I thought that I would do a short post about the electric guitar as I had mentioned it in my post on the blues. According to Wikipedia, the first electric guitar was invented in 1931, not the late 1920’s as I stated in my blues post. However, I was close and Wikipedia even admits that many people were experimenting with the concept for some time. One thing that I would quibble with in the Wikipedia article is the claim that the electric guitar was invented to keep up with the increased size and, therefore, sound of the big swing band. While that may have been the original intention, very few big bands used electric guitars. I have listened to a lot of big band music from the 1930’s and 40’s and have rarely heard an electric guitar.
One exception was Alvino Rey, who is actually playing an electric “Hawaiian” steel guitar in the clip. However, as you can hear and see in this movie excerpt from (I believe) 1944, the use of such an instrument tended to be rather gimmicky. And get a load of the puppet “Stringy the Talking Steel Guitar”! Yes, that sort of electronic voice modification technology was available in the 1940’s.
A more serious jazz electric guitarist in the 1940’s was Charlie Christian who played with the Benny Goodman sextet and was an early pioneer of Bebop. However, he died in 1942 at the age of 25.
There certainly were other electric guitarists around, however they really were only on the edge of the public’s consciousness. One of them was Les Paul who did a lot of combo work in the 1940’s. (Ironic, isn’t it? The instrument was supposedly developed to compete with BIG bands, but ends up being used in small combos.) At any rate, it is only when Les Paul teams up with Mary Ford that the electric guitar finally begins to break into the mainstream public consciousness. Listen to this 1951 performance by the two of “How High the Moon,” which ranked #3 in Billboard’s Top Songs for that year. The song is very much a jazz standard, but you can already hear what come to be identified as “rock ‘n’ roll” guitar licks – at least for early rock ‘n’ roll. (Notice that the closing cadence Les Paul plays is very close to what Bill Haley uses to end “Rock Around the Clock” only four years later.) Also, notice their use of multiple tracking, whereby they perform with pre-recorded versions of themselves.
Anyway this was a BIG hit in 1951!