Electric Guitar History
The Birth of the First Electric Guitar

The most important component in electric guitar history was, of course, advances in the understanding of elctricity and electro-magnetic theory. This critical physical phenomenon made possible many advances such as electric lights, electric motors, etc. Without it there would have been no electric guitar.

Electric Guitar History - Enter Electricity...

After being fired by National String Instrument Company, George Beauchamp (pronounced "Beachum") began looking for other ways to increase the volume of the guitar. By this time it was well known that passing a wire through a magnetic field would induce an current in the wire and, therefore, an electric field around the wire. If the wire was vibrating, this would produce an alternating current(in other words, the direction of the current would flip flop as the wire vibrated back and forth) and, as a consequence, the direction of the electric field produced would also alternate. This was a critical component in the beginnings of electric guitar history.

Note this phenomenon was well understood and was the basis of the operation of electric motors, phonograph needles, etc. Beauchamp realized that if this principle could be applied to steel guitar strings and, that if a device could be constructed that could pick up the vibrations of the strings individually, the vibrations could be converted to an electric current that could be sent to and amplified by one of the tube type amplifiers that were currently being used by the PA and radio systems of the day. This would successfully amplify the guitar.

The Frying Pan

The Frying Pan
To make a long story short, Beauchamp along with Paul Barth finally succeeded in creating a working "pickup". The pickup consisted of two horseshoe magnets placed end to end and six pole pieces to concentrate individual magnetic fields over each string and thus pick up the vibrations of each string. The strings were then passed through the magnets and directly over each pole. According to Barth's account, the coil was wound with a sewing machine.

Once the pickup was working, Beachamp contacted Harry Watson, a talented craftsman and colleague from National String. Together they created the first working prototype, dubbing it "The Frying Pan". From the photo you can see where the name came from.

Adolf Rickenbacker

Adolf Rickenbacker
With a working prototype in hand, Beauchamp approached Adolf Rickenbacker, whom he knew from National Strings. With Rickenbacker's financial backing and influence they formed a company that came to be called Rickenbacker, in part due to people pronouncing Beachamp incorrectly and the familiarity of the Rickenbacker name. They began manufacturing the Frying Pan which quickly became popular as a Hawaiian style lap steel guitar, securing Rickenbacker's place in electric guitar history as being the manufacturer of the first electric guitar. So, if you've always wondered who invented the electric guitar - now you know.

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