Smithsonian Scoop or Controversy?

I’m never one to shy away from controversy, so I thought I’d start stirring the pot on a new topic.  I’ll say right up front that I haven’t formed any opinion, and I don’t have access to all the facts.  What I do have is a bit of inside information that I think warrants attention.

The topic is not insignificant, as it no less than the identity of the “world’s first electric guitar.”  This is a popular (and perhaps unanswerable) question that is on the mind of every modern guitar historian throughout the universe.  Was it the Les Paul “log”?  No, then the prototype for the Rickenbacker “frying pan”?  Maybe, but then there was this unknown inventor tinkering in his garage…and on and on.  I actually don’t keep up on it.  Then just this last February, alert Harpguitars.net roving reporter Nate Blaustein spotted an article on the official Gibson Company web site that featured the “earliest electric guitar experiment” – and it was on a Gibson harp guitar! Obviously, I was all over that – think of it, “our” instrument staking the historical claim as the “first electric guitar:”  No sooner did we get permission to feature and archive the story permanently on Harpguitars.net, than I got an email saying that they had pulled the article.  Apparently, there was some serious doubt cast on the authenticity of the claim.  I’ll get to that later.

At the time, I thought the source and information was compelling enough to kill the story, so I never mentioned it, and forgot all about it.

Jump to this week, when a coworker visiting the new Grammy Museum in L.A. watched a new film/video by the Smithsonian called Electrified: The Guitar Revolution.  He said he saw a harp guitar in it, and my radar went up.  And what do you know?  Sure enough – at 8:43 into it, they begin the story of Lloyd Loar and his experiments at Gibson (Loar is best known as the revered creator of the F5, the ultimate mandolin design of all time).  In short order they present “the 1923 Gibson Model U harp guitar” as “one of Loar’s first attempts” at an electronically amplified guitar.

What the..?!  So was it true?!

I don’t know…I mean, it’s the Smithsonian.  But who researched the story?  Hard to say – the only “expert” shown in the segment is the instrument’s owner, Skip Maggiora – whom I later learned was big in the music retail industry.   In the film, he’s only introduced as a guitar collector (and I assume a successful one, as I see 4 gold top Les Pauls next to his HG).

So, I’m still not sure about the provenance, but I will say that, regardless, I don’t really approve of the narrative.  To the layperson, there is no indication that the harp guitar as an instrument existed previously – the implication sounds like it was also just “invented” along with the inserted electronics.  The filmmakers bolster this impression by using the Gibson harp guitar patent illustration as an introductory background image (which is from 1910, the one I just blogged about).  So I find the presentation sloppy and misleading.  Clearly what we’re looking at is a standard Gibson Style U that has been modified for Loar’s amplification experiment (Loar may have owned the harp guitar, but likely didn’t build it).  The question is – when was the “pickup drawer” added?  The date 1923 is specifically given, and I wonder if this was deduced solely from the original serial number on the label of the harp guitar.  As of yet, I don’t know of any provenance that specifically dates either the experiment or the electronics inside to 1923, and am obviously anxious for this (if it exists).  Perhaps the only compelling “smoking gun” would be factual evidence that this very instrument was found in its present state by a reliable expert at Gibson soon after Loar’s 1924 departure – with the harp guitar of recent manufacture, and the electric modifications “fresh” at that time.  I did find a couple references to tales of Loar tinkering with electronics while at Gibson – which would mean before or by 1924, when he left the company – which was actually encouraging.

But if discovered more recently, certainly no expert would jump to the conclusion that the modifications had to correspond to the date of a standard, labeled production instrument.  Obviously, Loar could have added his internal “sliding drawer” pickup system to his own 1923 harp guitar at any time after it was built.

The film segment concludes with a short interview with Mr. Majora.  His explanation of a “Model T light bulb socket” for a jack and a “radio on the other end” is intriguing, as is the ongoing presentation by electric guitar guru Paul Reed Smith, who now mentions radios leading the way to amplifiers.  All very interesting, but where’s the “proof”?  Perhaps Majora has additional provenance (i.e: not just a theory) that the Smithsonian had access to – I certainly hope so, and I hope this is shared with the rest of the guitar scholars of the world, as the major find it would seem to be.

But I felt a need to bring this story up now – as the film is already public, and thus this story might soon become “fact” – Newsflash!  Gibson Harp Guitar Now Known as the World’s First Electric Guitar! As much as I’d love such a headline, I’d really like to get the story straight first.

So I quickly checked the Gibson site – the story was still absent, and my contact verified that he has heard nothing about it (pro or con) since the story was pulled.  Strange – I would think that the Smithsonian and Gibson would have been collaborating on such a story.  UPDATE MARCH, 2015: The story is here.

Worse, the brand new 2010 update of the Electric Guitar book had just come out (I ran up to Borders to peruse a copy), and doesn’t include any mention of this miraculous discovery.  So I emailed the authors, George Gruhn & Walter Carter (not exactly “unknowns” in the world of guitar scholars…).  Walter was kind enough to email back, and turns out to be the original source of my Gibson contact’s information last February.

Here then, is the other side of the story that needs to be answered:

“Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson CEO, brought that instrument to my attention in 2005, when I was still working for Gibson.  I knew—as anyone with an interest in amplification would know—that it wasn’t original, because there was no electric amplification in 1923.  Even if someone had developed an electric pickup in 1923, they wouldn’t have had an amplifier to plug it into.

I sent the photos to Lynn Wheelright, and he did determine that it was a third-generation Vivitone pickup (ViVi-Tone was Lloyd Loar’s later company -GM).  His expertise in the area of early electric guitars is impeccable.

I told Henry at the time that the harp guitar had a 1923 serial number but the pickup was from 1933 or ‘34.  I told Gibson’s website people the same thing when they put it on their website after I was gone.

It’s hard to believe the Smithsonian people would be so gullible.  If someone brought in a nineteenth century horse-drawn buggy with a V-8 engine bolted on, would they think that was the first automobile?

You can certainly quote me.

Thanks, Walter”

Curious, huh?  Even more curious is that Walter is in the Smithsonian film, in a later clip about Gibson’s first lap steel (asked about this, Walter replied “If I’m thinking of the same film, they wanted to start with Lloyd Loar making electrics at Gibson in 1924, and I told them that was fantasy. I don’t think the harp guitar came up.”).  Sounds to me like it was definitely the Smithsonian film, and the researchers chose to ignore Walter’s expertise (as Mr. Majora apparently did in 2005).  Did they have other expertise of their own?

So – who’s right?  I’m pretty clueless about early amplification, the invention of radio (usable as an amp), etc.  And I’m not out to make a fool of Mr. Majora or the Smithsonian, nor do I wish for Mr. Carter to be called to task.  I’m just interested in a consensus on a pretty cool story that involves a harp guitar (my only area of interest in this matter).

In fact, either way this will be a win/win for us (the harp guitar community).  If found to be a later ‘30s experiment, it would still be Lloyd Loar and the World’s First Electric Harp Guitar. We just need a couple better defined particulars to the story.

I see the conundrum as pretty simple and logical:

– First, is there any “smoking gun” provenance that proves the Smithsonian’s claim?  I hope so, but am skeptical, so for the moment, I’ll just assume no.

– OK, so is there a community of experts who can lend authenticity to the historically realistic possibility that Loar could have created a crude pickup and plugged it through a light bulb “jack” into an early radio in 1923/24?  I have no idea, so let’s give this the benefit of a doubt.

– Accepting the above would mean that, so far, we can’t prove the Smithsonian scenario is true, but we might agree that it could have happened like this.  The story would remain “plausible.”

– But, if someone could reliably demonstrate – like Walter’s “V-8 in a horse carriage” analogy – that the components of the contraption date to a later time period (in this case, 1933-34), then, yes, that would prove that the 1920’s timeframe is wrong.

– All that’s left is for those who want this story to be taken seriously to allow some balanced, impartial group of experts to examine and discuss the instrument and components, and hopefully reach consensus.

– Problem is, how many have detailed experience with the work of Lloyd Loar?  I doubt very many (c’mon, how many electric Vivitones have you seen?  I’ve seen 0).  Walter Carter has at least offered up himself and Mr. Wheelright as experts. The Smithsonian offers Mr. Majora, the instrument’s owner.

Seriously – Skip?  Smithsonian?  Other Electric Guitar Historians?  Have at it, and lay it on me!

I’m sorry, but until then, I don’t see how the Smithsonian film can be the last word on the subject.  For now, this blog is.

  1. John Bushouse Says:

    Interesting that patents was the topic of yesterday, and Lloyd Loar comes up today… I have long been interested in the Vivi-Tone company. It’s an interesting dead-end in the guitar world, and especially so because Loar oversaw the creation of the modern archtop and mandolin.

    Loar has several patents related to his pickup designs. The first one filed was 2,020,842 (July 31, 1933), a pickup designed for “instruments of the bowed and plucked string types,” shown in a viola. According to Roger Siminoff (www.siminoff.net), Loar built the prototype “His earliest instrument that featured this pickup was a solid-body viola that he built 10 years before the introduction of solidbody electric guitars.” Siminoff has a picture on his site of the viola in its case with his mando-viola (shown in a 1924 catalog) and his musical saw. Unfortunately, the picture is small.

    Loar filed patents for an amplified piano (1,992,317 and 1,995,316) and an amplified guitar (2,025,875) in January 1934. It seems odd that Loar would invent an amplification system in 1923, only to wait ten years to file a flurry of patents related to his invention. I vote for a retrofitted harp guitar.

    Loar was an fascinating person, and has a number of other patents which make for interesting reading.

  2. Gregg Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, John. I have been trying to date the viola experiment, and wrote Roger a week ago. Perhaps we’ll hear from him or others on the subject. Regardless of early Loar experiments at Gibson (which I allow for), I’d still really like to get a consensus on the components that are actually in the harp guitar – these are examinable. If they are as Mr. Wheelright describes (“3rd generation VVT), I would find it hard to believe that ten years later, Loar would still be using in production instruments the “experimental pickup he had tried 10 years before…”.

  3. Lynn Wheelwright Says:

    Let me say up front that I do feel like the ongoing Loar of Loar working on electrics while at Gibson is somewhat my fault. I have for a number of years had in my possession letters from Lloyd Loar to a fellow inventor in the late 1930’s where he says that he became interested in applying electric tech to instruments in about 1927. That, along with an article in Down Beat mag in Oct, 1936, where the author indicates that Loar became interested in electric instruments in about 1928. This, along with other articles by Loar’s partner in ViVi-Tone, Lewis Williams – where, in another well-known magazine of the period, Williams states that it is unfortunate that the ViVi-Tone electrics were still in the experimental stage and could not be part of the 1933 Chicago Expo. This info, along with the dates that the patents were applied for, all lead to the conclusion that – as important a person Loar was to the design of instruments – Mr. Bellson took some real liberty with the facts in stating the Loar at Gibson Electric story. I own and have examined a number of ViVi-Tone instruments. This is how I was able to put a reasonable date on the design of the drawer in this harp guitar. As I said, I do feel a bit at fault for not putting this info out there. I have shared it with people like Walter Carter who did a great job in the new version of the electric guitar book, beginning to put a stop to this ongoing story. I did contact the Smithsonian and offer to be of assistance. The reply was a bit on the rude side. I was told they had all the experts they needed – and if that was the case, then they should have listened to them….

  4. Ulf Schaedla Says:

    Hi Gregg,

    I was also suprised about this harp guitar beeing equiped with a pickup at that time. I guess, the article named “Meet the First Electric Guitar – Gibson’s One-of-a-Kind 1923 Lloyd Loar Electric Harp Model” is still available on Gibsons webside (http://www2.gibson.com/News-Lifestyle/Features/en-us/Electric-Harp-Guitar-201.aspx) It can be accessed via http://www2.gibson.com/News-Lifestyle/Features.aspx?page=274

    To me it feels a little bit like the story, that Gibson was the inventor of the Humbucker, which could be read until some years ago on the gibson web and in the related ads. If we read the humbucker patent by Lover, we’ll find references to other older patents dated from the early 30s dealing with humbucker pickups. So… 😉

    Ulf

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