In the hands of masters, it has rocked smoky roadhouses and gently
wept in concert halls. It transformed American music and transported a
multitude of youths from the chill of the garage to the spotlight's
Now the electric guitar has found a place alongside the light bulb,
telephone and other icons of American innovation at a Smithsonian
exhibit, ``From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric
``More than any other instrument, the electric guitar has been the
dominant shaping force in American music in the last
half-century,'' said Charlie McGovern, a cultural historian at
the National Museum of American History. ``It completely changed the
direction of the blues. It pretty much rechanneled country music. You
can't have rock 'n' roll without it.''
And you can't overestimate its influence on American culture.
Creators of the blues, country and rock 'n' roll often
were racially or socially marginalized. But the instrument's
simplicity and power gave them, in McGovern's phrase, ``access to
``In the American context, that's democracy,'' he
said. ``The electric guitar became popular because it was very
accessible. It was very democratic.''
No one person can claim credit for inventing the electric guitar,
the product of a dynamic relationship between inventors and innovators.
It was shaped by the music even as its development shaped the music.
Today it's hard to imagine a time when the guitar was
relegated to rhythmic support, a scratching sound lost in the mix. It
lacked the power to stand out in an ensemble.
Guitarists tried home remedies to amplify their instruments,
resulting in poor sound quality and squealing feedback. In 1931,
magnetic pickups were developed to transform strings' vibrations
into electrical impulses that accurately reproduced the sound.
A tool and die maker, the Rickenbacker Co., that same year
introduced the Frying Pan, a stunted Hawaiian steel guitar with pickups.
Pickups became increasingly common in acoustic guitars.
By 1940, Les Paul was tired of the feedback from plugged-in
acoustic guitars. With a 4-by-4-inch piece of pine and a guitar neck, he
fashioned an instrument he dubbed ``The Log,'' convinced the
solid body would limit unwanted noise.
Today, the name of Les Paul is synonymous with Gibson guitars -
Gibson's best-known model is the Les Paul - but the company
rejected The Log in 1940 and finally embraced Paul's idea only
after Leo Fender began producing the Broadcaster a decade later.
As it developed, the electric guitar allowed musicians to sustain
and bend notes in ways that opened a new universe of sound.
In the hands of such pioneers as Bob Dunn, Charlie Christian, T.
Bone Walker and Muddy Waters, the electric guitar's harmonic
possibilities expanded the tonal palettes of jazz, blues and country
The instrument's keening and its biting thunder were
emblematic of rock 'n' roll's cultural revolution.
Plugging in, a player produced a sound much bigger than himself.
Yet while its vast range excited some, detractors complained the
electric guitar didn't make a pure musical sound. Such complaints
persisted deep into the 1960s - Bob Dylan was booed when he brought an
electric guitar to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Perhaps most importantly, the electric guitar was accessible to
players with little money or training.
``You don't need but two or three chords to play the blues, or
to play most rock 'n' roll songs, from `Johnny B. Goode'
to `Psycho Killer,' '' McGovern said.
Thanks to that simplicity, American popular culture echoes with
stories of young men who began practicing in their parents' garages
and played all the way into the footlights.
In the 1950s, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly achieved pop idol status
through their guitar playing. The Beatles inspired thousands of bands.
Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and others were worshiped for their playing in
the late 1960s.
More recently, women broke through. In the 1970s, the Runaways was
one of the first female guitar bands. Today, Los Angeles' L7 plays
with a ferocity to rival any power metal band.
``For 100 bucks, you're in business (if) you've got a
garage to play in,'' McGovern said.
Among items on display through March: Gibson's Flying V,
Fender's Stratocaster, the original Log and Frying Pan, the
Strawberry Alarm Clock's custom-designed Mosrites and Prince's
Photo: John McCann, a blind guitarist, fingers a Fender
Stratocaster featured in the ``From Frying Pan to Flying V''
exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Box: EXHIBIT (See text)
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.
edit @ 22 Sep 2015 10:28:43 by boringthrill1835