Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Electric guitar—Who's on first?

When I blogged about Charlie Christian's centennial last July, I said that discussions about who was first to record a regular, or "Spanish", (not lap-steel or "Hawaiian") electric guitar seemed pointless, given the fortuitous nature of such a feat. Interestingly, literature on early electric guitar is mostly focused on the gear rather than the music. The game-changer that was Charlie Christian may have something to do with that, but let that not stop us from having at least a glance on players from the pre-Christian era.

Gage Brewer (on lap steel). Picture from the
Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum

Gage Brewer's Ro-Pat-In
Guitar #3 (Source)
Let's start from the beginning: To the best of the scholarly knowledge available, Gage Brewer (1904-1985) was the first to play the electric guitar in front of a paying audience. This took place, fittingly, on Halloween night, 1932 in Wichita, Kansas. Earlier that year, Brewer had been the recipient of guitars #2 ("Hawaiian", or lap-steel) and #3 ("Spanish", or "regular") made by the Ro-Pat-In Corporation of Los Angeles—later known as Rickenbacker—, guitar #1 being another "Hawaiian" model.

With regard to plugging instruments to electric power lines, the "Hawaiian" seems to have been more popular than its "Spanish" version in those early days. That said, interest and experiments with electric amplification of string instruments —including banjos and violins— seem to go even further back in time, with patents being filed in the early 1910s.

In any case, although he did a private recording some time around or before 1936, Brewer never had a commercial release.


Current conventional wisdom, especially in jazz and blues circles, sets its starting line around 1938, when George Barnes recorded with Big Bill Broonzy, followed a couple of weeks later by Eddie Durham with the Kansas City Five (in his records with Jimmie Lunceford from 1935 Durham sounds as if he's playing a resonator guitar, or close to a microphone, or both). Those are certainly early recordings, and not without merit—Barnes was a white 16-year old session musician playing for 44-year old African-American Broonzy, no slouch on the guitar himself—, but they are not the first. This, I insist, does not take anything from both Barnes's and Durham's considerable musical achievements.

Anyone immersed in any kind of music, jazz and blues included (or especially), can get too parochial. Bear in mind, too, that the instrument was first presented to the public in Wichita, Kansas. Thus, looking beyond music genre divisions and the New York City-Chicago-Los Angeles axis seems mandatory.

The rewards for such a change of scope are "discoveries" such as this:

This was recorded on June 12, 1937, in Dallas, TX. As you can hear, "Blue Guitars" by The Light Crust Doughboys—an update of Clifford Hayes's "Blue Guitar Stomp"—is not just a few bars of scratchy, iffy sounding guitar, but six full choruses of the blues played by Muryel "Zeke" Campbell (1914-1997), a tune designed as a showcase for the "new" instrument. Campbell recorded regularly on the electric guitar from that 1937 session till 1941, but there is not a single official compilation of the Doughboys' recordings (whose masters are all owned by the lovely people of Sony). Lacking that, Krazy Kat KKCD 37, compiled and annotated by the indispensable Kevin Coffey, is a great introduction to the classic years of the Doughboys, one of the foundations of Western Swing.


Source: eBay (not my item)
One of the recurrent questions when discussing early electric guitar recordings, is whether what is on record is really an electric guitar (a guitar with a pick-up attached), or a guitar close to a microphone, or a resonator guitar (see comment on Eddie Durham above).

An early (the earliest?) phonograph stating clearly that the instrument waxed was a "Spanish Electric Guitar" takes us, not only further away from the jazz/blues lineage, but across the pond from the US.

Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome to English vaudeville!

As London magazine Melody Maker announced in June 1936:
"Electric guitar is featured for the first time in Britain as a solo instrument by American banjoist Ken Harvey on a variety tour and by Len Fillis on a recording session which produces Dipsomania and Mood Ruby for Columbia."
This is "Dipsomania", an open reference to Fillis's drinking problem.

Thanks to Fillis collector and researcher Norman Field we know this tune (and its companion "Mood Ruby") were recorded on April 17, 1936. South-African Len Fillis (1903-1953) was a popular string player (he also recorded on banjo and ukulele, among other instruments) and left for South Africa soon after he waxed these recordings. We don't know exactly which instrument was used by Mr. Fillis and, according to Mr. Field, we shouldn't discard the possibility of a pick-up and amplifier being just attached to an acoustic guitar.

Talking of which...


Pushing this story further back in time, we get to 1935, exactly Monday, September 23rd, which, according to available data, marks the earliest recording of an electrically amplified regular (or "Spanish") guitar.

That day in Dallas, TX, Bob Wills had his first recording session as “Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys”, an illustrious name in the history of US music. One of the members of his band was 18-year old Leon McAuliffe (1917-1988), who would become a legend of the steel guitar. In his biography for Bear Family's boxed set of Wills's early recordings (BCD15933, pricey, but the best available transfers of this music by a long stretch), this is what Rick Kienzle says about McAuliffe on “Get with It”, the second side recorded on that day:
"McAuliffe's second break with the Playboys was not on steel, but flailing ninth chords about on an amplified standard guitar. He'd attached his Volu-Tone pickup and amp to one of his acoustics, the rudimentary gear distorting his solo and chord work into prehistoric grunge..."
hence this (Dal 127-1, released December 1935 on Vocalion 03096):

six tunes later, McAuliffe sounded more settled on this (Dal 133-2, released October 1935 on Vocalion 03076):

There is much more to be said about early electric guitar. Some other time...

~ ~ ~

Thanks to Norman Field and especially to Kevin Coffey for their generosity.


Jo said...

Thanks a lot for this very informative and rewarding research. The story of the earliest electric guitars on records finally is taking shape by solid info like this posted at your blog. Thanks again!
editor, keepitswinging.blogspot

Anonymous said...

Stumbled onto your site while looking for old records of the 'Easy Does It ' jazz radio show that we had back here in Milwaukee for many years. Nice site. Enjoy your articles and all the music.

Thanks Mike

Abal said...

Nice Post.

Unknown said...

nice post

Mark B. said...

I just found this great blog. To add a thought: before you play an electric guitar, you have to build it. At the time, tinkering with radios and other audio amplifiers was very common - people were much more into do-it-yourself than we are now. So it would make sense that many different men would have had the idea at the same time. I suspect that electric guitar was less a single invention than a flowering of coincidental technology.