Behold the First Electric Guitar: The 1931 “Frying Pan”

Frying Pan Schematic

The names Leo Fend­er and Les Paul will be for­ev­er asso­ci­at­ed with the explo­sion of the elec­tric gui­tar into pop­u­lar cul­ture. And right­ly so. With­out engi­neer Fend­er and musi­cian and stu­dio wiz Paul’s time­less designs, it’s hard to imag­ine what the most icon­ic instru­ments of decades of pop­u­lar music would look like.

They just might look like fry­ing pans.

Though Fend­er and Paul (and the Gib­son com­pa­ny) get all the glo­ry, it’s two men named George who should right­ly get much of the cred­it for invent­ing the elec­tric gui­tar. The first, naval offi­cer George Breed, has a sta­tus vis-à-vis the elec­tric gui­tar sim­i­lar to Leonar­do da Vinci’s to the heli­copter.

In 1890, Breed sub­mit­ted a patent for a one-of-a-kind design, uti­liz­ing the two basic ele­ments that would even­tu­al­ly make their way into Stra­to­cast­ers and Les Pauls—a mag­net­ic pick­up and wire strings. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Breed, his design also includ­ed some very imprac­ti­cal cir­cuit­ry and required bat­tery oper­a­tion, “result­ing in a small but extreme­ly heavy gui­tar with an uncon­ven­tion­al play­ing tech­nique,” writes the Inter­na­tion­al Reper­to­ry of Music Lit­er­a­ture, “that pro­duced an excep­tion­al­ly unusu­al and ungui­tar­like, con­tin­u­ous­ly sus­tained sound.”

Like a Renais­sance fly­ing machine, the design went nowhere. That is, until George Beauchamp, a “musi­cian and tin­ker­er” from Texas, came up with a design for an elec­tric gui­tar pick­up that worked beau­ti­ful­ly. The first “Fry­ing Pan Hawai­ian” lap steel gui­tar, whose schemat­ic you can see at the top of the post, “now sits in a case in a muse­um,” writes Andre Mil­lard in his his­to­ry of the elec­tric gui­tar, “look­ing every inch the his­toric arti­fact but not much like a gui­tar.” Giz­mo­do quotes gui­tar his­to­ri­an Richard Smith, who dis­cuss­es the need in the 20s and 30s for an elec­tric gui­tar to be heard over the rhythm instru­ments in jazz and in Beauchamp’s pre­ferred style, Hawai­ian music, “where… the gui­tar was the melody instru­ment. So the real push to make the gui­tar elec­tric came from the Hawai­ian musi­cians.”

Beauchamp devel­oped the gui­tar after he was fired as gen­er­al man­ag­er of the Nation­al Instru­ment Man­u­fac­ture Com­pa­ny. Need­ing a new project, he and anoth­er Nation­al employ­ee, Paul Barth, began exper­i­ment­ing with Breed’s ideas. After build­ing a work­ing pick­up, they called on anoth­er Nation­al employ­ee, writes, “to make a wood­en neck and body for it. In sev­er­al hours, carv­ing with small hand tools, a rasp, and a file, the first ful­ly elec­tric gui­tar took form.” (An ear­li­er elec­tro-acoustic gui­tar—the Stromberg Elec­tro—con­tributed to ampli­fi­er tech­nol­o­gy but its awk­ward pick­up design didn’t catch on.)

Need­ing cap­i­tal, man­u­fac­tur­ing, and dis­tri­b­u­tion, Beauchamp con­tract­ed with tool­mak­er Adolph Rick­en­backer, who mass pro­duced the Fry­ing Pan as “The Rick­en­bach­er A‑22″ under the com­pa­ny name “Elec­tro String.” (The com­pa­ny became Rick­en­backer Gui­tars after its own­er sold it in the 50s.) Although the nov­el­ty of the instru­ment and its cost dur­ing the Great Depres­sion inhib­it­ed sales, Beauchamp and Rick­en­backer still pro­duced sev­er­al ver­sions of the Fry­ing Pan, with cast alu­minum bod­ies rather than wood. (See an ear­ly mod­el here.) Soon, the Fry­ing Pan became inte­grat­ed into live jazz bands (see it at the 3:34 mark above in a 1936 Adoph Zukor short film) and record­ings.

How does the Fry­ing Pan sound? Aston­ish­ing­ly good, as you can hear for your­self in the demon­stra­tion videos above. Although Rick­en­backer and oth­er gui­tar mak­ers moved on to installing pick­ups in so-called “Span­ish” guitars—hollow-bodied jazz box­es with their famil­iar f‑holes—the Fry­ing Pan lap steel con­tin­ues to have a par­tic­u­lar mys­tique in gui­tar his­to­ry, and was man­u­fac­tured and sold into the ear­ly 1950s.

The next leap for­ward in elec­tric gui­tar design? After the Fry­ing Pan came Les Paul’s first ful­ly solid­body elec­tric: The Log.

Learn More about the inven­tion of the elec­tric gui­tar in the short Smith­son­ian video just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The World’s First Bass Gui­tar (1936)

The Sto­ry of the Gui­tar: The Com­plete Three-Part Doc­u­men­tary

Bri­an May’s Home­made Gui­tar, Made From Old Tables, Bike and Motor­cy­cle Parts & More

Oxford Sci­en­tist Explains the Physics of Play­ing Elec­tric Gui­tar Solos

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Raymond DeSantis says:

    The arti­cle com­plete­ly omits the Slinger­land 401 built in the mid 1930s which IS the first sol­id body elctric gui­tar.

  • Carl Russo says:

    So which gui­tar was used in the Looney Tunes intros of the 1930s-60s?

  • Lucius Malou says:

    This arti­cle and the clips are excep­tion­al­ly infor­ma­tive. The Fry­ing Pan was the orig­i­nal sol­id body elec­tric gui­tar and George Beauchamp had the patent. Turn that side­ways and low­er the strings and you have the six string sol­id body elec­tric. O.W. Apple­ton had a sol­id body in 1943 that looked a lot like a Les Paul. Meryl Travis had Paul Bigs­by build a sol­id body that he designed in 1948. The Broad­cast­er that Fend­er devel­oped and the Les Paul mod­el that Ted McCar­ty and Gib­son devel­oped were the ulti­mate expres­sion of those ideas. They hold up today because they got them so right the first time.

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