The Buzz and the Blues

The electric guitar is eighty years old this week, the first commercially viable model, the Los Angeles–based Rickenbacker Corporation’s “Frying Pan,” patented on August 10, 1937. With the spread of electricity throughout America in the 1940s, the first generation of legendary blues guitarists could tour beyond the beer halls and juke joints to any venue with an electrical outlet. In When I Left Home, second-generation guitar legend Buddy Guy recalls being in his local general store in rural Lettsworth, Louisiana the day in 1950 when a thirsty Lightnin’ Slim (Ottis Hicks) walked in:

“He gonna play here today?” I asked.
“He will if I give him a bottle of beer.”
“Give him two bottles.”
He walked in real slow, giving Artigo a big smile.
“That beer cold?” he asked.
Artigo said, “Got a kid here who loves him some guitar.”
“What’s in that black box” I asked Lightnin’.
“Just a bunch of wires and tubes. Ain’t you never seen no amp?”
“No, sir. What it do?”
“Pushes electricity through the guitar. Makes it louder and stronger. Makes it scream until you can hear it over folk talking. You can hear it over anything. When this here electrical guitar starts to buzzing, folks gonna be flying in here like bees to honey.”

Guy was thirteen at the time, and music was whatever he could manage on his beat-up two-string acoustic. The closest he had come to a famous black man was the day that he and his friends, listening in a friendly white neighbor’s backyard, had heard the radio broadcast of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the majors. For a Delta farm boy, says Guy, listening to Slim play in the local store was electrifying in all ways.

Guy sits near the top of most ‘Top 100 Guitarists’ lists, and Lightnin’ Slim usually gets included. The near-unanimous No. 1 pick is Jimi Hendrix, and his iconic rendition of the National Anthem at Woodstock on August 18, 1969 is widely regarded as the greatest-ever guitar performance. “For many,” write Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna in Play It Loud, their musical-cultural history of the instrument, “the very words ‘electric guitar’ will immediately evoke visual images of Hendrix at Woodstock, attired in a Native American–style white leather tunic, fringed and turquoise-beaded, with a red headband wrapped around his Afro, his white Stratocaster hanging upside down from a shoulder strap . . . ”

Going from the Frying Pan to the fire and rain of Woodstock took just thirty years, and the electric guitar, played or smashed, remained the instrument of choice for the counterculture, with the Pete Townshend windmill an essential move for every air-guitar hero. Townshend says that he learned the windmill from Keith Richards; in his autobiography, Life, Richards says that “I’ve learned everything I know from records,” a statement backed up by a letter written at age eighteen to his aunt Patty, in which he describes this encounter with his guitar past and future:

You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin’ on Dartford Stn. (that’s so I don’t have to write a long word like station) I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs y’know came up to me. He’s got every Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have too, they are all rhythm and blues fans, real R & B I mean . . . Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Chuck, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker all the Chicago bluesmen real lowdown stuff, marvelous. Bo Diddley he’s another great.

Anyways the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger . . .

Photo of the Ro-Pat-In Cast Aluminum Electric Hawaiian “Frying Pan” Guitar by the Museum of Making Music at English Wikipedia.