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Guitarra Baiana - Claim to Fame E-mail

"Dodô, Dodô
Antes do gringo a guitarra ele inventou ...."

('Dodô, Dodô, he invented the electric guitar before a gringo did so.')

Viva Dodô e Osmar
Moraes Moreira & Zé Américo

Lyrics like the above, from a classic late 1970s Bahian Carnival tune written by Moraes Moreira, celebrate the development of the Pau Elétrico ('electric log') by Dodô Nascimento and Osmar Macêdo around 1942 and the beginnings of the Trio Elétrico tradition in the early 1950s. The cheerful allegation that the solid body electric guitar was invented in Bahia [1] draws from the fact that the Pau Eletrico — whose exact birth date isn't precisely established — emerged in near synchronicity with the legendary Log Guitar, an important electric guitar dinosaur developed by Les Paul in 1941. In addition, the patents filed by Doc Kauffman and Leo Fender in 1944 (for lapsteel guitar models and pickups) are often mentioned as an example for how the two Brazilians may have lost out by never bothering to register their invention. While most of such claims are untenable [2], the heat of the argument seems to lead enthusiasts to overlook that another claim to fame can be made for the Guitarra Baiana/Pau Elétrico with good safety: That of beeing the first solid body eletric mandolin.

The idea of reducing or even removing the resonance chamber of a string instrument to reduce acoustic feedback goes back to at least 1923, in a prototypic electric viola designed by Lloyd Allayre Loar, developer at Gibson. The instrument shared all relevant characteristics with the one shown to the left, a violin Loar filed a patent for in 1933. Loar, an acclaimed expert in mandolin construction, likely had good reasons — perhaps related to the preservation of certain acoustic charateristics — for not applying the exact same approach to the mandolins and guitars he was developing at the same time. In essence, this is what Les Paul did with his Log Guitar (far right, above) and what Dodô & Osmar did with their Pau Elétrico in the early 1940s.

Pre-1940s guitar developers in the US were aware of the concept and made use of it as well. Many experimental models of early guitarish electric instruments had entirely solid bodies, as did the protoype of Rickenbacker & Beauchamp's 1931 Frying Pan, whose wooden corpus allegedly came from a fencepost behind the workshop. That many production models, in turn, were not entirely solid was due to drawbacks that solid bodies had at the time, in terms of material cost, fabrication techniques and final weight. Rickenbackers' Electro String Bakelite Spanish Guitar from 1935 (see the bw photo in the above illustration) for example, a hard plastic design that successfully eliminated feedback, was too heavy — while not even being completely solid — to be used without a stand.

For whatever the reason, it wasn't until the early 1950s  that US developers set out to apply the principle of the solid body to electric mandolins as consequently as they had to their guitars. All important pre-1940's electric mandolin dinosaurs — Rickenbacker's 1931 Electro String model, Loar's 1933 Vivitone patent, National Resophonic's 1934 model, and also post-1935 models by Gibson (EM), National (Silvo) and Vega —  follow traditional designs and feature hollow bodies. Our best bet is that the use of double strings and a short sustain, both responsible for a characteristic mandolin sound, represented constraints that made US developers stick to acoustic and semi hollow designs. The Brazilians apparently felt much less restricted by such considerations: Their instruments had to be loud and feeback free, and sound "long and clean as a bell" (MACÊDO 1995). In other words, they had to sound like a guitar rather than like a mandolin. Osmar Macedo's habit of using the single stringed Brazilian cavaquinho tuned up as a mandolin (GDAE) lead to the development of a single stringed electric mandolin with a solid body: the Pau Elétrico.

In the US, the first solid body electric mandolin (equipped with 5 single strings tuned CGDAE) was built by Paul Bigsby in 1952, for Western Swing mandolinist Tiny Moore. (This instrument predates the 5 string versions of the Guitarra Baiana that appeared in the early 1980s).

The first 8-string (4 double strings) solid body electric mandolin, Gibson's Electric Florentine a.k.a. EM-200 came out in 1954 (left), followed by the 4-string Strat shaped Mandocaster built by Fender in 1956 (right) and a series of models made by Rickenbacker between 1958 and 1965 (with 4 single strings, 5 single strings and 4 double strings).


The Fender Mandocaster is commonly regarded as mandolin, principally because of its tuning and in spite of the lack of double strings. The same reasoning applies to the Pau Elétrico, which in essence is an early Mandocaster, or a Brazilian Cavacocaster of sorts. Hence, to the degree in which the Mandocaster is granted "mandolin status"  —  which is usually the case — the instrument crafted by Dodô and Osmar between 1942 and 1945 represents the eldest known electric solid body mandolin.



NOTES


[1]
Such claims were also made by Dodô & Osmar and Osmar's sons Armandinho and Aroldo. One recent version told by Armandinho has it that in the mid 1940s Dodô sold one of his instruments to an American soldier who took it to the US, where it may or may not have inspired Leo Fender in some way.  Tales like these continue to contribute to the Brazilian urban legend that the electric guitar was invented in Brazil.

[2]
The argument normally overlooks the fact that as a contender for the first solidbody electric guitar the Pau Elétrico has to compete with Les Pauls 1941 Log Guitar rather than with Leo Fenders models from the late 40s. Dodô and Osmar crafted not only a mandolin version of their pau elétrico but also a guitar version (tuned DGCFAD, to supply the bass line). This guitar version of the Pau Electrico was used in Trio Eletrico formations until the mid 1970s, when it was subsituted by an electric bass.