Well, we’re on the cusp of the new Millennium. Excited? Last month we began our look at the context in which guitars thrived during that fruitful period, looking at everything from 19th century American music, including banjos, mandolins and minstrelsy, to the unintended effects of agricultural politics. Let’s pick up the narrative just before World War I, with the completion of the Panama Canal and one of our sub-themes, world’s fairs…
The Panama Canal
Just as it’s impossible to ignore the unintended consequences of angry farmers on the world of guitars, it’s also hard to ignore the effect of the Panama Canal, which made a curious collision with Hawaiian music and had a direct impact on the development of the electric guitar. And that brings us back again to the sub-theme of world’s fairs! The Panama Canal was completed in 1914. This was an enormously significant event, a symbol of America’s emerging industrial and engineering might. The canal, whatever its political consequences, eliminated the need for ships to navigate around South America and provided a major trade link between the East Coast and both the West Coast and Asia.
Jubilant, people in California wished to celebrate the promise of prosperity and decided to throw a world’s fair, and the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was conceived. This was a political hot potato, but our interest in it is more pointed. After much wrangling, the spectacular PPIE was mounted in San Francisco. More than 13 million people attended, an astounding number when you consider the remoteness of San Francisco to the rest of the nation and that this was only nine years after the destruction of the great earthquake.
World’s fairs date to 1851 and the Crystal Palace in London. They were the primary vehicle for introducing new technologies, and as we’ve already suggested, are associated with much cultural fertilization and crosspollination. Very quickly, these expositions became the rage and were held everywhere. The Eifel Tower was built for a world’s fair in Paris. We’ve already mentioned the importance of the 1885 New Orleans cotton exposition for introducing jazz, and the 1892 Chicago Columbian Exposition for introducing ragtime (as well as the phonograph and Ferris Wheel).
The Call of The Isles
The PPIE was a beaut – an art nouveau/arts and crafts extravaganza, complete with “palaces” for everything from the fine arts to manufacture. At the center was the Tower of Jewels, a jewel encrusted edifice. Every evening the Tower of Jewels was the centerpiece of a colored light show, the first time large outdoor spotlights were used. One of the big attractions was daily air shows by aviators in biplanes. And of course there was a huge amusement or midway area appended to the fair called “the Zone.” It was in the Zone that we want to focus our interest. Just as jazz and ragtime emerged from the fringes of the show, so did one of the big hits of the fair – Hawaiian music.
Alas, we have to make another diversion to discover how Hawaiian music captivated America at the PPIE in 1915. It’s impossible to understate the importance of Hawaiian music on the evolution of mainstream American music. As mentioned, guitars are reported to have arrived in Hawaii in the hands of Portuguese South American cowboys, imported to the island, followed by Mexican cowboys brought in by King Kamehameha III. We also know that two Portuguese luthiers, Manuel Nunes and Augusto Diaz, set up shop in 1879, possibly to serve the cowboy trade. In any case, native Hawaiians quickly took to the guitar and adapted it to their own melodies, developing various “scordatura” (alternative tunings) known today as “slack key,” because they involved various detunings. The ukulele was developed during this period. Accounts of its origin differ. Was it a hybrid version of a native instrument fused with European influence, or simply an adaptation of a Portuguese instrument? It doesn’t matter. By the end of the century the ukulele was firmly established as a Hawaiian instrument and available on the mainland by the 1890s.
Hawaii is also generally considered the place where slide guitar developed. Again, accounts vary. Some attribute its discovery to the great Joseph Kekuku, who is reputed to have been walking along railroad tracks with his guitar one day, picked up a piece of metal, and ran it along the strings. Hawaiians Gabriel Davion and James Hoa are also credited with the discovery of the technique. It has also been suggested the technique was introduced to the islands by a young Indian slave boy brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors. He arrived playing a guitar on his lap with a slide. However the technique was introduced, it appears to have been in use by the 1890s.
Whether or not he invented the technique, Kekuku was one of Hawaii’s great virtuosos on slide guitar. He toured the mainland either in 1900 or 1902, staying for a number of years and spreading the gospel of what’s generally known as “Hawaiian guitar” through concerts and teaching many students. Hawaiian guitar was played on one of two instruments, and generally involved steel strings, another subject we’ll return to shortly. Most folks play Hawaiian guitar on a standard Spanish guitar with the nut raised to increase the action. However, the Hawaiians had apparently devised their own variation, a guitar with sloped shoulders and a square, hollow neck for increased slide resonance. These were often made of koa. This chronology presents an interesting conundrum because, as George Noe and Daniel Most reveal in their recent book, Chris J. Knutsen, two separate patents for similar hollow-necked lapsteel guitars were granted to Albert G. Duck of Waynesburg, Ohio, and Walter Burke of Providence, Rhode Island, both in 1894. Had both men visited Hawaii? Had there been Hawaiian musicians here earlier than Kekuku? Was there something in the air?
In any case, Kekuku appears to have centered his activity on the West Coast, playing and teaching up and down the seaboard, with major activity in Los Angeles, which is interesting when you consider the later developments of not only Beauchamp and the Dopyera brothers (and Rickenbacker and Fender), but also of the Dickersons, and later, Magnatone. Hawaiian music took hold, and indeed, the first instruction book was published by Kekuku’s student, Myrtle Stumpf, in 1915, though this event was probably not entirely related to the PPIE.
Lewis and Clark and the Yukon
The popularity of Hawaiian music was given further boosts by two more West Coast events – world’s fairs! The first was the Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon, in 1905. The music that stole the show was performed by Hawaiians. This was followed four years later by the much bigger and more significant Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (AYP) in Seattle, Washington. Again, Hawaiian music was all the rage at the Seattle fair, which was visited by more the 31/2 million people, quite impressive for a town even more remote than San Francisco. The musical director of the AYP was the Hawaiian musician Ernest K. Kaai, and there were even several Hawaiian Music Days during the fair during which the Hawaiian music was played at many locations all day long.
One of the buildings at the AYP was set up to promote the products of Hawaii, particularly koa wood, which was being encouraged for use in furniture. Many of the Hawaiian’s who played guitar there played instruments made by the local luthier Chris Knutsen (born in Norway, most famous for his harp guitars), who had emigrated from Minnesota in the 1890s. Knutsen may have begun making Hawaiian guitars, modeled after the Hawaiian designs, before 1909, but certainly he obtained koa from the AYP and made Hawaiian guitars thereafter. Knutsen would later migrate down to Los Angeles to be closer to the Hawaiian action, making his famous Kona guitars. It was there that Knutsen would meet and influence another significant early luthier, Hermann Weissenborn, whose Koa Hawaiian guitars definitely borrowed from Knutsen. The guitar designs of these two little-studied makers (until now) reached their apogee in the work of the Dopyra brothers, whose metal-bodied National resonator guitars featured the same sloped shoulders and hollow neck construction. But we get ahead of ourselves.
On the Zone
Clearly, Hawaiian music was building momentum as the Panama Pacific Exposition came together. And indeed, the house band for the PPIE was Keoki E. Awai’s Royal Hawaiian Quartette. In fact, one of the Quartette was Ben Zablan, who sometimes played a Knutsen eight-string mandolin. The Royal Hawaiians played at the Hawaiian Village located on the Zone, which also featured Hawaiian pig roasts, hula dancers, and other cultural events and entertainments.
The PPIE and its Royal Hawaiian Quartette would be just another footnote in history were it not for two major results. The visitors to the PPIE left with a rabid taste for Hawaiian music and acquired a concomitant desire to play ukuleles.
Sears and Harmony
The desire for ukuleles following the PPIE resulted in a significantly increased interest in guitars on the part of our old friend, Sears. Seeing the demand following the exposition, Sears looked about for a supplier. Martin produced high-end ukes, but only Harmony (already Sears’ primary guitar supplier) was tooled up to mass-produce them cheaply. In 1916, Sears purchased Harmony, which would be operated as a subsidiary until 1940, when it was divested (ending the Supertone brand). In 1917, the Sears catalog introduced a full line of koa Hawaiian instruments. These would be offered through most of the ’20s and would fan the flames of America’s love affair with Hawaiian music. Ukes would continue in the mass manufacturers’ catalogs at least through the ’60s, by which time Hawaii had become passé. The Sears/Harmony connection would produce yet more interesting phases of guitardom.
Sears’ interest in Hawaii was just part of a larger gestalt. Tin Pan Alley seized upon the rage and after 1915 cranked out endless real and manufactured pieces of Hawaiian sheet music for middle class consumption. Guitar and ukulele methods began to spring up everywhere, particularly in Los Angeles and New York, though many regional centers would eventually spring up, especially in the Midwest. William Smith’s Kamiki Method was one of the more influential, though there were many. The fascination with Hawaiian music gave music teachers a great boost, and schools developed in larger urban markets, filled in for everyone else by mailorder programs.
The Electric Guitar
The taste for Hawaiian music meant a surge in employment for Hawaiian guitarists, both native Hawaiians and mainlanders. Pale K. Lua and David K. Kaili recorded what was probably the first Hawaiian guitar duet in 1914, before the PPIE, but a host of artists followed, including the great Sol Hoopi and Frank Ferera (“The Portuguese Cowboy”) and many others. Suddenly, the ubiquitous vaudeville circuits were open to steel guitarists.
One of the more talented was a man named George Beauchamp, who was having trouble being heard, his acoustic guitar being a bit too quiet for large crowds. This led him to seek a like-minded guitar repairman in L.A., a Czech immigrant name John Dopyera. Together they collaborated on ways to make Hawaiian guitars louder and the result was the metal-bodied, tricone National Resonator guitars developed in ’26 and introduced in ’27. Sol Hoopi, in fact, was the first to record with a prototype in ’26. Until World War II, these National (and subsequent wood-bodied Dobro) guitars would be the last word in loud for acoustic Hawaiian guitarists. Recall that Sears and Ward’s sold them from ’29 to ’39.
However, even the resonator guitar would not have rescued the reputation of the PPIE. More importantly, Beauchamp was still not satisfied with the volume and continued to research the notion of amplifying a guitar with electricity. Working with National employees Paul Barth and Henry Watson, in ’31 Beauchamp came up with a wooden “frying pan” shaped lapsteel amplified with an electronic pickup. While not the first commercially produced electric guitar (Stromberg-Voisinet (Kay) introduced an unsuccessful transducer-based system in ’28), this electromagnetic field design would prove to be the start of the modern electric guitar. National was not interested, so Beauchamp (with Barth) took his design to his aluminum resonator supplier, Adolf Rickenbacker, and together they formed the Ro-Pat-In company and began marketing aluminum versions of the frying pan under the Electro brand name. Spanish guitars with pickups quickly followed. Beauchamp applied for a patent on his “frying pan” on June 8, 1923, and again on June 2, 1934, eventually receiving the patent on August 10, 1937. Thus, we can trace the Hawaiian music at the PPIE directly to the development of the modern electric guitar!
The Hawaiian guitars progressing from Knutsen’s acoustics (based on Hawaiian designs) to the Electro frying pans sported wire strings, usually of steel. Gibson’s early carved archtops were also made for steel strings. It’s easy from this metalized vantage point to think that steel strings have always been with us, but as we’ve already discussed, most guitars through the 19th century were made for gut strings. Don’t forget, Albert Augustine didn’t introduce nylon strings until 1947. Some instruments, such as the English guitar or cittern, had wire strings, but these were outliers. Mandolins did have metal strings, and the desire for metal strings may date to the Spanish Students tour in 1880, although it could be even earlier.
In any case, by 1894 both Ward’s and Sears were warning buyers that their guitars were not made for wire strings and were not warranted if the guitars exploded. This does not mean guitars were not being made for steel strings. Martin’s X-bracing and other guitars, such as those by Bohmann, were sturdier and could handle wire strings, but most were still constructed for gut. Gut strings, generally imported from Europe, would be the main modality until World War I would choke off the supplies. As late as 1913 Sears guitars were still advertised as using “imported gut” strings. However, by 1910 Sears offered a nickel-plated stamped trapeze tailpiece as an accessory, no doubt to handle steel strings. In 1912, Ward’s was selling low-end guitars with the new trapeze attached, ready for steel strings. By the Spring/Summer 1914 Sears catalog, a new bridge was touted thus: “This bridge is made of metal in imitation ebony and is fastened to the body (read screwed on) so that it cannot possibly pull off, thus doing away with the old-style tailpiece when using steel strings. Also adjustable, enabling player to raise or lower strings to suitable height.”
This switch to steel strings was primarily driven by player demand for louder guitars beginning in the 1890s, the same motivation that drove the Hawaiian players to resonators and electricity, however, the coup de grace was delivered by WWI, when the supply of imported gut strings was disrupted. In 1915, Sears changed model names and all guitars featured steel strings. Gut strings continued to be offered until the introduction of nylon strings after WWII, but increasingly this was isolated to “classical” guitars.
Hawaiian music was incredibly important in the development of American popular music, but of course, few don grass skirts these days, so obviously much more was going on. There was a major shift in attitude following World War I. The U.S. had been staunchly isolationist through most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the success of her doughboys in WWI and the concomitant flexing of her industrial muscle yielded a change in perceived self-image. The cultural inferiority complex over things European began to crack, and artists began to discover and celebrate things American, in painting, literature and music. In art music, the quintessential example of this trend was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” written for Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra in 1924. For popular music, this would be a rapid emergence of interest in indiginous music and musicians. This would be reflected in the balladeering of performers such as Richard Dyer-Bennet, who cultivated an interest in the “folk” music that had come to America and been transformed in the New World. Dyer-Bennet often performed with a harp guitar, and eventually went on to market his own line of Dyer harp guitars made by the Larson Brothers, initially under patent license from L.A.’s Chris Knutsen.
The development of guitars in American popular music is closely intertwined with the development of three vital interrelated modalities – records, radio, and the movies.
The recording industry, as we discussed, really got going in the 1890s and grew steadily as the early 20th century moved forward. Because the recording process was an acoustic technology, guitar had little presence in early recordings, its quiet voice being mostly inadequate to move the record cutter. Nevertheless, guitars continued slowly but surely to gain in popularity, something clearly documented in the pages of the Sears and Ward’s “wish books.” Recording technology also continued to improve, although until the mid ’20s it remained essentially the same acoustic process. We’ve already mentioned Loyd Wolf’s 1905 guitar recording, and the appearance of Hawaiian guitar music at least by 1914. The breakthrough came in the mid ’20s with the introduction of the electronic microphone, which greatly increased the sensitivity of the recording process. In ’24, Western Electric invented an electronic recording process that was adopted in ’25 and almost immediately obtained universal acceptance. From this point on, guitars began to be heard in abundance in recorded music.
Records were extremely successful and by the ’20s the market had become fairly saturated with Victrolas. They were sold everywhere – in hardware stores, mass merchandising catalogs, and at all price points. Most households had one. However, demand for the fairly conservative fare put out by the major record labels, Columbia, Brunswick, and Victor (Edison was no longer a major player), began to drop.
The Rise of Radio
But saturation with banality was not the only reason for stagnant record sales. A challenge had been mounted by a new technology, radio. Radio was invented by the Italian Marconi in the late 1800s (although Nikola Tesla is also credited), but was really perfected as an audio medium by pioneers like Lee DeForest, who is credited with invention of the vacuum tube. DeForest was broadcasting music from the Eifel Tower as early as 1908, and in the decade prior to World War I, a huge number of mostly amateur enthusiasts got bitten by the radio bug and would assemble battery-operated crystal sets. These enthusiasts would sit by their hommade sets trying to pick up someone else broadcasting (radio signals traveled hundreds of miles in that uncluttered era). When they would hear someone, they’d get back to them, confirming receipt of the broadcast. Not as exciting as Nintendo or fantasy football, but those were slower times. Perhaps radio’s biggest publicity came in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic. By that time Marconi, who’d established a radio broadcasting company first in London, had operations in New York. One of his young announcers was a Russian immigrant named David Sarnof, who was on duty when the new of the Titanic came in. Sarnof stayed on the air broadcasting news of the tragedy for 72 hours straight, earning the nickname “Wonder Boy of the Radio” and an eventual place in American media history when he ran the NBC radio and TV networks.
As usual, major impetus for development of the technology occurred with World War I, with increased need for communications. The government shut down the amateurs and took over any broadcast stations. Following the War the amateurs returned and the medium was on its way. A number of candidates exist for being the first regularly scheduled broadcast radio station at the end of 1920, including WHA in Madison, Wisconsin, and WWJ in Detroit. However, popular attribution goes to KDKA in Pittsburgh, which proved to be more important because in the neighborhood was Westinghouse, which began to manufacture radio sets and distribute them to local stores, where they were snarfed up immediately. A new consumer market was born overnight. Radio stations began to multiply.
The first commercial broadcast occurred in New York in ’22, a program in which a co-op developer promoted a housing development in Queens. In ’24 RCA introduced the superheterodyne receiver, which simplified tuning and further improved sound quality, especially when compared to scratchy 78 rpm records. After a brief attempt to establish large superstations (radio signals traveled hundreds of miles in those early virgin airwave days), RCA, sensing gold in them thar hills, decided to switch to a national network concept and introduced NBC in late ’26. CBS followed suit in ’27. Soon, radio programs originating in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, and other cities were being beamed across the nation, creating the beginnings of American Superculture. But that’s yet another story. In 1926-’27 American underwent the electricity revolution and radios switched to using AC house current rather than batteries. By the end of the decade, more houses had radios than record players, and record-player manufacturers were forced to add wall-powered radios to their sets.
Understand that programming for these early days of radio was not 24-hour, as we know it today. In fact, if you’re 40 or older, you probably remember when radio stations went off the air at sundown. Much of the programming that appeared on early radio consisted of talking and a few records, occasionally a live performance. In 1922, not possessing a crystal ball and fearing a loss of income, both the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) and the Music Publishers’ Protective Association (MPPA), got records kicked off the air, and a golden age of live-broadcast radio began. Much of the programming transferred from vaudeville. By 1930, variety shows and comedy, some of it racist echoes of minstrelsy (“Amos & Andy”), some vaudevillian ethnicity (“The Rise of the Goldbergs”), plus popular music including Rudy Vallee and the Connecticut Yankee Orchestra, Guy Lombardo, and the great white popularizer of black jazz, Paul Whiteman.
The rise of radio forced the record companies to re-evaluate their own programming. Indeed some early hints appeared on regional radio stations, with local performers appearing, such as those by the Reverend Andrew Jenkins Family, Jenkins on guitar, on Atlanta’s WSB in ’22.
Ralph Peer and New Markets
The pioneering change in record programming can be attributed to OKeh Records and Ralph Peer in 1920. It was record men such as Peer who suddenly realized there were large, untapped markets out there. World War I had offered blacks unprecedented opportunities to leave the farm and get employment in northern cities. These African-Americans made their own types of music and had money to spend. In ’20, Peer recorded blues singer Mamie Smith for OKeh and had a hit on his hands. A new market was discovered and “race” records were born. Most people think the term “race” records was derogatory, and it certainly has acquired that cachet. However, there was a strong black pride movement going on at the time, with advocates calling African-Americans “the race,” and the term was actually originally intended as a form of respect.
From this point on, record companies would begin to stage field trips in which black musicians were recorded for the race markets, yielding among other things the ’26 field trip that captured Robert Johnson, perhaps the greatest bluesman of them all. Johnson and many of the other black musicians captured during this period were guitar players.
With the race market proving profitable, it didn’t take long for record companies to set their sights on the southern white market. The south had hardly progressed out of rural backwardness since the Civil War. Still, there were a lot of folks living there, and the northern middle class programming of the recording industry was hardly targeted there. The success with black music proved you could exploit other segments. The southern exposure was suggested by the initiative of two old-time country fiddlers, Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland. Playing for a reunion of Civil War vets, they got the idea to travel to New York and make a record. They showed up at Peer’s office and were recorded. The record was released, sold reasonably well, but was ignored by record execs. This was probably the first “hillbilly” record, as the genre would become known (some record companies identified early hillbilly records as “old-time”).
In Atlanta, furniture store magnate Polk Brockman built a tidy business selling race records by ’21. He felt he could sell hillbilly music, and in ’23 talked OKeh’s Ralph Peer into coming down to record local SWB artist Fiddlin’ John Carson. Carson’s “The Little Old Cabin Down the Lane” opened the floodgates for country music. For us, what’s important is that these hillbilly performers played guitar, five-string banjo (unlike their jazz contemporaries), fiddles, and sometimes mandolins, autoharps, and Hawaiian slide guitars. By ’24, hillbilly string bands were being recorded, including the Virginia Reelers, the Virginia Breakdowners, the Fiddling Powers Family, and the first Texas string band, Ernest “Pop” Stoneman and the Dixie Mountaineers. Many of these ’20s hillbilly stars, including Uncle Dave Mason and Charlie Poole had experience in vaudeville and medicine shows.
One of the early presences in guitar music was an unlikely hero, a Texan who had been trained to sing opera, Marion Try Slaughter. Sensing his name might be a liability, Slaughter looked at a map and chose the names of two Texas towns, Vernon and Dalhart. Dalhart moved to New York, but was not particularly successful on the Big Apple stage. As early as 1915 his excellent tenor voice was heard on recorded race songs, but the big break occurred in ’24, when he recorded an unexpected hit, “The Prisoner’s Song.” This was quickly followed up in ’25 with a mega-hit for the times, his version of “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Dalhart performed accompanying himself on the guitar, and would be a considerable influence on crooners in a variety of musical idioms.
By ’27 hillbilly music had become huge. In that year two highly significant guitar acts debuted, Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman (and guitar player, recorded by Peer), and the Carter Family, with Maybelle Carter’s “Wildwood Flower” creating one of the most influential fingerstyle genres and a de rigeur classic in one fell swoop. Rodgers was from Merridian, Mississippi, and was an inspiration to Hartley Peavey.
While the conflict between records and radio was giving a new voice to indigenous (or perhaps derivative, since many roots were in Europe) American music, and bringing guitars to the fore, another medium was creeping up from behind: movies. When Edison (yes, Edison, second only to Ben Franklin in creating America and the modern world) invented moving pictures, they were “talkies.” In the mid 1880s, Edison, inspired by George Eastman’s Kodak cameras, thought his talking technology could be applied to pictures, and assigned lab assistant William Dickson to work on it. In 1888, Edison filed a patent for the Kinetescope (“moving views”). Edison, however, lost interest, but Dickson kept working. In 1891 Dickson showed his progress to Edison. This was a moving picture with a synchronized cylinder disc recording with his vocal message accompanying the film, the first talkie, from the beginning. This technology would be rediscovered 30-some years later.
The movie business would continue to grow, without the full benefit of Edison’s invention. In the intervening years a whole musical industry would develop supplying live music for silent films. At its peak, theaters would feature 100-member orchestras in the pit. As often happens, economic pressures sought a way to fuse the sound with the film and cut out the expense of live musicians. Several technologies were explored, including synchronizing sounds from a recorded disk with film in the old Edison way, which yielded 1927’s The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. However, our old radio friend, Lee DeForest, was interested in exploring one of several sound-on-film approaches, and eventually this technology won out.
The triumph of film would have two distinct areas of interest for guitar fans. One was the incitement to develop large-scale amplification for theaters (public address systems). Movie companies, in particular Pennsylvania’s Warner Brothers, invested a fortune wiring theaters to take the new technology, and by ’28 a majority of films had some sort of sound attached. The technical developments that accompanied these advances in amplification, loudspeakers, improved tubes, meant a dramatic increase in volume and fidelity.
First Production Electrics
This had an almost immediate, direct impact on guitars with introduction of the first commercially produced electrics, the Stromberg Electros of ’28. Gibson’s Lloyd Loar is reported to have been working on electronic experiments as early as ’24, though no one has seen any of his work, and his possibilities for success would have been pretty limited in a time before there was even electronic recording. The Stromberg Electros were the brainchild of Henry “Hank” K. Kuhrmeyer, who’d recently become head of the Stromberg-Voisinet company, Chicago. Voisinet, as the company was known locally to differentiate it from Boston’s Stromberg, would later become known for its KayCraft guitars and become the Kay Musical Instrument Company. The Stromberg Electro line consisted of a guitar, banjo, and mandolin outfitted with an early transducer that amplified the vibrations of the soundboard through a largish rectangular amplifier. These were fairly enthusiastically taken up by Chicago hillbilly performers and were featured on radio broadcasts. For better or worse, only a few hundred of these first electric guitars were produced, and the line was dead by the onset of the Depression. To date, no examples of these pioneering electrics have yet shown up.
Of course, as we’ve already discussed, the Hawaiian guitar ace George Beauchamp also took advantage of these advances and gave us the modern electric guitar concept with his Electro (coincidence?!) frying pan in 1931.
A New Image
The second effect of the talkies was giving music, including guitars, an increasing visibility amongst the movie-going population, especially in the endless musicals cranked out by Hollywood to assuage the population enduring the trials of the Great Depression, which descended on the nation following the stock market crash in October ’29. Bing Crosby crooning along with his guitarist, jazz legend Eddie Lang (and fiddler Joe Venuti), in 1930’s King of Jazz, featuring the Paul Whiteman orchestra. The emerging Big Band swing orchestras. And the rage for Latin music that began in the early ’30s following the Cuban Juan Azpiazu’s surprise smash hit, “The Peanut Vendor.” Who could forget those wonderful scenes of Argentinian bombshell Carmen Miranda and her dynamite guitar band, Bando da Lua, in the late ’30s. But most of all, the talkies eventually gave us the singing cowboys. We’ll return to this point shortly.
Resonator and electric guitars weren’t the only advances in guitardom going on during this technologically fertile period. In 1916 Oliver Ditson, the power behind Lyon & Healy in the 19th century, ordered a line of louder, large-bodied instruments from the C.F. Martin company to be sold at its New York retail store, the Charles H. Ditson Company. Ditson’s house brand at the time featured narrow shoulders and a wide waist. The largest model was a full-figured guitar that would become known as the dreadnought, perhaps Martin’s most lasting contribution to guitar evolution, virtually remaking the nature of acoustic guitar music. These were apparently not too popular for Ditson, which went out of business in the late ’20s. However, Martin, in an act of prescience, kept the dreadnought in its line carrying the Martin label beginning in ’31. Martin continued to perfect its new guitar and it would go on boost the image of the coming trend, the singing cowboy, most notably one Gene Autry. Today, Martin “herringbone” dreadnoughts made before World War II are among the most highly prized guitars in existence.
Back to Banjos
All of this activity, emerging music, and technology was going on during the Roaring ’20s, the era of Prohibition (1917-’33), also known as the Jazz Age. Jazz, as we saw earlier, began in the mid 1880s in New Orleans, and consisted of extended, enthusiastic improvisation. We have no examples, even though recording was available fairly soon after it became known. The problem, of course, was that early records had dynamic level limitations, and could only hold two minutes of material, hardly enough time for a raucous jazz band to get warmed up. What recorded examples of early jazz do exist are tame and highly arranged to fit the two-minute format, almost by definition not jazz. In any case, a mainstay of the jazz rhythm section was the banjo. This continued to be the case into the 20th century, when the banjo, too, partook of the technological advances that made the instrument louder. For jazz, as we have seen, under the influence of the popularity of the mandolin, the banjo became the four-string plectrum or, following the Castle’s introduction of the tango in 1913, a tenor.
In the ’20s, a large number of four-string banjo virtuosi were popular, including Eddie Peabody, Ikey Edwards, and one of the most amazing multi-instrumentalists, the Wizard of the Strings, Roy Smeck. Smeck produced incredible sides on banjo, uke, and slide guitar, and beginning in the ’30s would be an active endorser of instrument lines, including Harmony’s pear-shaped Vita guitars, ukes, and mandos, and following World War II, a number of other Harmony instruments.
However, as we’ve been documenting, the banjo was facing an increasing challenge from the guitar, in the hands of Hawaiian players, “folk singers,” bluesmen and hillbilly artists. And in the hands of jazzmen themselves. Some of this can be attributed to the forces we’ve been describing. Even more can be attributed to Loar and his invention (for Gibson) of the L-5 carved-top jazz guitar.
Eddie Lang and the Archtop
Loar joined Gibson’s development team in 1919 and set to work developing an archtop that would offer players more volume and “cutting power.” He installed his Virzi Tone-Producer, a second sounding board suspended from the top, on a 16″ carved top archtop in Gibson’s L line and the L-5 was born in 1922. The L-5 did what it was supposed to (though many players removed the Virzi Tone, much like they would Mario Maccaferri’s resonators in his guitars for Selmer). The increase in volume and cutting power was dramatic, and suddenly the six-string guitar player could compete with the banjo in the orchestra, and did.
Perhaps the most famous jazz guitarist of the Jazz Age, and one of the most influential players of all time, was Salvator Massaro (born either 1902 or ’04), a young guitarist from South Philadelphia who chose the stage name Eddie Lang, purportedly in honor of his favorite basketball player. Lang hooked up with a fiddler from the neighborhood name Joe Venuti and together they put together a hot jazz act. By ’24 Lang and Venuti were playing Atlantic City, when Lang, using his Gibson L-5, recorded a side called “Arkansas Blue” with the Mound City Blue Blowers. It became a hit.
In ’26 Lang and Venuti began recording, and Lang got wide exposure playing with Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. Lang subsequently recorded with Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, and in some of the best jazz duos ever, with black guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Curiously enough, Lang also laid down some blues sides with Lonnie, under the nom de plume Blind Willie Dunn! In ’29, Lang and Venuti joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, Lang replacing another jazz pioneer, guitarist Carl Kress. Lang was prominently featured in the 1930 Whiteman film King of Jazz, onscreen and in the soundtrack. When Bing Crosby left Whiteman in ’31, he took Eddie Lang with him. In ’32, Lang laid down more hot jazz duos with Kress. At Bing’s urging, Lang had a tonsillectomy in ’33, and never recovered from the operation.
During his brief career, Lang’s fluid single-line melodies and arpeggiated chords almost single-handedly precipitated the switch from banjo to guitar among jazz orchestra players, many of whom adopted the four-string plectrum guitar, which, like the plectrum banjo 30 years earlier, emulated the tuning they were used to playing. Other jazz pioneers who helped the conversion included Kress, Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Condon, Eddie Durham (first to record an amplified guitar solo), Dick McDonough, and Teddy Bunn. Other jazz guitarists who Gibson used to endorse its L-5 guitar included Perry Bechtel of Atlanta, Emma Murr of White Plains, New York, Nelson Hall of Gus Arnheim’s Orchestra, Julian Davidson of Ben Bernie’s Orchestra, radio artist Arthur Jarrett, Ted Powell of Abe Lyman’s Band, Russell Smith of Pittsburgh, the duo Dayton and Heuer of Davenport, Iowa, Jerry Foy of Pittsburgh’s Jack & Jerry Team, and Eddie Quinn of Shreveport, LA.
Golden Age of Archtops
The electric guitar invented by Beauchamp and company in ’31 quickly translated into the Spanish guitar, though the primary adoption of electricity was by Hawaiian and hillbilly performers playing lapsteels. The electric lapsteel was especially successful with the Western Swing bands that fused swing and country traditions in the early ’30s. For these players (and some Hawaiian artists) the lap steel kept accruing strings, sort of like the Renaissance lute. Six strings changed to eight. Hawaiian ace Eddie Alkire developed the 10-string Alkire E-harp. Double and triple necks developed, followed by the development of the pedal steel guitar by people like the Harlin brothers in Indianapolis, and later perfected by folks like Paul Bigsby.
The Gibson L-5, on the other hand, inspired the golden age of the acoustic archtop, with jazz guitarists opting to pursue the acoustic properties of the Gibson Super 400 and guitars by other hallowed American makers such as Epiphone, Gretsch, Stromberg, Vega, and D’Angelico, among others. During the ’30s even mass manufacturers such as Kay, Harmony, and Regal got into the middle and low-end archtop market.
The acoustic jazz tradition established by Lang and the others in the ’20s continued in the swing and Depression-era ’30s, as witnessed by the success of the Belgian gypsy Django Reinhardt. Taking a page from Lang’s book, Reinhardt hooked up with violinist Stephane Grapelli and in ’34 they formed the Quintette of the Hot Club of France, one of the most influential European jazz combos of the times, achieving international recognition by ’35. Reinhardt was famous for playing a Selmer guitar designed by classical guitarist and luthier Mario Maccaferri in the early ’30s, but even more because his left hand had been injured in a fire and he essentially played using only his first two fingers. Django remained staunchly an acoustic player until the ’50s, when he plugged in, although he never really fully understood the new medium and his later work never achieved the brilliance of the ’30s.
Charlie Christian and Electric Jazz
While Hawaiian electric guitars caught on very quickly among players, the electric Spanish guitar was slower to take off. Part of this was no doubt an issue of working out the technology. After all, even when they are hollow, Hawaiian guitars act more like a solidbody. Plunking a pickup on a big hollowbody Spanish guitar brings with it problems of volume and feedback, etc. The Electro Spanish, companion to the frying pan, was introduced in ’32. National’s Electric Spanish debuted in ’35. Epiphone adopted pickups in ’36 or ’37. Kay, the electric pioneer, was offering an electrified guitar by ’36. However, the electric guitar that really made an impact was the Gibson ES-150 in ’36. In the hands of a young black artist from Oklahoma named Charilie Christian, it would redraw the guitar map.
Christian was born in 1916 or ’19 in Dallas, and grew up in Oklahoma City, where he established himself as a local talent, playing with the Anna Mae Orchestra in ’37, the Al Trent Sextet in ’38, and the Leslie Sheffield Band in ’39. Christian was familiar with the early electric efforts of Eddie Durham and Floyd Smith, and took up the electric guitar. It’s not known when Christian got his ES-150 (probably upon joining Goodman), but that would be the guitar he would take to fame. In ’39 the great producer and talent scout John Hammond learned of Christian and persuaded Benny Goodman to hear him. Goodman was reluctant, and some accounts have Christian being popped on the band leader as a surprise. In any case, Goodman signed Christian on the spot and in so doing became certainly the most visible big band leader to integrate his orchestra, a no-no during these pre-Civil Rights years. Christian was put into the big band, but really made his mark as part of the Sextette combo Goodman spun off from his band to play music a little more outside. Christian apparently worked with the Goodman orchestra and then would wander over to Mintons’ in Harlem, where he would jam with some of the biggest names in jazz until the wee hours of the morning. Christian’s run at fame lasted only three years. Christian had a relapse of his lifelong tuberculosis in early 1942 and was committed to Bellevue Hospital, passing away in March. Nevertheless, what Eddie Lang had done for acoustic jazz Christian did for electric jazz, creating a whole new vocabulary to which all subsequent players would be indebted…and establishing the electric guitar as a force to be reckoned with. By the end of the 1930s, the guitar had clearly trumped all competitors as a popular instrument except for pianos and horns. They would be next.
The King of Jazz
In King of Jazz, a host of popular entertainment trends are gathered. Echoes of minstrelsy and ethnic-humored vaudeville sit next to celebrations of jazz and American music, not to mention Busby Berkley-style dance routines and mixing animation with live action. In one amazing extended sequence, the film does a sort of United Nations tribute to music from different cultures, from Germans with accordions to Russian tambouritza groups. Looking forward to the Latin craze that was soon to come, there are Spanish dancers (with singing guitarist) and a Mexican typica orchestra (full of guitars).
Also curious was a song routine full of chaps-clad cowboys in a barn, reflecting another coming rage, singing cowboys and western music. The singing cowboy phenomenon is of particular interest, not only because it inspired a host of guitars and garnered an even wider audience for the instrument, but also because it represented early efforts at cross-media marketing.
Fascination with cowboys as romantic American figures began almost the moment the Old West was tamed in the late 1800s. By the 1880s, books about desperados were all the rage back east. Wild Bill Hickock’s Wild West shows even employed many colorful characters from the frontier, including many American Indians, and was extremely popular in the U.S. and Europe, helping to shape the myth.
Tin Pan Alley discovered cowboy songs prior to 1910, no doubt inspired by an as yet unidentified event, possibly a successful Broadway play. We do know that the Zone at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 had a popular attraction called the 101 Ranch, a kind of rodeo show.
The singing cowboy came about with the advent of radio and the rise of hillbilly music in the ’20s. Singing cowboys, in fact, are sort of the genesis of the “western” half of “country western” music, which is a later evolution of hillbilly or country music. Hillbilly was primarily a southeastern phenomenon, and as such had strong ties to antecedents in Britain. “Western” music was not only music from out west, primarily the southwest (with strong Mexican and German influences), but it also meant “performed in a cowboy outfit.” When Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys codified the western swing form, it wasn’t just that they played music from the west with a swing beat, it was that they played that way wearing cowboy clothes.
Jules Verne Allen and Carl T. Sprague have claimed to be the first popular singing cowboys. Allen became a southwestern regional radio personality in the ’20s, recording a few sides for RCA Victor in 1928 and ’29. Sprague recorded four sides from ’25 to ’29, inspired by the success of Dalhart, but he never achieved wide fame. However, of more interest to guitar fans are Bradley Kincaid and Carson Robison, both of whom exploited their images and took the singing concept beyond simply radio and records.
Bradley Kincaid, “The Kentucky Mountain Boy,” had learned to sing and play the guitar as a boy. While attending George Washington College in Chicago in ’26, he was brought to the attention of the manager of WLS. WLS had been started a few years earlier, but by ’26 the station was owned by the mighty Sears, Roebuck and Company, and the call letters stood for “World’s Largest Store.” Recall that one of the early actions in radio was the elimination of records in ’22. This opened the airwaves for all sorts of non-Tin Pan Alley acts, and quickly, hillbilly variety shows (called “barndances”) multiplied, particularly outside the northeast. In ’24, WLS initiated the National Barn Dance, one of the biggest and most influential barndance programs that regularly featured hillbilly artists. Kincaid was added to the roster in the fall of ’26, where he stayed until ’30. His best-known songs were renditions of “Barbara Allen,” “Fatal Derby Day,” and “The Legend of Robin Red Breast.”
World’s Largest Store
What makes the Kincaid chapter so interesting is that when he began broadcasting on WLS, he became a cog in a large wheel of vertical marketing. Sears had control of multiple related media. The Sears catalog had sold Victrolas for decades, and had long since began supplying Silvertone records – often sides cut by artists working for the major labels; exclusive recording contracts were not common practice in the ’20s. As radio caught on, Sears added radios to its catalog offerings – first kits, then assembled sets. Sears became interested in radio because of its agricultural product lines, and wanted to promote itself to heartland farmers. In early ’24, Sears began broadcasting a small station using the call letters WES for “World’s Economy Store,” but a few days later switched to the WLS name. Needing a bigger outlet, Sears purchased WJR, changed the name to WLS, and a radio giant was born. While the original intent was to promote farm products, it quickly became clear Sears could also create synergy for other products. Now, it could put its artists on the radio to be heard in homes on Silvertone radio sets, thus creating the demand for Silvertone records, which would be played on Sears record players!
While this marriage was not unique to Kincaid, what was unique to his story was that someone remembered that Sears also owned a guitar company, Harmony. Bradley Kincaid played a guitar. In ’29, Harmony introduced the first cowboy guitar, the Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog, a standard-sized flat-top of mahogany and spruce with a large mountain hunting scene. If Sears had interests in Hollywood, the great retailer probably would have made a movie, too.
Carson J. Robison, born in either Oswego or Chetapa, Kansas, in 1890, was cut from similar cloth. Robison was one of the early crooners to adopt full cowboy regalia as part of his act, the 10-gallon hat, fancy shirt, and fancy boots. In the early ’20s Robison began performing on WDAF in Kansas City, and in ’24 moved to New York to become a whistling act for Victor. He also recorded a few duets with Dalhart. Among Robison’s better-known compositions is the song “Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie.” In ’27, Robison relocated to Chicago and began performing on WLS.
Robison became enormously popular, but didn’t get his own guitar model until after he’d left WLS for Sears’ greatest competitor, Montgomery Ward, in ’35. Indeed, the Recording King Carson Robison model was made for Ward’s by none other than Gibson, clearly needing business during the Great Depression. This was basically a spruce and mahogany flat-top similar to Gibson’s other downscale guitars marketed as the Kalamazoo KG-11 and the Cromwell G-1. In ’37, the guitar was renamed the Recording King Model K, and was available in a 12-fret Hawaiian version. In ’39, the body was enlarged to 16″, but by ’40 the Gibson Carson Robison had bit the dust, though a Kay version was offered from ’41 until ’42.
While neither Sears nor Ward’s was into movies, people in Hollywood certainly became interested in the phenomenon of singing cowboys, and it would be another Sears/WLS artist who would take the six-gun and six-string to the silver screen. Orvon “Gene” Autry was born in Tioga, Texas, in 1907 and by the late ’20s was performing with his guitar on KVOO radio in Tulsa, where he was first billed as “Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy.” Autry recorded sides for OKeh records and caught the attention of WLS, which brought him to Chicago to do the “Gene Autry Program” and to perform on the National Barn Dance. Autry, true to form, joined Sears’ stable of recording artists and his records were available through the catalog. With WLS as a platform, Autry became a huge musical star.
Following the Kincaid pattern, Sears introduced its first Gene Autry guitar, the Roundup, in ’32, building on Autry’s WLS success. Basically, this was a Harmony-made Supertone similar to the Bradley Kincaid, except for a cowboy scene and Autry’s signature on the belly. The Roundup remained in the Sears catalog, gradually getting bigger and more upscale along with Autry’s career, until ’41.
In ’34, Autry hooked up with Nat Levine of Mascot Pictures in Hollywood and made his first B-grade western, In Old Santa Fe. This essentially created the genre which would become known as “singing cowboy” movies and began a phenomenal streak of successful films that continued unabated through ’53, by which time Autry had transferred his success to television.
Sears, seizing on Autry’s new film success, immediately produced another Gene Autry guitar, introducing the spruce and maple archtop Old Santa Fe guitar in ’35. When Autry made Melody Ranch in ’40, Sears followed with the standard-sized Harmony-made Melody Ranch flattop in ’41, with a spruce top and maple body with another cowboy scene on the belly.
The singing cowboy movies pioneered by Autry proved right for the times. The stock market crash of ’29 sent the country spinning into the Great Depression and people needed cheap thrills to distract them. Melodramatic westerns with handsome heroes astride clever horses, bashing bandits and pausing for musical interludes strumming guitars, were just the ticket. For the next decade and a half, a host of Autry clones rode across the silver screen, including Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Rex Allen, Eddie Dean, Jimmie Wakeley, and many others.
Not all of these cinema cowpokes got guitars, but they did inspire a genre of mass-market instruments. And that’s the important point. Singing cowboys gave the guitar enormous visibility and appeal. And when America turned to television following World War II, millions of little babyboomers were treated to cowboy programming that came right out of the pre-war B-movies with their singing cowboys. When they wanted guitars, the cheap stenciled cowboy guitars available in the catalogs were there to satisfy the demand.
A hand-colored postcard photo of a woman in a Spanish costume, ca. 1910.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.