The next time you hear an electric guitar, remember that the first was built in Southern California.
On Aug. 10, 1937, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued Electro String Instrument Corp. a patent for electrical stringed musical instruments. The Electro String company, now known as Rickenbacker International Corp., began making the electrical guitar in 1931 and is based in Santa Ana.
The first Rickenbacker electric guitars were lap steel guitars called the Electro Hawaiian, but they were known as “frying pans” because they were made out of aluminum and had a round, pan-shaped body. They were about 3 feet long.
Hear Harvey Newquist of the National Guitar Museum play the frying pan here.
The first electric guitar was designed in 1931 by guitarist George Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum), to amplify the lap steel guitar he used to play Hawaiian music through a radio. The prototype hangs in the Rickenbacker office. It was made from wood from a backyard fence, and in a way the company hasn’t strayed far from that backyard. In the world of globalization and cheap foreign labor, Rickenbacker has stayed close to where it started. The headquarters were in Los Angeles before moving to Orange County in 1953.
Ace of a name
Beauchamp came up with the means to amplify music and collaborated with a toolmaker, Adolph Rickenbacker, to create a company they called Electro String. They called the instruments Rickenbackers because Adolph’s second cousin was the famous World War I ace fighter pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker, and the name brought great name recognition.
The key to electrification
The pickups in the early guitars worked similarly to how a telephone can translate sound waves across electric lines. Instead of a membrane between magnets, as with telephones, the guitar has a string. This minor difference kept Rickenbacker from receiving its patent as soon as the company would have liked. The original patent was filed in the early 1930s and took several revisions to be accepted.
The U.S. Patent Office might not have known whether the “frying pan” was electronics or an instrument, but musicians did, and toward the end of the Great Depression, electric guitar companies began to spring up around the nation. The guitars made by Beauchamp and Rickenbacker were on the cutting edge of the electrified instruments. The era also saw the rise of Fender Guitars, which originated in Fullerton as early as 1938. The two companies…