“You’ve never heard anything like this before.” That’s what local orchestra leader Gage Brewer told the “The Wichita Beacon” in the fall of 1932 regarding a new-fangled guitar he’d just brought back from Los Angeles. On Halloween Brewer and his orchestra took the stage playing this new contraption, with music amplified through a loudspeaker.
“He was the consummate showman and entertainer” says Eric Cale, director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. “As fate would have it, this guy lived here and was the first one out of the chute with these things.”
Yes, the first audience ever to hear the electric guitar featured in a public venue was right here in ICT, a riff that has reverberated down through the decades.
Two major exhibits
When Exploration Place brought in the national traveling exhibit, “GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World,” the two organizations seized the opportunity to work together to commemorate this iconic instrument and the surprising role that Wichita played in introducing the electric guitar to the globe.
Visitors to Exploration Place get to play with hands-on exhibits exploring questions such as: How are pitch and tone created? How does a catgut string sound — and feel — different from a steel string? How are decibels measured? What does a 44-foot guitar sound like?
The enormous Flying V guitar at the center of the exhibit is large enough for a child to climb up on and strum. Marketing director, Christina Bluml reports that it produces “an odd noise — bwou-bwou-bwouuu — like what you’d hear in some kind of weird movie.”
The Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum has curated their own exhibit titled “The Electric Guitar — Wichita’s Instrument,” which includes Brewer’s 1932 Rickenbacker that started it all.
“It’s widely recognized as the very first electric guitar these days,” says Cale, and it’s attracted attention from other experts and collectors from around the country, who’ve loaned their instruments — including rare and celebrity-owned guitars from Joe Walsh, Les Paul, Charlie Christian and more. “I don’t know that you’d ever see these all together; they’re pretty rare and amazing.”
Amplifying out to the community
The museums are sliding into spring with a packed schedule of concerts, workshops, jam sessions and a symposium — a slate of events in progress now until the first week of May.
Exploration Place, continuing a popular trend towards more adult events, is kicking off a new annual music series this month: Sounds of Science. Four Thursdays in March, April and May will feature various guitar-centric artists, films, food trucks or catering and a cash bar.
The Historical Museum is hosting performances, recitals and a Spring Break Guitar Camp, all leading up to a grand finale: the Electric Guitar Symposium on May 6-8. For this three-day summit the museum has invited 10 authors, scholars and museum curators from across the country to make presentations and discuss the history of the electric guitar. The symposium is open to the public for a small fee.
Both museums are expanding the partnerships to local music venues such as Abode Venue, The Orpheum, The Cotillion and Hartman Arena, providing exhibit discounts to patrons and members.
What would Gage Brewer think if he was here to witness the celebration of the amped instrument he helped launch? Hopefully he’d pick one up and lay down a few power chords.
“GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World”
Through May 8
Sounds of Science
March 10, Wichita Blues Society and Math Trio
March 24, KMUW Music Tastings and William Flynn with combo
April 7, School of Rock Wichita
May 5, Tallgrass Film Association
Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
“The Electric Guitar – Wichita’s Instrument”
Through June 5
Electric Guitar Symposium
May 6, 7 and 8