I recently stumbled upon Ray Brack‘s “lost” piece of reporting about Cecil Null‘s handcrafted musical long gun (i.e., gun guitar – or is it guitar gun?) for Billboard ‘s June 22, 1968 edition:
“the guitar strings are attached near the mouth of the rifle barrel –
which forms the neck of the guitar“
History cannot help but ask —
Q = Is Cecil Null the first to merge guitar with gun?
Fans of Roy Orbison can easily answer that question (i.e., no) by pointing to the previous year’s Fastest Guitar Alive film and fabulous soundtrack album for MGM.
Inspiration for Cecil Null’s gun-tar?
In subsequent years, other electrified guitar-guns would follow in Null’s wake, such as Peter Tosh‘s iconic M16 gun-tar, and more recently, Colombian musician César López‘s home-styled Escopetarra, named after the escopeta (rifle) and the guitarra (guitar), as reported by Utne Reader in its February 8, 2012 issue.
Playing an Escopetarra at Bolívar Square in Bogotá
(image courtesy of Utne Reader)
Opening of the Peter Tosh Museum (2016)
Andrew (son) & Dre (grandson) McIntosh with M16 Gun-tar
(image courtesy of The Jamaica Gleaner)
Ray Brack also interviewed Cecil Null later that same year for Billboard‘s October 19, 1968 issue “during a lull in the first annual Smoky Mountain Folk Festival” and highlighted some of the more notable achievements of this songwriting son of a West Virginia coalminer best known for “I’ve Forget More Than You’ll Ever Know” (a hit for The Davis Sisters, whose recording ensemble included Chet Atkins and Jerry Byrd). Thanks to Brack’s reporting for Billboard, we now have a clearer understanding of Null’s musical legacy, not only as a songwriter but also as a master autoharp player who pushed the technology forward into the electric era.
Cecil Null, upright autoharp picking-style innovator
1963 LP for Paul Cohen’s Briar Records
- While Mother Maybelle Carter is considered the standard bearer when it comes to picking autoharp in the upright Appalachian style, Brack asserts that it was actually Null who “developed the picking style of autoharp that has influenced autoharp players throughout the county” and has even published the first text on this style, The Cecil Null Picking Style For The Autoharp.
- US autoharp maker, Oscar Schmidt International, who initially declined to make an instrument to Null’s own specifications with the chord bars repositioned, would utilize Null as a design consultant following the success of 1963’s New Sounds In Folk Music album. Oscar Schmidt later marketed an autoharp of Null’s design and specifications as their Appalachian autoharp.
- Null furthermore built and “perfected” — with the help of both Semie Mosely and Sho-Bud Steel Guitars — the first amplified autoharp.
- “Installing his pick-up in a solid body autoharp he painstakingly carved with shards of glass, Null produced an amplified instrument that sounds like a large organ backed by a full-size string section.”
- Null has also founded two BMI-affiliated published firms, Can-Dan and Old Masters.
Cecil Null’s autoharp has 36 pickups –
How many pickups does your autoharp have?
Billboard – Sept. 9, 1967
Master guitar archaeologist Deke Dickerson has written thrillingly of his own adventures investigating — and sometimes obtaining — rare, unusual, and one-of-a-kind guitars in his two volumes of Strat In The Attic: Thrilling Stories of Guitar Archaeology.
A number of selections in these two volumes feature “guitar innovations” that are a testament to ingenuity of design, one of my favorite instruments being a steel guitar modernist marvel designed by Letritia Kandle, in partnership with National Instruments: The Grand Letar. Dickerson’s research reveals a steel guitar that features a “top part made of a poured aluminum casting” and a whopping five necks — three 6-string necks and two 4-string necks, or 26 strings in all — a radical departure from the single- and double-neck electric steel guitars of that period.
Letritia Kandle’s Grand Letar
(image courtesy of Univ. of Illinois’ News Bureau)
In his chapter about The Grand Letar, which was also adapted for an article in Vintage Guitar‘s August 2010 issue, Dickerson includes a news item from the October 1937 edition of Down Beat that hails Letritia Kandle and her innovative “multisensory” electronic musical instrument (in spite of the small typo in the title, “Designs New 24 String Guitar“) —
This new instrument, known as the “Grand Letar,” is the invention of Letritia Kandle. She designed it and had it built especially for her. The instrument has 26 strings and a lighting effect that is very new and novel, being the first instrument to change color while it is played.
The string grouping used on the “Grand Letar” which has complete harmony has been studied and developed by Miss Kandle over a period of six years, the development being derived from an eighteen string triple-neck Hawaiian guitar which she also designed and had built for her. Miss Kandle has played coast to coast programs over NBC and work RCA. She also has had her own string ensemble for which she did all the arranging.
Miss Kandle demonstrated this instrument at the recent manufacturers convention in New York City.
Letritia Kandle with the original Grand Letar
“Rising Sun” motif was later removed
(image courtesy of Deke Dickerson via Vintage Guitar)
To fully appreciate the engineering, Dickerson notes in Strat In The Attic, you have to examine the intricacies of the instrument’s visual component —
The coup de grace of the Grand Letar was the built-in light show, which is so complex that it’s difficult to describe. Letritia and her father [Charles] worked on an idea that utilized Mr. Kandle’s engineering know-how to realize Letritia’s vision. The fretboards, sides, and front of the steel guitar were made from etched glass that displayed lights shining from within the guitar. The front panel of the Grand Letar was originally a rising sun motif, which came from Letritia’s vision of the instrument. Unfortunately, due to World War II and the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, Letritia was eventually forced to change the rising sun motif to an art deco one with musical notes.
Inside the steel guitar was a 1930s vision of the future: an extensive network of 120 bulbs in four colors that flashed and changed colors as a large motor in the base of the Grand Letar engaged electrical contacts on a flywheel. On the rear panel of the Grand Letar, a control panel with four rheostats and twelve toggle switches was used to control the brightness and other aspects of the internal light show.
Letritia Kandle and Paul Whiteman
With the Grand Letar
(image courtesy of Univ of Illinois via America’s Hawaiian Imaginations)
Dickerson also details all the thought that went into the tuning of the 36 strings across the instrument’s five necks —
One of the ideas Letritia had for the multineck arrangement of the Grand Letar concerned the tuning of the necks. Until the Grand Letar, lap steels and doubleneck lap steels were usually tuned with one or two standard tunings, such as the low bass A tuning for Hawaiian playing or the C6 tuning for jazz. Letritia envisioned being able to cover all harmonic and chordal bases using a playing style that necessitated switching back and forth between the necks many times during each song. The basic ideas that Letritia came up with for chord inversions were later utilized by pedal steel players, with their pedals achieving the same result as Letritia’s idea of switching between necks.
The first neck on the Grand Letar was tuned to an A-major (high bass) tuning, A-C#-E-A-C#-E. The second neck was tuned to an E7 with the standard old-school E7 tuning, B-E-D-G#-B-E. The third neck was an A-minor tuning that could also make C6 inversions. Lastly, the fourth neck, which was an 8-string, was arranged in two small clusters of four strings each. One was tuned to an augmented chord, F-A-C#F, and one was tuned to a diminished chord, F#-A-C-E.
By the way, it was bandleader, Paul Whiteman, Kandle’s employer at the time, who coined the instrument’s name combining the first two letters of Kandle’s birth name and adding “-tar.” All that etched glass and elaborate circuitry, unfortunately, made for an instrument that was ill-suited for transport and frequent handling. Consequently, Kandle and her father would come up with a portable version of the instrument (without the built-in amplifier and light show) called the Small Letar.
Letritia Kandle & the Small Letar
(image courtesy of Univ. of Illinois)
Though Letritia retired from the music business in the 1950s as a result of marriage and family responsibilities, thankfully, writes Dickerson, Kandle held onto all of the various musical instruments acquired over the years — a guitar archaeologist’s “paradise,” says Deke — as well as extensive historical documentation, publicity photos, and the like.
Kandle eventually entrusted musical instrument collector Paul Warnik with the task of overseeing the restoration of this most unique steel guitar, its light show and amplifier. Once restored in September 2008, the Grand Letar was then demonstrated in public for the first time in 55 years at the International Steel Guitar Convention in Saint Louis. More recently, the Grand Letar was exhibited and played in 2017 at the ELLNORA Guitar Festival in Champaign, Illnois, shortly after the instrument was acquired by the University of Illinois’ Sousa Archives and Center for American Music.
(image courtesy of Univ. of Illinois)
Deke Dickerson, when notified by Zero to 180, was delighted to learn about Cecil Null’s curious contraption that embraces the concept of “guitarslinging” at its most literal. Null’s pioneering Gun-Tar nearly escaped detection by history were it not for Ray Brack’s 1968 Billboard piece, and Dickerson had this to say by way of response —
Cecil also pops up in Merle Travis history — he was hanging out with Chet Atkins and Merle in the early 70s and if I’m remembering correctly, he was the guy who convinced them to do the album of duets recorded in 1973 called The Atkins Travis Traveling Show [which, by the way, includes “Boogie For Cecil“]. I know that when they recorded that at RCA in Hollywood, the only guys in the studio were Chet, Merle, Jerry Reed and Cecil Null.
Speaking of Merle Travis, Deke Dickerson recently published the first serious biography of Travis — Sixteen Tons — co-written with Travis using the guitarist’s own autobiographical notes and with full support from the Travis Estate. Travis, as Dickerson points out, is an under-celebrated innovator of musical instrument technology whose vision of “a solidbody electric Spanish guitar that sustained like a steel guitar” was ahead of the curve, you might be surprised to learn —
Since the mid-1930s there had been a few short-lived, unsuccessful attempts at making a solidbody electric Spanish guitar, including the 1936 Rickenbacker Bakelite Spanish solidbody and the 1938 wood-bodied Slingerland Songster. However, these guitars were the same size as their lap steel counterparts — uncomfortable to hold and not ergonomic to play — and failed to make any significant impact. Though Rickenbacker tried marketing their Spanish solidbody electric guitars, professional musicians treated them as a novelty or a toy. These early attempts looked like a ukulele body with a guitar neck on it. No one had yet marketed a truly professional solidbody electric Spanish guitar. The idea germinated in Merle’s mind.
In order to bring this idea to fruition, Travis privately contracted with Paul “P.A.” Bigsby, who worked off drawings from Merle that detailed design and gear specifications. Travis would take delivery of this initial prototype in May 1948, more than a year before Leo Fender‘s introduction of the Broadcaster – quickly renamed the Telecaster – in 1950.
Merle Travis holding his 1948 Bigsby solidbody –
Fender’s 1954 Stratocaster copies the Bigsby headstock, notes the author
Click here to order an autographed copy
“If your neighbor looks you straight in the eye and strikes you on the right cheek, you’ve got a left-handed neighbor”