The Engineers Behind Rock ‘n’ Roll and Jazz

Innovators collaborated with legends including Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis

22 August 2017

Rock music wouldn’t be rocking without electrical engineers. The electric guitar, arguably one of the most important inventions in the music industry, was created in 1931 by musician George Beauchamp and engineer Adolph Rickenbacker. The guitar was sold under the name Frying Pan because that’s what it looked like.

Electric guitars have since undergone many changes to get to the modern versions, which have become staples of rock bands worldwide. Because many musicians and engineers tinkered with the instrument over the years, a number of “mistakes” in both sound and effects have been introduced. Yet several of the glitches have been adopted by musicians and have become iconic in different styles of music.

A good example is when Dave Davies, lead guitarist for the Kinks, punctured a speaker in his amp and created a “clipping” distortion. The sound has since been incorporated in countless songs by other bands. Without such electrical mishaps, music as we know it wouldn’t be the same.

AN ATYPICAL COLLABORATION

As electrical engineers began to work in the music industry, sounds and effects incorporated in songs evolved. In 1966 engineer Bradley K. Plunkett created the first wah-wah pedal at Thomas Organ. The pedal manipulated the tone and frequencies of the electric guitar signals to create the crying effect, but with an electric twist. The wah-wah pedal has become a staple in rock music with much thanks to guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. He worked alongside electrical engineers to develop new pedals and sounds.

The 1960s were an exciting time in music, with the advancement of synthesizers, which convert electric signals to sound, and the rise of electronic music as its own genre. IEEE Life Member Robert Moog’s 1964 synthesizer was one of the most exciting developments of the era. Moog was an electronic music pioneer as well as an electrical engineer. The Moog synthesizer used voltage to control frequencies and create different pitches and volume levels. It proved iconic and influenced artists including the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and the Bee Gees.

TUNING INTO JAZZ

As electronic music progressed, musicians started blurring the line between engineering and art. Herbie Hancock is one of the most influential modern jazz musicians, but he was also a talented electrical engineer. He originally wanted to pursue something more practical than music, so he decided to major in electrical engineering at Grinnell College, in Iowa. Ultimately, Hancock’s engineering insights and experimentation provided him with opportunities to work with jazz icons Donald Byrd and Miles Davis before becoming a music legend himself.

Hancock was also a fan of Rhodes-Fender pianos, which were developed by Harold B. Rhodes, an engineer. Rhodes first designed a piano as form of music recreation therapy for soldiers serving during World War II. After the war, he partnered with Leo Fender to start the Fender/Rhodes company, which soon became a global success. It was purchased by CBS, the broadcast television network, in 1965 and then sold to the Roland keyboard company in 1984. Rhodes keyboards can still be purchased today as digital versions of the Rhodes piano sound.

As music continues to evolve and new genres emerge, remember that engineers have made possible many of the songs you’re listening to today. And next time you look at the rock band AC/DC’s lightning-bolt logo, be sure to note the homage the band paid to the pioneers Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

Ryan Ayers has been a consultant for a number of Fortune 500 companies within industries such as information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers began helping startups with data collection and analysis. He has worked with a number of bands and record labels in leveraging analytics to help improve distribution and social media advertising, and to expand touring potential by identifying untapped markets around the world.

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