Rey was, by all accounts, the most famous musician to join guitar and electronics at the time, and the first to play for a national audience, which he did as a part of the Horace Heidt’s radio program.
He was best known for his work on the lap steel guitar. The lap steel was mostly the purview of Hawaiian and country and western styles – until Rey started playing swing band chords. According to Carter, because the lap steel has to be played flat, it doesn’t project sound as far as a guitar held in the standard position.
“There’s Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock guitar, Eric Clapton’s Brownie, which he played on “Layla,” and there’s Alvino,” said Jacob McMurray, a senior curator at Seattle’s Experience Museum Project/Science Fiction Museum, where Rey’s prototype for the electric lap steel guitar is on permanent display. Rey helped develop that prototype as a consultant for the Gibson company, but how he played was also an innovation.
“Companies started making larger and louder Spanish-neck guitars, which worked fine for the rhythmic parts in a big band. But Hawaiian players, who typically played lead parts, could not be heard. So they embraced the new electrics,” Carter said.
In 1935, Gibson hired Rey, who worked with the company’s engineers to create the prototype that hangs in Seattle. Rey’s invention was used to build Gibson’s ES-150 guitar, considered the first modern electric guitar.
“Charlie Christian’s pioneering jazz guitar work is always singled out [for popularizing the ES-150], and deservedly so, as a key factor in Gibson’s success as a maker of electric guitars, but Alvino Rey was equally important, and sadly, he is seldom mentioned,” Carter said.
By the 1940s, another electric inventor had entered the music scene – Leo Fender; he and Rey became close friends.
“We had so many [Fenders] in our house you couldn’t walk,” Liza Butler said. “In my kitchen, I have a chopping block Leo Fender made out of all the old Fender guitar necks from the factory.”
Rey’s influence can be seen elsewhere. By connecting a microphone to his lap steel, Rey created the first talk box, manipulating a speaker’s voice with his strings. Decades later, Peter Frampton would become synonymous with the talk box, with his mega-selling album Frampton Comes Alive. But Rey was the first.
“I think [Mom] wished that he didn’t hang wires all over the house –no woman would—but she’d put up with it,” Liza Butler said. Both she and Wheelwright recalled a 1950s Cadillac Rey drove with the backseat replaced by amps. The Reys always had a recording studio at home. She remembers a visit when her 12- and 14-year-old sons stayed up past 2 a.m. recording in the basement – with grandpa at the controls.