The electric guitar changed music forever. Not just the sound but the style, technique and essence with which the instrument was played. Let’s face it, “Stone Cold Crazy” would not be the same without pickups and amplification. So what would you say if I told you that the person responsible for this musical marvel is a 96 year-old Jamaican man? His name is Hedley Jones and contrary to popular belief, he built the first functional electric guitar…before he was 96, of course.
Born in Jamaica in 1917, Jones was deprived of many if not all of the luxuries we in the states are accustomed to. However, that did not hinder his ability to create because by the time he was 14 years old he had constructed his own cello and banjo. When he was 18 he moved to Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, where he took on various jobs and became known amongst his peers as a jack of all trades. Working as a tailor, bus conductor, proofreader and repairing sewing machines, gramophones and radios it seemed there was nothing Jones couldn’t do.
He played banjo for a Hawaiian jazz band before forming the Hedley Jones Sextet. Because he could not afford an imported guitar Jones decided to build one of his own design. The result was the very first solid-body electric guitar with a pickup made from horseshoe magnets and stove bolts. In September of 1940, Jones was featured in Jamaican newspaper, The Gleaner, holding his revolutionary invention.(Pictured Above) Meanwhile, Les Paul was working on his own design but had not yet produced a functional instrument. Jones, however, was not quite done changing the musical world.
In 1943 Jones joined the British Royal Air Force where he worked as a radar engineer. When he returned to Jamaica three years later he began working on amplifiers. They were powerful and advanced enough to distinguish between and alter treble, mid-range and bass frequencies. Jones had created a system capable of performing the reproduction of the full audio spectrum. His audio amplifiers were used by DJ Tom Wong and soon became known as sound systems. So for all of you with King Kong in your trunk, you can thank Hedley Jones.
Jones moved to Montego Bay in 1965 and became an active member of the local musicians’ union. In 1985 he became president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians and eventually became the oldest columnist for Montego Bay newspaper, Western Mirror. At the age of 94 Jones was awarded the Gold Musgrave Medal for distinguised eminence in the field of music. As if that weren’t enough, Jones also invented and demonstrated Jamaica’s first traffic light and built his own telescopes achieving eminence as an astronomer.
Do you feel like you have been lied to your whole life? Don’t feel bad because Jones doesn’t. Just appreciate the fact that we have people like him in this world. His inventions came about because of his love for music and life not for love of profit. After all, love is the mother of invention.
By Nick Page