In 2002, Lynn Wheelwright was flipping through an issue of Vintage Guitar magazine, hoping to improve his database of descriptions and catalog numbers. He chanced upon an ad for a Gibson ES-250 archtop. For collectors and researchers of early electric guitars, this is a highly desirable model, since Gibson only manufactured them between 1938 and 1940. Gibson had published a catalog photo of the great Charlie Christian playing one with a natural finish. An astute researcher, Lynn quickly realized that the advertised guitar was none other than Charlie Christian’s actual guitar. It is, in fact, the only guitar that’s ever been proven to be directly connected to Charlie Christian.
Before Lynn continues this story, some background: Like most guitar historians and repair experts, Lynn began as a player. With the advent of the Beatles, he demanded that his parents buy him an electric guitar, and thus obtained a Silvertone with an amp built into its case. From age 11 to 15 he played in teen bands, and then quit. He took up the instrument again while serving in Viet Nam. “I played off and on for quite a while,” Lynn recounts, “and then started building guitars in 1979.” He fashioned his first one, an ornate Les Paul-style solidbody, out of a burled-maple tabletop. “I started working on my friends’ guitars, doing repairs, and building custom guitars, and more than 30 years later, I’m still doing it.” During the 1980s, he befriended Alvino Rey, one of the first prominent pre-Charlie Christian electric guitarists, and repaired and eventually acquired several of Rey’s instruments.
In the process of researching the invention and development of the electric guitar, Wheelwright has assembled a unique collection of early guitars and amplifiers. Besides Charlie Christian’s ES-250, he has the Gibson prototype electric steel guitar, the earliest Fender lap steel and amp set known to exist (predating K&F!), Les Paul’s prototype for the ES-300, and Alvino Rey’s ES-250, the first documented double-pickup guitar made by Gibson. He also has the first two electric guitars used for coast-to-coast radio broadcasts, circa early 1933. In 2009, the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California, exhibited more than eighty of his historic instruments and amps. In 2010, Lynn’s Charlie Christian guitar was the centerpiece of Charlie Christian International Music Festival in the guitarist’s hometown of Oklahoma City. These days, Lynn runs the Pro Musician Outlet on North Main Street in Clearfield, Utah. Our interview took place in May 2011.
First, what can you tell us about Charlie Christian’s preferences in guitars?
He played almost exclusively Gibson ES guitars. There is one shot of him with an early Vega with the Rickenbacker-style pickup, but I guess he was a Gibson fan. It may have been that he liked the fat, warm sound of the pickup in the neck position, as most all other companies had their pickups closer to the bridge, rendering a brighter tone and less sustain. Charlie liked that warm sustain for those horn lines. I am sure he was heavily courted by Gibson to continue using their guitars, but I believe that if he had not liked them he would have switched. The fact that Gibson had built him a special L-5 with a Charlie Christian pickup at a time when they were moving away from it to the new P-90 style would suggest that that was the tone he wanted. The guitar was finished and delivered to New York just prior to Charlie’s death and ended up with Tony Mottola.
A guitar actually owned and played by Charlie Christian is clearly a Holy Grail for collectors. Describe the instant you realized you’d found one.
That was a roller coaster ride! First, I made the phone call for the sake of getting information on a rare ES-250 for my database. After I got the serial number, I looked it up and saw the name “Chas Christian” next to it in the Gibson shipping ledgers. This pretty much drained the blood from my head. Then I got better pictures to see if the Gibson logo on the peghead was in the same place as in the pictures of Charlie Christian with the guitar. The logo is quite low and nearly sets on top of the D and G ferrules. After receiving the guitar, I realized it had a two-piece carved back instead a pressed laminated one. This about stopped my heart! I swear it was like an out-of-body thing as I stood staring at the back and then looked at the serial number on the label, and then at the Factory Order number, which indicated it was from 1942, and this guitar was shipped to Charlie Christian on April 19, 1940. What the heck is going on here? It took me a few minutes to come to the conclusion that the back must have been replaced. I then remembered what Peter Blecha, the curator at the Hendrix museum in Seattle, told me. He said that when Paul Allen bought the Hendrix white Woodstock Strat, the only real verification he had that it was in fact that guitar Jimi used was someone’s word. Peter told me they took a picture of the maple fingerboard and compared it to pictures of Jimi playing it, and it was a match. [For a complete rundown on Jimi’s Woodstock Strat, see http://jasobrecht.com/jimi%e2%80%99s-woodstock-setup/ .] So I started looking for pictures I could use to compare the grain on the side of the guitar. I found one in the book Gibson Guitars 100 Years of an American Icon. I set up the guitar at the same angle, took a few pictures, converted them to black and white, and found a match.
What kind of shape was the guitar in when you first opened its case?
I had been told by the dealer, who by the way was not some know-nothing amateur, that the back had been refinished, which was correct. But the entire guitar had been refinished and not very well – this was pretty obvious. So I was a bit disappointed. Had it turned out to not be Charlie’s, the price was way too high for its condition. Of course, the dealer had no idea that it was Charlie’s. I think I was the first person to dig deep enough into the ledgers and find that entry.
How’s the guitar’s tone?
I gotta admit, I have never played the guitar. I know a number of players that would love to cut a few licks on it, but I am not a very good player – and as weird as it sounds, I just don’t feel worthy.
From your perspective, Lynn, how did the advent of electrical instruments change the music industry?
Now, that is a book waiting to be written. I guess from my perspective it allowed players that could not be heard in a large group to become an important part of the mix. Let’s face it: We all have an ego and want to be recognized for what we do. Because the signal generated is an electrical impulse, it can be modified fairly easily to sound like most anything. With a tool that diverse the musical voice is pretty much infinite.
What are the most common misconceptions about the history of early electric guitar?
Well, for starters, that Lloyd Loar worked on electric instruments while at Gibson in the early 1920s. I don’t know why Julius Bellson ever printed that – I would like to have been able to ask him. Another good one is that Les Paul invented the electric solidbody guitar. Some of the earliest patents for electric instruments were mostly for violins. They were built to not have acoustic properties but to depend on the pickup. The inventors wanted pure string tone and believed that the acoustic properties got in the way. The earliest Rickenbacker ES from September of 1932 was built pretty much solid, as was George Beauchamp’s intent. By late 1935 Regal of Chicago was building what was pretty much a non-acoustic ES guitar. In 1936 Slingerland was shipping a solid-wood-body instrument that would be played like a modern electric guitar. Les was a heck of an inventor and had great ideas, but his Log was about nine or so years too late.
The idea that the electric guitar, for all intents and purposes, has evolved to a different instrument than its 1930s ancestors is not true. While it has taken on many different shapes and colors, it is pretty much the same thing. Another misconception is that the humbucking pickup was invented in the mid 1950s by Seth Lover. Sorry to say that technology goes back to around 1910, and by 1933 it was in use in Dobro all-electric instruments. It was in wide use by many companies by 1936. Somehow after WWII it was forgotten, kind of like the story of why the first Les Paul gold-tops have no serial numbers. They could not figure out where to put it as it was solid, so there was no place for a label. I always found that strange, as Gibson stamped the serial numbers on the back of the pegheads all through the mid to late 1930s up until the War.
Have you had close encounters with other early electric players and pioneers, such as Doc Kauffman, Roy Smeck, Eddie Durham, Leo Fender, etc?
Not personally, but historically and instrument-wise. A few years back I was able to get my hands on Gibson’s first electric banjo, a one-of-a-kind custom for Roy Smeck. I also have a proto type ES-300 that Gibson built for Les Paul in 1941. More recently I was fortunate in obtaining the earliest known Fender. It’s well pre-Fender, pre-K&F, actually pre any known formal association between Leo and Doc. We are fairly confident that the lap steel was hand built by Kauffman, and the amp by Leo.
Have you ever been tempted to sell the Christian guitar?
Not for a minute. It is an important part of my museum exhibit and I try to keep it loaned out so the public can enjoy it. I would hate for it to be stuck away in some dark hole like that crate at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Any instruments on your wish list?
Yes, a few, actually. A very early Electro ES, an Audio-Vox solidbody electric bass from the mid 1930s. Some of my favorite finds are homebrew electric garage projects – that is where it all began.
Do you have plans to write books or make films?
I have written for Vintage Guitar magazine and 20th Century Guitar and have assisted others with research and pictures. I had planned for years to write a book on the joining of technologies that became the electric guitar we know today, but I have now decided to attempt a documentary on the subject. But first I have to film a documentary on the discovery of the earliest known Fender electric guitar and amp set. The original owner is still with us and the story is great.
Anything you’d care to add?
Just that I love the history of this stuff and hope to pass on my knowledge so the next person can continue the pursuit.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.