Ca. 1935 Rickenbacker A-22

The origins of the electric guitar are hazy. It is likely that several people independently developed electromagnetic pickups in the late 1920s and early 1930s, though most of these designs were either never mass-produced or floundered commercially. The Stromberg-Voisinet company sold their Electro model guitars and aftermarket pickups starting in 1928, but the onset of the Great Depression seems to have killed off what was considered a novelty product. Gibson experimented with piezoelectric pickups in a few archtop guitars around 1929-30, but these were only sold in 1935 when the company was scrambling to develop its own magnetic pickup. Paul Tutmarc and Arthur Stimson developed the design used in the first Audiovox and Dobro electrics around 1931, but neither had commercial success with electrics for a few years.

Another inventor of the electric guitar was George Beauchamp, an executive at National. Beauchamp’s design was unique at the time: in order to fully envelop the strings in a magnetic field, he surrounded the strings with two horseshoe-shaped pickups. This setup minimized pick noise and required relatively little routing and hardware inside the body, giving it several advantages over subsequent pickup designs of the 1930s. The biggest downside was that the magnets limited where the musician could access the strings, so some early electric players had to alter their picking technique slightly.

Beauchamp had a prototype guitar built by a shop worker at National. (Legend has it that the prototype was built from fence posts taken from behind the factory, but there is no documentation to support this). While the prototype was built just to demonstrate the functionality of the pickup, it also became the first solidbody electric instrument known to exist. Known affectionately (or derisively, depending on your point of view) as the “Frying Pan” due to its shape, Beauchamp presented it to the board at National to lukewarm reaction. National’s decision to give the new instrument a pass is not surprising; they already made the loudest guitars available, and would not have been keen to render their own product line obsolete.

Firm in his belief that electrification was the way forward, Beauchamp approached Adolph Rickenbacker about starting a new company to manufacture electric instruments. Rickenbacker ran the metal shop where National guitar bodies were built, and he never got along well with the Dopyera brothers who ran National; he needed no prodding to join forces with Beauchamp in the new venture. The Ro-Pat-In Corporation was founded to create the Elektro [sic] line of instruments; the company would soon change its name to the Electro String Instrument Corporation and eventually Rickenbacker.

By 1932 there was a growing line of Electro instruments: Spanish guitars, tenor guitars, and mandolins were all available, built around conventional wood bodies from Harmony and Regal. The true star of the line, however, was the Hawaiian guitar. Modeled after the original prototype but featuring a cast aluminum body, the “Frying Pan” was available in two scales and with six or seven strings. Early versions had “Elektro” and a lightning bolt engraved into the headstock, but by 1934 they obtained a stamped brass nameplate proclaiming “Rickenbacher Electro/Los Angeles”. The lightning bolt theme was retained, but only to underscore the brand name.

The Rickenbacker Electro Hawaiian Guitar was initially called just that, but with the introduction of the Bakelite Model B in 1935, it was referred to as the “early model” and eventually renamed the Model A. It would remain in production until 1958 (except for a few years in the early 1950s), undergoing the same changes to the pickup as other Rickenbacker steels. It gained a volume control only in 1934, after two years when volume could only be controlled from the amp, but never gained a tone control; any Model A featuring a second knob has been modified.

My guitar may appear to be clean, but it has actually undergone extensive restoration. It was formerly painted white, and in preparation for painting the body was heavily roughed up. The body has now been stripped and buffed, the tuners replaced (the originals are long gone), and a protective wax coating has been applied in place of the original (ineffective) lacquer coat. The pickup has been rewound and re-magnetized, and the volume pot and jack are both replacements. However, after all that work, the guitar now plays and sounds wonderful. The pickup is extremely strong and the hollow aluminum body is surprisingly resonant.