We know who can play it, but who was the first person to add electricity to the garden-variety guitar?
Hendrix, Clapton, and Page. No, it’s not a law firm, but some of the usual lineup when the words “electric guitar” pop up in conversation. World famous exponents of the instrument, no doubt, but who actually invented this thing, this iconic instrument and integral part of popular music? A tough question – history is a little vague on this, but here are two unfamiliar names credited with being among the first few musicians to have recorded with an electrically amplified guitar: Eddie Durham and George Barnes. Let’s take a closer look at these relatively unsung heroes and the contributions they made to jazz, country, swing, and rock ’n’ roll, and their influence on future proponents of this wonderful instrument.
The first electric guitar recordings, as some sources indicate, go back to 1933, and these were notably by Hawaiian guitarists; and Bob Dunn (from Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies) brought the Hawaiian guitar to Western swing in 1935. Jazz didn’t really see the electric guitar until three years later when George Barnes recorded commercially with “Big Bill” Broonzy in 1938, a scant two weeks before Eddie Durham recorded with the Kansas City Five and Six.
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But here’s the thing, Durham was known as a tinkerer – he reportedly built his own guitars and pick-ups himself from scratch – and was doing so back in 1929; Barnes, it is said, recorded the first electric guitar in 1931! So many conflicting sources here, and recordings during these years of the Great Depression are very few (by anyone really), so who the hell was first? The Hawaiian guys? Durham? Barnes? It’s doubtful we’ll get a firm answer on that one, but let’s just be content to name them among the pioneers of the instrument and people to whom the likes of Hendrix, Clapton, et al., owe a great deal.
Born in Kansas City in 1906 into a musical family, Eddie Durham played guitar and trombone with his brother’s band and attained wide experience playing in jazz bands, circuses, and theatre groups, even Wild West shows. Hearing King Oliver’s band in the 1920s spurred him on with a desire to arrange and orchestrate. And this he certainly did! He played in, and arranged for, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra in the 1930s; recorded with the Kansas City Five and Six, featuring Lester Young and Jo Jones; composed and arranged most of the material for the Count Basie Orchestra; arranged “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller; and did the same for The International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the 1940s, a very popular all-female orchestra.
Have a listen to Eddie’s “Hittin’ the Bottle” with Jimmie Lunceford in 1935:
Durham is also notable for having taught another pioneer of the electric guitar – a young Charlie Christian, who later not only contributed to the creation of bebop, but was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s a good accolade of a former student and one of which I’m sure Eddie would’ve been proud. And you’d think Eddie would’ve enjoyed massive stardom and recognition with all of this behind him, but sadly he didn’t. Or maybe not sadly. By all accounts he was a clean-living man, never drank or swore, and more or less shunned the limelight. It probably didn’t help that his compositions and arrangements fell under the blanket of other names, such as Basie or Lunceford, and he didn’t get the full credit he deserved. So he willingly stepped out of it, deciding fame and fortune weren’t for him. I recently read a wonderful article by American author and journalist Jim Gerard, who quotes jazz historian Phil Schapp speaking about Eddie Durham as “the most neglected musical genius of the 20th century,” and although Durham’s work was rather prolific, his name is seldom spoken and he died in 1987 relatively unknown, except by a select few.
But over in Illinois back in 1921, another legend was born – George Barnes. Also born into a musical family, George himself has said he was the first to play an electric guitar. Here we go again! Regardless of this “first” business, Barnes led his own band in 1935 and the tracks he put down in 1938 with blues man Broonzy may well have been first, but strictly speaking were not jazz. I guess it still counts though. Not long after this, Barnes was hired as staff-guitarist for the NBC Orchestra and also Decca Records – not bad for someone still not yet old enough to vote! And it didn’t stop there. 1940 saw him record solo for Okeh Records, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me.” After being drafted in 1942 and discharged in 1946, Barnes formed a new group, the George Barnes Octet and had a radio show on ABC. He then went on to television as part of the orchestra in Your Hit Parade, and was a featured soloist.
Studio work came along as well, and although known primarily as a jazz guitarist, through the 1950s and 1960s Barnes played on hundreds of albums with a varied and eclectic list of performers, including Patsy Cline, the Coasters, Connie Francis, and even Bill Haley. Albums for Mercury Records followed, as well as a famed appearance at the White House, where he performed with fellow guitarist Carl Kress. They played an original of his called “Watusi for Luci” which was written for President Johnson’s daughter Luci, who apparently had a penchant for dancing the watusi.
Here’s a great track of his called “Rockabilly Boogie” from 1957. This swings pretty hard!
Another duo, this time with jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, lasted from 1969 to 1972, and then a quartet with cornet player Ruby Braff known, funnily enough, as the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet. This quartet made a few albums, including one with crooner Tony Bennett in 1973. Barnes also recorded solo albums and a couple with Joe Venuti, the famed jazz violinist. Such a prolific talent, Barnes’s star was sadly cut short in 1977, victim of a heart attack. He was 56.
So, forgetting about the “who was first” thing, both George Barnes and Eddie Durham should be placed among the greats of the guitar and pioneers of their craft, paving the way for others to follow and having a major influence on many guitar legends: Charlie Christian, Herb Ellis, Les Paul, and Chet Atkins have all named George Barnes as their primary influence. Eddie Durham almost single-handedly wrote the Count Basie book, but like Barnes is very much overlooked by history. Henry Ford famously once said “history is bunk,” and in the cases of Barnes and Durham, I have to say I agree with him.