Extremes and firsts are fun. Even last or most disliked has a place in history. Top ten? We love it. Absolutes like “best” and “worst” are a matter of opinion and sometimes perspective. We do love a good feud over these extreme positions, don’t we? What nobody is interested in, is average, mediocre, middle of the pack. In fact, it can be not so boldly stated that the “everyday-average” middle of the road is as a boring as pairing socks or a 90 minute documentary about bouillon cubes.
History belongs to the winners, and bragging rights belong to the firsts
In the world of electric guitar bands, names like “The Beatles”, “The Rolling Stones”, “Led Zeppelin”, all have tribute bands in every bar on any random Saturday night. Let’s not forget the “First Rock Star”: Elvis Presley. In every zip code, there are Elvis impersonators running wild in the streets. The First, the best, the Kings, and even the last gather all the attention. For example, what would you think about someone in a “Mr. Mister” Tribute band? You’d think he’d gone crackers, and you’d be right!
Let’s discover and explore an important and truly historical first.
What we have here is the first Electric Guitar!
That’s right: Before Charlie Christian’s pickup-equipped Gibson ES-150, before the DeArmond floating pickup graced any Martin, Gibson or D’Angelico, and way before Les Paul’s Epiphone bench built log “weekend” guitar thingy. Before anything was introduced to the public…
Although the “Frying Pan” nickname “stuck” to this pre-teflon guitar (insert groan here), this “first electric guitar in history” is more commonly known by its snaky nickname, rather than its official designation: RO-PAT-IN Electro Hawaiian. Soon after, to be known as the Rickenbacher Electro A-22
Call it what you will: the Frying Pan, the Aluminum Lollipop, the Beauchamp Elektro guitar, or by its proper name. This unassuming, (maybe even ugly) guitar is so much more than meets the eye. It features more than just one forever game-changing “first “in its design.
Development and History
To understand the need, want, and development of such an instrument, it’s important to take a quick look at early 20th century American people, culture, and industry. It’s not so long ago, but compared to life today, times could not be more different. Urban, industrial centers mixed all manner of diversity. Radio brings the sounds of rural America to the city, and the sounds of the city, to the country. Many different Peoples and Cultures lived side by side for the first time, on American soil. The world is getting smaller. Hawaiian music became immensely popular, ever since the 1915 celebration of the now “open for business” Panama Canal. The Ukulele craze of today is not the first time Americans fell in love with the tiny 4 string. The Hawaiian style of “slide played” guitar also soared in popularity. The Slide style has immersed itself into Country, the Blues and Rock and Roll, to such a great degree; many forget its Hawaiian origins.
In an effort to make the slide style guitar loud enough for ensemble settings, instruments like the resonator guitar were developed. Dobro and National were both leading makers of resonator guitars. Their names became synonymous with the resonator guitar, in a Tissue/Kleenex, product/brand kind of way, even before the companies joined. National/Dobro shared many of the same chiefs, and designers.
Like the Saxophone before it, metals were used in place of wood to achieve higher volumes of sound. The early resonators were often built with a square shaped neck, and high nut/saddle set ups. Fret lines where used only as markers. This type of guitar was not intended to be fretted, like a Spanish guitar, but rather played with a slide bar. This is true of early wooden necked acoustic styles like Gibson’s Nick Lucas models, as well as many National/Dobro Wooden/Metal combinations, or purely German silver resonator guitars. Some had “square” necks for slide playing only, or sometimes offered with a rounded neck, for “Spanish” style playing, and slide.
National brand manufacturing was done in Los Angeles, California. A very important man of the era is George Beauchamp: A partner in both National and Dobro. George Beauchamp also was a vaudevillian musician, avid lover and player of Hawaiian guitar, as well as builder. It was a natural decision to make the move out west, and become a founder of National guitars. Like lots of others who tinkered with electronics, and gadgets, Beauchamp liked to build microphones. These mics, or “pickups” were based on the Marconi Telephone receiver. Many tried to amplify the guitar. The big difference is that the Beauchamp design, will work, and find mass appeal.
Beauchamp’s trend setting company experimented with single, double, and triple (Biscuit, Duolian, and Tricone) metallic coned resonator guitars, tenors and mandolins. They were popular, beautiful, and loud. Some were impossible things of beauty, featuring Art Deco styling, and elaborate engraving. Beauchamp began to experiment more with “pickups” on conventional wooden Hawaiian guitars, as well as resonators. The result produced the desired sound, and volume, but an undesired side effect of feedback. It was a nasty sounding effect of the acoustic guitars natural resonance, feeding out of the speaker, back into the pickup.
Feedback: What to do? Enter Adolph Rickenbacher, of Swiss ancestry. Well known to Beauchamp as the machinist, who made metallic cones for Beauchamp’s National co. resonator guitars. Rickenbacher and Beauchamp set out to make a “Slide” or “Hawaiian” guitar with a pickup, mounted on a body that won’t produce the undesirable feedback. A prototype solid wood version of the “Frying Pan” was made, with the Beauchamp electromagnetic “horseshoe pickup”- It worked! (It this case it was especially good when the plan came together). All acoustic properties are lost, but it didn’t matter. This is a new type of guitar. It is the prototype for the first Electric guitar.
Construction of the A-22/A-25, and the birth of Rickenbacker
New Partners Rickenbacher (soon Americanized to “Rickenbacker”) and Beauchamp’s first venture was the first Electric Guitar, the first solid body electric guitar, and the first Rickenbacker. That’s an awful lot of “firsts” for one instrument.
The frying pan’s body is built with and by the expertise of Rickenbacker. Made of cast aluminum, and fitted with a simple, string surrounding Horseshoe pickup. The first versions were hard wired, full volume. The pickup produced just a meager 2.8 ohms of resistance, but got the job done. As simple as simple can be, yet has features still common to electric guitars, still used 90 years later. Two such features are the ¼ inch jack plug and the first “string through the body design”, much like the first commercially successful non-Hawaiian solid body electric, the Fender Telecaster.
Ongoing success and development of the A-22, Rickenbacker and the Lap Steel
The Rickenbacher Electro A22 featured here, is an early model, but not the first one made. Serial numbers on Rickenbacker this early have no rhyme or reason to be accurately relied on. The Prototype was made in 1931. Production began in 1932. Smack dab in the great depression (Not a bad time for Rickenbacker and Beauchamp gave the world something to play electric blues on)! The first production model had no “Rickenbacher” name plate, of any spelling derivation. It was simply just the “Electro”. Slightly later models have a “Rickenbacher (note spelling) Electro” placard screwed to the slotted headstock (with easy to access “up turned” tuners for lap playing). This (pictured) example is likely from 1934, when the “always full on” wired pickup was tamed with a volume control potentiometer, and accessible Bakelite control knob. Tuners face downward, by 1964, also. In 1935, a luxurious tone control is added to the tiny cooking surface (uh, body). The simple, but truly ahead of its time Electro Hawaiian is a marvel. It’s so simple, and unassuming, one might look right past this, onto something flashier. Maybe something less….average.
If “average” is all that the casual onlooker can see, they are missing some fun, way-out-ahead of the times features. While it is certain the Frying pan is intended to capitalize on the popularity of Hawaiian slide playing, at higher than ever before volumes, there is a lot of foreshadowing going on. The “rounded” neck has something very close to real frets. A few careful modifications with a file will destroy the historic value of this “anything but average” bit of cookery, but will very nearly make it a playable upright electric Spanish guitar. I would not recommend destroying this historic wonder, but a few tools, and 30 minutes would yield something very close to a modern electric guitar. It may not sound so good, with its cast aluminum body, and the pickup has less than half power of a weak single coil.
Another ironic footnote is the fact that the Fry Pan A-22 has a two octave, 24 fret neck that nearly appears scalloped. Coupled with its single bridge position pickup, and single volume control, this 1934 design, is starting to share a lot of common ground with a 1980’s “Super Strat”. Some masking tape, and a red, black and white rattle can and you’ve very nearly……nah, forget that idea. Without a Floyd Rose, and strap buttons, it won’t go over very well at the “Diver Down” open mic night, and it won’t be considered funny by the folks at the Smithsonian. In the short run of the Fry Pan’s important history (1932-1936) it gained a volume, and tone control, and came in two sizes: The short A-22 and longer A-25 (22 or 25 inch scale length).
The Electro Hawaiian was indeed awarded a patent. It most certainly was, and is deserving of one. The Patent came in 1937, just one year after production ended, ironically. A great start was the A-22.
Rickenbacker had already moved on to more attractive (and better sounding Bakelite Hawaiian guitars). An industry of Hawaiian “Lap steel” guitars popped up overnight, after this not so simple, or average, game changing instrument was provided to the world, courteously, by Rickenbacker, and Beauchamp.
George Beauchamp not only got a patent for the A-22 Lap Steel, but also the Electro Spanish (The ES, anyone???) and the single cone resonator. A lot to have accomplished, in such a short life. Unfortunately for the world, George Beauchamp died at the age of only 42. Fortunately for Beauchamp, he was out fishing at the time.
Adolph Rickenbacker did quite well also. What started with the Electro A-22 developed into a world renowned Brand of Guitars. It will not only be Cousin Eddie Rickenbacker, the WWI American Ace pilot to gain renown. Rickenbacker Company will go on to make some of the world’s favorite electric guitars, electric 12 string guitars and basses. Just ask John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, (yes, Ringo had one also) Roger McGuinn, Pete Townsend, Chris Squire, Geddy Lee, Lemmy Kilmister (Yay, Motorhead!) Tom Petty, Carl Wilson, an on, ad infinitum.
So, there it is, more or less: The Pan that cooked a zillion plates. Far from average, and while it may not have been the greatest sounding electric Hawaiian guitar ever built, it was first. Furthermore, it created a long list of “new firsts” in the process. Take another look at it. You, me, and everyone that plays, owes it a tip of the hat.