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The First Electric Guitar

Elvis Elvis

Lloyd Loar’s Vivi-Tone

The very first electric guitar may have been built by Master luthier Lloyd Loar, who worked for Gibson during the early 1920s.

Guitar history owes a lot to Loar. He introduced fundamental improvements in the design of acoustic guitars: f-style soundholes, longer necks & more body-centered bridges, and fingerboards floating over the soundboard instead of fused to it. He also developed some of Gibson’s most outstanding instruments such as the L-5 guitar.

In addition to his high caliber contribution to the design of acoustic instruments, he was one of the pioneers that began to research the possibility of electric amplification.

He adapted the carbon-granulate diaphragms used in early telephones to sense the vibrations of the soundboard and convert them into electric signal. This was the first electric guitar pickup prototype ever.

However, this was 1923, and the right time for electric amplification to enter guitar history had not yet arrived. The implementation was fragile and unpractical. It relied on amplification and speaker technology still crude and problematic. Gibson’s board rejected Loar’s proposals and he left the company. He went on to launch his electric instruments under the name Vivi-Tone, without commercial success.

 The First Electric Guitar

Paul Tutmarc’s Audiovox

Towards the end 1930, the right time had come. Musician and guitar teacher Paul Tutmarc was making some experiments in his workshop in Seattle, together with his skilled friend Arthur J. Stimson.

They put together a pickup prototype with horseshoe magnets and wire coil. They hoped the steel strings would disturb the magnetic field created by the magnets. These disturbances would cause a corresponding electric signal to flow in the wire coils.

They put the pickup inside of Tutmarc’s flattop guitar, and plugged this into a modified radio. Their setup did indeed pickup and amplify the instruments sound, producing a beautiful tone. They had created the first electric guitar magnetic pickup.

This was obviously an important discovery, but they didn’t know how they could best profit from it. While Stimson proposed to sell or license the pickup to some established company, Tutmarc prefered to register the invention through the federal Office of Patents.

Unfortunately, the attorneys that he hired for US$300 concluded that the new design was not patentable, since the telephone companies had already patented analogous technology.

Tutmarc, disappointed, let his dreams of entering electric guitar history through the big door. Still, he went on and founded the Audiovox Manufacturing Company. Audiovox designs were far ahead their times, and amazingly included solid-body Spanish guitars and bass guitars as soon as 1933. However, they just had very limited success.

Stimson moved to Los Angeles and looked for possible partners interested in their discovery.

George Beauchamp & Electro-String

Very soon afterwards, in August 1932, the “Electro-String Corporation” (renamed Rickenbacker in 1953) company began to market a cast-aluminum electric Hawaiian guitar, commonly nicknamed “The Frying Pan” due to its peculiar form.

Designed by George Beauchamp, Paul Barth and Adolph Rickenbacker, it featured a “horseshoe” pickup.

The Electro String Bakelite Model B is also often mentioned as the first Spanish-style solid-body electric guitar. It sounded modern and aggressive. In the spring of 1933, Dobro began to offer an electric version of a Spanish-style guitar. They patented the whole guitar -including the “blade” pickup design previously used by Tutmarc & Stimson – on April 7th 1933. Art Stimson was listed as assignor. He had sold the design for mere US$600.

Gibson

Gibson soon introduced its own version of the magnetic pickup, designed by Walter Fuller. It was featured first in an all-aluminum Hawaiian guitar, the EH-150 (EH for Electric Hawaiian). Gibson’s first electric guitar followed: the ES-150 (Electric Spanish). Gibson also launched the EM-150 (Electric Mandolin) and even electric banjos.

Charlie Christian’s use of the ES-150 established a definitive foundation for the electric guitar history to come.