There are some misconceptions about the origins of the electric guitar. Many people credit Les Paul with the invention – but that’s not true. He just helped make it perfect. No, the story is stranger than that. It’s so strange that we’re going to ignore the various attempts and stick with the first viable electric guitar.
Way back before any of us was hatched, a fella by the name of George Beauchamp used to play in a Hawaiian band. Never mind that he wasn’t actually from Hawaii, that’s not important. What matters is that he was a steel guitar player.
Now, a steel guitar (not to be confused with a pedal steel guitar) is played by putting the guitar, top up, across your lap as though you’re Jeff Healey. Then, you use a piece of steel to slide and fret your guitar. This, of course, is absolutely retarded.
I’m going to assume you know how a guitar works. By putting the guitar perpendicular across their lap and pointing the sound hole up, that means the sound goes into the ceiling and not into the audience. Like I said, it’s fucking retarded.
I will take a brief moment to point out that Country and Western music has steel guitar in it ’cause these same bands would play both genres and they’d play them with the same musical instruments. So, you ended up with steel guitar in country music and, eventually, pedal steel in country music. Most musicians don’t make much money. You play with what you’ve got – and they had a steel guitar. So, goat roping music has steel guitar in it.
Where was I? Oh, yes…
George Beauchamp didn’t like this very much and realized it was retarded. He was unable to get the volume out of the guitar that he needed to be heard along with the other instruments. (Important side note: It’d be a bit longer before the guitar moved to the front of the band.)
So, using magnets and coils, Beauchamp set about making himself an electrified guitar. Well, it pretty much sucked – but he was pretty pleased with himself. I’d like to think the first thing he played was a bitchin’ solo, but that’s unlikely because the bitchin’ solo hadn’t yet been invented. This was still the 1920s, after all.
Even though it sucked, George thought it was the best thing ever. He meandered all over California with his band and guitar. This would have been awesome, but did I mention it kind of sucked? Well, it did.
Eventually, and I’m not actually sure how, he met a fella by the name of Adolph Rickenbacker at Dopyera Brothers in Los Angeles, CA. It turns out, Adolf was a bit of an electrical engineer and was really interested in new technology. Working together, they fashioned themselves some pickups and probably worked on playing bitchin’ solos together.
It’s sort of important to note that they weren’t actually the first to amplify a guitar. No, the first amplified guitars were probably from the jazz guitarists and they weren’t actually commercially available.
It was about this time when they started making guitars out of metal. George and Adolf said, “Sweet.” Then, they put their pickups into these metal guitars. These guitars were shaped like long-handled frying pans and the “Frying Pan” electric guitar, and amplification, were born.
That was in 1931.
Strangely, there’s no story of misdeeds and intrigue. The Rickenbacker guitars are known as such ’cause Beauchamp is fucking hard for people to pronounce.
And those were the first commercially viable electric guitars. They weren’t invented to make bitchin’ solos. Nobody would leap around with ’em for years to come. They woudn’t move to the front of the band until the 1950s. They were invented so that they could play Hawaiian music at volumes loud enough to be heard with the rest of the band.