Lynn Wheelwright discusses Gibson’s First Production Electric Guitar

“Alvino was the king of the electric guitar during the early to mid 1930’s” says Gibson expert, Lynn Wheelwright.

“While with Spitalny’s Orchestra, Alvino attached a pickup to his banjo, qualifying him as one of the first musicians to perform with an amplified instrument. By the end of 1932 he was using one of the first ViVi-Tone electrics as well as one of the first Ro-Pat-In A-25 Electro (Rickenbacher) ‘Frying Pan’ steel guitars.

Alvino’s 1932 Vi-Vi Tone Electric Spanish guitar

“Gibson’s general manager Guy Hart, no doubt aware of the electrically amplified ‘Frying Pan’ guitar, initiated an R&D project, the object of which was to come up with a commercially viable electric Hawaiian guitar and matching amplifier.

“Research was initially carried out in collaboration with the Chicago-based Lyon and Healy Company, where an engineer by the name of John Kutalek was given the task of developing a suitable electromagnetic pickup. Thanks to his pioneering use of the electric guitar, Alvino Rey was enlisted in an advisory capacity.

“Alvino told me he invented the tone control for electric guitars,” says Lynn. “If you look at the references, you can’t find anything with an original tone control before the Gibson EH-150 from late October of 1935.”

Above, Alvino pictured in 1933 with his Rickenbacher ‘Frying Pan’

Alvino would not play the wood bodied Gibson EH-150, because it lacked the bite and sustain he needed for his style. Though the earlier Gibson E-150 (Gibson’s first production electric guitar) had a cast aluminium body like the Rickenbacher ‘Frying Pan’, Alvino was used to a 25-inch scale length. Gibson could not have its endorser appearing in public with a Rickenbacher and to appease Alvino, built a one-of-a-kind, eight-string, cast aluminium EH with a 25-inch scale.

This unique instrument was mounted in a guitar-shaped body as his ‘frying pan’ had been.

“I have only found one picture of him playing this,” says Lynn. “It was at the Drake hotel in late 1936. As far as we know, this is the first Gibson eight-string and the only one with a cast aluminium body.”

Gibson R&D Guitar

By the mid 1930s, pressure was on Gibson to add an electric guitar to its catalogue. Both Electro (Rickenbacker) and National-Dobro now offered electric instruments and when Epiphone – Gibson’s main rival at the time – threw its hat into the ring, Gibson had little option but to develop an electric guitar and amplifier set of its own.

Lacking the necessary R & D facilities, the company outsourced the project to Lyon & Healy, where electrical engineer John Kutilek was given the task of designing a pickup that didn’t infringe existing patents. Guitarist Alvino Rey – who was the number one electric player at the time – was taken on board in an advisory capacity. Alvino would fly up to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo whenever he got the chance – he had his pilots license before he had a drivers license. The company may have viewed his involvement in the project as legitimising Gibson’s entry into the field of electric instruments in the same way that guitarist Les Paul’s name was later used to promote the introduction of Gibson’s first solidbody in the early 1950s. After several months of experimentation, Guy Hart relocated the project to Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory, where Walter Fuller replaced Kutalek as the man in charge of the new pickup’s development.

Introduced in 1935, Gibson’s first production electric guitar – initially referred to simply as the Gibson Electric Hawaiian – incorporated Walter Fuller’s pickup. A similar unit was installed in the ES-150 electric Spanish guitar, which Gibson launched the following year. The ES-150 was subsequently adopted by a young black musician from Oklahoma City named Charlie Christian and the rest, as they say, is history!

Built by Alvino Rey and John Kutilek as a test bed for their new pickup, the instrument pictured here (below) comprises a simple frame to which a vestigial ‘body’, fingerboard and headstock – all of which are fabricated from sheet brass – are attached. Hardware includes a brass nut and bridge, inexpensive tuners and a basic trapeze tailpiece. The pickup itself consists of two magnets with the strings running between the top magnet and a coil of wire. The pickup was hardwired with no jack socket or controls.

This guitar was featured in an article by Lynn Wheelwright and John Teagle in Vintage Guitar Magazine.

This picture was taken in 1997 when Alvino was 89 years old. He continued to play and recorded right up to his death in 2004. The guitar is on display in the Quest for Volume room at EMP in Seattle, Washington. Image courtesy of Lynn Wheelwright

Special thanks to Lynn Wheelwright for the information and pictures on this page.

2 Comments
  1. Do you have any information on Paul Barth? He was in the middle of the electric pickup innovation in the late ‘20’s/early ‘30’s. I worked with him at his Riverside, CA shop in ‘72-‘73. I see little bits and pieces on line, but would enjoy any info that you could pass on. Thanks, Kirk.

  2. Hi Kirk, Paul Barth is a little outside of our area of knowledge. Lynn Wheelwright would almost certainly have information on Mr Barth. You can contact him via Facebook. Regards, Paul

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