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- Posted on Aug 13th 2009 2:33PM by Steve Baltin
"When I was a kid there was only one person in my hometown that played the guitar, and that was me. It was all piano in the old days. The guitar was rare.
What we did was take an acoustical instrument -- which was a very apologetic, wonderful, meek instrument -- and turned it into a pit bull. And that's what happened -- the guitar started to become more important in Waukesha, Wisc., the Chicago area, the Midwest. In 1930, I was already playing on the electric guitar, playing in a little bar in Cleveland, in Rochester, some state fairs. I played Ithaca, Binghamton, Rochester, all the way up to Boston, just everywhere you could play between Chicago and New York, exposing this instrument to all the players or those that would like to be players. Soon everybody wanted a guitar. It was just unbelievable. The people were running up and down the street going from one store to the other.
And there was no such thing as amplifiers, so I had to build my own -- I took my mother's radio and I turned it into one. I did the same thing with a guitar. I just took the guitar and said, 'Hey, it's not loud enough.' I was playing a little barbecue stand halfway to Milwaukee and some critic that was sitting in the backseat of a car, ordering a sandwich, wrote a note that said, 'You know, what you're doing right out there is great, but your guitar is not loud enough.' So I went home and told mom about it. She said, 'You'll figure it out, you'll figure it out.' What I figured out was how to make that guitar louder and better. First, I took an acoustical guitar and ended up filling it with Plaster of Paris. I tried everything, and it finally worked. I said, 'I'm gonna make two guitars, one out of wood and one out of a big long piece of railroad track and make both of them identical.' I used the same telephone for a pickup, the part that you listen to on the telephone, the magnet and the coil. I placed that under the string and I was just playing through my mother's radio. Between the wooden guitar and the metal one, the railroad track was much better. I ran to my mother, saying, 'I found it! I found it!' My mother said, 'The day you see a cowboy on a horse playing a railroad track,' and she blew me right out of the water with that. I said, 'It's got to be wood. Okay, we're gonna make it the most beautiful piece of dense wood that will be as close to that railroad track as we can get with that good sound.'
I remember I would go into a club in the very early days with my electric. I didn't care who was there with his saxophone or trumpet or piano or drums, I could drown them out. It became a monster, from a wimp to a monster.
I think of the impact often. I was lucky young kids came along -- Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck -- and said, 'I wanna do that.'"
His innovations redefined the sound of music history, one decibel at a time.
Richard Drew, AP
Richard Drew, AP
Gerald Herbert, AP
RJ Capak, WireImage
Ebet Roberts, Redferns
Frank Micelotta, Getty Images
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Fin Costello, Redferns
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