The Rickenbacker model A22 lap steel was the first commercially available electric guitar.
Although it bears the brand name “Rickenbacker,” it was actually the brainchild of George Beauchamp. In the 1920s, Beauchamp was a talented vaudeville performer, as well as a tinkerer and inventor. He started experimentation with amplifying instruments as early as 1925 and played a major role in the National guitar company. Adolph Rickenbacker had a metal working shop and produced metal bodies for National.
In late 1931, Beauchamp, Rickenbacker, and partners formed the Ro-Pat-In Corporation for the purpose of developing electric guitars. Soon thereafter they had a wood-body prototype “Frying Pan” model very similar in appearance to the later production model. Beauchamp was clearly aware that this instrument could be played not only Hawaiian style, as a lap steel, but had the potential to be played as a standard Spanish-neck guitar, since it had a round neck and frets. The production models, however, were strictly set up as Hawaiian instruments and were made with cast aluminum bodies rather than wood. It took until August, 1932, to start production.
There were 17 Hawaiian guitar and amplifier sets produced from August through December, 1932, however, records indicate the company sold only 13 sets that year, shipped two sample sets to an East-coast distributor, and two were left in inventory to be sold in ’33. While production rapidly increased afterward, one factor that held back sales was the price. In ’33, Rickenbacker literature indicated a list price for the Frying Pan steel with amp of $175. While that may seem low today, at the height of the Depression that was an astronomical figure. By contrast, a Martin style D-28 herringbone guitar cost $100 in the 1930s, and the D-45 was only $200. By ’35, Rickenbacker had reduced the price of the Frying Pan with amp to $125. In that same year, Rickenbacker introduced the style B Bakelite lap steel, and the Frying Pans took a back seat in Rickenbacker production. The company ceased advertising them for some years, but continued to make them through 1950. From ’50 to ’54, Frying Pans were discontinued, but a redesigned version was offered from ’54 through ’57.
Needless to say, it did not appear at the beginning that the electric lap steel would take the world by storm, but time demonstrated that these instruments had great marketability. Within a few years, not only was Rickenbacker producing large quantities of instruments, but numerous competitors had entered the field.
In the beginning, however, Adolph Rickenbacker had to keep the company alive with advances from his own personal funds. In May, 1934, he approached the National board of directors, proposing selling them manufacturing rights for Electro guitars. Apparently, they turned down the offer and Rickenbacker soon reconsidered. Later that year the shareholders of Ro-Pat-In voted to change the company’s name to Electro String Instrument Corporation and began marketing instruments under the name Rickenbacker Electro in their advertising and literature.
The Rickenbacker Electro Frying Pan models were offered in the model A22 with 221/2″ scale (pictured) and the A25 model with 25″ scale. Both feature cast aluminum bodies and the so-called horseshoe-magnet pickup with the strings running under the magnet. Although advertising literature spelled the name Rickenbacker, the metal nameplate on the peghead continued to used the older German spelling of Rickenbacher until ’49, when it was changed to Rickenbacker.
The Frying Pan models are notable not only in being the first commercially available electric guitars, but they’re also extraordinarily fine-quality instruments eminently suitable even today for professional use onstage or in the studio. The horseshoe magnet pickup gives as fine a sound for lap steel as any ever made by any manufacturer. It’s ironic that with all the advances in electronic technology since these guitars were introduced none have surpassed them in tonal quality such that modern steel players still seek these instruments for actual playing use in addition to their appeal as prime collectibles. The heavy cast aluminum construction makes these guitars virtually indestructible. The only drawback to the design was tuning instability if temperatures changed rapidly, since the aluminum neck and body construction would slightly expand or contract in response to heat or cold.
With such a unique design and being the first commercially available electric guitar, one would think Beauchamp would have had little difficulty patenting the instrument. However, this was certainly not the case. He filed his first patent application for the Frying Pan on June 8, 1932, and experienced great delay and difficulty getting the application processed. The patent office first had to decide if it was an electrical device or a musical instrument, since they were covered by separate office divisions. The first patent examiner questioned whether the instrument even worked, and was not persuaded until Beauchamp set up a Hawaiian music concert to back up the technical claims. A second patent examiner also was unconvinced until Rickenbacker set up a performance at the patent office with Sol Hoopii and other musicians in Washington, D.C. The actual patent was not granted until August 10, 1937. By that time, numerous other manufacturers were producing both lap steels and Spanish-neck electric guitars, and the market was clearly well established.
While the Rickenbacker company did not reap the benefits of a monopoly on the market for electric guitars due to patent protection, Adolph Rickenbacker later commented that the marketing efforts of a variety of competitors helped to open up far greater public demand for lap steels and Spanish-neck electric guitars than the Rickenbacker company ever could have achieved on its own. As a result, a variety of makers prospered, and Rickenbacker likely sold more guitars due to the open market conditions than they would have if they’d kept the field to themselves.
While the Rickenbacker Frying Pan is an aesthetically unassuming instrument, it is one of the most important models in the history and development of the modern guitar.
Photo: George Gruhn.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.