Bob Dunn was the amplified steel guitar’s first stylist. More than 75 years after his first appearances on record, Dunn still amazes those who have never heard early music on electric-steel guitar. This two-disc box set contains 53 newly remastered performances from original 78-r.p.m. vinyl recordings, as well as a booklet including four detailed histories. Though Dunn’s professional music career was a relatively short 15 years, his early and enthusiastic adoption of the electrically amplified lap steel led to its earliest use on recordings and subsequent acceptance and adoption by an array of players. In a way, Dunn was a sort of Jeff Beck of the steel guitar; his solos were often otherworldly, with cascades of arpeggios, jarring staccato notes, and Hawaiian chime effects blasting through the mix of instruments. Though period photos show he plugged his Epiphone Model M into a matching Epiphone amp with no volume pedal, he obviously manipulated the Volume control on the guitar, laying back during the rhythm parts and coming in with a churning overdriven tone on short solos.
Dunn’s genre is now called Western swing, and it formed the roots of numerous offshoots. In his groundbreaking (literally) electrifying music, he melded Hawaiian, country, and hot jazz elements into a style that reverberates today in genres from modern country to rock and roll.
This box contains dozens of Dunn’s most astounding performances, recorded with bands such as Milton Brown & his Brownies, Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers, Roy Newman & his Boys, as well as Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds. And while one can never expect remastered 78-r.p.m. recordings to sound modern, there is a clarity and separation that allows easy identification of many instruments.
An important part of any boxed retrospective is context, and this excels, with dozens of period photos, record labels, instruments, and discography that show clearly the results of many hours of research. Historical essays describe Dunn’s life, professional approaches, and subsequent influence. Though not as well-known as other lap-style players such as Sol Hoopi or Noel Boggs, Dunn was as talented and inventive as any. It’s nice to see and hear a celebration of that talent.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’11 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.