The Inventor of the Electric Guitar

by Julio Miravalls

...1930, in the California garage of George Beauchamp...

No. Steve Jobs didn't invent the MP3 player any more than Marconi invented the radio or Les Paul the electric guitar. Although each one of them made some contribution: provide style, notoriety and a business model with the iPod; produce the first receivers and transmitters that actually worked; or create the first beautiful solid body instrument... 
 Ahh, but you knew that already! That the first electric guitar was made by Rickenbacker... Well, sorry, bro. It wasn't his invention either. They put his name on it for marketing purposes, which was already a well-developed science in sunny California in the early 1930s. And they certainly weren't going to put a name like Beauchamp that no one knew how to pronounce correctly, anyway, on a device that they initially had the sense of humor to nickname "the Frying Pan". People would have thought they were selling some kind of French kitchen item.

But the truth is that the first electric guitar was created in George Beauchamp's garage in Santa Ana, California. Or maybe it was in his dining room, because an instrument developed over long, arduous hours of trial and error during 1930 finally took shape on his dining room table. It was a system composed of two horseshoe-shaped magnets and an electrical coil, with six poles (pickups) to focus the magnetic field beneath each string that passed over them and the magnets.

Beauchamp was initially a musician who played steel guitars and caught the fever to find a guitar capable of producing a sound with greater volume that swept over Los Angeles in the early 1920s. His first attempt involved adding a gramophone cone to the base, pointed at the audience as if it was a megaphone, built with the help of an expert violin repairman, John Dopyera, who lived close to his house. It didn't work. But it was a start. Working with John Dopyera and his brother Rudy, the three began to experiment with aluminum resonators inserted in metallic boxes and joined to the bridge of the guitar until they achieved their first functional prototype, the "tricone".

With the help of the Hawaiian group Sol Goopii Trio at a party to demonstrate their invention, they found their first financing for starting a company. His cousin Ted Kleinmeyer invested $12,000. That was how Beauchamp entered the business world and met Adolph Rickenbacker, an engineer and owner of a tool business close by where Beauchamp and the Dopyera brothers set up their tricone factory. Rickenbacker became the technical head of the National Company, Beauchamp's business.  It didn't go badly for them, or well. They were very different people and the financial partner, Kleinmeyer, was a wild and crazy young guy who had partied away his inheritance by 1928. They were broke. The partners fought and decided to break up the company.

Beauchamp, now fully immersed in the role of inventor, had made some experiments over the years with microphones, speakers, pickups and a one-string guitar. After leaving National, he decided to continue his tests at home while studying electronics at night school.

He wasn't the only in the early 1930s who was trying to build a guitar that would use electromagnetism to amplify the sound. The problem was how to convert the vibration of the strings into a specific electric current. Beauchamp found the solution with his horseshoe-shaped magnets and the induction coil he built using the motor of his washing machine at home (according to his collaborator Paul Barth, he in fact used the motor of a sewing machine). And that sounded like he wanted it to. The strings produced distinct electronic impulses that could be amplified and transferred as sound to the loudspeakers...

But it still wasn't a true guitar. The inspired inventor called on Henry Watson, a skilled craftsman who had worked for National, to add on a wooden neck and suitable body. The first prototype of the electric guitar was created by hand in a matter of hours, drawing on a rasp, skill and inventiveness. And there it was: the frying pan for cooking up a whole new era in music.

Then came the marketing. Beauchamp recruited Rickenbacker to create a new company that they baptized Ro-Pat-In. Don't ask what that meant. They changed the name to Electro String right away and got down to the business of manufacturing instruments. Adolph Rickenbacker had prestige, a famous name (he shared the last name of a famous World War I flying ace who was his cousin) and was the president of the company. They put his name on the instrument they began to produce in turbulent times... It was 1931, the year of the Great Depression, when despairing bankers and stockbrokers learned to fly out their office windows in Manhattan skyscrapers and very few people had money for buying a guitar, whether it was electric or not.

But the first Hawaiian guitars began to sell well, other designs, sizes and models appeared ... and 84 years later, Rickenbacker International Corporation (the latest company name in the evolution from Electro String) continues in the marketplace boasting of being the first company ever founded for the sole purpose of manufacturing electric guitars and amplifiers.

Julio Miravalls
Twitter: @juliomiravalls