Electronic Amplification

Around this time, the electric bass first started to come around. As soon as that hit, the whole rhythm section changed. With an electric bass, drums, guitar and piano, you had a full group. You had those two electric instruments, and they would sustain that bottom note. Like Scotty Moore, who played guitar with Elvis Presley. He’d be carrying along with his thumb and his pickin’ finger on the bass strings and keeping the whole thing happening with lots of echo and reverb. And with his other fingers he’d be playing the melody. But when he wanted to stop and really bend those strings and make them cry and do what everybody likes to hear an electric guitar do, all of a sudden the bottom fell out. Now, with the electric bass carrying the load you could reach on up and grab your fill and pluck two strings if need be in order to fill that gap. Also, the electric bass caught on pretty quick because you didn’t have to tie that big “doghouse” [stand-up bass] to the top of the car. And all of a sudden you had a guy that wasn’t crippled from trying to play that damned stand-up!

— Levon Helm
The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock’s Great Drummers

The ability to electronically amplify musical instruments was another technical advance that proved to be a key enabler of the rock aesthetic in at least three different ways.

The first and most obvious impact of amplification was the ability of relatively small groups of musicians to play to large audiences. Traditionally it had required something the size of a symphony orchestra to fill a large concert hall. The need to coordinate such large groups of musicians required a regimentation ill suited to the rock aesthetic. Smaller groups of musicians had traditionally played what was called chamber music, literally because they could only play to a relatively small room. With electronic amplification, it was physically possible for a group as small as a trio to play to the largest auditorium. This technical achievement allowed relatively small musical groups — with few enough members to allow improvisational collaboration on stage — to reach relatively large audiences. An essential contributor here was Jim Marshall, whose hugely powerful amplifiers made possible the success of rock trios such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream in the late sixties.

The second impact of amplification was the creation of the electric bass, an essential component of The Big Beat, the driving rhythm of rock. As noted by Levon Helm above, the appearance of the electric bass guitar created a solid bottom to the sound, even with a relatively small group.

The third impact of amplification on rock was the ability to alter the sound of its instruments. In particular, this ability was key to the success of the guitar as the premier instrument within rock. Choice of different style of guitar (solid- or hollow-body), number of strings (6 or 12), brand of guitar (Fender vs. Gibson), brand of strings and amplifier all dramatically affected the resulting sound. Additional possibilities were offered by the whammy bar, the wah-wah pedal, fuzz-tone, feedback, etc. Some important guitar sounds on hit records were even made possible by physically slashing the speaker cones on an amplifier.

The importance of this ability to vary the sonic signature of an instrument cannot be overestimated. The electric guitar was the precise tool needed to realize the advantages of recording music directly, rather than composing it on paper. The traditional approach to music was akin to painting with crayons: the available sounds were largely predetermined by the chosen instruments. Given this limited palette of aural choices, the paint-by-number approach of musical composition made some sense: a composer wrote directions for a large orchestra, and the resulting sound, given competent musicians, was largely predictable.

As the potential of the electric guitar was gradually realized, though, the approach to music shifted. Giving a rock musician an electric guitar was like handing a visual artist brushes and oils, when all he had before were crayons. Suddenly any possible hue could be mixed from the pigments, and the size and texture of the brush strokes could be varied almost infinitely. Similarly, whole new ranges of sounds were made possible with an electric guitar. Now the ability to record the exact sound made by a musician mattered: there was no standard guitar sound, no standard way to play a series of notes written on paper. With the magnification offered by electronic amplification, what were before small variations in a guitarist’s approach to a song, to playing a single chord, now became important artistic and stylistic elements.

Jimi Hendrix was the best example of this approach to the instrument. After his relocation to England, he went to Jim Marshall and asked for an amplifier with a certain sound. In response to this request, the electronics specialist “designed an amp with a distinct, thick tone resulting from overdrive harmonics of the valve.” (Egan 2002) It was also in England that Hendrix connected with Roger Mayer, a sound experimenter who created various gizmos to alter the sound of the electric guitar. The two hit it off immediately, and after that Hendrix had first call on all of Mayer’s inventions. (Egan 2002)

It is important to make a distinction here between an electric guitar and a completely electronic instrument, such as a synthesizer. A synthesizer can theoretically make any possible sound. Given what I have said so far, one might think such an instrument to be a logical successor to the electric guitar, further expanding the creative potential of rock musicians. In practice, though, very little great rock music has been made using synthesizers. Key to the success of the electric guitar are the physicality of the instrument, and the combination of freedom with constraints. Because of the almost unlimited freedom granted by a synthesizer, there is a tendency to doodle, to continue to try different possibilities, and to program the music, rather than playing it live. The result is generally “head music” — sounds that seem disembodied and unconnected to a physical musician. The electric guitar, on the other hand, becomes almost an extension to a rock musician’s body. As with all great art, certain constraints are necessary to challenge the artist. Part of the beauty of art is the ability to overcome such restrictions. The electric guitar seemed to offer rock musicians just the right balance of new possibilities and challenging limitations.

Another useful comparison might be between the possibilities offered by the electric guitar in rock and cinematography in film. Just as guitarists gradually explored the new freedom offered by electronic amplification, cameramen realized a similar potential to vary the presentation of their subjects through use of filters, backlighting, varying perspectives, zoom and pan shots, etc. In music, what had been important before were the notes; in drama, the words. In rock music, the sound of the instrument took on artistic significance; in film, the visual presentation became as important as the words that were being spoken. In rock, the remaining limitations of the instrument provided artistic challenge; in film, the initial limitations on color (to black, white and shades of gray) and the immutability of the subjects being filmed imposed similarly stimulating limitations. In music, the synthesizer offers too much freedom and not enough limitation; in film, arguably, the modern availability of unlimited color combinations combined with computer-generated graphics seem to offer too much freedom.

Note that in these same ways described above, electronic amplification helped to realize rock’s overarching theme of liberation. Musicians were freed from the need to play with large groups in order to play to large audiences. At the same time they were freed from many of the constraints of their acoustic instruments, opening a multitude of new avenues for them to explore.


The following recordings are particularly good examples of this element in action.

Next: The Big Beat