Lap-steel guitars were the first commercially available electrics – ancestors of the guitars we plug in today, regardless of their shape. The popularity of Hawaiian music in the 1930s had a great deal to do with a surge in popularity of lap steels – and quickly after, the introduction of Spanish-style steel-string and electric guitars.
Hawaiian players were early adopters of amplification, which enabled them not only to play louder, but play styles that were virtually impossible with acoustic instruments. For example, they used volume pedals long before Spanish-neck players discovered the impact of outboard electronics. Though jazz guitarist Charlie Christian utilized Spanish-neck Gibson ES-150 and ES-250 models with a bar pickup to get enough volume to perform sax-style solos in Benny Goodman’s orchestra, it was Hawaiian players who first utilized these same pickups when seeking innovative sounds and vast sustain.
Though Rickenbacker beat Gibson to the punch by slightly longer than a year with the introduction of the first commercially available electric-steel guitar (the Electro model, affectionately known as the “frying pan” due to its shape), Gibson joined the market in 1935 and remained committed to steel-guitar production into the ’60s. It first experimented with both metal and wooden bodies, and while factory records indicate more than 100 metal-bodied EHG models were shipped to dealers from late 1935 through ’37, the first maple-bodied E-150 guitars were shipped in December of ’35 and subsequently sold in much larger quantities. Gibson quickly introduced the E-100 budget model with black finish, which enabled the company to use plain maple, and possibly even laminate construction for the body.
In November of ’36, Gibson added an H to the model designation to indicate Hawaiian-style, and the EH-100/-150 quickly gained popularity.
The majority of the early steels had six strings, but there are at least two known seven-string examples from the earliest batches of these instruments. In an effort to attract players seeking further harmonic possibilities, in 1936, Gibson began offering models with eight strings, followed the next year by models with 10 and 11 strings. There’s even one known 13-string example! Also in ’37, Gibson introduced a double-neck EH-150, then, in the spring of ’38, superseded it with the Console Grande.
The custom 10-string EH-150 featured here (serial number EGE-2817) has an interesting history. According to Gibson records and research by A.R. Duchossoir, author of Gibson Electric Steel Guitars , it was shipped to Gibson salesman Wilbur Marker on March 26, 1940. It appears Marker kept the guitar as a sample until it was sold to BA Rose Music Company, Minneapolis, on December 23, 1941. Its body measures 93/4″ wide and has a well-figured maple top and back with multiple body bindings, maple neck and sides, “Gibson” and diamond-shaped pearl peghead inlays, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard with flush fret markers, pearl dot inlays and script peghead logo, and a Christian-style pickup. Gibson shipping ledger totals show 11 such 10-string versions of the EH-150 were shipped – three in 1937, five in ’38, one in 1940, and two in ’41. This appears to be the only example from 1940.
It’s interesting to note that Gibson offered the option of mounting strings beyond the usual six for only $5 per, though records do not indicate whether it charged more for the other necessary modifications. By today’s standards, it seems absurdly cheap for a custom order, especially considering the required alterations. While a seven-string could utilize the same body as a six-string, the design itself had to be altered. Not only was the neck width altered, but the pickup design had to be extended for each incremental number of strings. Extra machine work was also required for the metal nut and bridge, and, fortunately for customers of the ’30s, the company was set up to do the wood and metal work to produce instruments in small batches (and in a timely manner). Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major musical manufacturer that could readily adapt for this type of custom work – at least in an affordable manner.
This article originally appeared in VG February 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.