As much as I admire Les Paul, it bothers me when he is described as “the inventor of the electric guitar.” The truth is that many different people, including Paul, played a part in developing the electric guitar, and pushing the technology forward, over the course of decades.
The new documentary “Who the F… Is Roger Rossmeisl,” which will be available for streaming June 5 as part of the virtual summer edition of the New Jersey International Film Festival (visit njfilmfest.com), adds a frequently overlooked name to the many who are, along with Paul, part of the electric guitar story. Rossmeisl, who died in 1979 at the age of 52, was a key figure in the success of the Rickenbacker company in the ’50s and ’60s, and later worked for Fender and Gibson as well.
Director Luc Quelin (who also co-wrote the script with Kaspar Glarner) has put together a documentary that conveys the little that is known about Rossmeisl’s life but also gives contemporary guitarists ample space to discuss why guitar design — and Rossmeisl was, ultimately, more of a designer than an inventor — is so important, and explain why the guitars Rossmeisl designed have an enduring beauty
George Vjestica of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds is one of contributors, and provides the movie’s instrumental background music as well. Bill Frisell, Becky Baldwin, Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten are among the other guitarists and bassists who are interviewed. Pete Townshend offers written thoughts, as well, that are read in the course of the film.
Quelin has some old photos and home movies of Rossmeisl to work with, and sketches the outlines of Rossmeisl’s life (read, as if Rossmeisl were speaking himself, by actor Bruno Ganz).
Rossmeisl grew up in Mittenwald, Germany, during World War II. The son of a guitarist/luthier, he received extensive training in acoustic guitar making, and began applying what he had learned to electric guitars. After he moved to the United States in the ’50s, he helped revive the then-sleepy Rickenbacker company, which received a huge boost when John Lennon — and, subsequently, Townshend and others — opted to play Rickenbacker guitars.
He apparently had a drinking problem, though, and by the early ’70s, still in his 40s but broke and jobless, he returned to Germany, his guitar-making career essentially over.
In the movie, Vjestica sums it up his story this way:
Me parents … they were travelers. You know, they experienced war, and they were displaced and all of this stuff. And they went to England, separately, to find a better life. And I’m pretty sure that’s something that Roger, coming from this small … village which was known for making incredible musical instruments and having this history, and then going all the way to California, to actually make a name for himself, and take all of that knowledge and experience, and also that stuff that, it’s not tangible … it’s just something that’s innate, almost … and to take that to California, and to go off and work, and develop these instruments … he came up with the Rickenbacker 320 that John Lennon played, and those shapes … it’s such a massive part of rock ‘n’ roll history, and he played such a huge part in this. You know, The Beatles … not just the sound, but the actual look of The Beatles … it’s such a massive thing. And he worked for Gibson, and he worked for Fender, and he made these beautiful guitars for Rickenbacker, and died broke, penniless and unknown, which is just such a tragedy.
In many ways, this documentary is more about the electric guitar itself than Rossmeisl. Guitar aficionados will appreciate Quelin’s attention to detail, and more casual fans may feel like they’re discovering a new world. And Rossmeisl, of course, does get some recognition. Finally.
For information about “Who the F… Is Roger Rossmeisl” and other films being shown at the New Jersey International Film Festival, visit njfilmfest.com.
Here is the the trailer:
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Jay Lustig, Les Paul never claimed he invented the “electric guitar.” He started experimenting with designing a SOLID BODY electric guitar in the 1920s and built his solid body Log in 1941.
He may not have claimed it but journalists frequently use “Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar,” as a kind of shorthand. That’s what I was objecting to. I didn’t intend any disrespect to him.