October 2012

Monday 10/1/2012


George B.

Easy to spell.  Easy to pronounce.  And it wouldn’t hurt to have it printed on more than two million guitars.

Yep, those factors are certainly a plus if you’d like your name to go down in music history. 

And that’s why even non-musicians know the name Les Paul.

Unfortunately, Les Paul’s worldwide association with the instrument bearing his name has also contributed to the mistaken belief that he invented the electric guitar.

He didn’t.


Let’s set the record straight by acknowledging a man who did play a significant role in the invention of the electric guitar, a man with a difficult-to-pronounce name: George Beauchamp.

Beauchamp invented and commercially marketed the first electric guitar pickup.  Along the way he also designed and marketed the world’s first solid-body electric guitar.  And even though his Wikipedia entry only has seven sentences, he deserves a spot in the history of rock & roll.

Let's go back to 1924...

George Beauchamp was a musician, he liked to drink, and he wanted his guitar to be louder.  Pretty much just like every other guitarist...

(I don't know if it is grammatically proper, but for the sake of this story I’ll refer to him by his first name, "George."  "Beauchamp" is too awkward to pronounce, even if only in my head.)

In 1924 and 1925, George toured the Vaudeville circuit playing the most popular music of the day, Hawaiian slide guitar. He used a Martin acoustic, with a high nut, set up for slide.  But, like most musicians, then and now, he wanted more volume.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1920s something new was in the wind... or, more specifically, in wires... being strung everywhere. Electricity was making inroads into everyday life. And in the show biz world the first microphones and tube amps became commercially available.

In early 1925, George experimented by attaching a microphone to his guitar. But the limitations of this new technology made this approach impractical. He decided, for the time being at least, to try to increase his guitar's volume mechanically rather than electrically.


Company #1: George and National

The most popular record player of the day was made by The Victrola Company.  The Victrola tone arm contained a small diaphragm attached to the needle. The sound generated by the needle in the grooves caused the diaphragm to vibrate, and that sound was amplified (non-electrically) through a large horn.

George thought that this concept could be applied to a guitar.  In early 1926 he took a tone arm diaphragm to John and Rudy Dopyera, who operated a banjo manufacturing company near his home.  He asked if they could adapt the concept to a guitar.   John Dopyera knew that the banjo biz was slowing down, so he agreed to work on a design.  By the summer of 1926 he had built an all-metal, three-cone resonator guitar.  And it was loud!  A bit metallic-sounding, but loud!

With the financial help of George's rich cousin-in-law, the National String Instrument Company was formed.  Production was started in the summer of 1927, and by 1928 they were a grand success!  Their metal guitar bodies were manufactured by the tool & die company next door, owned by a machinist named Adolph Rickenbacher.

During 1928, the profits poured in.  But George's partying musician ways were increasingly at odds with the conservative non-drinking John Dopyera.  In January 1929, a mere year after National incorporated, John Dopyera quit (in a huff), and started his own resonator-guitar company, called Dobro.

With two competing companies making roughly the same instrument, lawsuits flew.  For years.

During 1930 and 1931, the National vs. Dobro conflict was difficult for everyone.  Although tensions were high at National, George was able to distract himself by taking night courses in electronics.  He still wanted a louder guitar, and he felt that somehow the answer lay in electricity.  He decided to develop a pickup specifically for the guitar.


Company #2: George and Ro-Pat-In

By the fall of 1931 George was ready to pursue his new idea.  On October 15, 1931 he formed a company with another National employee, Paul Barth, and the machinist next-door, Adolph Rickenbacher.  The new company, for reasons that no one can remember, was called Ro-Pat-In.  In response to George forming a new company, National's board of directors fired him the following month, in November 1931.

George threw himself into the new company, and by January 1932 he built a successful pickup.  In his garage, he and Paul Barth designed a solid-body electric guitar with a small round body.  Its shape gave it the nickname "frying pan."

By August 1932, the Ro-Pat-In Company began to manufacture the world's first commercially available electric guitar.  It was constructed from aluminum and came in two sizes, the 22" scale Model A-22 and the 25" scale Model A-25. It was officially called the "Electro String Instrument."  In keeping with the most popular music of the era, the Electro String Instrument was meant to be played on your lap as a slide guitar.  It came with it's own amp (it had to, where else could you get one!), and was very expensive:  $175.  (Which in today's money is a billion dollars!)  (Hey, brand new technology is always expensive!)  During 1932 they sold 13 of them.  Here's a catalog picture of an A-22.

In 1933 sales picked up; approximately 60 were sold.   In 1934 they were up to approximately 200 units.


Still Company #2: George and the Electro String Instrument Corporation

In 1934, they also made some name changes.  The name of the company was changed from "Ro-Pat-In" to "Electro String Instrument Corporation."  And the name of the guitar was changed to "Rickenbacher Electro."

Despite increasing sales, there were problems with the aluminum body. With temperature changes, under stage lights for example, it would go out of tune.  A solution was at hand, though.  One of the many products that Adolph Rickenbacher manufactured in his factory was a bakelite toothbrush.  With Rickenbacher's bakelite experience they decided to introduce a new bakelite lap steel, called the Model B.  Since bakelite is very heavy, they hollowed out sections of the body to lighten it, and they covered these sections with chrome covers.  Here is a catalog picture of the Model B.

The first Model B was shipped in August 1935.  The 1935 combined sales of Models A-22 & A-25 (the "frying pans"), plus the Model B, was approximately 1,100 instruments.  Sales in 1936 were roughly 1,000.

And here is the significant part:  Most of the Rickenbacher Electro Model Bs had a square neck, so it would lay flat when played in your lap.  But when George Beauchamp designed the Model B, he also decided to make some of them with a round neck, so they could be held and played the way you would hold and play a regular acoustic guitar.  (In those days, a traditionally held guitar was called a "Spanish guitar.") 

These "Spanish" version Model B guitars, approximately 50 in 1935 and approximately 100 in 1936, were the first ever traditionally played solid-body electric guitars!

Here is an Electro String Instrument Corporation promo photo. The woman in the center is playing slide on a typical square-neck Model B. The woman on the right is playing a round-neck Spanish-style Model B.

Here are photos of my 1936 Model B, Spanish-style.  FrontBack.  Despite being seventy-six years old, it plays great and sounds fabulous!

It is important to note that George Beauchamp not only designed the first ever commercially produced electric guitar, the A-22/A-25 "frying pan" in 1932, he also designed and produced the first ever "Spanish-style" (traditionally held) solid body electric guitar, the Model B in 1935.

To put this in historical perspective, the Spanish-style Model B was on the market five years before Les Paul attached a pickup to a 4x4 and dubbed it "the log."  Les Paul was an impressive inventor and a great recording artist, but to this day people think that Les Paul "invented" the electric guitar.  He didn’t.

That title belongs to George Beauchamp.

And now you know.

Please tell your friends.

Thank you.

See you soon,

PS:  Why did Les Paul end up with all of the credit?  Well, he was a showman, and he knew how to promote himself.  And for marketing purposes Gibson pretended that Les invented the Les Paul guitar, which gave him even more credibility. 


PPS: Sadly, George Beauchamp died from a heart attack in 1941 at the age of 42.  When Gibson and Fender started making solid-body electric guitars ten years later, George wasn't around to claim the credit that he deserved.

PPPS:  To tie up some loose ends from above:  After National fired George, John Dopyera began to make amends with his old company. By late 1933, all lawsuits between the companies were dropped.  And in early 1935, National and Dobro merged to form the National Dobro Corporation.  


PPPPS:   To recap the National-Dobro thing:  John Dopyera and George Beauchamp formed National. A year later, John Dopyera quit to start a competing company called Dobro.  Six years later, National and Dobro merged.   And that's why you see vintage resonator instruments labeled both National and Dobro.

PPPPS:  Spelling?  No one is really sure when Adolph Rickenbacher changed the spelling of his name.  His cousin, World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, changed the spelling his last name in 1918 when the US was at war with Germany (the first time).   Adolph apparently changed his name during World War II.  Pre-WW II Electro String electric guitars are labeled "Rickenbacher Electro.”  When business resumed after the war, it was spelled "Rickenbacker."  (No doubt it was, again, an attempt to distance the Rickenbacker name from its German roots.  I’m a bit surprised he didn’t change his first name, too!)

PPPPPS: By 1953, Adolph was 66 years old, and ready to retire.  That year he sold the company to F.C. Hall.  Today the company is still owned by the Hall family.

PPPPPPS:   After retiring at 66, Adolph Rickenbacker lived another 23 years, finally passing away in 1976 at the ripe old age of 89.

PPPPPPPS:  Surprisingly, the company was still officially the Electro String Instrument Corporation until 1965, when Rickenbacker, Inc. was formed.





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