A ‘brief and totally incomplete but I’m really just trying to give you an idea of where it all started’ history of the electric guitar.
Most of us here will have varied opinions of electric guitar, that’s to be expected, the electric guitar is hard to escape in these modern times, and come in so many shapes colours, sounds and . But it comes from more humbled roots,
Horns and strings and drums and banjos can easily overshadow the humble acoustic guitar, especially when soloing, so the role of the guitar was as an almost entirely rhythmic instrument. Sure folks could rip a solo here and there, but it was hard to be heard. And so as through out history the brains of the nerd nation went to work on solving this problem.
One solution was to build a bigger more resonant instrument. When you go into a music store these days the most common size and shape of guitar on offer will be the dreadnought.
The very first Dreadnought guitars (named for a class of World War I era British battleships, "Dreadnought") didnt appear until 1916 and were manufactured by Martin for the Oliver Ditson Company, a publishing firm based in Boston. The Ditson Dreadnoughts were quite different in appearance from their modern offspring: The bodies were elongated to accommodate a wide, 12–fret custom guitar neck (12 frets clear of the body) with a slotted peghead.
Another “make the acoustic guitar louder” approach was to change the flat top to a carved arched top like a violin or cello. Orville Gibson was working on these as early as the 1890’s.
But even then you are limited, a great acoustic guitar will still have a hard time trading 4s on the bandstand with a horn section.
So lets get electric!
To start why don’t we listen to what some consider the first recording made with an electric guitar.
First up we have Eddie Durham playing with Lester Young and the Kansas City Six September 27 1938 -
This is the 2nd take, of the two that are available to us.
Buck Clayton - trumpet, Lester Young - Clarinet, Tenor Sax, Eddie Durham - Electric Guitar Freddie Green - Guitar, vocals, Walter Page - Bass, Jo Jones - Drums
So earlier I said “some consider” that last one the first recording of electric guitar because if you make a claim like that, someone will dig through the archive and prove you wrong, Which is awesome. Follow that ribbon into history. So if we start with a well known “first ever” like above, we can find others.
Here’s a Big Bill Broonzy recording from March 1st 1938 featuring George Barnes on Electric Guitar. Barnes was born in South Chicago Heights, Illinois in 1921. His father was a guitarist and taught Barnes acoustic guitar at the age of nine. A year later, in 1931, Barnes's brother made a pickup and amplifier for him. Barnes said he was the first person to play electric guitar. So let’s take a listen to this track and see where it takes us.
Ok, well now, that we know how this all works, neither of those are actually the ‘first’ they sometimes claim. there are recordings of electrified steel guitars pre 1938 So now we head into the world of what we know know as western swing but would have just been called dance music.
Milton Brown hired Bob Dunn to play and record steel guitar with his group “Milton Brown and his musical Brownies”
This recording is from jan 27 1935 when Milton Brown and his band the Musical Brownies recorded forty-nine songs in a single three-day session.
Milton's band is widely credited as being one of the originators of the Western Swing style.These were recorded in 1935 one in 1936 when Western Swing had lot of that rural country blues feel to the songs.When swing hit it's peek in the mid to late 1940s that rural blues feel was long gone.Most of the western swing bands by then were a much slicker sounding.Milton Brown died in automobile accident in 1936 cutting short what could have been a stellar career.
I’m not entirely convinced about the directions given to the fiddle player. But I also think that it’s a nod to the Hawaiian origins of the electric steel guitar.
Before we listen to the last piece, which, you probably know is going to be pre milton brown by now. Lets look at the first patent for an electric guitar, if you get a chance go check out the full patent because it covers more than just electrifying guitars.
naval officer George Breed, is to electric guitar as Leonardo da Vinci’s is to the helicopter.
In 1890, Breed submitted a patent for a one-of-a-kind design, utilizing the two basic elements that would eventually make their way into Stratocasters and Les Pauls (modern electric guitars) —a magnetic pickup and wire strings. Unfortunately for Breed, his design also included some very impractical circuitry and required battery operation, “resulting in a small but extremely heavy guitar with an unconventional playing technique,” writes the International Repertory of Music Literature, “that produced an exceptionally unusual and unguitarlike, continuously sustained sound.”
the design went nowhere. That is, until George Beauchamp, a “musician and tinkerer” from Texas, came up with a design for an electric guitar pickup that worked beautifully. The first “Frying Pan Hawaiian” lap steel guitar.
And so let’s hear what an electric frying pan sounds like,
Here is Eddie Bush’s Biltmore Trio from 1934 performing Talkin’ to myself
Here is a really great place to find archival recordings that might be hard to find elsewhere.
Next week will be a by Submission Music Appreciation, So if you’ve got something you want to us to appreciate please send me the info/links and prep a brief intro.
What do we do?
Join us to be inspired by music from around the world, no preparation, prerequisites, or practicing required. I’ll read a short composer bio, highlight some historically relevant material or interesting context, we’ll listen to a piece of music, and then take the time to reflect on what we heard, ask questions, and explore.