Much like rock and roll itself, the history of signature guitars is often the subject of heated debate.
As many music historians know, there is no universal agreement on what the “first” rock and roll song actually is. Many point to the song Rocket 88 due to it being an early example of distortion guitar in a rhythm and blues song, but without a consensus of what constitutes true rock and roll, there will always be those who object. Signature guitars are no different. Sure, a guitar might be officially endorsed by a popular musician, but does that alone qualify it for a place within signature guitar history? Also, do we stipulate between electric guitars and other variations of the stringed instrument? There may be no right answer to these questions, but we do know one thing; information on this subject can be extremely hard to find.
Though we may lack the ability to definitively declare the “first” signature guitar that fits our modern sensibilities of the term, we’ve decided to do the next best thing and give a brief overview of the earliest guitars to carry an artist’s name. Let us take care of the research, and you can decide for yourself which guitar is most deserving of being called first.
In terms of the earliest guitar to ever feature an artist’s signature, it’s hard to get any more old-school than the Gibson Nick Lucas Special. Originally made in 1925, the story goes that Gisbon sales manager Frank Campbell tried to convince Lucas to get rid of his Galliano guitar, to which Lucas responded “If you build a guitar to my specifications that’s not too bulky, I’ll throw this guitar away.” As to be expected, Gibson took the challenge and produced the Nick Lucas special, a guitar with a wider neck and smaller body that Lucas felt would be more presentable onstage. The dark guitar quickly became synonymous with Lucas himself, and Gibson made the instrument officially for sale in 1926. The Nick Lucas Special would undergo numerous changes throughout the following ten years before it was discontinued in 1938, barring limited edition reissues that would come out many years later.
At the same time as the Lucas special, guitar company Harmony was also testing the waters with signature guitars by rolling out the Roy Smeck branded “Vita” instruments. Though Harmony may be an unfamiliar name to modern guitarists due to the company going defunct in 1975, it’s important to remember that Harmony was the biggest manufacturer of musical instruments in the United States during its prime. Beginning production in 1927, the Vita instruments included acoustics, electrics, and other stringed instruments, which was fitting given that Smeck himself was known for playing everything from banjos to guitars. Gibson would also produce their own Roy Smeck signature guitar in 1934, so the musician’s name was not exactly exclusive to one brand.
For those who are looking for the first artisan electric guitar, perhaps the Rickenbacher Ken Roberts would fit the bill. Originally produced in 1934, the Ken Roberts actually debuted as the “Electro-Spanish” guitar, which dropped the usual round necks of the time in favor of a wooden neck. However, in 1935, the guitar line was officially rebranded as the “Ken Roberts,” though the data surrounding this particular model is confusing to say the least. For instance, no one is really sure why the guitar was renamed one year after the fact, and generally speaking, information on “Ken Roberts” is extremely scarce. We do know that he was a musician based in Los Angeles, but obviously he’s extremely far removed in notoriety from names like Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen. If nothing else, his name is preserved through this curious slice of guitar history.
From here, many like to point to the original Les Paul as the next major step in the evolution of signature guitars, but even this is fiercely debated. Sure, the Les Paul would be the first guitar that is immediately recognizable to modern guitarists, but whether even this is a genuine “signature” guitar beyond the fact that it bares Lester Polsfuss’ name is still contested. However, at the end of the day, perhaps there is no “first” signature guitar. Rock and roll was not magically created in a single day; rather, it was the fusion of blues, jazz, and country that would continuously be mixed and matched until rock and roll formed its own loose identity decades later. It would be fitting, then, that signature guitars would follow this same model. Each of the guitars listed in this article played a part in creating what we know today as the signature guitar, and in a way they all owe a little something to each other.
Like rock and roll, signature guitars are the product of a vast continuum that is still evolving today. And whenever we purchase or show off a signature guitar, we too are taking part in this ever changing history.