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Born in Oakland, California in 1908, Alvino Rey (real name Alvin McBurney) started out on banjo before switching to guitar at the age of twelve. Early influences included Eddie Lang and Roy Smeck.
In the late 1920s he joined Phil Spitalny's Orchestra playing guitar and banjo. After a two-year stint in New York with Spitalny, Alvino left for California where he joined NBC radio in San Francisco. It was around this time that he changed his name.
He became a member of Horace Heidt’s band in 1933, playing both Spanish and steel guitar.
In May of 1935, the band went to Chicago to play the Silver Forest room of the Drake hotel and Alvino opened and closed every show on the electric guitar. At this time, he was the highest paid front-man in any orchestra.
Gibson’s First Production Electric Guitar
“Alvino was the king of the electric guitar during the early to mid 1930's” says Gibson expert, Lynn Wheelwright.
While with Spitalny's Orchestra, Alvino attached a pickup to his banjo, qualifying him as one of the first musicians to perform with an amplified instrument. By the end of 1932 he was using one of the first ViVi-Tone electrics as well as one of the first Ro-Pat-In A-25 Electro (Rickenbacher) ‘Frying Pan’ steel guitars.
Gibson’s general manager Guy Hart, no doubt aware of the electrically amplified ‘Frying Pan’ guitar, initiated an R&D project, the object of which was to come up with a commercially viable electric Hawaiian guitar and matching amplifier.
In 1939, Alvino left Heidt to become musical director of KHJ Mutual Network Station in Hollywood. The house band that he put together went on to become one of the most popular acts in the country, recording several top ten hits and appearing in a number of Hollywood films. In 1942, he was voted by the Metronome All-Star Band as the best guitar player in America.
In 1944, he joined the United States Navy and during this period led a service outfit, the Radio Chicago Orchestra. After his discharge in 1945, he formed a new band, which released a hit cover of Slim Gaillard’s song, Cement Mixer. Through the 1950s he lead a number of smaller bands, mostly in Southern California.
Can you spot Alvino? He's sitting all on his own at the back of the orchestra in this picture from 1929 holding a banjo. It shows Phil Spitalney, Conductor of the Earl Orchestra, at an event for Greets Radio's distributors and dealers, at the RMA Show in Chicago.
Above, Alvino playing his Gibson L-5.
Image courtesy of Paul Fox (fox-guitars.com)
Below, Alvino finally makes it to the front row in this image, also from 1929.
A great piece of ephemera, this cigarette packet shows an advertisement from Gibson for its Mandolins and Banjos featuring Alvino (using his real name, Al McBurney) as "Banjoist-Guitarist" of Phil Spitalny's Orchestra in New York. It is from a 1929 convention and has been established as the earliest known commercial Gibson advertising item that is not from, but sponsored by, Gibson.
Research was initially carried out in collaboration with the Chicago-based Lyon and Healy Company, where an engineer by the name of John Kutalek was given the task of developing a suitable electromagnetic pickup. Thanks to his pioneering use of the electric guitar, Alvino Rey was enlisted in an advisory capacity.
“Alvino told me he invented the tone control for electric guitars,” says Lynn. “If you look at the references, you can't find anything with an original tone control before the Gibson EH-150 from late October of 1935.”
Alvino would not play the wood bodied Gibson EH-150, because it lacked the bite and sustain he needed for his style. Though the earlier Gibson E-150 (Gibson’s first production electric guitar) had a cast aluminium body like the Rickenbacher ‘Frying Pan’, Alvino was used to a 25-inch scale length. Gibson could not have its endorser appearing in public with a Rickenbacher and to appease Alvino, built a one-of-a-kind, eight-string, cast aluminium EH with a 25-inch scale.
This unique instrument was mounted in a guitar-shaped body as his ‘frying pan’ had been.
“I have only found one picture of him playing this,” says Lynn. “It was at the Drake hotel in late 1936. As far as we know, this is the first Gibson eight-string and the only one with a cast aluminium body.”
Above, Alvino pictured in 1933 with his Rickenbacher 'Frying Pan'.
Left, Alvino's 1932 Vi-Vi Tone Electric Spanish guitar.
Special thanks to Lynn Wheelwright for the information and pictures on this page.
By the mid 1930s, pressure was on Gibson to add an electric guitar to its catalogue. Both Electro (Rickenbacker) and National-Dobro now offered electric instruments and when Epiphone – Gibson’s main rival at the time - threw its hat into the ring, Gibson had little option but to develop an electric guitar and amplifier set of its own.
Lacking the necessary R & D facilities, the company outsourced the project to Lyon & Healy, where electrical engineer John Kutilek was given the task of designing a pickup that didn’t infringe existing patents. Guitarist Alvino Rey - who was the number one electric player at the time - was taken on board in an advisory capacity. Alvino would fly up to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo whenever he got the chance - he had his pilots license before he had a drivers license. The company may have viewed his involvement in the project as legitimising Gibson’s entry into the field of electric instruments in the same way that guitarist Les Paul’s name was later used to promote the introduction of Gibson’s first solidbody in the early 1950s. After several months of experimentation, Guy Hart relocated the project to Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory, where Walter Fuller replaced Kutalek as the man in charge of the new pickup’s development.
Introduced in 1935, Gibson’s first production electric guitar - initially referred to simply as the Gibson Electric Hawaiian - incorporated Walter Fuller’s pickup. A similar unit was installed in the ES-150 electric Spanish guitar, which Gibson launched the following year. The ES-150 was subsequently adopted by a young black musician from Oklahoma City named Charlie Christian and the rest, as they say, is history!
Built by Alvino Rey and John Kutilek as a test bed for their new pickup, the instrument pictured here (below) comprises a simple frame to which a vestigial ‘body’, fingerboard and headstock – all of which are fabricated from sheet brass – are attached. Hardware includes a brass nut and bridge, inexpensive tuners and a basic trapeze tailpiece. The pickup itself consists of two magnets with the strings running between the top magnet and a coil of wire. The pickup was hardwired with no jack socket or controls.
For more on this guitar, read the feature by Lynn Wheelwright and John Teagle in Vintage Guitar Magazine (vintageguitar.com).
Gibson R&D Guitar
This picture was taken in 1997 when Alvino was 89 years old. He continued to play and recorded right
up to his death in 2004. The guitar is on display in the Quest for Volume room at EMP in Seattle, Washington.
Image courtesy of Lynn Wheelwright