THE ELECTRIC GUITAR:
Inventing an American Icon
text and photos courtesy of Musical Instrument Museum
Above: The newly-opened exhibition at Musical Instrument Museum celebrates the bold inventors, adventurous performers and radical instruments responsible for making sounds that had never been heard before.
The Musical Instrument Museum’s (MIM) newly-opened exhibition, The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon, shares the untold story of the invention of the electric guitar, an instrument that revolutionized music and popular culture forever. Its creation continues to play an integral role in American music and culture, inspiring emulation worldwide.
“This is a memorable exhibition, revealing the deep history of the electric guitar and its impact over the years,” says Richard Walter, Ph.D., MIM’s curator for United States, Canada and Europe. ”Some of these guitars launched entirely new genres of music.”
This exclusive exhibition showcases more than eighty of the rarest electric guitars and amplifiers in the world― from some of the first ever heard to those played by the most famous electric guitarists known today. The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon encompasses the history of the electric guitar from the very beginning, including its most experimental period of the 1930s and 1940s, its impact on music and culture and its current iconic status. Decades before rock and roll, these instruments jolted, energized, and even confused the eardrums of the nation. This exhibition gives a glimpse into the electric guitar’s influence on genres that defined American music, including Hawaiian music, dance orchestras, western swing, jazz, and rock and roll itself.
This early history of electric amplification celebrates the bold inventors, adventurous performers and radical instruments responsible for making sounds that, literally, had never been heard before. Even though these early electric instruments and amplifiers were developed nearly ninety years ago, many of them remain technologically, aesthetically and musically sophisticated today. The exhibition’s remarkable collection features the personal instruments of groundbreaking artists who were among the first to play and popularize the electric guitar, such as Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Bo Diddley and Eldon Shamblin. Guests will also see authentic guitars played by next generations of influential musicians, including Pete Townshend of The Who and Ron Wood and Keith Richards of the The Rolling Stones, who continued to transform the sound of the electric guitar while cementing its international reputation.
Original video production featuring on-camera demonstrations of some of these historic instruments and interviews with Grammy Award–winning jazz guitarist George Benson, guitar historians and collectors, friends and family of the pioneers of the electric guitar and more, will help bring this innovative period of music to life as guests become immersed in this story.
The exhibition is based on the private collection of guitar builder, collector and historian Lynn Wheelwright. Tirelessly exploring the story of the guitar for decades, Wheelwright’s specialization in early electric stringed instruments distinguishes him as a rare expert in a relatively unknown field. His knowledge is based on hands-on experience with an incomparable range of instruments and artifacts from the fascinating early days of electric amplification. MIM is proud to display a selection of highlights from his private collection, as well as extraordinary instruments from other generous collectors, musicians, luthiers and family members whose lives have been changed by the electric guitar and its players.
Alvino Rey’s Electro A-25 (1932) – This instrument was likely the first electric guitar ever played on a national radio broadcast. Its new sound shocked the world, igniting a music revolution. Considered the Father of the Electric Guitar, Alvino Rey was not only a talented performer but also a direct contributor to the research and development of amplified instruments for brands such as Rickenbacker, Gibson and Fender.
Audiovox model 336 Duo double-neck (c. 1936) – Possibly the only known original example of its kind by Paul Tutmarc’s Audiovox company, the guitar had two necks that accommodated specialized tunings for the popular Hawaiian-style of steel guitar playing. No longer operating today, Audiovox is one of the lesser-known pioneering manufacturers from the first years of the electric guitar.
Charlie Christian’s Gibson ES-250 (1940) – Charlie Christian, the acknowledged pioneer of the electric jazz guitar, played this remarkable instrument while a member of Benny Goodman’s sextet. An early adopter of the electric guitar, Christian was already performing captivating solos and thrilling audiences with the new sound by 1937, earning his status as the first modern electric guitar hero.
Above: left to right; Paul Bigsby Standard Guitar (1949), Pete Townshend’s Gibson Les Paul Deluxe (1976) and Bo Diddley’s The Bad Dude (1998).
Paul Bigsby Standard guitar (1949) – Paul Bigsby was one of the earliest champions of the solid-body electric guitar, even before Fender and Gibson helped bring the concept into mass production and popularity. Played by Tommy Butterball Paige with country star Ernest Tubb, this guitar is the third Standard solid body by Bigsby and the first to feature two pickups with a selector switch.
Pete Townshend’s Gibson Les Paul Deluxe (1976) – Pete Townshend elevated both the volume and the drama of rock and roll as legendary guitarist for The Who. Featuring modified electronics and marked with a large number 5 for quick identification on stage, this Les Paul was a staple of live performances in the late 1970s.
Bo Diddley’s The Bad Dude (1998) – Personally designed and played by rock-and-roll originator Bo Diddley late in his life, this electric guitar features the artist’s signature rectangular body as well as onboard electronic effects and a synthesizer pickup. Diddley considered it the best guitar he had ever owned.
Through September 15
The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon
Musical Instrument Museum