Electrified, Amplified, and Deified: The Electric Guitar, Its Makers, and Its Players :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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The Electric Guitar, Its Makers, and Its Players

Junior Brown playing his guit-steel. Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian Institution.

Just the words "electric guitar" can conjure up images in our minds. Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." The neighbor's kid whose band practices in the garage. Leather jackets, motorcycles, and slicked-back hair. A Fender Stratocaster. Or a Gibson Flying V or Les Paul. Music that is, depending on your generation, either too loud or not quite loud enough. Rock and roll. Jazz. Blues. Country. The sound of an electric guitar is familiar to most of us. How did that happen? Why has the work of the people who invented, designed, and popularized this instrument become so much a part of everyday life?

These questions and others were raised during Electrified, Amplified, and Deified: The Electric Guitar, Its Makers, and Its Players, the second in the Lemelson Center's annual series on New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation. From November 9-16, 1996, the Center, in cooperation with the National Museum of American History (NMAH) Division of Cultural History, sponsored concerts, movies, interviews, makers' displays, an exhibit, and a symposium, all spotlighting those inventors and players who plugged in and forever changed the sound of American music.

The desire to crank up the volume was what drove them.

Les Paul with his "Log." Photo by Richard Strauss, Smithsonian Institution.

Just ask Les Paul--as the Smithsonian's Marc Pachter did on November 13 in front of a packed house in the first of the Center's Portraits of Invention series. Les Paul has always been curious about the mechanics of sound. Before he was 16, he was making a good living playing the guitar. But when he went to New York in the early 1930s, he found that his beloved Gibson L-5 -- which was fine for playing jazz and country -- couldn't be heard over the Big Band sound.

"The guitar is an apologetic little instrument that doesn't have much force to it," says Paul, and amplifiers in the 1930s sounded terrible. So he began tinkering with ways to increase his guitar's volume. He used beefed-up amplifiers, took a solid block of pine and strung it like a guitar, shoved magnetic pickups under the strings, attached the two halves of an acoustic guitar to the sides of the pine 4x4 for appearance's sake, and created his well-known solid-body "Log."

In 1952, about ten years after he built the Log, Paul worked with Gibson to bring out the Les Paul Gold Top to compete with Leo Fender's Telecaster, which was threatening to dominate the new solid-body electric guitar market. Through-out the 1950s, Paul played his own Gold Top and used original and increasingly innovative techniques for amplification and recording, like echo, reverb, and multi-tracking (which he invented). Playing backup to his wife, singer Mary Ford, he topped the charts.

"Then rock and roll came in and we went out," remarks Paul, with characteristic dry wit, of his fall from fame.

A member of the rock and roll generation was the featured guest at an Innovative Lives program on November 15. Guitar maker and innovator Paul Reed Smith came to the National Museum of American History-along with guitarist G. E. Smith, former bandleader on Saturday Night Live, and educator Bob Santelli of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum-for a video-conference with middle-school students from Washington, D.C., Elkhart, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio. Paul Reed Smith told the students that, even at 14, he saw his future in the electric guitar. Starting out with little more than dedication and the desire to work with his hands, Smith studied cutting-edge electrics like those designed for Gibson by Ted McCarty and started his own guitar-making business. Today, PRS Guitars is known for its innovations.

Smith's mentor, Ted McCarty, joined other practitioners and historians in the "New Sounds" symposium on November 16. Exploring the intersection of technology and popular music in the 20th century through the invention and diffusion of the electric guitar, "New Sounds" brought together inventors, historians, musicians, and music lovers for a day of conversation and inquiry.

After welcomes from Spencer Crew, the director of the Museum, and Arthur Molella, director of the Lemelson Center, NMAH Curator Charlie McGovern gave an overview of the cultural context of the guitar as instrument, technology, purveyor of music, and symbol. The morning continued with a discussion on "Inventing and Popularizing the Electric Guitar," in which innovators and entrepreneurs reflected on their experiences during the formative years of the electric guitar industry. Tom Wheeler, author of American Guitars and longtime editor of Guitar Player magazine, moderated the conversation with Ted McCarty, president of the Gibson Guitar Company from 1950 to 1966 and creative force behind the Les Paul and Flying V guitars; Duke Kramer, sales executive with Gretsch guitars for over fifty years; John Hall, Rickenbacker Inter-national Corporation president, and son of F. C. Hall, who worked with Leo Fender and Adolph Rickenbacker; and Richard Smith, historian of the Fender and Rickenbacker companies.

Duke Kramer (left) and Ted McCarty discuss the early days of the electric guitar business. Photo by Rick Vargas, Smithsonian Institution.

In the early afternoon session, "The Electric Guitar in Context," scholars set the invention of the electric guitar within 20th-century American culture, offering insight into the relationships among invention, technological enthusiasm, economics, labor, and race. Speakers included Rebecca McSwain, who heads the Electric Guitar Anthropology Study; James P. Kraft, associate professor of History at the University of Hawaii; and Susan Horning, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University.

"Innovators and Players," the late afternoon session, took a look at what's going on in electric guitar technology today, with discussions and demonstrations of current innovations coming out of the shops of Fender, Parker, Benedetto, and Roland. George Gruhn, an authority on guitars and author of numerous books, and guitarist G. E. Smith facilitated the session.

"New Sounds" concluded with a talk by Andre Millard, professor of history and director of American Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Millard's remarks pulled together the ideas shared throughout the day about the intersection of technology, music, and culture as evidenced by the invention and popularization of the electric guitar.

Museum visitors had a chance to test out the newest guitars at the makers display. Photo by Rick Vargas, Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to the makers featured in the symposium, museum visitors had a chance to meet and talk with some of today's best-known electric guitar manufacturers, accessory makers, and luthiers on November 15 and 16. Represen-tatives from Tom Anderson Guitarworks, Robert Benedetto, Bigsby Accessories, D & F Products, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, Guild, Hamer, Hollenbeck Guitars, Parker Guitars, PRS Guitars, Rickenbacker, Roland Corporation U.S., and Jerome Little, a member of the Lemelson E-Team at Hampshire College, demonstrated their craft and discussed current innovations.

Concert artists who took part in Electrified, Amplified, and Deified also reflected innovation in musical styles and technology. On November 15, G. E. Smith hosted a performance by The Ventures, introducing the band as "the first guys to make electric guitars cool." Their instrumental hit "Walk Don't Run" made rock guitar a virtuoso art in the 1960s. Joining them on the program was Junior Brown, playing his own invention, the double-necked "guit-steel" (an electric guitar joined to a lap steel). His riffs and wails harkened back to Noel Boggs playing Leo Fender's 1946 double-neck steel guitar. On November 16, accomplished jazz guitarist Jim Hall, with special guest Pat Metheny, carried on Charlie Christian's tradition, while bluesman Joe Louis Walker and the Bosstalkers played a rollicking modern blues that acknowledges the influences of T-Bone Walker and B. B. King.

As the voice of the electric guitar permeated American popular culture, it seems to have struck a particular chord with filmmakers. In motion picture soundtracks, "biopics," surf films, teen exploitation films, documentaries, rock operas, rock star vehicles, and more, movies highlighted ways this techological invention affected popular culture in America. This relationship was illustrated on November 9 in showings of Monterey Pop, introduced by guitarist Bill Kirchen, and The Buddy Holly Story, introduced by National Public Radio critic Bob Mondello.

The Ventures in concert. Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian Institution.

A final highlight of the Electrified, Amplified, and Deified program was the opening of the exhibit "From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric Guitar" at the Lemelson Center and in the NMAH Hall of Musical Instruments. Pointing out that there is a lot more to invention than a flash of inspiration in an inventor's eye, the exhibit focuses on the inventors, manufacturers, and designers who conceived and popularized the electric guitar. In the process, they created a new sound that changed American culture. "From Frying Pan to Flying V," featuring historic guitars from The Chinery Collection, and from the Country Music Hall of Fame, John Hall and the Rickenbacker International Corporation, John Peden, Richard Smith, Gruhn Guitars, and NMAH, opened with a performance and reception on November 14.

Originally published in Spring 1997.

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