Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Making of the Electric Guitar

From the Paul Tutmarc Website:

I have been urged by many persons over the years to write the TRUE FACTS regarding the creation of the very first electric guitar, which was an electric Hawaiian guitar because the inventor was an accomplished artist on the Hawaiian guitar.

I am speaking of my father, Paul H. Tutmarc.

My dad had a love for the Hawaiian Steel guitar from the time he was 15 years old. This was about the year 1911 as my father was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 29, 1896.

He started playing the guitar at that age and a few years later got a Knutsen Hawaiian steel guitar and practiced hours and hours everyday. He married my mother, Lorraine, in 1921 and I joined the family on July 11, 1924 after my sister Jeanne, who was born on December 7, 1922. We lived in Centralia, Washington, my first four years. My dad was the local band leader for the dances, playing banjo and singing and leading the band. We moved to Seattle in 1928 (I was four years old) and my father built us a very good home in Seattle. This house had a fine, full basement, and my dad, being such an ambitious person, had a very complete workshop in the basement by the time the house was finished. My father and his brother did all the carpentry work on the house.

My dad was the tenor soloist in several of the downtown theaters in those days. He worked on the Fanchon & Marco circuits and was much involved in music as well as being an instructor of the Hawaiian guitar. He gave many lessons in our home and I was a constant "listener" from behind the living room sofa.

In the later part of 1930 or perhaps the very first of 1931, a man, Art Stimpson, from Spokane, Washington, came to Seattle, especially to see and meet my father. Art was an electrical enthusiast and always taking things apart to see what made them function as they did. He had been doing just this with a telephone, wondering how the vocal vibrations against the enclosed diaphragm were picked up by the magnet coil behind the diaphragm and carried by the wires to another telephone. My father became interested in this "phenomenon" and began his own "tinkering" with the telephone. Noting that taping on the telephone was also picked up by the magnetic field created behind the diaphragm, he was encouraged to see if he could build his own "magnetic pickup".

As every, old time steel player knows, it was difficult to make the steel guitar heard above other instruments. My father was always complaining about this common problem. The Dobro guitars with the aluminum dishes inside did help, somewhat, but never enough for performance with any goodly number of accompanists.

The very first though of my father's was, with this idea of magnifying sound, electrically, how could this magnify the sound of his steel guitar. He started with a rather large, horse-shoe shaped magnet, wound some coils with the smallest wire he could obtain, which was either No. 38 or No. 40. I remember seeing this first magnetic pickup of his. It was all wrapped up in friction tape and about the size of a grapefruit.

He made contact with another friend, Bob Wisner, a young man with a brilliant mind, and a radio repairman of great repute in Seattle as about the only one able to repair the old Atwater-Kent radios. He worked at Buckley Radio in Seattle, on Saturdays, repairing all the radios the regular repairmen could not repair during the week. It was Bob Wisner who helped my dad re-wire a radio to get some amplication of his magnetic pickup.

Once this was ready, my dad starting working with an old round hole, flat top guitar and discovered the pickup would pick up the sound from a plucked string and carry it through to the "adapted" radio. So, this large pickup was eventually installed INSIDE the guitar with a polepiece sticking up through a slot he cut in the top of the guitar near the bridge, and the electric guitar was on its way. Being an ambitious woodworker, he decided to make a solid body for his electric guitar idea and his first one was octagon shaped at the bridge end, containing the pickup and then a long, slender square cornered neck out to the patent heads.

Before he actually made this solid body guitar, he electrified every instrument he could get his hands on. He electrified zithers and pianos and spanish guitars. He would break up two guitars, just to get the necks and fretboards and glue them on to a flat top guitar, having three necks with three different tunings. He made a solid body (black walnut) guitar with FIVE sets of strings. The guitar was about 24 inches wide and the neck about 20 inches wide. He had a full, six string major chord, six string seventh chord, six string diminished chord, six string augmented chord and six string ninth chord. I can remember his demonstrating this "out of this world" guitar at the local Sears-Roebuck store in South Seattle.

He began to receive much interest concerning this new invention from his students. He began to see the possibilities on manufacturing these guitars for sale. He did send in to the U.S. Patent office for information regarding any type of electric, stringed instruments. A complete search was made, which I recall cost him $300.00 which in the time of the great depression, was a LOT OF MONEY. There were NO types, whatsoever, presented to the U.S. Patent office, so my dad knew he was the FIRST. However, the chances of patenting an electric pickup would be nil as Bell & Company had long since covered that.

After building a few guitars out of solid, black walnut, he felt he needed to get someone else to do the woodworking and he would go do all the assembly work and electrical manufacturing. He contacted a man, Emerald Baunsgard, a young superb craftsman, and an agreement was made and Emerald started doing all the wood work of the electric guitars for my father's company, Audiovox Manufacturing Company. Emerald was a master at inlay work so these black walnut guitars all had inlaid frets, inlaid pearl position markings and beautiful, hand rubbed finishes. The guitars were beautiful and very quickly accepted on the market...

The TRUE FACTS on the Invention of the Electric Guitar AND Electric Bass
Bud Tutmarc

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