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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 . . .

to the later Les Paul body.

Or compare the headstock of the Bigsby . . .

to my 1969 Strat.

But, can you imagine Rock & Roll without the power created by Pete Townsend and one of his many Les Paul’s?

Or, the clear and biting tone of a Fender Strat in the hands of Dick Dale who paved the way for the surf music that ruled the day until the Beatles arrived? Fact is…all these men are important to the evolution of the electric guitar. If the name “Bigsby” rings a bell today…it’s because he is the designer of the “Bigsby Vibrato System,” better know as the “Whammy Bar” or just ‘the Bigsby,” still THE most popular with guitar players to this day. But…his contribution to the electric guitar is, for the most part, forgotten. However, Fender, then Gibson made the first mass produced solid bodies. The very first time many of us SAW the Rolling Stones, (TAMI Show, 1964) Keith Richards was clutching a Les Paul. And although the Beatles were electrified with Rickenbacker, Gretsch, Hofners… George Harrison facetiously quipped that “if we’d had a Fender Strat…we could’ve really done something!” Actually, the Beatles did have Stratocasters…think the guitar solo on “Nowhere Man”.

Another highlight of this show is seeing what is arguably one of, if not THE most recorded guitars in history… This happens to be a Fender Telecaster owned and operated by the great Tommy Tedesco, one of the stalwarts of the “Wrecking Crew” LA’s group of premier studio musicians who’ve played on literally hundreds of hit records!.

You’ve certainly heard this guitar hundreds of times and you may have seen and heard Tommy’s great stories in the film “The Wrecking Crew” produced and directed by Tommy’s son Denny.

Of course, the argument can be made that George Beauchamp, Adolph Rickenbacker and the Doperya Bros all predated this donnybrook. Fair enough…the Ro-Pat-Tin, later to become Rickenbacker

from 1932, is truly the first electric guitar but, basically a lap steel. The National and Dobro companies were successful at making ‘acoustic’ guitars louder but, a bit tardy to electrical amplification. Rickenbacker was also just down the road from me (S. Western Ave. LA) but, it was not until that little band from Liverpool starting using “Rics” that I become aware of them. And by the way, The Beatles were told at their failed first recording audition for A&R man Dick Rowe at Decca Records that… “Guitar groups are on their way out..” Apparently, that was not true. Rowe eventually signed another band with guitars named The Rolling Stones so…I guess he redeemed himself.

If you are wondering about early attempts to electrify other instruments . . . that’s covered here as well. You can view both an electric violin (below) and bass.

built around 1935 by the Electro String Corp., forerunner to aforementioned Rickenbacker.

There’s way more to this collection than space here allows but, I strongly recommend this exhibit to anyone planning a visit to the Phoenix area and at $10 for this show only, you just can’t go wrong! It is worth the time and extra money to see the entire Musical Instrument Museum, of course, but it’s just fantastic to see THESE electric instruments up close. I also suggest a visit to the MIM gift shop to pick up several copies (for your guitar playing friends…) of this book: “The Electric Guitar…Inventing An American Icon”, made just for this show and includes stories and high resolution photos of many of the instruments in this show. Also just $10.00

One caveat I would include while wandering through this show… Please remember the great musicians and enduring music made with these creations. This show is clearly devoted to the legacy of the visionaries, tinkerers, builders, craftsmen and alchemists who created these beautiful instruments but, it’s the transcendent effect of the music produced on them that endures. I can paraphrase a relevant story about Chet Atkins who was trying out a new guitar and someone in the room says “ Chet, that guitar sounds great!” Chet sets the guitar down and says…”how does it sound now?”


Clarke Rigsby is a guitarist, producer/engineer, and owner of Tempest Recording in Tempe Az., est. 1981. Through the years he's done music projects for PBS, ABC, the CBS show with Burt Reynolds "Evening Shade," also including work with Paul McCartney, Steve Gadd, Stevie Wonder, Joe Alessi & Phil Smith from the NY Philharmonic, Waylon Jennings, Pharoah Sanders, Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, Glen Campbell, Joey DeFrancesco and many others. Rigsby has received an Emmy and BMI awards for his work. He also teaches Music Production at Arizona State University


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