The Electric Guitar's High-Strung History
December 16, 1996
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(CNN) -- The Frying Pan, the Log, the Flying Vee, the Sunburst and the Yellow Cloud. While these names may conjure images of airplanes or edible delights to some, the musically astute know they're actually electric guitars.
The National Museum of American History at Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution is showcasing these high-strung classics in a new exhibit, "From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric Guitar."
The exhibit runs from November 1, 1996 to September 30, 1997. Two showcases, featuring eight vintage guitars and two amps, trace the history of the electric guitar and the people involved, including the manufacturers, players, makers and inventors.
The exhibit explores the origins of the instrument that put the rock in rock 'n' roll, and changed the sound of music forever. Famous electric guitars, including Keith Richards' Sunburst, Eric Clapton's Stratocaster and Jimmy Page's Gibson Les Paul, are on display to give mere mortals a peek at the instruments of their idols.
As famous as some of the strumming instruments may be in their own right, their origins all date back to the 1930s and the Frying Pan. "The technology behind the electric guitar today is exactly the same," said the Smithsonian's Gary Sturm. "The magnets look a little different. But it remains basically unchanged. The...idea of an electromagnet vibrating a string is the same."
Many guitar craftsmen, like Les Paul, were accomplished musicians. However, researchers found other inventors, like Leo Fender, made their mark without playing a note. According to the Smithsonian's Monica Smith, Fender was a radio repairman, who got interested in the guitar and approached it from a very technological angle.
As concert venues got bigger and noisier, musicians pushed to abandon acoustic guitars. They needed more power to make their music loud enough to be heard. The solid body guitars of the 50s let makers distort shapes the way musicians were distorting notes. However, The Flying V was slow to take off because, said Strum, when it came out "it was too radical." Jimi Hendrix unwittingly lit a fire under its sales when he was seen using one, sending musicians clamoring to copy the master.
Like wine, experts say fine electric guitars improve with age. Top rockers haunt stores to get just the right sound, sometimes at prices above $10,000. Vintage guitar dealers insist the hand-crafting and attention to detail make decade-old guitars worth the hefty price tags.
Music aficionados, like Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot, say the Smithsonian exhibit proves the once shocking electric guitar has gone mainstream, and gained acceptance as "part of the fabric" of American culture.