A Re-examination of the Rickenbacker "Frying Pan", the First Electric Guitar
Now most people would recognize this as an electric guitar… But not as many would recognise this as one. Yet both have the same basic elements: frets, tuning machines, bridge, solid body construction, and most importantly, an electromagnetic pickup. While it is now generally agreed that it is the employment of an electromagnetic pickup that ultimately defines what an electric guitar is, there has been less agreement as to what other elements make an electric guitar, an electric guitar.
This is certainly true of the 1931 Rickenbacker “Frying Pan”. While it is now generally recognized as the world’s first stringed instrument with an electromagnetic pickup, there still seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the Frying Pan as a full-fledged electric guitar due to its being a Hawaiian-style lap steel, rather than a Spanish-style instrument.
Or is it?
In this paper, I shall re-examine some of the commonly held assumptions regarding the Frying Pan. I will show that the 1931 prototype Frying Pan was an electric guitar in every sense of the word and was in fact designed to be capable of both Hawaiian and Spanish-style playing. I shall also look at some of the design aspects of the Frying Pan’s transition from prototype to production model. Even now, when its claim can now no longer be seriously challenged, the Frying Pan’s avant-garde design has led some to look for a more conventionally guitar-like contender for the title of the first electric guitar. In light of this, I shall also examine the viability of some of the more noteworthy rival claims to the invention of the electric guitar based on my recent research.
At the beginning of the 1930s, an ex-Vaudeville guitarist named George Beauchamp had been working on the problem of electrically amplifying the guitar. His answer was the electromagnetic pickup, the basis of all modern electric guitars. The electromagnetic pickup was not Beauchamp’s first successful musical invention. He also played an important part in the development of the resonator guitar and was one of the founders of the Los Angeles-based National guitar company which made and sold those resonator instruments.
The genius of Beauchamp’s pickup design is that it used the instrument’s strings rather than its soundboard as the immediate source of the electrical signal. This made for a much more efficient and powerful unit. Beauchamp’s design is commonly referred to as a “horseshoe” pickup from the two horseshoe-shaped magnets placed end-to-end through which the instrument’s strings pass through.
Sometime during the summer of 1931 Beauchamp had National Guitars shop foreman Harry Watson, make the body of the Frying Pan. The body is carved from a single piece of wood, either maple or hemlock, which company lore says came from a fencepost behind the factory. After unsuccessfully trying to interest his partners at National Guitar in the Frying Pan, Beauchamp approached Adolph Rickenbacker (whose tool and die company produced the stamped metal bodies of the National Guitars) to form a company to manufacture Beauchamp’s invention. In October of 1931, the Ro-Pat-In Corporation (the origin and meaning of the name are now lost) was incorporated to make an aluminium-bodied version of the Frying Pan, known as the Rickenbacher “Electro”. The instruments were marketed under the name of “Rickenbacker” supposedly because it was easier to pronounce than “Beauchamp”.
It would be helpful to interject here a word on nomenclature: The term “frying pan” can refer to two different instruments. “The Frying Pan” (capitalised with a definite article) usually denotes Beauchamp’s 1931 wood-bodied prototype. The aluminium-bodied production instruments are also known as frying pans (but with an indefinite article and often not capitalised). There were two models of production instruments: the A22 and A25 which differed in their scale lengths (22 and 25 inches respectively).
In addition, it should be noted that the until modern times, the term “frying pan” was never used by Rickenbacker – around the shop both the prototype and the production instruments were referred to as the “pancake”. However, almost from the beginning, the instruments were called “frying pans” by players and that is how they are generally referred to today.
The provenance of Beauchamp’s 1931 prototype is not particularly well known up to the mid 1950s. Once it had fulfilled its function of demonstrating the possibility of the electric guitar, the instrument presumably sat neglected at Rickenbacker’s Los Angeles factory. No known photos of the instrument exist before 1956 when Rickenbacker displayed the Frying Pan at a music trade show to highlight the 25th anniversary of the electric guitar’s invention.
At the show, members of the public were invited to have their photograph taken with the very first electric guitar. Pictures of the instrument from this time show the Frying Pan in a state virtually identical to that which it is in today. The instrument is well worn but the wear does not appear to have occurred from normal playing (although photographs do show it being played). In fact, the wear is most noticeable in the areas where you would ordinarily ‘hold’ the instrument – the middle of the fret board and the base of the body.
As noted at the beginning of this paper, it is the wood-bodied Frying Pan’s appearance as a Hawaiian rather than a Spanish-style guitar that accounts for the hesitation in acknowledging it as the first true electric guitar. However, the organological nature of the Frying Pan is ambiguous and displays elements of Hawaiian and Spanish-style guitars which are incongruous when found on the same instrument. In fact, far from being an inherently Hawaiian style instrument the Frying Pan’s design deliberately incorporates elements of the Spanish guitar which do not benefit its Hawaiian style playing capabilities.
The most obvious of these is the instrument’s neck; the Frying Pan has a Spanish-style neck, that is, a neck with a rounded section. It should be noted that National, the company which Beauchamp and the others behind the Frying Pan where so involved, made guitars with both Spanish style necks and square-sectioned Hawaiian necks. If the frying pan was only intended to be used as a Hawaiian style instrument, there is no benefit to employing a Spanish style neck. Indeed there are several disadvantages: A Spanish style neck is more difficult from a production standpoint to make than a square section neck. Also, making the neck round takes away mass from the neck that would help prevent it from warping. It should be noted that the Frying Pan, which was made without a truss rod, has a rather severe twist in its neck.
While its round sectioned neck strongly suggests an instrument with Spanish-style playing capabilities, the fact that the Frying Pan’s neck is fretted does not necessarily make a case either for or against its being a Spanish-style instrument. Hawaiian guitars made by National with square-necks also had fretted fingerboards although they were not intended to be played Spanish-style.
By far, the strongest evidence of the dual Spanish/Hawaiian nature of the Frying Pan prototype comes from the instrument’s nut. As can be seen, this appears to be a conventional high-action nut for Hawaiian-style playing. But closer examination shows that this actually not one, but two nuts: on top of a standard Spanish guitar nut is a metal secondary nut which raises the strings to the proper height for Hawaiian playing.
Since it is not possible to remove the strings of the instrument to examine the two nuts, the dual nature of the instrument’s nut has not been previously recognised. It has been previously assumed that this nut had been made specifically for this instrument by either Beauchamp or Harry Watson. However, I have been able to identify this metal nut as a commercially produced item, the “Perfect” height adjusting nut, which was marketed as a device to raise the height of the strings at the nut, thus allowing the guitar to be played with a steel bar. In the late 1920s these devices were a popular and inexpensive means of adapting the much more readily available Spanish guitar for use as a Hawaiian-style instrument. While this style of nut does not appear to have come as standard on any model of National guitar, it was offered by National as an accessory in their 1936 catalogue.
The conventional nut underneath the metal nut appears to be notched for strings indication that the guitar was made to be played with a much lower action, in other words Spanish style. There appears to be no reason to make a nut this way unless the instrument was made or designed to be played in both manners.
It should not be supposed that because the prototype Frying Pan was made with Spanish guitar attributes that it was ideally suited to be played as such. When trying to play this as a Spanish guitar, the instrument would have been extremely neck heavy. In fact, saying this instrument is neck heavy is misleading, since it is almost entirely neck.
The question has to be asked, if the frying pan was designed to be used as a Spanish guitar, was it ever used as such? Despite its worn condition, the instrument gives us few clues. The instrument is missing many of its frets but the first, third and fourth frets remain. If the instrument had been extensively played, these would have almost certainly have shown wear which they do not.
Before moving on to the Frying Pan as a production instrument it is worth making a few marginally related comments on the prototype. This guitar was not simply a test rig for Beauchamp’s electromagnetic pickup, but a fully-realised musical instrument that was designed to be attractive as well as functional. It was varnished in what we would now call a sunburst finish and both the body and neck are bound with white plastic binding. The requisite frets are marked with position dots and the horseshoe magnets of the pickup are heavily chromed.
The design of the headstock of the guitar, not surprisingly, is almost identical to that found on several National models. Interestingly, the tuning machines on either side of the head stock do not match, which almost belies my pervious assertion of the Frying Pan as a final product rather than a test-rig. However, it should be remembered that 1931 was the height of the Depression, and so it is perhaps not surprising that Beauchamp would have use whatever parts he had on hand, whether they matched or not.
Not withstanding its wood body, the prototype Frying Pan is so similar in appearance to the aluminium production model (which was intended to be played only as a Hawaiian guitar) that the features of the prototype that indicate its utility as a Spanish-style instrument have simply been not recognised. However, most of the Spanish features of the prototype are downplayed in the production model. This is probably the major factor in the wood-bodied Frying Pan not being previously recognised as a Spanish guitar.
While almost certainly intended to be played solely as a Hawaiian guitar, the aluminium bodied production model frying pan retained many of the Spanish guitar elements of the wood bodied frying pan prototype. These included the rounded neck and frets. However, on the production model, the frets were actually scalloped indentations in the finger board. If these were simply intended as fret position markers, a simple painted line or etched mark would have served just as well. The fact that the production model frying pans did not have separate inlaid frets as on conventional guitars is not conclusive proof that the frying pan was never intended to be used as a Spanish guitar: the bakelite bodied electric Spanish guitar made by Rickenbacker in the mid 1930s had frets that were simply moulded into the neck. Interestingly, patent documents suggest that the round neck of the production guitar could be used Spanish style but company advertisements never suggest this.
I found this frying pan in packing case of unfinished frying pan bodies made at various times between the 1930s and the 1950s. A number of unusual features on instrument make me believe it to be a prototype for the metal-bodied frying pan most probably dating from late 1931 to early 1932. For example the mounting hole for the pickup is of a different shape than the production model, lacking the semi-circular cut-outs for the height adjustment screws. Scratch marks indicating where they are to go can be clearly seen. Since the mounting hole for the pickup was not cut, but created when the body was cast, this suggests that this instrument was used to work out the spacing of the pickup mounting. The multiple and off-centre screw holes for a cover plate- which is found on the wood-bodied Frying Pan, but not on the production models, also suggests a design in transition. However, most significant feature of this instrument as regards to its relationship to the wood-bodied Frying Pan is its nut. The production model frying pan has non adjustable integral nut which is set up for Hawaiian playing. The nut on this guitar would have been a separate piece, attached to the neck by two screws or pegs. This would have allowed the use of interchangeable nuts of different heights, a similar set up to that of the wood-bodied Frying Pan.
The first production frying pans had no volume control but by the end of 1934 this came standard on the guitar. This simple feature greatly enhanced the functionality of the instrument.
It seems appropriate here to mention here a little noted feature of the production model frying pan- the ¼ inch phone jack. The production Rickenbacker frying pan appears to have been the first electric instrument to use this connection which has become the standard method of connecting a guitar to an amp ever since.
As previously noted, there are others, both well known and obscure, legitimately and less so, to whom the invention of the electric guitar has been attributed. Briefly I shall now examine some of these rival claims. Some proposed inventors, like Les Paul and Leo Fender are easily dismissed. This is not to diminish their contributions to the development of the electric guitar, which were both many and important, but simple chronology negates the possibility either of these figures being the inventor of the electric guitar.
Lloyd Loar is often mentioned as having worked on electric instruments at Gibson guitars during his tenure there in the early 1920s. In fact it has been said that one of the reasons for his departure from Gibson was Gibson’s refusal to market a line of electric instruments that he had developed. These accounts all appear to stem from an assertion made by long-time Gibson guitar historian Julius Bellson in a self-published book on the history of Gibson guitars.
An electric viola exists that is said to have been made during his tenure at Gibson. An examination of this viola shows it to be very similar in construction to the ViViTone electric violin of the mid 1930s at the National Music Museum in Vermillion. Particularly telling is the use of potentiometers in both instruments of a type that were made by the Chicago Telephone Supply company in relatively limited quantities during the mid 1930s. The case for the Viola being made before 1924 is made more difficult due to the fact that the potentiometer itself didn’t exist until the late 1920s and doesn’t appear to have been commercially available until the early 1930s.
Another often mentioned, and probably the most shadowy, contender for the first electric guitar is the Electro line of instruments made by the Stromberg Voisinet, the company that would later be better known as Kay. This line of instruments remains one of the biggest mysteries within electric instruments. Almost everything we know about these instruments appears to come from three published sources – a promotional article in “The Music Trades” of October 20th 1928, an article in the January 1929 issue of “The Crescendo”, and a full page advertisement in the 1928 Chicago Musical Instruments Catalogue. ‘The Music Trades’ article stated that patents had been filed for the instrument but it does not appear that the patent application was successful. The advertisement shows a group of four instruments with the accompanying amplifier. The instruments have electrical leads coming from them but no details of the pickup can be seen. The advertisement states that the instruments utilise an electromagnetic pickup. However this must have almost certainly operated on a different principle from the Beauchamp pickup because the advertisement states quite clearly that the pickup reproduces the sound of the soundboard. Also, two of the instruments shown in the advertisement are banjos so it is unclear exactly how the pickup actually worked. It may have been a carbon microphone and if so this would explain why the patent was unsuccessful since this technology was already patented.
It is known from in a letter now in the Rickenbacker archives, Kay claimed that they had been making electric instruments since 1928.
Further research on the topics I have covered here would be valuable, especially with regards to the following:
The Frying Pan. A more extensive search of Patent documents in the Rickenbacker archives may reveal more about the transition of the Frying Pan from prototype to production model.
Stromberg Voisinet. In the absence of finding an actual Stromberg Voisinet Electro instrument, more archival research is needed to determine the exact nature of the Stromberg Voisinet pickup.
Electrical components. More comprehensive research is needed on the manufacture and availability of early electrical components, particularly potentiometers. Knowing the dates of product availabilities and design changes may prove to be a way of establishing the possibilities and probabilities of electric stringed instrument construction, especially during the critical first few years of the 1930s.
For an instrument that is only 75 years old, the electric guitar has more than it’s share of mythology and misconceptions. The modern view of the electric guitar as a jazz instrument or a rock and roll machine- in other words, a Spanish style instrument- has tended to obscure the fact that the Hawaiian style of guitar playing –and thus the Hawaiian-style guitar- was as much a driving force behind the early electric guitar’s development as the Spanish-style instrument. George Beauchamp’s 1931 Frying Pan perfectly encapsulates this Spanish/Hawaiian dichotomy. In designing a guitar that was capable of functioning as both a Spanish and Hawaiian-style instrument, Beauchamp produced something that was more than the simple combination of both: the first incarnation of what was to become one of the defining icons of the 20th century, the electric guitar.