Guitar player Mecca Exhibit: Log jam and other electric stories from Les Paul at Smithsonian.

November 16, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Les Paul's innovations changed our sonic universe, but at this moment in Baird Auditorium he wants to talk about the time this kid walked up to the stage in Tulsa, Okla., and asked to play his guitar.

"I handed him the guitar and he played it and he was just great," says Paul, pausing before dropping his bomb. "It was Charlie Christian."

Charlie Christian! The story is perfect. Les Paul, who practically invented the solid body electric guitar, meets Charlie Christian, who is just a kid then but will grow up to be the electric guitar's first hero. The pan-ethnic, gray-hair-to-green-hair crowd of 550 men and women whoops and applauds.

"Isn't that amazing," says Paul, 81, smiling at the treasured memory.

Paul is one of is one of those seminal cultural figures, the type whose contributions are so great, so far-reaching it is hard to imagine the world without him. His visit to Washington is part of "Electrified, Amplified and Deified: The Electric Guitar, Its Makers and Players," a weeklong series of events held with the Smithsonian Institution's new exhibit: "From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric Guitar."

The 44 guitars displayed at the National Museum of American History trace the instrument's history from the first, crude attempts at amplification to today's models.

The electric guitar didn't just come into our lives as part of the modern age. It became a cultural sledgehammer. Just think, every "air guitar" you ever played -- be it Jimmy Page's low-slung Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix's Stratocaster, or Prince's Yellow Cloud -- was electric.

The roots of its development began long before Thomas Edison's invention of the lightbulb.

Around 1850, people started trying to increase the acoustic guitar's sound. They made it bigger, added steel strings. In 1898, Orville Gibson gave his hollow-body guitars an arched top.

"Why a louder guitar," says Gary Sturm, one of the exhibits co-curators. "The guitar was leaving the parlor. It was leaving the courts and was going into public places."

Still, whenever the guitar showed up in a band, it was a rhythm instrument, chunk-chunk-chunking along, barely heard. By the 1920s, companies started building guitars with metal resonators. Son House, Bukka White, Blind Boy Fuller and other bluesmen carried their National steels into the roadhouses and juke joints of the South.

But something more powerful had arrived -- electricity. It was being applied everywhere, radios, lights, the batteries of Model A Fords. Musicians and tinkerers became intrigued by the idea of using electricity.

Monica M. Smith, another of the exhibit's curators, says, "Inventions don't just sort of happen. You know, 'Ta-dah,' a eureka moment. You're working on things that other people have done."

In 1923, Lloyd Loar crafted a hollow-body electric guitar for Gibson. It went nowhere. In the late-1920s, five colleagues, including Adolph Rickenbacker, left the National String Instrument Corp. Their guitar, called the Frying Pan because it looks like a long-handled frying pan, became the first commercially viable electric guitar. The Smithsonian exhibit features one. It is a lap guitar, great for the Hawaiian music rage of the 1930s, but not much use elsewhere.

Around the same time in Waukesha, Wis., a self-described "red-haired, freckle-faced, obnoxious, bratty little kid" named Lester William Polfuss had figured out how to use a telephone mouthpiece, Victrola needle and radio speaker to amplify his voice and guitar. That kid was Les Paul, a.k.a. "Red Hot Red" and, later, "Rhubarb Red." He remembers his brother saying: "The kid's at it again, ma. You've got to stop him. He's doing a hysterectomy on the telephone!"

"I was a trip, I tell you," Paul tells the audience at Baird Auditorium.

Sound fascinated him. As a child, he wanted to know why his bedroom window vibrated whenever a passing train reached a certain point and how a piano player made music out of holes in a roll of paper.

"I never understood why I chased sound, but I always did," he says. "I always had to have a little more, then a little more."

Early attempts to amplify the guitar met with skepticism and failure. Some musicians in the 1930s were afraid of an electric instrument. After all, this was the era of the electric chair. Who knew what a short circuit and six steel strings could do?

The electric hollow-bodies of those days also produced a tremendous amount of shrieking, ear-splitting feedback, which must have sounded otherworldly in a time before sonic booms and jet engines.

Paul says he stuffed his guitar with socks, rags, even plaster to control the noise.

In 1941, he put two pick-ups and six strings on a solid 4-by-4 inch railroad tie. He tried it out in a local club. It flopped. He took it home, sawed a standard hollow-body guitar in in half, glued the sides to his log and went back to the club. This time, the crowd loved the sound.

"I found out they hear with their eyes," he says.

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