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It's About the Volume. A Visit to The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon Exhibition

By Clarke Rigsby

“The Electric Guitar-Inventing an American Icon” exhibit running now through Sept. 15th at the Musical Instrument Museum, (MIM) Phoenix Az., is aptly named. I’ve never seen a finer collection of iconic early instruments and technology gathered in one place. The exhibit focuses on early attempts to give the guitar, both successful and not so successful, an equal voice among progressively louder ensembles from the 1920’s on. It also seeks to right some wrongs, many of which guitar players have come to believe as gospel regarding the invention of the first electric instrument, the first solid body guitar, first use of the instrument, etc. This assemblage comes from family members, luthiers, the MIM collection, “Guitarchaelogist” Deke Dickerson and primarily, from guitar historian, builder and uber collector Lynn Wheelwright who’s detective work saved for all of us Charlie Christian’s Gibson ES-250 which he played with Bennie Goodman 1939 to 1941. I must admit that when I heard the “Charlie Christian” was going to be at the MIM…I was in!

Charlie Christian was not the first electric guitar player. Certainly Alvino Rey’s 1932 Electro A-25 Ro-Pat-In steel guitar (included in this exhibit) was probably the first to be broadcast nationally but Charlie was one of the first to show the way for guitar players who wanted to improvise solos and stand toe to toe with horn players who, up to this point, had crushed them…volume wise. As Jazz and Swing became more popular crowds became bigger and so did bands thus, the title “Big Bands”. If you’ve ever stood in front of a trumpet player, you know he or she needs no amplification. Now, put five of them in a section and you can see any acoustic instrument hasn’t got a chance. Charlie changed that with this guitar and his Gibson EH-150 amplifier.

Speaking of amplifiers…this technology is also well represented in this collection. Guitars have been around for centuries but the electro-magnetic pick-up and the amplifier changed everything. Some of the earliest attempts are on display.

The argument can, and has been made that it was the electric guitar and amplifiers that killed the Big Band placing emphasis on the rhythm section and singers instead. Not sure if it was that or, just the changing tastes but, one thing is for sure… no amplifiers…no Rock & Roll!

All MIM tours include wireless headphones and several vintage films featuring these instruments in action and recently shot footage, such as the great George Benson with Charlie Christian’s guitar!

Being the progeny of “Dust Bowl Okies” and growing up in Southern California during the ’50’s… I came to know these things: Cars and Electric Guitars were cool and Bob Wills was the King! I was never a car guy but I picked up the lingo from early Beach Boy’s records, just to get by… I knew what a “Little Duece Coupe” was and learned to that “My four speed dual quad posi-traction 409” was something to aspire to but of course, I only paid attention to these lyrics because they were mixed inside the glorious sound of Fender guitars! Electric guitars were everywhere then. Local shows such as Town Hall Party, Cal’s Corral and Ranch Party were broadcast throughout Southern California and featured great players like Merle Travis, Joe Maphis and the Collins Kids. But, it was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys who reigned supreme in my household. Will’s music is the earliest I can recall and names like Junior Barnard, Leon McAuliffe, Tommy Duncan and Jimmy Wyble along with Noel Boggs and Eldon Shamblin are forever etched in my memory so, it is incredible to see Noel Bogg’s steel guitar and Eldon Shamblin’s 1954 Stratocaster, (the very first custom colored) along with his original 1953 Fender Bandmaster given to him by none other than Leo Fender.

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys influence on bands and musicians remains incalculable. In the mid to late 40’s in the LA area there were several Western Swing bands and perhaps the best of those were the Spade Cooley Band with Tex Williams, Smoky Rogers and the great electric steel guitar player Joaquin Murphy. Joaquin introduced a jazz tonality into the proceedings and his playing motivated several great pedal steel players in LA like Norm Hamlet, Red Rhodes, Tom Brumley, Jay Dee Manness and the amazing Speedy West who’s pedal steel is a part of this collection. After all these years it’s great to find out that Bob Will’s musicians have an influence on other generations as well…

One debate that never seems to end between guitar players is the question “who invented the modern solid body electric guitar?” Because Fender was just down the road from me…I was always in the Fender camp. Just days ago I watched a youtube video of the auction that sold Eric Clapton’s guitars in 2010. One musician point to a Les Paul and says “Les invented the solid body electric guitar.” I never knew the real story until I read Deke Dickerson’s excellent books “The Strat in the Attic” Volumes 1&2, Andy Babuik’s exhaustive study “The Story of Paul Bigsby”, and more recently, Ian S. Port’s “The Birth of Loud”. All agree that it was Paul Bigsby, rather than Leo Fender or Les Paul, that designed and built the first truly modern electric solid body guitar. As it ends up Les Paul, Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby were all in LA during the late 40’s and…they were friends! Bigsby made a guitar for guitar master Merle Travis which pre-dated both Leo’s Broadcaster and Gibson’s Les Paul models by several years. Apparently Bigsby LOANED that guitar to Leo Fender and MADE a solid body guitar for Les Paul after his car accident in 1948. Still not convinced? Compare the body style of Deke Dickerson’s original Bigsby here at this show . . .