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Electric guitars are most associated with rock music, but arguably the world’s first electric guitar was designed for Hawaiian “lap-steel” music.
Americans first became mesmerized by the soft lilting tones of the Pacific islands when Hawaiian musicians performed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. More than 18 million people visited the fair in San Francisco that year to marvel at breakthroughs in aviation technology, stroll through California’s “Big Trees” inside the Southern Pacific Railroad exhibit, and experience Samoan dancing and sumo wrestling.
A highlight of the exposition was the steel-guitar music being made by natives of the recently annexed Hawaiian islands. Lap-steel musicians played the acoustic guitar facing up while resting on their lap instead of facing out, plucking the strings while running a steel bar over the neck to create a sweeping sound that glides from one pitch to the next. By the following year, 78 rpm records featuring Indigenous Hawaiian instruments outsold every other musical genre in the United States.
As Hawaiian lap steel became more popular and audiences got bigger, it was increasingly difficult to hear the small acoustic instrument from larger stages. In the early 1930s, a Texas-born lap-steel guitarist named George Beauchamp made a significant change to the guitar—he added a magnetic device to the instrument that “picked up” vibrations from the metal strings and sent them to an amplifier. Working with manufacturer Adolph Rickenbacher in 1931, he fitted a horseshoe-shaped “pickup” over the strings (unlike modern electrics, where the pickup is under the strings) on top of the body. The result was the cast aluminum Rickenbacher A-22—also known as the “frying pan” because of its shape—which is displayed in GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World, an exhibition now showing at Carnegie Science Center.
Nearly two decades later, Leo Fender introduced the first mass-produced electric guitar designed to be played face-out, and the market for lap-steel guitars dwindled. But the Rickenbacher remains a unique instrument and an important innovation in music history.
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