Adolph Rickenbacher, the First Electric Guitar and the End of National
It is at this point in the story that we return to Adolph Rickenbacher. As the 1930s loomed, George’s popularity at National was waning, primarily owing to the legal battle he had plunged the company into with Dobro. In 1931 he was removed from his management post and he was ultimately fired at the end of the year (although he would continue to participate on the board until 1934). Nonetheless, his musicians’ curiosity abounded, and in October 1931 he formed the Ro-Pat-In Music Corporation with Rickenbacher. No-one quite knows or remembers the significance of the company’s name; in any case, the name was soon changed to the Electro String Instrument Corporation. The whole purpose of the company was to explore Beauchamp’s idea for a fully electric guitar, to surpass the mechanical amplification of the National tricones.
Adolph Rickenbacher – whose name was altered to “Rickenbacker” after WWII – was born in Switzerland in 1892 and migrated to the US after his parents died and other relatives chose to relocate. He moved to Los Angeles in 1918 after living for various periods in Columbus, Ohio as well as Chicago, Illinois, and set up the Rickenbacher Manufacturing Company in 1925. Their primary focus was metalwork, which made him an excellent candidate for involvement at National. George would meet Adolph through Ted – National’s wealthy socialite investor and president – who knew him from another manufacturing project. By 1930 he was listed as National’s chief engineer, and his manufacturing company was given exclusive rights to manufacture the Nationals’ metal bodies. His metal-stamping shop – located a stones’ throw from National’s factory – was able to manufacture 50 guitar bodies a day: an output that posed a credible threat to the major Eastern and Mid-Western guitar manufacturing companies.
George already had some history with experimenting with electric guitars. Intimately familiar with microphones from his touring of the vaudeville circuit, he had taken apart a mic and attempted to attach the carbon button to the top of his Martin with the high nut. In 1928 – while he was still involved with National – Hank Kuhrmeyer with the Stromberg-Voisinet company had created an electric guitar and begun to circulate it in the music magazines of the day. National even ran adverts through to the mid-1930s – after George had been fired from the company – discouraging dealers from stocking electric instruments. One such advert read, “Many new models of electric guitars are being offered to the trade today are almost duplicates of models discarded by our experimental department because after a thorough test AT OUR COST we discarded them as impractical as far back as 1928”.
Regardless, George undertook night courses in electronics after he left National and he and Rickenbacher had their so-called “frying pan” electric guitar on the market by August 1932. Unlike the Stromberg-Voisinet electric guitar which amplified bridge or body vibrations, Rickenbacher’s “frying pan” was a true electric guitar, in the contemporary sense, as it amplified string vibrations. The official name of the guitar was the Rickenbacher Electro A-22, yet earned its affectionate nickname due to its resemblance to this common piece of cookware. The whole guitar was made from aluminum – neck, body, fretboard and all – and was of course designed to be played lap-style due to the popularity of Hawaiian music at the time. It is interesting to note that Adolph was a reluctant partner in the manufacture and sale of electric guitars; they were after all George’s idea, and in the early 30s the concept did not enjoy the popularity attained today. Indeed, in a bizarre twist Adolph would sell George’s electric guitar design to National for a 10% royalty fee in 1934. As with John and George on the single-cone resonator, it is unclear how much credit should be given to Adolph and how much to George for the creation of the first commercially successful electric guitar. The idea and design was certainly George’s; however, Adolph had the money and the equipment to make the guitar a commercial reality. Though Adolph would go on to portray himself as the creator of the electric guitar (indeed, even printing business cards that announced him as the “father of the electric guitar” later in life) it has been suggested that he should more be regarded as the financier of George’s vision.
Right: The Electro A-22. Not hard to see why it earned its affectionate nickname!
The patent for George’s electric guitar would not be granted until 1937; this left room for other companies – and especially National – to begin developing their own electric guitars. National had already taken notice of George’s experimentation with aluminum bodies and swiftly added a single cone resonator made from this cheaper material to their lineup; however by 1935, the demand had become increasingly fervent for electric rather than acoustic guitars and National adjusted its focus appropriately. Through the late 1930s National and National-Dobro moved to Chicago, and expanded into all areas of the electric market. They began manufacturing pickups to be sold to other manufacturers, amplifiers, electric violins and even launched a discount line – called Supro, revived in the present day – through which they sold cheap electric guitar and amplifier sets. By 1940, the company looked vastly different from the roaring 20s emblem it had been in 1928, and was eventually dissolved in 1943. This was motivated by the government ordering a halt to guitar manufacturing as the US was dragged into WWII, and the stockholders of National were bought out by Vic Smith, Al Frost and Louis Dopyera (one of the brothers holding tenaciously to the end) who went on to form Valco. Initially created to perform the defense-related work ordered by the government, Valco would go on to become a respected electric guitar and amplifier manufacturer until the late-60s, spawning budget brands such as Airline which have endured in the popular memory.
Right: Jack White plays his “JB Hutto” Airline onstage. Courtesy of Reverb
Stay tuned for Part 5