Play It Loudly

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is offering its first major exhibition of iconic rock n’ roll instruments from April 8, 2019 through October 1st.

The show, Play It Loud, features 130 instruments played by artists such as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, Prince, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lady Gaga, Nancy Wilson, Steve Miller, Don Felder, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Eddie Van Halen, St. Vincent and Tina Weymouth, to merely name a few.

The exhibit, which is located in Gallery 199, just off the Roman statue corridor, opens with Chuck Berry’s 1957 ES-350T guitar, which he used to record “Johnny B. Goode,”  followed by Muddy Waters’ “The Hoss” Tele, which he played from 1958 to the very end of his career, in 1983.  I happened to be at Northwestern University’s Norris Center that Saturday evening on April 30, 1983, as a blue-mascara-wearing, blues-fanatical underaged stowaway, when Koko Taylor’s manager interrupted the music to solemnly announce the news of Muddy Waters’ death.  We take our blues seriously in Chicago. 

The exhibit steers visitors onward to view “Great Balls of Fire,Jerry Lee Lewis’ golden petite grand piano and Buddy Holly’s J-45 Gibson, with its guitar body enrobed inside a tooled leather cover that Holly may have made.  This instrument is the one he used to record “Everyday.

Wanda Jackson’s 1950 D-18 C.F. Martin gleams nearby, commanding attention as another guitar with its artist’s name stamped onto the soundboard. 

Bo Diddley’s 1960 Gretsch “Twang Machine.”

To the far right is George Harrison’s Karl Hofner Club 40 guitar, his first electric guitar acquired in 1959.  He used this guitar in shows at Liverpool’s Casbah Coffee Club when The Beatles were known as The Quarrymen.

The exhibit also includes Harrison’s 1962 Rickenbacker, which he used for his appearances on UK television programmes Ready, Steady, Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars and also to record, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964) at Abbey Road Studios.

The back of Van Halen’s 1975 “Frankenstein,” guitar, built and spray painted by Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen.  

I can only relay those guitars I bumped past, which hardly includes the full scope of the exhibit: Bruce Springsteen’s modified Esquire Fender Tele, which appears on several of his album covers. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s resplendently worn-down 1963 Fender Composite Strat “Number One” is an unmissable sight, as it bears his white initials against a black pickguard and cigarette burns on its headstock.

Nearby is Joni Mitchell’s 1978 George Benson Signature Model GB10 NT made by Ibanez Guitars.  It has her name engraved in mother-of-pearl on the 21st fret. 

I found my friend Seymour Duncan posing for his wife’s camera in front of Jeff Beck’s 1954 Fender Esquire, which Beck used with the Yardbirds in 1965 and 1966.  Duncan actually positioned himself between this guitar and Pete Townshend’s restored 1975 Les Paul Deluxe, one of nine numbered guitars Townshend used on tour with The Who in 1975. This particular guitar is the one whose headstock snapped off after a December 1975 show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon and went flying out a second storey window. 

“I know so many of the guitars here because I’ve repaired them!” Duncan told me, “Even Page’s double-necked guitar—you’ll find my initials on it!”  I couldn’t wait to find it in the exhibit, of course.

Duncan contributed a fantastic interview for my book,My First Guitar:  Tales of True Love and Lost Chords on how he cultivated his childhood obsession for tinkering and listening closely to guitar tonal qualities with a devotion that lead to him becoming a legendary craftsman and producer of his own guitar pickups.

Duncan, like many of the musicians whose guitars he has repaired, comes from a generation of mechanical wizards who directed their curiosity and genius into creatively reconfiguring guitars and amps.  Nearly every guitar in this exhibit was subject to some idiosyncratic tweaking by their owner, as each musician searched for a way to hotwire their own signature sound.

The late, great Dick Dale, who unfortunately is not represented in this show, could hold court for hours over the ins and outs of amplifier dynamics along with his collaborations with Leo Fender, whose first prototype of an electric guitar can be seen in this show.  

Exquisite 6-Stringed Corpses

At the other end of the spectrum, apart from the lovingly tinkered, sits a special collection of hand-smashed guitars.

Kurt Cobain’s Fender Strat.  Cobain destroyed this particular guitar in performance in Inglewood, CA, during the 1993 tour in support of In Utero.  Apparently, he was in the habit of smashing black and white Strats.
Fragment of Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 Fender Strat, which he destroyed at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967.

This portion of the exhibit includes Pete Townshend’s unwrapped mummy of a fragmented guitar that he smashed during a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz and the original headstock from Eric Clapton‘s famed 1964 Kalamazoo Gibson guitar, “The Fool.”

Not smashed but straight-up spooky to see is Prince’s 1993 Love symbol guitar, which was made by Jerry Auerswald of Konstanz, Germany and used at the 2007 Superbowl halftime show. A manikin wearing Prince’s Cherub Suit, designed by Helen Hiatt in the 1980s is also on display with his Auerswald Model C guitar, a gift given to him from German princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis in 1986.  Prince used this guitar to record much of his Sign o’ the Times album in 1987.

Lady Gaga’s Artpop Piano, emitting an ethereally cool lavender glow inside an acrylic case with internal LED lighting. 

Rigs, Jigs and Reels

Turn a corner and you will be greeted with a mid-60s Moog Synthesizer and Hammond organ used by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Robert Moog created modular synthesizers using transistor technology, first demonstrated at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.  Wendy Carlos’s album Switched-On Bach became a moog synth hit. 

The show also features various artist rigs, from Jimmy Page’s to Keith Richards’, Eddie Van Halen’s and Tom Morello‘s.

Keith Richards’ Les Paul Standard 1959 Kalamazoo guitar.  Included are Combo Amplifiers 5F8-A High-Power Twin by Fender Electric, 1958-59–85 watt
tube power. 

Are you exhausted yet? But wait–there’s more! A 6-stringed feast of Page guitars, including his famed Dragon Suit.

The fringed shirt is from 1967, one that Page wore onstage with the Yardbirds. He used this 1959 1690T Coronado amplifier by Valco with his Dragon Telecaster and violin bow in recordings and performances with the Yardbirds.  He used this telecaster and amp to record Led Zeppelin (1968), and also used it for his solo on the #1 song banned from amateur play in guitar stores nationwide, “Stairway to Heaven.”  The exhibit states that the amp originally had two 10-inch speakers and was modified to contain one twelve-inch speaker.

Let’s have a close-up look at this Dragon guitar!

Page used this guitar for his 1967 work with the Yardbirds, playing it with a violin bow on experimental live versions of “Dazed and Confused.”  He also hand-painted the dragon design on the body and replaced its white pickguard with transparent acrylic over a piece of diffraction grating film.  Coming from the school of “Do All the Things!” I would say that Page needs to be painting more! Look at those vibrant colours and the fluidity in his lines!

Left photo: detail of pant leg from Page’s 1975 black crepe jacket and velvet pants with silk embroidery. Right photo: dragon suit and the EDS-1275 Double-neck 1971 Gibson, Kalamazoo he used to play both the acoustic and electric parts of “Stairway to Heaven,” without having to switch out guitars.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t see Seymour Duncan’s initials, because the manikin is holding that guitar way far overhead!

Foreground: Page’s main guitar, a 1959-60 Les Paul Standard Gibson, Kalamazoo, “Number One,” aka “Mistress and wife.” It’s been Page’s main guitar, used in every Led Zeppelin performance and recording from 1969 to 2007 reunion and his post-Zeppelin work with the Firm.  Left background: Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar.

Do you think you could part with your main guitar for six months?! I paused to consider it. Actually, if given the opportunity to have my guitar shown off at The Met versus being given the opportunity to live inside the Frank Lloyd Wright Room for six months, I’d come by with my Vox AC-30, put my feet up inside the Wright Room for all of three seconds and then proceed to rattle its windows for all who care to listen.

Joe Strummer‘s Fender 1966 Telecaster. He put the stickers on this guitar, including the one for “Trash City,” a song he wrote with his band, the Latino Rockabilly War.

Members of the press had about thirty minutes to navigate all 130 amazing guitars before attending an official talk. Part of me didn’t want to attend if it meant I could backtrack and view All the Guitars unimpeded. It alway feels like the older kids arrive at Easter egg hunts with a semblance of strategy, as opposed to some of us who tend to become easily transfixed by the crinkly cellophane wrapper of each candy egg, which each guitar offers up metaphorically by the way of a spectacular detail.  (Jeff Beck!  You Hot Paws!  Trim those left-hand fingernails much?  Something tells me that 1954 Fender Esquire must be your favourite!)

The fretboard of Jeff Beck’s 1954 Fender Esquire.

The official press talk was graced by the presence of Jimmy Page, Don Felder of The Eagles, Jimmie Vaughan, Tina Weymouth, Greg Harris, the President of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, the Met curators and staff.  It felt a bit like A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as each museum director, curator and rock star took turns making their speeches, and, instead of thimbles, photographs and mobile phone videos served as prizes.

I had just bum-rushed my way through a collection of road-worn guitars, the very ones that have imprinted generations and conveyed decades worth of music and entire music careers.  Admiring them up close for their quirks was like scrutinizing a parade of incredibly cool, well-loved, soft animals, with some missing a button eye here and exposing a threadbare patch there.  The curators described the guitars as curators will do, like Lepidoptera specimens pinioned drily to a board, sans any of Nabokov’s wit or the passion of playing that went into these instruments.  “Rock ‘n roll is one of the most significant artistic movements of the 20th century…” 

Those words unnerved me because the subtext felt academic and eulogizing, and the last time I heard a eulogy was at a funeral.  Say it ain’t so! 

Don Felder played a part of “Hotel California,” admittedly under duress for being all of two guitar neck lengths away from Jimmy Page, who tried to dispel his worries with mirth.

Weymouth thanked the Met curators for being “inclusive” of women musicians, though the exhibited rated far less than a dozen.  If this acknowledgement needs to be made, it concedes that we’re not really there yet.

Weymouth also offered a compelling recollection of how, as an art history major, she used to spend her afternoons in this very wing, sketching these same Greek statues, without any prescience whatsoever that she would eventually find herself standing here today, decades later, as a delighted contributor within The Met’s hallowed walls.  She expressed earnest gratitude for how she managed to preserve and listen to that “genuine part of herself,” that innermost voice, which led her to her career and afforded her this opportunity.  She stressed how important it is for everyone to heed their inner voice always. Otherwise, it can be so easy in this life to wind up working for someone else.

Last I checked, most people have to work for someone else to be able to afford the going rates for concert tickets these days.

On my way out, I passed by a pair of gift shop stock boys busily engaged in unboxing books.

“Didja know there’s a bunch of rock stars here today?” one asked the other.

“No way, man!”

“Yes, way.  Betcha you’re gonna use your bathroom break to sneak around and find where they are.”

“Dare me?”

“I dare you.”

“It. Is. On, dude.”

I exhaled.  The spirit of rock n’ roll ain’t dead.  It just happens to have a day job.

* * *

This exhibit has closed.
If you were unable to attend the event but would like a copy of the official exhibit book, click here.

Comments are closed.