturers, there are a few that offer illuminated neck dots in a variety of colours on a few standard models. Very useful for fretboard navigation on a darkened stage, provided you don’t let the battery go flat.
- Learning guitar. A very recent innovation, taking the LED fret marker concept, spreading the lights across EVERY fret at EVERY string, linking them up to a computerised controller and using them to teach students where to put their fingers. Think of it as live TAB that actually flashes away on your guitar fretboard.
- Just looking cool. Surprisingly this is even less common than LED fret markers, especially considering how vain most lead guitarists tend to be. But having a guitar with lights shining out from the body has certainly held appeal for a few musicians over the years – Rickenbacker produced their 331LS Lightshow model back in the ‘70s for that very reason.
Adding on an Amplifier & Speaker
“A self-contained guitar/amp/speaker all-in-one?!? Wow! Why hasn’t anyone done that before?!?” Trust us, people HAVE done that before, for many different reasons and with varying degrees of success.
Given the physical size of most electric guitar bodies, actually routing out enough space to fit amplifier circuitry, a small speaker, and a battery to power the whole outfit doesn’t actually pose THAT much of a challenge. Early attempts at this concept began in the 1960s, and production of such instruments continues to this day. Some of them sound pretty good too, assuming you’re not relying on the speaker’s volume level to carry off anything much more than bedroom solo practise, or perhaps busking on a very quiet street. And if you think standard electric guitars are heavy, imagine what adding basically an on-board combo amp will do to the overall weight…
Adding on another guitar. Or bass. Or mandolin. Or….
…basically we’re talking about multi-neck instruments here. And this idea, whilst certainly not the most practical every-day feature you’ll find on electric guitars, has proved curiously enduring since the 1950s.
Gibson, Fender, Rickenbacker and many other manufacturers have produced (and continue to manufacture) a variety of twin-neck solid electric guitars over the years, most commonly in the 6/12 string format as occasionally used in live shows by people like Slash. Whilst the idea is primarily a novelty, the ability to switch between two guitars instantly has proved useful for performing certain songs, although the sheer weight of these beasts definitely requires commitment on behalf of the player. Not to mention coping with the compromise of having one neck suspended at a useful height, whilst the other invariably hangs too high or low for entirely comfortable playing.
The twin neck concept frequently goes beyond 6 and 12-string guitars as well – a guitar/bass combo isn’t that uncommon, guitar/mandolins have found a few fans, and extreme examples can include anything from harps to banjos. But for the REALLY extreme gear-heads out there, going beyond two necks is the answer – Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielson has used 5, and comedian Bill Bailey plays 6. Rock virtuoso Steve Vai is worth mentioning here too – his triple necked heart-shaped Ibanez has one neck facing the opposite way from the other two, and he can solo on two necks simultaneously. What a show-off.
Adding a Synth or MIDI control
Whilst the most popular method of controlling the musical production of synthesised audio has always been through a piano-style keyboard, it was inevitable that guitarists would want a piece of this new technological action. Various mains-powered instruments (which must have taken some nerve to strap on and play) were invented during the 1960s, but Roland developed the first truly useable synth guitars during the ‘70s and ‘80s, usually featuring an external unit that the instrument controlled remotely.
Allowing the guitar to control external MIDI and other devices has certainly come a long way since then – it’s now possible to fit aftermarket pickups and other devices to most guitars that can manipulate electronic audio sources ranging from standalone synths to computer DAW’s. This is sometimes even possible without having to even play the guitar strings – Manson have produced many guitars for Muse frontman Matt Bellamy with a built-in touch-pad controller for Korg’s popular Kaoss range of devices, which has the added benefit of looking particularly cool on a darkened stage!
Adding an automatic tuning system
The essential accessory for any guitarist that hates the look of a clip-on tuner, can’t be bothered with plugging in a pedal tuner, and would rather spend at least $2000 rather than turning those pesky machine heads by hand.
Automatic guitar tuning has actually been possible for decades – Jimmy Page has used a few instruments featuring the bridge-mounted Transperformance system since 1990, and Gibson unveiled their Robot Guitar (with motors actually built into the machine-heads) in 2007. It’s certainly an impressive idea from a guitar tech viewpoint, but the sheer expense of these systems has tended to relegate them to the ‘novelty’ corner of guitar features.
Adding a Flamethrower
No, we’re not joking.
Ever since Hendrix decided to ignite his Stratocaster on stage at Montreux back in 1967, we guitarists have been obsessed with fire. Then along came the 2015 motion picture Mad Max: Fury Road, with that epic flame throwing guitar scene…
It was really only a matter of time before others would try to copy this idea, most notably the British inventor/plumber/engineer/lunatic/YouTube megastar Colin Furze. Yes it looks impressive. Yes it’s fantastically dangerous. No, you shouldn’t try it at home. And not-a-snowballs-chance-in-hell will you find any instrument with this feature for sale in your local guitar shop.
Wrapping it up
We’re really only scratching the surface of features that have been included on electric guitars over the years in this article – ashtrays, gumball dispensers, bottle openers, working piano-style-keyboards and iPad mounts are all things that somebody, somewhere has managed to build into a working 6-string instrument. And although it’s easy to laugh at some of the ideas listed above, remember that Gibson also laughed at Les Paul’s initial suggestion of a solid-bodied electric guitar in the first place.
Anyway, I’m off to continue developing my Stratodustbuster, combining awesome sound with maximum vacuum cleaning ability, so until next time……peace out!