By Scott Meacham
I like the word reverberate. In acoustics, it means the persistence of sound after the sound is produced. In innovation and entrepreneurship, reverberate perfectly describes how new inventions and ideas echo through companies, regions, economies, and the world. Oklahoma innovators match inventions to market needs
Thousands of Oklahoma entrepreneurs and innovators have changed industries and delighted customers. Their impact reverberates. One of those innovators is guitarist Robert Lee “Bob” Dunn, born in 1908 in Braggs, OK. Bob Dunn was a true pioneer in the field of electric guitars. He is one the musicians in the twenties and thirties with musical breakthroughs that led to rock and roll.
Like many of Oklahoma’s innovators, Dunn was rural. His father was musical, and Bob followed suit. There’s a lot to learn about innovation from considering Bob Dunn’s career.
For starters, he didn’t limit himself to one type of music. From Hawaiian melodies, to slide trombone, to jazz, Dunn listened to it all. His distribution and channel strategy was varied and experimental. From vaudeville to radio, to dance halls, he performed. There is an ad advertising him playing for a silent film. A photograph from the twenties shows Dunn with an acoustic Spanish guitar wearing a Hawaiian lei. His blend of musical types led to larger audiences.
Dunn read the market and recognized that lovely as acoustic guitar music was, its sound couldn’t carry far in a raucous dance hall or over a drummer’s beat. His solution was to connect a cheap steel guitar to a homemade electric “pickup” that converted the vibrations of his guitar strings into electrical signals, which he then boosted through a home-rigged amplifier to increase the sound.
When band leader Milton Brown, dubbed the Father of Western Swing, heard Dunn play, he signed the Oklahoman with the new sound up to a permanent position in Brown’s popular band. Milton Brown and The Musical Brownies rivaled Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in regional popularity.
An Epic Career
Dunn was intrepid. By the time he got his big break with Brown’s band, the guitarist had lived through the first world war, endured extreme drought, The Dust Bowl, and The Great Depression. He was flexible, tireless, and like great innovators and entrepreneurs everywhere, was willing and able to wear all the hats.
Brown’s solos are legendary; he played accompaniment, too. He was sideman next to Milton Brown and a stand-out instrumentalist at center stage.
In a now famous two-day recording session in Chicago in 1935, the band recorded 35 songs with just one take for each. Dunn played his self-engineered electric guitar on 30 of the 35 cuts, creating too many original riffs to count. It was in this session that Dunn’s “Taking Off”, became the first recording of music made on an electric guitar.
Innovation rarely comes like a lightening bolt. Oklahoma innovators like Bob Dunn spend years working to match inventions to market needs. When they succeed, like Bob Dunn did, it is music to all our ears.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.