American Icon

Gibson ES-335. American Icon

The guitar wasn’t invented by Americans. That honor usually goes to the Spanish. But the electric guitar, according to most sources, is uniquely and completely American. Some give credit to Les Paul or Leo Fender but it was George Beauchamp in 1931 who was an executive at National Guitars. More importantly, the electric guitar, perhaps more so than any other item manufactured here, has become an American icon. It occupies a rarefied place in all things American

Why is this man making this face? Because he's playing a Japanese Epiphone Strat copy.

shared perhaps by Harley Davidson motorcycles and the pickup truck. Ask anyone in the world to draw you a picture of an electric guitar and I’ll bet you-dollars to doughnuts that you get a drawing that looks like either a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson ES-335. OK, you could argue Les Paul as well. And the Telecaster guys will feel left out of I don’t mention them but that’s it. Four guitars out of how many hundreds (thousands?) of makes and models that have been available since 1931 make the grade of American icon. They are so ingrained in our national psyche that they don’t require their full names any more. You say Strat, Tele, 335 and ‘burst and just about everyone who’s ever held a guitar or seen a guitar or heard a guitar being played will know which one you’re talking about. Even my 95 year old Dad knew what a Strat was. Actually, I guess he should have known since I bugged him daily for one from 1964 until around 1965 when I finally got him to take me to Manny’s on 48th Street.  I didn’t end up with a Strat but that’s a whole other story. Nothing is ever designed to be iconic. Icon status has be earned over a very long period of time-earned by consistency, popularity, functionality and practicality. Without these things, the would be icon dies. Even the venerable Les Paul disappeared from 1961 to 1968 because it lacked one of the four things. It wasn’t popular. The Strat for all it’s sometimes silly incarnations is still nearly identical to the original 54. The Tele, even more so because of the longevity of its design, a design so primitive, it looked retro when it was brand new. Even the 335 went through some changes during it’s unbroken run of 54 years and counting. The body shape has changed at least 7 times, although Ted McCarty’s basic design has remained almost constant. Think about it. Given the flag waving of certain Presidential candidates, talking up what makes us Americans (and what doesn’t), isn’t it nice that there are certain things that, even when copied and produced abroad, still proclaim loudly (I mean really, really loudly) “I’m an American?” And yet, the US Postal Service has never put one on a postage stamp. A guitar has no religion, no stance on abortion or birth control and no opinion on global warming and yet it’s completely American.  A guitar has never run for public office, although Bush One sort of played one once. There are, however plenty of Guitar Gods (and not all of them are American but they all play American guitars). Is it any surprise that every guitar player in the UK during the 60’s wanted an American guitar even though they were almost impossible to come by? Or that the Japanese bought up most of the 50’s Stratocasters?  You can argue that the best car is made abroad (probably Germany), you can argue that the best appliances are made abroad (Germany, France), you can argue that the best food is from abroad but no one and I mean no one is going to tell you that they make better guitars anywhere but the good old USA.

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