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This file updated 14 October 2014

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Inventing the electric guitar

How this material arose

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To the end of 2003, HoTM wrote to Bud Tutmarc, as named below, for permission to quote as below from material he originally supplied. By mid-January 2004 we had given up hope of hearing from Mr. Tutmarc. Suddenly arrived a letter dated 3 January from his wife, Opal Tutmarc, indicating that Bud has had several strokes and is now rather inactive, but he gives permission to use the material below. Thanks Opal and Bud, and good health to both of you! - Ed

Let's see ... Baines in his book on the history of instruments (p. 167) writes on the early Hawaiian guitar ... "With the Hawaiian guitar, the frets lose their function. The instrument is played flat across the knees. Its metal strings are raised higher over the fingerboard than is usual with the guitar, and are stopped not by finger pressure to frets, but by a steel bar held in the player's left hand. The player's right hand fingertips wear metal tips as were used for the Austrian zither. The bar held in the left hand allows much glissando and vibrato effects. The instrument arose after the Spanish guitar was taken to Hawaii by American sailors."

Cruising the Net, HoTM in late 2003 discovered room for debate on the origins of the electrified guitar. We wonder how people around the world feel about the questions arising?
Note: Electric Guitar Origins - mailto: quasar@b0b.com -

We found a heading from a US guitar enthusiast, Bobby Lee, being: - "Pedal Steel - Tutmarc" -

I (Bobby Lee) first met (the href= http://www.b0b.com/infoedu/tutmarc.jpg) Bud Tutmarc at the West Coast Steel Guitar Show in Concord, California in 1995. At that time he presented me with the following manuscript, which he had typed in 1989.
I had always known that the first electric guitars were Hawaiian guitars, but the details of that invention seemed lost in antiquity. I hope that the publication of this manuscript on the World Wide Web will help bring to light those obscure events that have so dramatically changed the sound of popular music. -- -- Bobby Lee

The TRUE FACTS on the Invention of the Electric Guitar AND Electric Bass

by Bud Tutmarc

I have been urged by many persons over the years to write the TRUE FACTS regarding the creation of the very first electric guitar, which was an electric Hawaiian guitar because the inventor was an accomplished artist on the Hawaiian guitar.

I am speaking of my father, Paul H. Tutmarc.

My dad had a love for the Hawaiian Steel guitar from the time he was 15 years old. This was about the year 1911 as my father was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 29 May, 1896.

He started playing the guitar at that age and a few years later got a Knutsen Hawaiian steel guitar and practiced hours and hours everyday. He married my mother, Lorraine, in 1921 and I joined the family on 11 July, 1924 after my sister Jeanne, who was born on 7 December, 1922.

We lived in Centralia, Washington, my first four years. My dad was the local band leader for the dances, playing banjo and singing and leading the band. We moved to Seattle in 1928 (I was four years old) and my father built us a very good home in Seattle. This house had a fine, full basement, and my dad, being such an ambitious person, had a very complete workshop in the basement by the time the house was finished. My father and his brother did all the carpentry work on the house.

My dad was the tenor soloist in several of the downtown theaters in those days. He worked on the Fanchon & Marco circuits and was much involved in music as well as being an instructor of the Hawaiian guitar. He gave many lessons in our home and I was a constant "listener" from behind the living room sofa.

In the later part of 1930 or perhaps the very first of 1931, a man, Art Stimpson, from Spokane, Washington, came to Seattle, especially to see and meet my father. Art was an electrical enthusiast and always taking things apart to see what made them function as they did. He had been doing just this with a telephone, wondering how the vocal vibrations against the enclosed diaphragm were picked up by the magnet coil behind the diaphragm and carried by the wires to another telephone. My father became interested in this "phenomenon" and began his own "tinkering" with the telephone. Noting that tapping on the telephone was also picked up by the magnetic field created behind the diaphragm, he was encouraged to see if he could build his own "magnetic pickup". [Editor's Note: For comparative purposes, a TV chat show screened in Australia on 5 February 2007 noted re artefacts now being shown in Australia that the first Rickenbacker “frying pan” electric guitar appeared in 1931.]

As every, old time steel player knows, it was difficult to make the steel guitar heard above other instruments. My father was always complaining about this common problem. The Dobro guitars with their aluminum dishes inside did help, somewhat, but never enough for performance with any goodly number of accompanists.

The very first thought of my father's was, with this idea of magnifying sound, electrically, how could this magnify the sound of his steel guitar. He started with a rather large, horse-shoe shaped magnet, wound some coils with the smallest wire he could obtain, which was either No. 38 or No. 40. I remember seeing this first magnetic pickup of his. It was all wrapped up in friction tape and about the size of a grapefruit.

He made contact with another friend, Bob Wisner, a young man with a brilliant mind, and a radio repairman of great repute in Seattle as about the only one able to repair the old Atwater-Kent radios. He worked at Buckley Radio in Seattle, on Saturdays, repairing all the radios the regular repairmen could not repair during the week. It was Bob Wisner who helped my dad re-wire a radio to get some amplification of his magnetic pickup.

Once this was ready, my dad starting working with an old round hole, flat top guitar and discovered the pickup would pick up the sound from a plucked string and carry it through to the "adapted" radio. So, this large pickup was eventually installed INSIDE the guitar with a polepiece sticking up through a slot he cut in the top of the guitar near the bridge, and the electric guitar was on its way. Being an ambitious woodworker, he decided to make a solid body for his electric guitar idea and his first one was octagon shaped at the bridge end, containing the pickup and then a long, slender square cornered neck out to the patent heads.

Before he actually made this solid body guitar, he electrified every instrument he could get his hands on. He electrified zithers and pianos and spanish guitars. He would break up two guitars, just to get the necks and fretboards and glue them on to a flat top guitar, having three necks with three different tunings. He made a solid body (black walnut) guitar with FIVE sets of strings. The guitar was about 24 inches wide and the neck about 20 inches wide. He had a full, six string major chord, six string seventh chord, six string diminished chord, six string augmented chord and six string ninth chord. I can remember his demonstrating this "out of this world" guitar at the local Sears-Roebuck store in South Seattle.

He began to receive much interest concerning this new invention from his students. He began to see the possibilities on manufacturing these guitars for sale. He did send in to the U.S. Patent office for information regarding any type of electric, stringed instruments. A complete search was made, which I recall cost him $300.00 which in the time of the great depression, was a LOT OF MONEY. There were NO types, whatsoever, presented to the U.S. Patent office, so my dad knew he was the FIRST. However, the chances of patenting an electric pickup would be nil as Bell & Company had long since covered that.

After building a few guitars out of solid, black walnut, he felt he needed to get someone else to do the woodworking and he would go do all the assembly work and electrical manufacturing. He contacted a man, Emerald Baunsgard, a young superb craftsman, and an agreement was made and Emerald started doing all the wood work of the electric guitars for my father's company, Audiovox Manufacturing Company. Emerald was a master at inlay work so these black walnut guitars all had inlaid frets, inlaid pearl position markings and beautiful, hand rubbed finishes. The guitars were beautiful and very quickly accepted on the market.

My dad made solid body spanish guitars but they were not readily received.

My dad, being a band leader and traveling musician, always felt sorry for the string bass player as his instrument was so large that once he put it in his car, there was only enough room left for him to drive. The other band members would travel together in a car and have much enjoyment being together while the bass player was always alone. That is the actual idea that got my father into making an electric bass. The first one he handcarved out of solid, soft white pine, the size and shape of a cello. To this instrument he fastened one of his "friction tape' pickups and the first electric bass was created. This was in 1933. There is a photograph of his showing this bass to a girl. This picture was in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper.

The idea of the electric bass was very important to him but he was so dissatisfied with his solid body "cello size" bass that he made a 42 inches long, solid body bass out of black walnut, like his guitars, and the electric bass was launched. The cello sized bass was too heavy and not really accomplishing what he set out to do: wanting to create an instrument, small and light-weight, yet capable of producing more sound than several upright, acoustic basses. My father advertised his electric guitars, single necked steel guitars and double necked steel guitars AND his new electric bass in a local school's 1937 Yearbook. That certainly establishes a definite date. I personally played the electric bass in John Marshall Junior High School, here in Seattle, in 1937 and 1938.

Not only did my father manufacture the electric guitars and basses, he also made amplifiers. His amplifiers were designed by the same Bob Wisner who helped him with the radio-turned- amplifier. Incidentally, this same Bob Wisner went on to great heights in scientific work. He worked on the Atom Bomb in Wendover, Utah and in Alamagordo, New Mexico. After the war he was with the Boeing Company working on the Bomarc missile program. He eventually went to Cape Canaveral, which became Cape Kennedy, and worked with the moon rockets. It was tragic in that while the first astronauts were on their way to the moon, Bob Wisner passed away. He knew they lifted off but never knew they made a successful landing.

Sol Hoopii, the greatest Hawaiian steel guitarist of all time, was my father's idol. My dad would get every record Sol would make and practically wear it out playing it over and over again and trying to learn each song as Sol would play it. It was our joy to meet Sol Hoopii personally in 1942 and we were all very close for the next 11 years until Sol's death, here in Seattle in 1953.

It was my pleasure to play with Sol on many, many occasions in many places in the United States. Sol's widow, Anna Hoopii, lives here in Seattle and we see each other about every other week.

My father continued to manufacture his instruments for many years. He sold many of his electric basses to travelling music groups.

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I started winding the coils for the pickups and wiring the amplifiers for my dad. This continued for four or five years. I married Opal Ogden in 1945. I was working in a machine shop in South Seattle but always wanted to get out of that shop and get into some form of music. I started playing the Hawaiian Steel Guitar when I was six years old.

My father was my first instructor. I, like my father, appreciated the stylings and abilities of Sol Hoopii and imagine what a thrill it was for me, at the age of 18 years, to personally meet Sol and play rhythm guitar for him.

When I got married in 1945, Sol Hoopii was our first house guest! He stayed with us for a week. He was playing in concerts around the city of Seattle and I played rhythm for him. What fantastic memories!

Soon after I was married, I started making electric guitars myself. I also made electric basses and they were distributed by L.D. Heater Music Co., in Portland, Oregon. They put out a nice brochure advertising my Serenader electric bass. This was the first time a large distributor handled the electric bass and we sold many through the efforts of L.D. Heater Music Co.

During this time, in about the year 1948, I was making a guitar for a very excellent Hawaiian Steel Guitarist, Ray Morales. Ray had a very extensive ability on the Steel and upon occasion, played a lot of rhythm on the bass strings. He wanted a guitar that would give him more depth of sound on the bass strings. In an attempt to find a way to have the steel guitar give more depth on the bass strings, I took a pickup, outside of a guitar, and placed it in various places over the strings. I found that putting the pickup about six inches IN FRONT of the bridge gave much more depth of sound from the strings. Upon discovering this result, I changed all my pickups on my electric basses to some six inches from the bridge. This is still prevalent in basses today.

Also, while "fooling around" with this pickup, I found that slanting the pickup so that the polepiece would be farther from the bridge under the bass strings and closer to the bridge under the treble strings gave much more depth to the bass strings while not hurting the treble sound of the higher strings. I have a picture of Sol Hoopii holding one of my guitars in 1953. The guitar was my "slanted" pickup. With Sol passing away in 1953, I certainly have proof of being the first to "slant" the guitar pickup. You will note that most every guitar now has a slanted pickup (near the bridge).

I have always enjoyed playing the Hawaiian Steel Guitar and have made 18 albums over the years. I am now playing my father's last guitar. It is the one he was playing prior to his passing away in 1972. I have completely refinished it and put in a new pickup which is basically the very same type pickup in my father's first guitars. There is absolutely NO HUM in my pickup. It is wound with No. 42 wire. Two coils on a two-leg polepiece.

Well, that's about all I can tell you about the first electric guitar and the FIRST electric bass. I know, however, it is still awesome when I think about the TRUE FACTS of the invention of the electric guitar and electric bass. My father, Paul H. Tutmarc, was THE MAN!

Respectfully submitted,
Paul H. "Bud" Tutmarc, Jr.

24 February, 1989

(End of manuscript)

Note: Bud Tutmarc has recorded more than 20 albums of beautiful Hawaiian, easy-listening and sacred music on the Hawaiian steel guitar. For more information about these albums, write to an address still current in 2004:

Bud Tutmarc
8514 Inverness Drive, N.E.
Seattle, WA 98115

Go to Bobby Lee's Pedal Steel Pages at: http://www.b0b.com/index.html
Email Bobby Lee at: quasar@b0b.com

Developments in Australia...

The material below arrived to HoTM from recording engineer Eric Scott of Hadley Records in Tamworth (in New South Wales, Australia's "country music capital") on 31 October 2003... (Dates for relevant matters will soon be provided) - ED

Eric writes: "I am certain we can add to the debate! We have in the possession of the Heritage Hall [in Tamworth] an electric Hawaiian guitar that was made by one Harlan Bodkin in the 1930s -- the father of the late steel player, Norm Bodkin.
I have actually had the instrument in the recording studio and it works just as well -- in fact in some respects better -- then any electrified lap steel made today.
Harlan's method of electrification was unique. He simply had the strings vibrate in a magnetic field supplied by a strong U-shaped permanent magnet near to the bridge.
We also have photocopies of the patent, and even have the original amplifier he built to go with the instrument. All of this is in storage at the moment, so I can't tell you if I can give you an exact date of the instrument's manufacture, but in this case it was an example of "good old Australian know-how."
For the life of me, I can't understand why the design of electric pickups changed to the way it eventually developed. And you probably know, they are quite prone to hum pickup when in unfavourable localities. From memory, Harlan's model used the actual string as the pickup element, with the result that the impedance was so low that hum pickup from stray magnetic fields is almost impossible. It will be interesting to see how this discussion develops." - Eric Scott

Some other views from the USA

Editor's note: The below material is adapted for present purposes from a US website, NPR, which has presentations on... The Electric Guitar, Present at the Creation... Some of this website's photographic resources were material from Smithsonian Institute.

Part of this website begins...
Until about 70 years ago, the instruments used to make music remained pretty much the same as they had been for centuries. But then a new invention not only changed modern music, but popular culture as well -- the electric guitar. For the continuing series Present at the Creation, NPR's Christopher Joyce traces the humble origins of a musical novelty that would eventually shape the sound of rock-and-roll, and define a counterculture."

12 August, 2002 -- Until about 70 years ago, musical instruments remained pretty much the same as they were for centuries. Then a new invention changed modern music and popular culture as well -- the electric guitar.

For our continuing series Present at the Creation, NPR's website (URL now defunct) ()http://www.npr.org/about/people/bios/cjoyce.html) Christopher Joyce traces the humble origins of a musical novelty that would eventually shape the sound of rock 'n' roll, and define a "counterculture." But as Joyce discovered, the icon of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle had some humble beginnings.
In the 1930s, American bands got their "swing" from the drums, the bass and the strum of an acoustic guitar. Trouble was, no one could hear the guitar very well, and it pretty much stayed in the background as a rhythm instrument.
"Then something new appeared on bandstands -- a musician sitting on a chair with something that looked like a miniature banjo in his lap," Joyce reports. "A wire connected the instrument to a box. And out came a strange new sound."
That new sound was simple physics. A vibrating metal object -- in this case, a guitar string -- moving in a magnetic field creates a signal that can be picked up by a wire coil. Inventor and musician George Beauchamp, who played Hawaiian music in Los Angeles, is said to have created the first crude electric guitar on his dining room table.
Why was Hawaiian music [the] key to the invention of the electric guitar? "You had the Hawaiian musicians where... the guitar was the melody instrument," says guitar historian Richard Smith. "So the real push to make the guitar electric came from the Hawaiian musicians."
Beauchamp applied for a patent for his invention -- a small guitar body with two horseshoe magnets on the top, with the strings running between the magnets' arms. Beauchamp dubbed the instrument the "frying pan." In 1931, he and engineer Adolph Rickenbacker created their first electric guitar. But Beauchamp didn't get a patent until 1937, and by then several other companies were making their own electric guitars.
The selling point to musicians was volume. For the first time, a guitar could hold its own against the horn section, and guitarists could pick out melody lines instead of just strumming the rhythm. In the late 1930s, guitar pioneers Floyd Smith and Charlie Christian brought the electric guitar into the jazz world, and redefined the role of the guitar in the swing orchestra ensemble.
There were a few technical headaches with the earliest models. Western swing music leaders such as Milton Brown liked the Spanish-style, hollow-body electrics. These looked like real guitars and less like frying pans -- but the sound resonating in the guitar body often created a harsh feedback loop. Musicians often stuffed rags and newspapers into their guitars to eliminate the problem.
The permanent solution was a solid-body guitar. With electric pickups, a guitarist didn't need a big, hollow body to resonate and project sound. Companies had built solid-body guitars since the 1930s, but another guitar pioneer, Les Paul, took this concept to its logical extreme.
Paul built his own guitar, using telephone parts for a pickup and a wood post as the body. He called it "the log," and he says that when he first played it in a New York City night club, the audience didn't know what to think. "You come in with a four-by-four, people look at you like you're freaked out," he says. Paul went home, cut the body off a Spanish-style guitar and glued it to his log -- "and it went over great."
Electric guitars had volume, but it would take a second wave of innovation to turn the instruments into the icons of a new generation of music. In 1943, California radio repairman Leo Fender and musician Doc Kaufman built a prototype solid-body guitar that was a lot like the original "frying pan," but with a better pickup and tone controls.
But most importantly, says Smith, it was relatively cheap. Suppliers provided parts for production on an assembly line. It was a guitar for the masses.
By 1950, the Fender company was pumping out copies of the Esquire, then the Broadcaster, and then the Telecaster. In 1952, Gibson -- until then the nation's biggest guitar company -- introduced its own solid-body guitar, the Les Paul. The tools of the revolution were now in the hands of America's youth, and popular music and culture would never be the same.

Other Resources (from NPR)
Learn more about the evolution of the solid-body electric guitar and bass guitar at the Web site for Seattle's Experience Music Project.
• The http://www.si.edu/lemelson/ (http has error here) Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History features a Web (http has error) http://www.si.edu/lemelson/guitars/noframes/00main.htm - history of the electric guitar.
Fender Musical Instruments Corporation
Rickenbacker International Corporation
• A history of the guitar from the - http://www.americastory.gov/pages/sh_oddball_string_1.html - Library of Congress.
• A biography of jazz guitar pioneer - http://www.classicjazzguitar.com/artists/artists - Charlie Christian... at: Classic Jazz Guitar.com.

The NPR website offers an illustration of: "Frying Pan patent sketch" - an illustration for the 1937 patent application for the Rickenbacker "frying pan" electric guitar.
Photo courtesy the Smithsonian National Museum of American History -- The Lemelson Center.

Also a graphic of Adolph Rickenbacker with original frying pan guitar... In this 1972 photo, Adolph Rickenbacker holds the original prototype of the "frying pan" electric guitar.
A photo copyright 1997, Rickenbacker International Corporation, all rights reserved.

There's also a graphic of electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian, who helped re-define the role of the guitar player in the swing band ensemble.
A photo courtesy the Smithsonian National Museum of American History -- The Lemelson Center

Other pictures on the NPR website include: The original Les Paul "log" electric guitar, with two halves of a Spanish hollow-body guitar glued to a wooden four-by-four post.
Photo courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History -- The Lemelson Center
Also, The Fender Telecaster (pictured with amplifier) as first produced in 1952 and is still one of Fender's best-selling electric guitar models.
A photo courtesy Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.
Also, "Fender Stratocaster patent sketch, 1954 "log" - an illustration from the 1954 patent application for the Fender Stratocaster, a model popularized by guitar legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, a photo courtesy the Smithsonian National Museum of American History -- The Lemelson Center.

A great many relevant photographs exist...

Item: 1790s: British naval officer Capt George Vancouver RN takes cattle from California to Hawaii since he thinks the Spanish black cattle would do well there. By way of links within a cattle industry, this is the real seed of the origin of the use of the guitar on Hawaii, later the Hawaiian guitar, and later, the electrified guitar. -Ed

Item: 1830s: The Hawaiian guitar arose in the 1830s-1860s as Mexican cowboys work in Hawaii, and the Hawaiians discover slack key tuning. The actual invention of the Hawaiian guitar is credited to one Joseph Kakooya.
Bob Brozman on ABC TV (Australia) Guitar Show on 20 January 2004, the US musicologist and expert on Hawaiian guitar.

More to come soon on these questions...

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