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ELECTRIC EXHIBIT : SMITHSONIAN PAYS HOMAGE TO GUITAR.

Byline: Kevin Galvin Associated Press

In the hands of masters, it has rocked smoky roadhouses and gently wept in concert halls. It transformed American music and transported a multitude of youths from the chill of the garage to the spotlight's warm embrace.

Now the electric guitar has found a place alongside the light bulb, telephone and other icons of American innovation at a Smithsonian exhibit, ``From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric Guitar.''

``More than any other instrument, the electric guitar has been the dominant shaping force in American music in the last half-century,'' said Charlie McGovern, a cultural historian at the National Museum of American History. ``It completely changed the direction of the blues. It pretty much rechanneled country music. You can't have rock 'n' roll without it.''

And you can't overestimate its influence on American culture.

Creators of the blues, country and rock 'n' roll often were racially or socially marginalized. But the instrument's simplicity and power gave them, in McGovern's phrase, ``access to self-expression.''

``In the American context, that's democracy,'' he said. ``The electric guitar became popular because it was very accessible. It was very democratic.''

No one person can claim credit for inventing the electric guitar, the product of a dynamic relationship between inventors and innovators. It was shaped by the music even as its development shaped the music.

Today it's hard to imagine a time when the guitar was relegated to rhythmic support, a scratching sound lost in the mix. It lacked the power to stand out in an ensemble.

Guitarists tried home remedies to amplify their instruments, resulting in poor sound quality and squealing feedback. In 1931, magnetic pickups were developed to transform strings' vibrations into electrical impulses that accurately reproduced the sound.

A tool and die maker, the Rickenbacker Co., that same year introduced the Frying Pan, a stunted Hawaiian steel guitar with pickups. Pickups became increasingly common in acoustic guitars.

By 1940, Les Paul was tired of the feedback from plugged-in acoustic guitars. With a 4-by-4-inch piece of pine and a guitar neck, he fashioned an instrument he dubbed ``The Log,'' convinced the solid body would limit unwanted noise.

Today, the name of Les Paul is synonymous with Gibson guitars - Gibson's best-known model is the Les Paul - but the company rejected The Log in 1940 and finally embraced Paul's idea only after Leo Fender began producing the Broadcaster a decade later.

As it developed, the electric guitar allowed musicians to sustain and bend notes in ways that opened a new universe of sound.

In the hands of such pioneers as Bob Dunn, Charlie Christian, T. Bone Walker and Muddy Waters, the electric guitar's harmonic possibilities expanded the tonal palettes of jazz, blues and country western.

The instrument's keening and its biting thunder were emblematic of rock 'n' roll's cultural revolution. Plugging in, a player produced a sound much bigger than himself.

Yet while its vast range excited some, detractors complained the electric guitar didn't make a pure musical sound. Such complaints persisted deep into the 1960s - Bob Dylan was booed when he brought an electric guitar to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Perhaps most importantly, the electric guitar was accessible to players with little money or training.

``You don't need but two or three chords to play the blues, or to play most rock 'n' roll songs, from `Johnny B. Goode' to `Psycho Killer,' '' McGovern said.

Thanks to that simplicity, American popular culture echoes with stories of young men who began practicing in their parents' garages and played all the way into the footlights.

In the 1950s, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly achieved pop idol status through their guitar playing. The Beatles inspired thousands of bands. Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and others were worshiped for their playing in the late 1960s.

More recently, women broke through. In the 1970s, the Runaways was one of the first female guitar bands. Today, Los Angeles' L7 plays with a ferocity to rival any power metal band.

``For 100 bucks, you're in business (if) you've got a garage to play in,'' McGovern said.

EXHIBIT

Among items on display through March: Gibson's Flying V, Fender's Stratocaster, the original Log and Frying Pan, the Strawberry Alarm Clock's custom-designed Mosrites and Prince's ``Yellow Cloud.''

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: John McCann, a blind guitarist, fingers a Fender Stratocaster featured in the ``From Frying Pan to Flying V'' exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Associated Press

Box: EXHIBIT (See text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Words:741
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