Interview Date: July 20, 2012 @ 2 pm
Special Guest: John McNally of the Searchers – Known for hits like “Sweets for my Sweet,” “Needles and Pins,” and “Love Potion Number 9,” the Searchers were one of the leading bands to come out of the Merseybeat scene out of Liverpool in the early 60’s. Known for playing at the Star Club in Hamburg, the Cavern, and the Iron Door in Liverpool, the Searchers went on to become part of the first wave of the “British Invasion” with a TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and a major US tour. The Searchers have continued to entertain and tour 50 years on. In this podcast we talk about some of their hit songs, John Lennon and Brian Epstein, going on tour with the Rolling Stones and much more.
The Truncated History of the Birth of the Loud Guitar
A little research into the background of the electric guitar reveals some fascinating history. Similar to the birth of Radio, (on which Ken Burns has a great documentary “Empire of the Air”), the players and path of making the guitar louder has some fascinating and colourful characters. All of which, had they not been present, would have shaped the progression of the guitar very differently. Perhaps, most profoundly for the Rickenbacker electric guitar.
We’ll start the story at where the desire to make the guitar louder launched the impetus to create in George Beauchamp, (pronounced Beechum) a vaudeville violinist and steel guitar player who wanted to be heard more clearly above the band. He sought John Dopyera to create a prototype of his design using a phonograph horn similar to what was used on phonographs of the time. Other inventors were trying to produce an amplified guitar using similar methods at the time. Apparently, this first attempt was nothing but a failure, but their next design involved using three aluminum resonators proved to fulfil everything that Beauchamp had hoped. It proved to impress him so much that he proposed that Dopyera go into business with him to market them. They founded the National String Instrument Corporation and thus the first National resonator guitar was born – the tricone.
Searching for investors, Beauchamp took the tricone prototype to a party his 20’s millionaire playboy, cousin-in-law, Ted Kleinmeyer, was hosting, and where hawaiian guitar virtuoso Sol Ho’opi’i and his trio were playing for Ho’opi’i to play. Apparently, having heard Ho’opi’i playing the new guitar, Kleinmeyer gave Beauchamp a $12,000 cheque that same night. Kleinmeyer’s investment was great fortune for the company, but perhaps not so difficult to come by as one would think, as Kleinmeyer was trying to burn through his inheritance before he would get his next million dollars of inheritance at 30. However, the events that evening were the pivotal point which changed the lives and careers of countless people, and it’s effects are still resounding. For the initial players, Sol Ho’opi’i continued to play the tricone and helped to make the guitar quite popular. It’s general popularity lasted until the electric guitar came into use, but steel instruments still are mainstays in Hawaiian music, and familiar in blues, western swing, bluegrass, and country.
From their nascent factory, Beauchamp and Dopyera went to a nearby metal stamping plant owned by a Swiss born man by the name of Adolph Rickenbacher (who anglicized his name to Rickenbacker, partly because of famous relative and top WWI ace, race car driver, and automobile manufacturer, Eddie Rickenbacker) to make the metal bodies of the instruments they were making. Successful production began almost overnight.
Unfortunately, the partnership would not last, internal struggles, hardship, and disagreements with the direction of the company caused the bond of the members to fracture. John Dopyera quit to form the his own company – the Dobro Corporation. Beauchamp himself was fired. Kleinmeyer, nearly broke by then, sold out his shares to Louis Dopyera, one of the Dopyera brothers who remained involved in National. Rickenbacker himself seemed to be the only level headed one, and continued to do business with the splinter groups.
John Dopyera, sought to make a resonator that would be less costly to produce and therefore priced more appropriately for a larger scope of players, one that implemented a single cone instead of three. Something he tried to produce at National, but wasn’t able, contributing to his frustration with the company. With his new company, he set to building his plan, but despite being one of the creators of the resonator, National owned the patent for the single cone and he had to come up with another design to work around the patent. This brought him to found the Dobro company with four of his brothers. He designed plans to invert the aluminum cone and have the strings transmit their sound through an eight-way branching cast aluminum frame called a spider. While the name Dobro is used to refer to many resonators, the inverted cone spider type is the true dobro. Gibson guitars purchased the rights to the Dobro name now.
The single cone resonator proving, as Dopyera figured, to be cheaper, and producing more volume, became popular and took sales. National didn’t want to be left behind and had to come out with their own single cone using what they call a biscuit to transmit the sound to the cone -known as the National biscuit, or simply the National.
Beauchamp, still investing his time in experimentation, decided to pursue the concept of amplifying the guitar by use of electronics, and educated himself by enrolling in night school. After night school and through several months of experimentation, finally he had developed a way of concentrating the magnetic field under each string. Beauchamp went back to Rickenbacker to found a new company to produce the instrument. They began making the electric guitar, “the Rickenbacker” a.k.a. “the frying pan.”
To show what great products blossomed out of that seminal moment when Beauchamp had Ho’opi’i play his prototype that night, one need only pick a few more examples; the effects really seem to be endless the more one looks into it. All events concerning electric guitars can trace their way back to that night. Rickenbacker, producing amplifiers for their guitars had many of them making their way into Leo Fender’s radio repair shop sparking his interest in electric instruments (who later formed Fender with Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman, another former worker for Rickenbacker). And further events brought the National String Instrument Company, and Dobro to merge for a time, forming the National Dobro Company which, in turn led three former owners of that company to spin-off and form another company,Valco. Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera, founded the short lived company, but produced a highly sought after guitar. Simply, the history of the electric guitar goes back to that evening at Kleinmeyer’s party.
Rickenbacker continues to develop guitars, and the basis of their electromagnetic pickups are still the standard for amplifying the sound from the strings. Rickenbackers, although a different company than from the formative years, still are known by their distinct, clear sound and original style. Paul McCartney and George Harrison were known to use them, plus Tom Petty and many more, but to list them would only serve an example of leaving notable names out, plus make this a much longer article, and that’s not the point. What was meant to show and that the history of the loud guitar isn’t so hard to trace back to that one evening, and to Beauchamp, who had a little ingenuity, and the wish to play loud, so to end this history here with a quote from Bob Dylan; “Play fucking loud!”
A Message from Leafcutter John
I’m making a piece of music for BBC radio 3′s the Verb show and I’d like to assemble a large chorus of people speaking in morse code. I need your help – All you have to do is record yourself speaking the letter ‘Q’ followed by the words:
if you like you can then follow that with your favourite word beginning with the letter Q.
Or you can email me the recording & tell me how you’d like to be credited.
I think the show goes out on 24th October.
The Kinks – Have a cool contest for people wanting to re-interpret one of their songs. You can find out more here: http://www.talenthouse.com/collaborate-with-the-kinks
Tom Waits News: