George Barnes is credited with the first recorded performance on the electric guitar, playing the new instrument on two tracks by Big Bill Broonzy. His performance predated Eddie Durham’s recording with Count Basie’s Kansas City Five by fifteen days – a stupid distinction because Durham’s recording is so much more interesting. In fact, the very best of the early innovators in the history of the electric guitar were jazz musicians, most of all Charlie Christian who was first recorded six years later.
(“Wholly Cats” by the Benny Goodman Sextet)
Amplification shifted the guitarist from the rhythm section to the forefront of the jazz ensemble, but Charlie Christian’s few recordings are remarkable because he was already ahead of the new fold, preforming a primordial bebop on the guitar before the horns had even imagined it.
Charlie Christian, taken by tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five, finally got his due in the early 70s when Columbia compiled his best solos into a double disc set called Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian. The set exemplified all the best of 70s archival LP releases – great sound, great selections, great notes. It also highlighted a previously overlooked innovator in the short-lived Christian, who was taken by tuberculosis at the age of 25 in 1941.
Representing Christian’s contribution to the development of the electric guitar are “Wholly Cats” from a 1940 Benny Goodman session that also featured Count Basie on piano (up above) and a roarin’ take on “I Got Rhythm”, which Charlie Christian recorded with a quintet here in Minneapolis in 1940:
(“I Got Rhythm” by the Charlie Christian Quintet)
Dozens of bands – from Yes and Genesis to the Clash and Van Halen – have used an electric sitar for color and effect. The instrument is actually closer to a guitar than a sitar, being built and fretted in a way familiar to guitarists. Most still have a “buzz bridge” to help recreate the sitar’s distinctive sound, and many also retain the sitar’s “sympathetic strings” although the electric sitar does not generate enough resonance to create the rich sound “sympathetic strings” add to a traditional sitar’s tableau.
(“Don’t You Try to be my Baby” by Moonquake)
Joe South played an electric sitar on “Games People Play”. He is one of the most underrated innovators of his era, and we’ve already written about his awesome-ness before (click here to read it) – so I chose a track by the short-lived prog group Moonquake instead. The electric sitar is played by Havaness Hagopian,
(“Listen Here” by Eddie Harris)
Eddie Harris is heard here performing on the Veritone, an electronically amplified saxophone introduced by Selmer in 1965. Controls put a variety of effects at the performers fingertips, including an echo, tone control and – significant in this recording – an octave divider.
Harris reworked “Listen Here” several times in the several years that followed the success of The Electrifying Eddie Harris – My favorite record by Eddie Harris, The Reason I’m Talking Shit, features some great work on the instrument (sampled by De La Soul in “I Be Blowin’” years later – although most of the album is actually Eddie Harris talking shit).
The Twin Cities own Aaron Kerr (the Sleeper Pins, the Swallows, JazZen) performs as often on the electric cello as on acoustic instruments, and often in unique settings.
His instrumental collaboration with the Swallows, Dissonant Creatures, captures the surprisingly big sound that comes from the small instrument.
(“Doctor Phibes” by Aaron Kerr and Swallows)
It’s not really fair to everyone else to end with a track from this album – Violinski’s first album was distinguished on the cover for it’s inclusion of ELO’s Mik Kaminski, but it’s not really as awesome as an ELO album. Here is the title track, “No Cause for Alarm” – Kaminski is featured on the Barcus-Berry electric violin, which I think was actually blue.