December 27, 2003
Origins of the Electric Guitar: Five Noteworthy Instruments from 1931-1947
by Tom Watson
With less than a week away from 2004, guitar enthusiasts around the world eagerly look ahead to the 50th Anniversary of the Fender Stratocaster. But since we have several weeks to wait until Fender unveils its 2004 anniversary models at the mid-January NAMM Show, perhaps this is a good time to take a look behind at some of the instruments that influenced the evolution of the electric solidbody guitar.
That history is neither simple nor direct. It's actually a twisting four lane highway that includes the stories of three types of guitars - the lap-steel, the electric hollow-body, and, the electric solidbody; and, of course, the amplifiers that powered all three guitar designs.
Presented below is a brief look at five instruments created between 1931 and 1947 that are significant in the evolution of the electric solidbody.
George Beauchamp, Harry Watson, and Alfred Rickenbacker
The Frying Pan
Although Lloyd Loar experimented with an electrostatic pickup designed to amplify the sound produced by an acoustic guitar in 1923, credit for the first significant electromagnetic guitar pickup is usually given to George Beauchamp who created and patented the 1931 "Frying Pan" lap-steel instrument pictured on the left (the wood prototype - the production models were made of cast aluminum).
The wood neck and body of the "Frying Pan" are the work of Harry Watson, who had been the superintendant of the National Company. To take the idea to market, Beauchamp enlisted the aid of Alfred Rickenbacker (Alfred was the cousin of famous flying ace, Eddie Rickebacker) with whom he formed the Electro String Company. Rickebacker instruments were born.
Beauchamp applied for a patent of the "Frying Pan" in 1932, and several times thereafter. However, the patent was not granted until 1937 after Beauchamp had musicians play the instrument for the patent office to prove that it actually was functional.
Electro String (Rickenbacker)
1935 saw the introduction of what is often considered the first solidbody electric guitar (though it was not completely solid) called the Bakelite Spanish Guitar. Bakelite is an early form of plastic. It was developed by the Electro String Company, now known as Rickenbacker.
Two other interesting facts: it had a detachable Spanish guitar neck and a follow-up instrument, the Vibrola Spanish Guitar, featuring a motorized vibrato tailpiece, was invented by an Electro String employee named Doc Kauffman, who would later become Leo Fender's first partner.
Paul H. Tutmarc and the Audiovox #736 Solidbody Electric Bass
For a long time it was widely believed that the first solidbody electric bass was developed by Fender and brought to market in 1951 as the Fender Precision Bass. However, an instrument created by Paul H. Tutmarc in Seattle in 1935 was discovered in 1995, making it the first known solidbody electric bass.
Tutmarc, like Beauchamp and Leo Fender, got his start as an independent developer of pickups for the lap-steel guitar. Although he constructed the first solidbody electric bass in 1935, his Audiovox electric bass wouldn't really hit the market until 1936-37. It featured an electromagnetic pickup designed by Tutmarc and Arthur J. Simpson.
This story also has an interesting sidenote. In 1947, Tutmarc's son, Bud, marketed a similar bass under the brand name "Serenader". Apparently, this solidbody electric bass was "prominently" advertised in the 1948 Heater Company catalog that was nationally distributed, making it possible, if not likely, that Leo Fender was aware of a solidbody electric bass predecessor to the Precision Bass.
Les Paul and the "The Log"
In the early 40s, jazz and country guitarist Les Paul knew the importance of the electrified acoustic guitar, especially when playing with big jazz bands. He also knew that the electric hollow-body had one serious handicap, its acoustic chamber tended to cause feedback when played at volume. Since it was the pickup, or pickups, that was actually doing the work, he figured there was no real need to mount them on an otherwise acoustic based instrument.
To demonstrate this belief, Paul constructed what has become known as "The Log". Its first iteration was exactly what the name suggests, a 4x4 piece of wood to which pickups and a guitar neck were fastened. A true "solid body". Paul actually gigged with this first version of The Log with less than excellent response from the audience. Paul recalls, "They said it was the worst damn thing they'd ever heard - it was the dog of dogs." (The Man Who Turned on the Guitar, by Bryan Miller; see link below).
He then transformed the crudely built log into what you see pictured above, concealing the 4x4 with a conventional guitar body. According to Paul, "At the next gig, they loved it." (The Man Who Turned on the Guitar, by Bryan Miller; see link below). Clothes make the man and can do the same for the guitar.
Les Paul showed "The Log" to Gibson in 1946, but Gibson wouldn't jump into the solidbody market until the 1952 debut of the now famous Gibson Les Paul, probably as a result of Fender's success with the Esquire and Telecaster.
The Man Who Turned on the Guitar, by Bryan Miller
Paul A. Bigsby and the Merle Travis Guitar
Although the 1947 Merle Travis Guitar pictured here doesn't have a Bigsby Vibrato, it does have something that would subsequently prove very important in the development of solidbody electric guitars -- all six tuners on one side of the headstock as opposed to the three-a-side headstocks popular at the time (and, of course, still popular on many electric solid bodies).
The story goes that Bigsby and Travis had lunch together sometime in 1946 and during the course of that meeting Travis made a sketch for Bigsby of a new guitar design that Travis was interested in having built. Travis handed the sketch to Bigsby and asked, "Can you make this P.A.? (Bigsby was often called by his first and middle initials, 'P.A.')". Bigsby is said to have answered, "I can make anything."
Bigsby made the guitar, as pictured, and thanks to its use by Travis in public appearances it became so popular that Bigsby set up shop next to his house in Downey, California, to fill orders.
December, 1997 Vintage Guitar magazine article by Willie G. Moseley. Offers an interesting account as to a possible origin of the scrolled headstock design.
The debate continues as to what influence, if any, the headstock design of the Merle Travis Guitar by Paul Bigsby had on Leo Fender's subsequent line of four and six string solidbody electric instruments. Actually, Bigsby created a number of different guitar models bearing a headstock similar to the Travis instrument prior to Fender's 1950 introduction of the Esquire.
According to writer Tony Bacon, in The Fender Book, "It's difficult to judge whether the design of Fender's first solidbody electric guitar was influenced very much by Bigsby's earlier instrument. George Fullerton says that he and Leo knew Paul Bigsby and had seen Merle Travis playing a Bigsby guitar. Dale Hyatt, however, is less sure: 'I can't really say there was any truth that Leo copied Paul Bigsby, they just both made something at the same time.'" [The Fender Book by Tony Bacon and Paul Day, page 15, continued on page 18].
It's also interesting to note that in the late 40s Bigsby's shop was in Downey, California, only fifteen miles away from Fender.
Five headstocks side-by-side:
A = 1947 Bigsby Merle Travis
B = 1949 Fender "Snakehead" Esquire Prototype
C = 1950 Fender Esquire
D = 1954 Fender Stratocaster
E = 1966 Fender Stratocaster
National Public Radio: The Electric Guitar, Present at the Creation Don't miss the sound clip by Christopher Joyce.
Published December 27, 2003 02:45 AM.