Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 1. BROTHER MUSICIAN, LISTEN TO A MIRACLE!
For as long as there have been guitars, there have been young guitar players who have forsaken their rural hometowns for the bright lights of the big city, hoping that their six-string mastery will win them fame and fortune. This epic quest—a kind of latter-day pilgrimage—is no doubt what impelled George Delmetia Beauchamp to leave rural Texas and set himself up in Hollywood in the early years of the 1920s. Young Beauchamp (pronounced “Bee-chum”) was in his mid-twenties at the time. And while he did all right for himself as a guitarist in the L.A. area, he is not at all remembered today among the guitar-playing immortals. We don’t even have any recordings to give us an idea of what he sounded like.
Outside of a small circle of guitar obsessives, in fact, Beauchamp isn’t even remembered for his most outstanding achievement—his pivotal role in the development of the electric guitar. His name may not resound through the decades like those of Les Paul, Leo Fender, or Charlie Christian, but the electric guitar may never have come into being without George Beauchamp. He not only invented the first fully functional guitar pickup, he also put it to work in his pioneering design for the world’s first successful, commercially produced electric guitar.
The pickup can be regarded as the most important part of any electric guitar. It’s what converts the guitar strings’ vibrations into electrical signals that can be amplified. A pickup to an electric guitar is what wheels are to a car. Without that, you’re going nowhere.
Beauchamp’s friend and business partner Adolph Rickenbacker once described him as “a young Texas boy [who] got too fat to pick cotton.” That wasn’t entirely kind or accurate. Surviving photographs of Beauchamp show him to be a dapper (and rather trim) gent—a professional entertainer and entrepreneur with hair neatly slicked back and a sporty predilection for bow ties.
But he had indeed been born in Texas, on March 18, 1899, one of nine children brought into this world by Saybird and Fanny Beauchamp. George took violin lessons as a child but eventually switched to the guitar. When he grew to manhood and made his move to Los Angeles, he was accompanied by his brother Alton, also a guitar player. Not that the brothers Beauchamp immediately had all Hollywood at their feet. Like most musicians, they needed a day gig at first, so they found work as house painters.
It must have been an incredibly exciting time for a young man to land in a city like L.A. The film business had recently relocated there from New York; Hollywood had embarked on what would be known as its golden age. It was also well on the way toward acquiring a somewhat deserved reputation as a city of sin, Hollywood Babylon. Real estate was cheap and there was plenty of easy money around. People wanted to be entertained. It was a good place to make your mark as a musician.
George Beauchamp seems to have had little trouble fitting into Roaring Twenties Los Angeles. He was by all accounts affable and well liked, not at all averse to the occasional illicit drink, Prohibition being in effect at this time. George and Alton got work in vaudeville, the theatrical variety entertainment genre still going strong in the twenties. They secured booking representation by the William Morris Agency, then as now a major player in the entertainment world. As a guitar duo, the siblings performed Hawaiian music under the name Grasshopper and George. A promotional photo shows them with guitars in hand, wearing matching shirts and trousers, shoes immaculately polished, looking sharp in bow ties and with Hawaiian leis around their necks.
Hawaiian-style steel guitar was George’s specialty. In this mode of playing, an acoustic guitar is held horizontally on the guitarist’s lap, and notes are formed by sliding a metal bar, known as a “steel,” across the strings. The style had originated in the 1880s, when Hawaiian guitarist Joseph Kekuku reportedly held the side of a metal spike gently against the strings of his guitar, producing a steely glissando (gliding) tonality, which quickly became an aural signifier of the Hawaiian Islands. To facilitate playing, the guitar would be tuned to an open chord (such that strumming without the steel would produce, say, a G major chord). In order to achieve some open tunings, the player must slacken, or reduce tension, on the strings by means of the guitar’s tuning keys. For this reason the style is also called “slack key.”
To accompany his brother, Alton Beauchamp played “Spanish style” guitar. This is the mode of playing most common today, in which the instrument is held vertically against the player’s waist or torso and notes are formed by pressing the fingers of the left hand against the guitar’s fingerboard (also called the fretboard). For some performances, George and Alton Beauchamp were joined by a third musician, Slim Harper (sometimes Hooper), on another popular Hawaiian instrument, the ukulele. On such occasions they were billed as the Boys from Dixie.
Some hundred years down the road, it’s difficult to appreciate the immense popularity of Hawaiian music in the early decades of the twentieth century. Popular fascination with Hawaiian culture—or at least a romanticized version thereof—was first sparked by Broadway shows such as 1912’s Birds of Paradise, and by the Hawaiian Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Hit songs—including a 1917 recording of “My Waikiki Mermaid,” written by Sonny Cunha, and 1925’s “Ukulele Lady” by Gus Kahn and Richard Whiting—popularized a style known as “hapa haole” (literally “half white”), a Hawaiian song form with English lyrics. In the absence of recordings, we can only suppose that this is the musical style that the Beauchamp brothers played.
The nascent Hollywood film industry made its own contribution to the Hawaiian craze, with features like 1923’s The White Flower and 1927’s Hula. The latter starred movie idol and flapper icon Clara Bow, who dances in a grass skirt in one provocative scene. These idealized depictions of Hawaii in song and on the silver screen suggested a carefree, uninhibited way of life underneath the swaying palms, which played very well in the permissive Jazz Age.
Guitars had been integral to Hawaiian music ever since the first European settlers arrived there in the eighteenth century. Among them were Portuguese sailors who brought not only their guitars but also their cavaquinhos, a stringed instrument that the Hawaiians renamed the ukulele. With the advent of the steel guitar style in the nineteenth century, a uniquely Hawaiian guitar sensibility had taken shape and been drafted wholesale into the musical culture of 1920s America and Europe. As a result, a great deal of early electric guitar innovation was focused on the Hawaiian guitar.
An accomplished guitarist, George Beauchamp could play both Hawaiian and Spanish style. And in pursuing his art, he faced the dilemma shared by many guitarists of the 1920s—the need for greater volume. In a sense, the quest for increased amplitude had been part of the guitar’s evolution ever since the instrument made its nineteenth-century journey out of the parlors and drawing rooms, where it was most frequently played as a polite accomplishment of well-bred young ladies, and into the dance halls and speakeasies of the Roaring Twenties.
In this period, the guitar eclipsed the banjo as the fretted string instrument of choice in jazz and dance bands. With more strings than a banjo, it was capable of more jazzy, chordal sophistication. But no matter how hard you strummed a guitar, it just couldn’t achieve the same volume as a banjo.
AND SO IT was that George Beauchamp visited the shop of John Dopyera, a European-born instrument maker, sometime around 1926 and issued him a challenge: Make this thing louder. Together, they devised the idea of an acoustic resonator guitar. To understand how it works, you first have to consider the basic mechanics of the guitar. A guitar’s strings are held in position by two small pieces of hardware: one at the lower part of the instrument’s body and another at its head. The one near the head is called the nut and the one on the lower body is called the bridge. As the part of the guitar that absorbs much of the vibration of the strings, the bridge was often the focus of attempts to make the instrument louder. Beauchamp and Dopyera’s acoustic resonator guitar, then, would be an instrument with one or more resonating cones made of spun aluminum and attached to the bridge. By affixing these cones to the bridge, the men attempted to amplify those vibrations the way an acoustic horn was used to amplify the sound of a phonograph.
While they are acoustic instruments, the resonator guitars that Beauchamp and Dopyera devised are important precursors of the electric guitar. Beauchamp’s association with Dopyera, moreover, would allow Beauchamp to acquire both the guitar-building skills and a team of collaborators that would make possible his pioneering work in the years to come.
Six years Beauchamp’s senior, John Dopyera—along with his brothers Rudy, Emil, Robert, and Louis—were part of the great wave of European immigrants, some ten million strong, who came to the United States at the close of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth. By 1924 more than thirteen million people living in the United States were foreign-born. Many of these immigrants would make significant contributions to American culture and industry—including the guitar business, as we’ll see. The five Dopyera brothers, along with five more of their siblings, had emigrated from Slovakia to the United States early in the century. A skilled cabinetmaker and machinist, John had patented several inventions, including a machine for making picture frames. But he’d been trained as a violin maker by his father back in Slovakia, and he eventually returned to that pursuit in the New World. Working out of a shop in Los Angeles, he built and repaired violins, also collaborating with his brother Rudy on designing and building banjos.
Like many banjo makers at the time, the Dopyeras were aware of the guitar’s encroachment on their market, and they were interested in turning their hand to guitar building. So John’s meeting with George Beauchamp was fortuitous. Dopyera had the design and manufacturing skills; Beauchamp knew guitars intimately. Such partnerships, between players and makers, would prove key components in the electric guitar’s evolution.
Beauchamp and Dopyera’s first attempt at a resonator guitar was a hollow-bodied instrument with three spun cones attached to the bridge—a “tri-cone.” It was a brilliant instrument, and one that would go on to have a role not only in Hawaiian music but also in blues and other pop genres. But it might not have gone anywhere had Beauchamp not leveraged his connections, both in the music world and within his own family. He placed a prototype resonator guitar in the hands of popular Hawaiian guitarist Sol Hoopii and then brought Hoopii’s trio to play at a party hosted by Beauchamp’s wild and wealthy playboy cousin-in-law, Ted E. Kleinmeyer.
Given Kleinmeyer’s scapegrace reputation, the party was most likely a wild one. He’s one of those figures who personify the excess of the Roaring Twenties, a time when the economy was booming and society was throwing off the moral constraints of the nineteenth century. The son of a well-heeled rancher with interests in oil and the stock market, Kleinmeyer inherited some $600,000 (the equivalent of over $8 million today) upon turning twenty-one, following the death of his father, Earnest. This was one-third of the total legacy, the balance to be issued upon his thirtieth birthday. The younger Kleinmeyer immediately set to work squandering the first installment of his inheritance, partying at a rate that put in some doubt the likelihood that he’d ever reach thirty. He was known to drive around L.A. roaring drunk in a Lincoln sedan equipped with a police siren that he wasn’t shy about setting off.
So when the Sol Hoopii Trio, and the new resonator acoustic guitar they were showcasing, made a big hit at Teddy’s party, it reflected well on cousin George. Kleinmeyer agreed to fund Beauchamp and Dopyera’s new venture with a reported loan of $12,500, a sum more than adequate to launch a guitar manufacturing company at the time. The National String Instrument Corporation was certified by the State of California on January 26, 1928, with Ted E. Kleinmeyer as president. George Beauchamp became the company’s general manager, John Dopyera was named factory superintendent, and Dopyera’s cousin Paul Barth was designated assistant factory superintendent. Barth had skill in guitar making and would soon become one of Beauchamp’s key design collaborators. Beauchamp was paid $55 per week, Dopyera received $50, and Barth $48.
All was fine at first. Well-capitalized, National came out with four Tricone resonator guitar models, Styles 1 through 4, each one more ornate and higher-priced than its predecessor in the product line. The guitars featured bodies made of cast aluminum, something brand new in the annals of guitar design. They were consummately flashy instruments for an extravagantly stylish time period, their gleaming aluminum surfaces adorned with slashing, angular sound holes and intricately etched curvilinear designs in floral and Hawaiian motifs. But it wasn’t only about looks. The metal body, combined with the resonating cones, produced a distinctive, almost hornlike tone that could effectively “cut through” an ensemble of instruments.
Fabrication of the guitars’ cast-aluminum bodies was outsourced to a machinist named Adolph Rickenbacker (or Rickenbacher, as it was spelled at the time). Like the Dopyeras, he had been part of the great late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century wave of migration from Europe. Born Adolf Adam Riggenbacher in Basel, Switzerland, on April 1, 1887, he immigrated to New York with his family in 1891, while he was still quite young. From there he made his way to Ohio, where he married into money—his wife, Charlotte, being an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. The couple lived in Illinois for a while, but in 1918 moved to California, where Adolph worked as an engineer/machinist for the Hotpoint oven company. There, he perfected an injection-molding process used to fashion the Bakelite knobs used on the company’s products—this at a time when synthetic plastics such as Bakelite were an exciting new technology and profit center. But by the early 1920s, Rickenbacker had established his own machine shop, a tool-and-die business at 6701 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles, with Charlotte on the staff as a stenographer.
Rickenbacker assimilated himself into the culture of his new home. He was very successful at it, according to John Hall, the current chairman and CEO of the Rickenbacker guitar company. Hall was just a young boy when he knew Adolph Rickenbacker, who was by then a man of some years. But Rickenbacker left a vivid impression on the young Hall: “Adolph was a real character. He had a story for everything…He was in fact sort of like a Bakersfield [California] cowboy. He always wore a cowboy hat. And he was an inveterate tinkerer. He was always trying to figure out a way to make something better, or another way to make something more efficient.”
Known as “Rick” to his friends, Rickenbacker wasn’t a part of the National staff, but he became an integral part of their operation. Rickenbacker and his new collaborator George Beauchamp got along well from the start.
The same could not be said for Beauchamp and John Dopyera, whose partnership began to sour. Though their skills complemented each other well in the design room, the two had very different, one might even say antagonistic, personalities. Beauchamp was a good-time guy, “a jokester and a drunk,” according to guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright. He was the kind of person, in short, who could run with Teddy Kleinmeyer. Beauchamp was also reportedly openhanded with money, a soft touch. John Dopyera, meanwhile, was a teetotaler, a vegetarian, and parsimonious, the kind of guy who prowled the National factory floor busting workers who’d thrown out a piece of sandpaper before it had been worn down to the last grain. Waste not, want not.
Dopyera had no small ego, either. He felt that Beauchamp was taking undue credit in the media for inventing the National Tricone guitar. Beauchamp then added insult to injury, as far as Dopyera was concerned, by patenting his own resonator guitar design, the National Style O, with a single cone rather than three. More affordable than Tricone models, the instruments based on Beauchamp’s design were profitable for National, but Dopyera still claimed Beauchamp was wasting the company’s money and resources on product development.
Not surprisingly, Dopyera also had problems with Kleinmeyer’s spendthrift ways and louche management style. Indeed, by 1929 Kleinmeyer had burned through much of the money he’d inherited two years earlier, on his twenty-first birthday. He’d started to touch George Beauchamp for cash loans. It was the start of a sad personal decline that would last through the remainder of the onetime playboy’s life.
And so Dopyera left National early in 1929. It turned out to be a singularly bad time to quit your day job. The catastrophic stock market crash of October 29, 1929, witnessed the start of an extended period of economic desperation in America and Europe. The Great Depression would see unemployment rates soar to nearly 25 percent in the United States.
But a determined man like John Dopyera wasn’t about to let worldwide economic disaster stand in his way. Soon after leaving National in ’29, Dopyera formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company with some of his brothers (the name presumably an abbreviation of “Dopyera Brothers”). When Dobro brought its own line of resonator guitars to the market, Beauchamp sued the Dopyeras for patent infringement, reportedly for $2 million. The siblings responded by countersuing and maneuvering Beauchamp out of National’s board of directors. As guitar historian Matthew Hill observed, “The Dopyera brothers hated one another, but they hated everyone else even more.”
THE RESONATOR GUITAR was a technical and commercial success, but George Beauchamp was far from done. While the instrument had achieved greater volume and a new tonality, he sensed that still more could be done to amplify the guitar. Independently of National, often working in his garage or at the dining room table at his home, he’d started to develop a new, altogether revolutionary concept.
The electric guitar was an idea whose time had arrived. By the early 1930s, a few factors had come together that made it all but an inevitability. The first was the widespread availability of electricity itself. This process had begun in America’s large cities in the 1880s, the nation’s first power generator being built in 1882 at Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan by Thomas Edison, with funding from J. P. Morgan. But it wasn’t until the thirties that rural homes finally began to get wired up with electricity. This brought not only electric lighting but also an exciting emergent array of electrical appliances and gadgets into people’s homes.
One of these, and foremost for the electric guitar, was radio. The radio that became commonplace in American homes in the early part of the twentieth century was itself the product of three important innovations. One was electricity, of course.
Second, there was the vacuum tube, which was developed by engineer Lee De Forest in 1907. The patent issued to De Forest describes the vacuum tube as “a device for amplifying feeble electrical currents.” De Forest himself more poetically described it as “an Aladdin’s lamp of our new world, a lamp by which one might hear instead of read.”
De Forest’s vacuum tube is indeed lamplike—a slender glass cylinder, sealed with no air inside (hence the term “vacuum”). An electrical signal is basically a stream of electrons flowing down a wire. This flow can be made more powerful via a system of small, heated metal plates positioned inside the vacuum tube. The strength of this increase is regulated in turn by a part of the vacuum tube called a “grid,” which uses varying amounts of electrical voltage to control the flow of heated electrons. It operates much like a water faucet, which is why the British call a vacuum tube a “valve.” When you crank up the volume knob on a tube guitar amp, you’re basically goosing the grid voltage. This increases the flow of heated electrons, making the sound louder.
In 1911, four years after coming up with the vacuum tube, De Forest employed tube technology to devise and patent “an amplifier for radio frequency circuits.” It was originally intended to help make Morse code transmissions more audible, but would soon find expression in commercial radio broadcasting—something that carried an aura of magic and mystery at the time: a technological marvel that enabled people to hear music and voices from clear across the country, or even the world.
But hear them through what, exactly? This is where we arrive at the third invention that made the electric guitar possible. In 1921, Chester W. Rice of the General Electric Corporation and Edward W. Kellogg of AT&T devised the first paper-coned speaker, the final ingredient in radio’s ascent. At the time, the sound from early radio devices and windup Victrolas was conveyed through a cumbersome acoustic horn. Rice and Kellogg’s speaker represented a substantial sonic improvement, and is essentially the same design used in the speakers we listen to today.
The difference, of course, was electricity. Kellogg and Rice’s speaker employed an electromagnetic coil to convert electrical signals from a vacuum tube amplifier into sound vibrations that were then transferred to the device’s resonating paper cone. The result was sound with a much fuller frequency range. Mounting the speaker in a wooden cabinet imparted a tone that was even richer still, with much more prominent bass frequencies in particular. The old acoustic horns sounded “tinny” in comparison (naturally enough, since they were fashioned out of metal).
The game-changing combination of vacuum-tube amplification and paper-coned speakers ushered in what’s known as the golden age of Radio in 1920s America. Sales of vacuum tube-powered radio sets skyrocketed from an annual $60 million in 1922 to $843 million in 1929, as more and more homes became wired for electricity. In 1925 some five million American homes, accounting for 19.2 percent of the population, had radio receivers. By 1929 that figure had increased to 35 to 40 percent, reaching as high as 75 percent in more affluent areas. Powerful radio networks began broadcasting coast to coast, starting with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1926 and Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS) in 1927.
The cultural impact of all this can very well be likened to the advent of the Internet in our own time. Suddenly people everywhere had access to substantially more of what we now call “content” than had ever been available at any prior period in history—news, weather, sports, serial dramas and comedies, quiz and game shows, advertisements (inevitably), and of course a much broader selection of music than had hitherto been available to the average person. The stylistic spectrum included classical music, Broadway melodies, the songs of New York’s Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths, jazz, blues, gospel, Hawaiian, and country (or “hillbilly” music, as it was then known). Several of these genres would play a pivotal role in the development of the electric guitar, and vice versa.
Vacuum tube amplification also made possible the first public address (P.A.) systems, dramatically improved phonographs, and of course motion pictures with sound—the talkies. Inventor Lee De Forest led the way once again, introducing his Phonofilm system for movie sound synchronization in 1923. But what really put the talkies on the map was Warner Bros.’ blockbuster film The Jazz Singer, which debuted in New York on October 6, 1927, employing the Vitaphone sound-synchronization process. Once audiences heard the film’s star, Al Jolson, sing “Mammy,” while simultaneously witnessing his schmaltzy, tear-jerking performance, there was no turning back. Sound became an integral part of the cinematic experience.
“During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence,” the cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his landmark 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He was one of the first intellectuals to grasp the immensity of the changes being wrought by the era’s technological advances. While many of his contemporaries saw the advent of mass media such as radio and movies as a triumph of vulgarity, Benjamin saw the dawn of a new era of populist art.
In the 1920s, for the first time ever, people found themselves living in an environment in which electrically amplified sound was everywhere. This constituted a major collective perceptual shift, a reorientation of the senses foregrounding the aural. It’s what helped put the “roar” in the Roaring Twenties—one more factor that contributed to the amped-up excitement of the era. The electric guitar was very much the product of this zeitgeist, both technologically and culturally. Alongside the radio, P.A., and cinema sound, it was an innovation that would impact popular culture on an epic, unforeseeable scale.
IN A VERY real sense, then, the amplifier came before the electric guitar. The earliest guitar amps employed essentially the same circuitry as radio sets, P.A. systems, and other vacuum tube-driven technology. George Beauchamp, laboring in his California home, was among the first to see the potential in this, and to develop the electric guitar into an instrument that people would want to buy.
“If you can amplify radio waves,” he is quoted as saying, “why not amplify vibration waves?”
But how to turn those vibrating strings into an electric signal capable of being amplified? This question had intrigued inventors for quite some time, and was by no means confined to the guitar. Some of the earliest attempts at electrical amplification were focused on violins and pianos, two instruments that were far more musically predominant and culturally significant than the guitar at that time.
Where guitars are concerned, attempts at electrification go back at least as far as a patent filed by U.S. naval officer George Breed in 1890 for an early electric guitar design. But it was never brought to market, and, according to what organologists and early guitar historians can surmise, it was more bizarre than functional. A design that came much closer to the modern electric guitar was the Stromberg-Voisinet Electro of 1928-29. This employed an electromagnetic pickup device mounted beneath the top of a conventional hollow-body guitar. As noted earlier, the pickup is the central element in any electric guitar, then as now. It was capable of transforming vibrations from the guitar’s wooden top into an electrical signal that could be amplified. A small number of these instruments were brought out in 1928 but had disappeared from the market by mid-1929. No surviving examples are known to exist, but historians speculate that the Stromberg-Voisinet Electro was discontinued because it didn’t work terribly well (which could explain why nobody thought to hand theirs down to future generations). George Beauchamp’s developments in the late twenties and early thirties, on the other hand, would become the foundation of the modern electric guitar.
To the layperson, it might be hard at first to understand what the big deal is in all this. To electrify a guitar, why not just stick a microphone on it, or in front of it? That is in fact where Beauchamp started, as did many other early experimenters with guitar amplification. But there are limits as to how much additional volume can be attained this way before the howling sound of unwanted feedback becomes a problem. And besides, an acoustic guitar with a microphone in front of it isn’t really an electric guitar. It’s no different from a violin, a piano, or any other acoustic instrument exposed to a mic. The electric guitar as we know it today is a substantively different instrument from its acoustic counterpart. It has its own unique sonic and physical identity. You’d rarely, if ever, mistake the twang, jangle, and crunch of an electric guitar, let alone its svelte shape, for the classical bulk and organic warmth of an acoustic.
Not that Beauchamp gave up on the microphone approach right away. He tried taking apart a carbon button microphone—a forerunner of modern microphones, frequently used in telephone applications—and attaching the microphone’s inner carbon element directly to a guitar. It was a little more effective. He was getting closer, but he still wasn’t quite there.
Beauchamp next tried something else that had been attempted by other early electric guitar pioneers. He took apart a Brunswick phonograph, removing the pickup—the part that converts the vibrations of the phonograph’s needle into electrical signals. He attached this and a single guitar string to a 2"x4" plank of wood, fashioning, in effect, a crude one-string electric guitar. The phonograph pickup consisted of an electromagnet and a small coil of wire. The role of the electromagnet was to transform the physical vibrations of the phonograph needle into an electrical signal suitable for amplification. Beauchamp mounted the pickup on his 2"x4" in such a way that it would sense vibrations from the guitar string rather than the phonograph needle, which he’d removed. While others had tried this kind of thing, only Beauchamp seems to have followed it through to its logical conclusion.
The insight he had was brilliant yet simple: The string is the thing. Where earlier efforts had attempted to amplify vibrations from the guitar’s top or bridge, Beauchamp realized that the string itself is the best source of vibration. Everything else is just secondhand vibration, after all. The string is where any guitar sound begins. It’s the direct source of contact with the player’s fingers or guitar pick. Earlier experimenters had focused on the guitar’s top (the surface of the guitar that usually faces the listener) because that’s what traditional acoustic guitar design had always identified as the all-important source of tone. But all that becomes irrelevant when you’re attempting to generate tone not with a wooden box, but electronically.
Moving beyond the phonograph pickup, Beauchamp next went on to fashion his own dedicated guitar pickups, more optimized for the way a guitar, rather than a phonograph needle, functions. He mounted some of these experimental guitar pickups on other 2"x4"s. Then he progressed to building full-guitar prototypes.
The one that has come down to us through the years is now enshrined in a case at the Rickenbacker corporate offices in Santa Ana, California. It’s one of the holy grail instruments of guitar history—something that guitar-loving visitors to Rickenbacker HQ feel privileged to behold: the Frying Pan, also known as the Panhandle. (Adolph Rickenbacker and close friends of Beauchamp’s are said to have also called it the Pancake.)
Beauchamp is thought to have assembled the instrument at home, with help from National shop foreman Harry Watson. John Dopyera’s cousin Paul Barth and Adolph Rickenbacker may also have had input into either the design or building of the prototype. To bring this new instrument to market, the four joined together in the early thirties to form a new company, called Ro-Pat-In. (The name is assumed to be a shortened form of electRO-PATent-INstruments, or perhaps Rickenbacker-Original-PATent-INstruments. Nobody knows for sure.) The Frying Pan prototype was fashioned from a single solid piece of either maple or hemlock. There’s a legend that the wood came from a fence post behind the National factory (not quite a piece of the True Cross, but more or less the equivalent in guitardom).
“Frying Pan,” “Panhandle,” and “Pancake” are of course all ludicrously prosaic names for a musical instrument that had so much to do with igniting the electric guitar revolution. But the first two offer a fairly accurate description of the instrument’s shape—a small circular body with a long guitar neck protruding from it in the manner of a frying pan handle. It isn’t known why Beauchamp and Watson opted for a circular body. Guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright strongly suspects that it was because they used a tin can, such as a coffee can, to trace out the body’s shape.
Other elements of the Frying Pan prototype were clearly cannibalized from spare guitar parts. This isn’t at all unusual for a prototype—especially one constructed during the Great Depression, when funds for parts would surely have been scarce. But the crucial DNA for what would become the electric guitar was all in place, particularly its electromagnetic pickup.
As with modern guitar pickups, the underlying principle is this: the vibrations of the guitar strings cause fluctuations in the magnetic field created by the pickup, which in turn generates an electrical signal that can be amplified. This is why you need steel strings on an electric guitar. It’s necessary that the strings be made of a material that will interact with the magnet. Traditional gut or nylon strings won’t work.
So what we have in the Frying Pan prototype is essentially the first fully functional solid-body electric guitar. While primarily designed for Hawaiian-style steel playing (horizontally on the lap) it could also be adapted for Spanish-style playing (vertically against the torso). As this was a brand-new instrument, Beauchamp and his colleagues most likely wanted to cover all eventualities.
In converting Beauchamp’s wooden prototypes into production models, the Ro-Pat-In company decided to manufacture the instruments with cast-aluminum bodies. Metalwork was an essential part of what Ro-Pat-In had inherited from National’s legacy of cast-aluminum instruments. What’s missing from the equation, however, is the Dopyeras’ Old World guitar craftsmanship. There is no ornate engraving on the Frying Pan guitars. The body shape is unconventional. This was a completely new breed of instrument—clearly and unapologetically an industrial product rather than a finely crafted artifact. In this regard, it was a radical instrument—more so than most of the electric guitars that would come immediately after it.
Of course it wasn’t the only card in Ro-Pat-In’s hand. The company would also bring out a full line of more conventionally shaped electric Spanish and Hawaiian guitars. But all could be traced back to George Beauchamp and his string-focused pickup design.
THE FIRST PRODUCTION-MODEL Frying Pan, the A-25, hit the market in 1932. The letter A indicates that this was the new company’s first product line. (The company’s electric guitars made of Bakelite and released a few years down the road would carry a “B” designation.) The number 25 refers to the instrument’s scale length, indicating that it was twenty-five inches from the bridge to the nut. The A-25 was soon joined by the A-22, essentially the same guitar but with a twenty-two-inch scale length. The A-22 would go on to outsell the A-25 substantially. Both were sold with an amplifier, also manufactured by Ro-Pat-In.
Early on, the guitar was variously marketed as the Ro-Pat-In Electro, the Rickenbacher Electro, and, ultimately, the Rickenbacker Electro. Why was Adolph Rickenbacker’s name on the instrument rather than that of its inventor, George Beauchamp? No one knows for sure, although Adolph and his wife Charlotte’s major financial stake in the new company likely played a part in the decision.
And the new company was in need of funding. By this point, Teddy Kleinmeyer’s days as a deep-pocketed investor were over for good. A long streak of bad luck and bad checks would eventually reduce him to a pathetic figure. He served time on a chain gang and ended his days working as a school janitor in Temple City, California. Kleinmeyer died in poverty in the 1960s. Still, without his early financial support of Beauchamp’s endeavors, the Frying Pan guitars might never have come into existence.
While the original Frying Pan prototype was made of wood, production models were made of cast aluminum.
SO WHO WERE the first customers for the A-25 and A-22 Frying Pan guitars? In answering this, it’s useful to remember that the fledgling guitar market of the 1930s was very different from the guitar market today. Whereas a good deal of today’s electric guitar sales are to beginners and garage band amateurs, the early electrics were bought pretty much exclusively by professional players. Not that there was a staggering number of these at first. The Frying Pan guitar hit the market during the height of the Great Depression, which had a dramatically negative effect on the music instrument business in general. And the guitar business wasn’t that big to begin with. There were 106 string, wind, and percussion instrument companies in 1929, right before the stock market crash. By 1933, a third of them had gone out of business, leaving only 72. The workforce employed in this branch of the musical instrument industry dwindled from 4,000 to 2,000.
In this environment, it’s not surprising that the Electro String Instrument Corporation started out slowly. It produced just 28 units in 1932, a number that includes both Hawaiian and Spanish electric guitar-and-amp sets as well as a few individual sales of guitars and amps. But by 1935 that number had increased to a total production count of 1,288. Even in the throes of the Great Depression there were a few adventurous players willing to take a chance on a strange new instrument.
The very first sale of an A-25 was to Wichita, Kansas, guitarist Gage Brewer, who made the purchase on September 21, 1932, along with one of Ro-Pat-In’s hollow-body electric Spanish models. He also holds the distinction of having given the first-ever known public performance with these instruments—quite possibly the first electric guitar performance anywhere—on Halloween night, 1932. It took place at the Shadowland Pavilion in Wichita, a nightclub that Brewer also owned. A press release issued to promote the performance makes clear that novelty was one of the foremost attributes that distinguished the electric guitar in the eyes and ears of the general public:
In the orchestra we are at this time introducing the world’s newest and most sensational instruments. A new invention which is startling to the music world, making possible a combination of natural personal technique and electrical perfection. We are indeed fortunate to be able to present these instruments to the public as they will not be on the market for several months, we assure you that if you’ve not already heard these remarkable instruments that we have a real treat in store for you.
In the early 1930s, electricity itself would still have been regarded with a certain mixture of awe and superstitious fear. The lightning bolt symbol used as a logo on many electrical products of that era—including the Rickenbacker Electro—is reminiscent of the lightning bolts wielded by the Norse god Thor, a signifier of immense, preternatural power. Quack advertisements at the time touted electrical devices purporting to do everything from enhancing sexual prowess to curing baldness. Electricity was seen as a mysterious force that could cure or kill. Some of these notions go back to the late-eighteenth-century work of scientist Luigi Galvani and his nephew Giovanni Aldini, who experimented with applying electrical currents to cadavers, both animal and human, producing spasmodic muscle movements in the lifeless flesh.
“And Galvanism has set some corpses grinning,” the poet Lord Byron satirically wrote in the early nineteenth century. Byron’s friend Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dramatized the concept of electrically revivified human remains in her novel of 1818, Frankenstein. With the 1931 release of the Hollywood movie version of Frankenstein and the 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, the unnatural life-giving powers of massive sparking electrodes would have very much been a part of public imagination. These images might well have subliminally colored people’s perceptions of the early electric guitar. More than just a musical instrument, it seemed a work of marvelous science.
Of course, people at the time were also keenly aware of electricity’s power to take life. In the early twentieth century the electric chair had become the chief means of executing criminals in much of the United States. In 1928, photographer Tom Howard smuggled a camera into the execution of convicted murderer Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing prison. The New York Daily News published a gruesome front-page shot of the event shortly thereafter. It was one more occurrence that emblazoned the ominous power of electricity on the public’s awareness right around the time the first electric guitars began to appear on the market.
Having such an awesome force readily available from electrical outlets and sockets in people’s homes made some uneasy. In his comedic autobiography of 1933, My Life and Hard Times, author and cartoonist James Thurber wrote of his grandmother, who “lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house. It leaked, she contended, out of empty sockets if the wall switch had been left on. She would go around screwing in bulbs, and if they lighted up she would hastily and fearfully turn off the wall switch.”
Such attitudes were common at the time Thurber’s book was published, just one year after the A-25 hit the market. So perhaps there was something fortuitous in Gage Brewer’s choice of Halloween night for the electric guitar’s debut performance. He did promise to “startle” the music world, after all. Even before the era of the rock-and-roll guitar god, the electric guitar seems to have possessed a mythic dimension. The Electro String Instrument Corporation itself didn’t scruple to wax mystical with their 1933 marketing slogan: “Brother musician, listen to a MIRACLE!”
The second known purchaser of an A-25 was another professional musician, a Hollywood-based guitarist named Jack Miller, who is thought to have been a friend of George Beauchamp’s. No less tireless a self-promoter than Brewer, Miller set himself up as an apostle for the miraculous new instrument, writing a column for Down Beat magazine extolling the electric guitar’s virtues. Like Brewer, Miller seems to have regarded novelty as the key value of his investment in the instrument. After praising it for being loud, he goes on to proclaim, not quite accurately, “I own the FIRST of these instruments and used it in the Prologue at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.”
A smooth-looking character with sleekly pomaded hair and a slender Clark Gable mustache, Miller never paid in full for his Frying Pan guitar and amp, making him the first deadbeat on the new company’s sales ledger. He also claims to have commissioned and owned the first seven-string version of the Frying Pan. (While a significant number of these were made—seventy-one in 1936 alone—and they would count as the world’s first seven-string electrics, it is unclear whether Miller actually owned the first one.)
But by far the most notable early purchaser and player of the A-25 was pioneering electric guitar wizard Alvino Rey (Alvin McBurney), who at the time was playing steel and Spanish guitar with the popular dance band Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights. Himself an early experimenter with electric guitar and amplification technology, Rey was hired by the Gibson guitar company in 1935 to help develop a pickup that would be used on their landmark electric Spanish guitar, the ES-150 “Charlie Christian” model. It was during this period that Rey purchased his Rickenbacher Electro A-25, bearing the serial number 30, which indicates it was the thirtieth such instrument to be manufactured.
Rey somewhat famously built a wooden casing in the shape of a conventional Spanish guitar and mounted his frying pan-shaped A-25 inside it. He is said to have done so because he grew irritated with constant questions from audience members about the strange instrument he was playing—one more indication of just how peculiar the Frying Pan guitars seemed when they first appeared.
While Rey was a highly accomplished player and made many serious contributions to the development of the electric guitar, he wasn’t above milking the instrument’s novelty to enhance his own public profile. He developed an early version of the talk box, a gadget that creates the illusion that an electric guitar is talking, decades before rock stars such as Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck employed a similar device on hit records of the seventies. Rey’s talking guitar routine was a staple of his act with the King Sisters. The public’s perception of the electric guitar as a novelty instrument would persist well into the 1940s. Its novelty began to subside when jazz musicians adopted the new instrument, but would only be fully laid to rest with the advent of rock and roll in the fifties.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AFTER the A-25 and A-22 became available, a host of other guitar companies began putting electric models on the market. Electro String’s old rival Dobro was one of the first, in 1933. That same year saw the debut of electric models from Gibson and Vivi-Tone. They were followed in short order by electric guitars from Audiovox, Epiphone, and Volu-tone in 1935; Regal, Vega, and Slingerland in 1936; and Sound Projects in 1938. Many of these employed pickups closely modeled on Beauchamp’s pioneering design. Because Beauchamp wasn’t able to patent his pickup design successfully until 1937, a lot of companies were able to issue copycat products.
“When everybody started to make them, everybody started to buy them,” Adolph Rickenbacker would later recall. He took a tolerant view of the competition. Although many of the newcomers were poaching Electro String designs, Rickenbacker and his company chose not to go after them in court.
Others weren’t so liberal minded. Patent issues and threats of litigation were very common in the early days of the electric guitar. Once the instrument was seen to be a commercially viable commodity, everyone naturally wanted to corner the market. One of the most aggressive of these entrepreneurs was Benjamin Franklin Miessner, who tried to establish a monopoly early in the instrument’s life by threatening to sue every electric guitar maker for infringing on patents he’d filed in the early 1930s. A few significant companies, such as Epiphone, caved in at first. But Miessner’s patent claims ultimately proved too flimsy to constitute much of a threat. By the early forties, he’d pretty much given up. Had he met with more success, he could have shut down the entire nascent electric guitar industry.
Amid a growing field of competitors, the Electro String Instrument Corporation continued to develop innovative electric guitars throughout the thirties, while also diversifying their product line to include electric violins, mandolins, and an electrified bass viol. They even accepted a 1933 commission to build a harp for the legendary film comedian and musician Harpo Marx. The A-25 and A-22 Frying Pan electrics continued to be available on a custom-order basis into the 1950s, and are still used by several of today’s top steel players. In 1953, Adolph Rickenbacker sold the Electro String Instrument Corporation to F. C. Hall, father of the company’s current CEO. With sleek new modernist guitar designs by German luthier Roger Rossmeisl, Rickenbacher would enter a new era, as we’ll see.
Adolph Rickenbacker and Paul Barth, as well as John, Rudy, Louis, and Emil Dopyera, all lived to witness the electric guitar’s ascendancy during the rock era. Many of them continued to make key contributions to the burgeoning field. Rickenbacker had the added satisfaction of seeing latter-day guitars bearing his name become some of the most hallowed instruments in rock music, owing to the Beatles’ prominent and inspired use of them in the sixties.
Regrettably, George Beauchamp didn’t make it that far. He retired from the Electro String Instrument Corporation in 1940, at the still-youthful age of forty-one. He apparently wished to devote himself to his other great passion in life, fishing. Perhaps he sensed he didn’t have that much time left. On March 30, 1941, some six months after his retirement, he died of a heart attack while deep-sea fishing off the coast of California.
If any one man could lay claim for the electric guitar revolution, it was him. Beauchamp’s groundbreaking work put the electric guitar on the map in the 1930s. Its time had indeed arrived. What was needed now was a guitarist with the vision and musical command to tap deeply into the new instrument’s vast, unrealized potential. The world didn’t know it yet, but it was awaiting the coming of the first guitar hero.
Jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian and his Gibson ES-150