Country music historians agree that Robert Lee Dunn, born February 8, 1908, in Braggs, Oklahoma, invented the electric steel guitar and was the first person to play it in 1934 when he joined pioneer Western swing outfit Milton Brown's Musical Brownies in Fort Worth, Texas. Dunn was also the first person in country music to record the instrument with its homemade pickup in 1935 when he made the first of more than ninety recordings with Brown, including Dunn's signature tune, "Taking Off" (1935).
After Milton Brown's death in April 1936, Dunn played with several groups, including Roy Newman and His Boys (1937), the Shelton Brothers (1939), and Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers. Bruner's group provided Dunn the opportunity to record more of his trademark brass-influenced solos, which hearkened back to his days as an aspiring jazz trombonist. After a World War II stint in the U.S. Navy, he settled in Houston where he operated a music store until shortly before his death on May 27, 1971. As a result of Dunn's invention and early performances, the electric steel guitar remains an indelible element of country music, and his work reverberates among countless contemporary artists in the genre.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia (New York: Country Music Magazine/Random House, 1994). Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Hugh W. Foley, Jr.
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