On Innovation

Who is and who isn't an innovator? If design is something anyone can do, so is innovation.

Tools are shaped by the people who use them, and sometimes a tool becomes so ubiquitous that we forget where it came from.

Guitar players had been trying to get their instruments to be louder for decades. Anyone playing in an ensemble knows that dynamics are hard; some instruments are just inherently louder than others, or project more mid-range frequencies that carry further. And in the 1930’s and 1940’s, big band music was huge—the bands really were big, and they were loud. For a guitar player it either meant playing into a mic, or not being heard at all.

A guitar company called Rickenbacker brought the so-called ‘frying pan’ guitar to market in 1932—widely considered to be the first real commercial electric guitar, followed by the Gibson “Electro Spanish” in 1935. All these guitars were essentially attempts to take hollow body acoustic guitars and amplify their sound.

There are problems with sticking a microphone in a resonant, wooden box, however. Feedback and noise, for one, as well as weather and environmental changes warping the guitar’s neck and body leading to tuning problems or worse. But the guitars sold ok, at least well enough that when Les Paul—a bandleader and one of the first bonafide guitar heroes—approached Gibson with his solid electric guitar design, they didn’t even bother sending prototypes out for testing. They assumed no one would even want one.

Eventually, though, the solid body electric guitar would start to gain a foothold. Gibson would mass produce the Les Paul guitar, and it and other Gibson electric models would become band standards. Leo Fender, a California machinist and not a musician himself, saw an opportunity to modularize the electric guitar. Like Henry Ford before him, he looked at the guitar and saw a chance to optimize and modernize how it was made.

Fender would make interchangeable bodies and necks by the dozen, and use machine tools to do the carving and sanding. The company released the Esquire and the Broadcaster, what we now know as the Telecaster, in 1948. The Stratocaster followed in 1954, and eventually became the thing a lot of people think of when they think “electric guitar”.

This is what is so interesting to me as a designer and consumer of products. Any time a new invention comes along that could potentially be useful to a broad cross section of people, it has to go through this proving phase. Personal computers had been around for almost fifteen years when Apple released the Macintosh in 1984, they had just been expensive and specialized. Leo Fender took something expensive and hand made, and revised its manufacturing process to be about easily swappable parts and low cost materials. He made the electric guitar relatively cheap and more accessible. But then, for decades, nothing really changed.

Personal computers had been around for almost fifteen years when Apple released the Macintosh in 1984.
People bought electric guitars like crazy, though. A list of players too long to even bother with pushed the instrument in new directions and made a few of their own small modifications along the way, as humans do with their tools.
I’m not going to bury the lede here: I need to talk about Eddie Van Halen now.

Eddie Van Halen was born in Holland and arrived in America just in time for rock and roll. He played music with his brother, swapping instruments until—by his account—he picked up a guitar mostly because his brother didn’t want it anymore. Playing In bands around Southern California Eddie Van Halen realized he liked the thin, comfortable necks on Fender Stratocasters and the big humbucking pickup sound of Gibson guitars like the Les Paul. He also liked the Fender vibrato bridge, which allowed the player to change the pitch of the strings by moving a metal bar, either a little or a lot. It made intuitive sense to him that all these things should be combined somehow. But in 1974, no one was really doing that.
It sounds crazy now, like saying computers used to be black and white or that once upon a time not everyone uploading videos to YouTube was doing it as their job.

Van Halen bought a Stratocaster-style guitar body and neck, and crudely jammed a souped-up, overwound humbucking pickup in it. He solved the tuning instability off the Fender-style tremolo by modifying the guitar's nut with machine oil and a set of dental files.

The first Van Halen album comes out in 1978. Within two years, every guitar that isn’t a Fender or a Gibson looks like Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. Everyone wants to sound like and look like him. Leaving his technique aside for a moment, amazing as it may be, it was the guitar people wanted. The notion that somehow it was the guitar doing the playing was a persistent one.
Go look at pictures of smart phones from 2005. It seems that no one was even aware that a wireless phone could be something else. You see little variations, but mostly what you have are silver plastic rectangles woth postage stamp-sized, monochrome screens.

Apple releases the iPhone in 2007, and within 12 months practically every wireless phone looks like this. A good innovation clicks into place in such a way that it’s hard to imagine life before it happened.

So suddenly California is full of companies making so-called “superstrats”; guitars expressly built for lead playing, with high output pickups and minimal controls. The 1980’s happen, along with MTV. Legions of future guitar players see these hot-rod, purpose built guitars and want one.

Wayne Charvel spent three years working at Fender. At night he would moonlight repairing Fender guitars that were out of warranty. Wayne made a lot of his own parts, and started doing more than just fixing guitars, he was customizing them. He made his own guitars for a few years, then sold his operation to Grover Jackson. Jackson was making superstrat bodies for other brands, and soon turned to making necks. Inevitably that led to making the whole widget. Jackson spends the ’90s and early aughts suffering the grunge backlash. It seems no one wants purple superstrats anymore. So they sell themselves off, first to a holding company and finally to Fender.

Charvel has seen a renaissance in the years since their acquisition, with the demand for superstrat-style guitars seeing an upswing even before the passing of Eddie Van Halen.

Guitar music itself, once predicted to be going the way of the dinosaur, has also seen a resurgence. Artists like Plini and Yvette Young are picking up where Steve Vai and Allan Holdsworth left off, mixing virtuosic playing with wide-ranging stylistic vocabularies. There are probably just as many guitar-based bands and just as active an indie-rock scene now as there was a decade ago; maybe more, thanks to the influence of YouTube and TikTok, where guitar oriented content is everywhere.

But just like all such stories, this one starts humbly—with a wooden box and a desire to be heard over the rest of the band.
Innovation is a funny thing. Most of what we call innovation really isn’t. It’s refinement. It’s someone taking an existing idea and improving it, usually by making it cheaper. The dot com boom of the early ‘90s added the word to a lot of people’s vocabulary, and we throw it around a lot without really thinking what it might actually mean. We tend to think of any company cramming an existing business model into an app on a phone as an innovator.

But sometimes innovations are really small. Sometimes they don’t make anybody any money. Volvo developed the adjustable three-point seatbelt in the 1960’s and gave away any and all patent rights for the device, because their engineers believed it should be in all cars. The product company OXO has built a business around clever evolutions of common household goods—where frankly a ton of these kinds of small innovations tend to happen.

Is Eddie Van Halen an innovator? Undoubtedly, yes, and in the classic sense of the term. He was also, by the latest definition, a designer. He took something in the made world, and modified it to his needs—adding here, subtracting there—so that it suited him. So, too, were Les Paul and Leo Fender—refining existing ideas, or proto-ideas, into viable products.
We get hung up on the act of creation, as opposed to the act of improvement. We’re also very invested in assigning credit and blame. So it makes sense that we have a loose definition for innovation, one that for most people very closely resembles out and out invention. For something that was really just a re-invention of an already existing idea, the electric guitar has changed the world.

Invention is amazing to see. It inspires awe and creates fortunes. Innovation, though, is done in garages and kitchens all over the world all the time. It may be smaller than invention, but the electric guitar proves it’s not always quieter.
— Nick Jones, Dec. 7, 2020

Last Updated January 26, 2022 @ 5:24 PM

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