Electric guitars are easily the most recognizable instruments of the last century, in part because some of the most popular musicians on the planet played them. Eric Clapton laid down the lead for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by George Harrison of The Beatles on a Gibson Les Paul, while Jimi Hendrix was known for his pyrotechnics—literally and figuratively—on a right-handed Fender Stratocaster that he played left-handed.

But the electric guitar was not always the hyper-revered instrument we think of today. In the 1950s, it was a workhorse, which is why Leo Fender's dual-pickup Telecaster was designed to change tone with the flick of a switch, so a working musician in a roadhouse could go from a rollicking dance tune to slow number without missing a beat. The Fender Stratocaster—with a sculpted body designed not to cut into a player's sides during long stints on stage—followed, as did a slew of inexpensive imitators, from Danelectros to Silvertones, the latter of which sold briskly in Sears.

Adolph Rickenbacker had helped introduce the electric guitar two decades earlier, but his company's A-22 and Combo models would not take off until the Telecaster and Les Paul had made their bows. Rickenbacker made up for lost time, though, when various members of The Beatles started playing Rickenbackers—during the 1960s, they were played by Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Pete Townsend of The Who, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, John Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Kay of Steppenwolf, and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane.

Two other early electric-guitar influences were Gretsch and Guild, whose Duo-Jet and DE-500, respectively, are widely played and collected today. Then there are the more recent entries, including ESP, PRS, and Schecter, along with Musicvox, whose retro style has more in common with cheap Harmonys, Valcos, and Kays than anything made by Gibson or Fender.

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