Electric Guitar Heroes
Oklahoma and the enhancement of an instrument
Photos by M.J. Alexander
Bob Dunn, who toured between the World Wars with the Panhandle Cowboys and Indians, was an early adapter and virtuoso of the electric steel guitar. His Jan. 27, 1935, studio recording of the tune “Taking Off” with Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies is considered the first recording to use an electrically amplified instrument. Vintage Guitar magazine credits him as “the amplified guitar’s first stylist,” noting that, “In a way, Dunn was a sort of Jeff Beck of the steel guitar; his solos were often otherworldly, with cascades of arpeggios, jarring staccato notes and Hawaiian chime effects blasting through the mix of instruments.”
THE CLAIM: Robert Lee Dunn, born Feb. 8, 1908, in Braggs, Okla., invented the electric steel guitar.
THE SOURCE: The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, published by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
THE TRUTH: Dunn did not, however, invent the instrument. Credit goes to Texas-born George Delmetia Beauchamp — a vaudeville performer who experimented with ways to have his guitar heard above an orchestra — for creating the first string-driven, electro- magnetic guitar. Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna, authors of the 2016 Random House book Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of the Electric Guitar, note that the Beauchamp design became the basis of the first commercially produced electric guitar, the RO-PAT-IN A-25 “Frying Pan,” which hit the market in 1932. RO-PAT-IN (inspired by the term ElectRO-PAtent-INstruments) would evolve into Rickenbacker International, which continues manufacturing instruments today.
In an unexpected twist, the first documented public performance of an electric guitar does have an Oklahoma connection. According to Guitar Aficionado magazine, the first-ever concert to feature the instrument occurred in Kansas on Oct. 31, 1932, at Wichita’s Shadowland Pavilion. The performer, guitarist Gage Kelso Brewer, was born in 1904 in Gage, Oklahoma Territory.
Brewer’s pioneering performance featured two RO-PAT-IN prototypes – the electric Spanish prototype and the A-25 Frying Pan – that he had obtained from his friend George Beauchamp. An Oct. 2, 1932, article in the Wichita Beacon marveled at the technological wonder, which was promoted in a series of Halloween-themed concerts as a combination of “natural personal technique and electrical perfection.” Although the A-25 was destroyed in a 1935 fire, Brewer’s electric Spanish model is now at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, the centerpiece of its exhibition titled “The Electric Guitar – Wichita’s Instrument!” Rock on.
Editor’s note: Oklahoma is rich with history, lore and fun facts, but some of them aren’t quite factual. In this series, M.J. Alexander hunts for the accuracy – or lack thereof – behind some of our state’s stories.