Okie experimentation, musicianship amplified guitar history

The electric guitar is a loud and important part of music history, and the Sooner State helped strum the development of the modern instrument.


And according to at least one Oklahoma City billboard, the instrument, which is used all over the world, was invented right here in Oklahoma.

Tracing this claim leads to a Beggs man named Bob Dunn in the 1930s, said Hugh Foley, an associate professor of fine arts at Rogers State University in Claremore. Foley, who holds a doctorate and authored the "Oklahoma Music Guide," said Dunn created an early version of the instrument with a steel guitar he amplified with a homemade pickup.

"All of this comes along with amplification, radio and, you know, the whole understanding of how to amplify sounds and make them louder," Foley said, adding that musicians long pined for a way to help relatively soft guitar strumming compete with the blaring volume of a trumpet or horn section. The need inspired several people to experiment with guitar amplification in the 1930s.

So was Dunn the first to actually succeed in amplifying a guitar?

"Although (Dunn) may not have been the very first to use the amplified electric guitar, music historians do credit him with being the father of the electric steel guitar in country music," Foley said, quoting from his book.

While Les Paul is known for tinkering with guitars attached to microphones, Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp are credited for manufacturing adapted acoustic instruments with tungsten pickups.

Regardless of whether or not Dunn was the first, the electric guitar owes a lot to Oklahomans, Dunn included. The Okies were instrumental in making the electric guitar a lead instrument, whereas prior to their efforts, it primarily played a backup role.

Dunn, who was born in either Braggs or Fort Gibson, was a member of a band called Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies in 1935, when the group laid down the song "Taking Off" during a recording session in Chicago, Foley said. In Western swing, he said, the "take-off man" is a term now used to describe a lead soloist typically armed with an electric guitar.

While Dunn may have been fairly influential in the development of the electric guitar, perhaps no one was more important than Charlie Christian, who was raised in Oklahoma City. Foley said Christian was discovered while playing with an OKC band in the '30s before he left for California to join the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Once there, Christian really began to "take off" himself, and played large role in turning the electric guitar into the aggressive lead instrument it's used for today.

"Up until that point, the guitar was primarily a chorded instrument. It just went along with the changes of a piece of music and kept the rhythm," Foley said. "It's within "¦ (Bob) Wills' band as well as the Benny Goodman Orchestra with Charlie Christian where the guitar becomes a front-line instrument, taking solos and, you know, being equal to trumpet or saxophone or the piano or some other lead instruments in the big band environment."

Leroy Parks, now 92, played the saxophone alongside Christian when the two were members of the same jazz band in 1930s Oklahoma City. He reminisced about those stage days while sitting at the kitchen table of his metro home.

"Charles didn't go to school very long, I don't think. I don't know if Charles finished high school or not. I don't know. But he was a hell of a musician," Parks said.

He recalled touring regionally with Christian and the band, noting that Oklahoma City and Kansas City in the '30s served as "hubs" for jazz music.

There are a few reasons Oklahoma served as a breeding ground for influential musicians like Christian, Foley said. The state was relatively new and still somewhat on the American frontier, and people from several developing cultures were living close to one another, fostering musical collaboration and innovation. Music often meant employment and became a popular escape early in the 20th century, especially here in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, he said.

"Music was a way for two things: one, for people to get out. It was a job. On the other hand, it was a way to forget your problems. Bob Wills was very popular in the '30s because he played an upbeat dance music that helped people forget about the Depression and all that for one night or two nights a week," Foley said, adding that while Wills hailed from Texas, many his band members were Okies.

Foley said there is some speculation that Christian was inspired by Wills' music on the radio.

"There wasn't a huge distinction between black and white music back then. You know, everybody listened to Bob Wills," he said.

This concept is one that Parks, a black musician like Christian, said he could personally attest to.

"Race barriers and things didn't mean too very much. Musicians worked together," he said. "We've always done that, man. I loved all of them and they loved me, and we would be at each other's house. Just a big family, that's all it was." "Will Holland

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