Once upon a time, if I’d been asked, I’d have probably said that the master Jazz musician Charlie Christian was the first electric guitarist on record. But since I’ve gotten into researching the history, including the “first recordings” of the musical genres I love, I’ve made some interesting discoveries.
What I now know is that, basically, once upon a time, I really didn’t know.
To start things off, let me first state that the very first electric guitar played on record was what was known at the time as a “Hawaiian” electric guitar. This was a six-string instrument that didn’t really look like a guitar and was played sitting down, laid across the player’s lap, the strings “fretted” with a steel bar or slide. This kind of instrument was the first commercially made electric guitar. The first successful one was manufactured by the Ro-Pat-In Corporation of California in 1931. They called it the “Electro Hawaiian.” It later became known as the “frying pan” guitar. In 1934 the company began marketing their instruments under the “Rickenbacker” name.
My interest, and therefore my research, was in finding the first person to record playing a “Spanish” electric guitar. This instrument was a normal-looking and normally-played archtop guitar with a magnetic “pickup” attached. Ro-Pat-In made their “Electro Spanish” in 1932 and the Gibson Guitar Company made their first, the “ES-150 Electric Spanish” in 1935.
For a while, Eddie Durham held the title.
Eddie Durham (Aug.19, 1906 – March 6, 1987) was a composer, arranger, trombonist and guitarist. He made a recording on September 30, 1935 with Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra entitled: “Hittin’ The Bottle.” This cut featured Eddie taking a solo on “amplified guitar.” It seems that what this means is that he played a Spanish, resonator-style guitar with a microphone either inside of it or positioned very, very close to it. Not an “electric” guitar.
It wasn’t until March 18, 1938 that Eddie cut a record playing an actual electric guitar. He did this with the Jazz group The Kansas City Five. They recorded four pieces that day: “Laughing At Life,” “Good Mornin’ Blues,” “I Know That You Know” and “Love Me Or Leave Me,” each one featuring a single-note solo played by Eddie on an electric guitar. Very cool stuff!
Recently though, thanks to a random search for “electric guitar” on Wikipedia, I discovered something “new:” Roy Newman and His Boys and George Barnes.
It seems that 16-year-old guitarist George Barnes (July 17, 1921 – Sept.5, 1977) made a record backing up Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy in Chicago,IL, on March 1, 1938 (17 days before Eddie). The two sides are “Sweetheart Land” and “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame.” In listening to them, the guitar solos are definitely being played on an electric instrument. Equally cool stuff.
But then the Wikipedia article says that the first Spanish electric guitar recording made “west of the Mississippi” was made by guitarist Jim Boyd with the band Roy Newman and His Boys. They cut three sides: “Hot Dog Stomp,” “Shine On Harvest Moon” and “Corrine, Corrina” on September 28, 1935 in Dallas, Texas. If you’re keeping score, that was two days before “Hittin’ The Bottle” (not really an electric guitar) and almost 2 1/2 years before young George Barnes.
Again, thanks to the internet and a website called Internet Archive (www.archive.org), I found a downloadable recording of the “Corrine, Corrina” cut. And, since the site says that the recording is in the public domain, I can share it with you. Listen and enjoy: “Corrine, Corrina” by Roy Newman and His Boys, featuring: Jim Boyd.
There you go. The guitar solo comes in after the second verse. It sounds like an electric guitar to me. (But then, how would you describe the sound of an electric guitar?) If you listen closely, you can hear Jim playing walking lines behind the vocals and other soloists throughout the rest of the recording. Very cool indeed!
Charlie Christian, by the way, made his first recording with the Benny Goodman Sextet on October 2, 1939. On that day, he made the legendary recording of “Rose Room.” Also cool and very highly recommended.
So: who was the first electric guitarist on record? Now you know, too.
Isn’t the Internet a great research tool…? I’d be lost without it, both personally and professionally.
That Hawaiian guitar…. Is that a forerunner of what we today call the electric steel guitar, as played by Jeff Healy?