I was sitting on a carpeted step leading down to my father’s sunken living room the first day he let me plug his electric guitar into his oblong amplifier with the powder-blue finish. I was 4 years old at the time and the proud owner of my first vinyl record.
I didn’t know it at the time, but music history was being made all around me. It was the 1960s, the decade of the British Invasion, the rise of Motown, and the Elvis phenomenon. All I knew was how much I loved feeling the weight of that guitar, and strumming until my small fingers felt numb.
Those memories came flooding back recently, as I stood surrounded by guitars inside a gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum. That’s where an exhibit called “The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon” runs through Sunday, September 15.
The exhibit includes more than 80 electric guitars and amplifiers, including frying-pan guitars, pedal steel guitars, and double-neck guitars. Several were built during the 1930s and 1940s, an era
One grouping includes guitars inspired by Art Deco design, demonstrating the role of
“The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon" is particularly effective at elucidating the relationship between form and function, and the constant drive by musicians and guitar-makers to push the envelope in new directions, assuring that the guitar will always be a work in progress.
Most were culled from the collection of guitar historian and collector Lynn Wheelwright. His reflections are featured in one of several videos shown on monitors dotting the gallery walls. Wear headphones when you tour the exhibit, or you’ll miss a lot of the guitar’s fascinating backstory.
Additional videos provide important context, revealing the impact of societal shifts on the evolution of the guitar, and the guitar’s role in shaping decades of American culture. Turns out, Beatlemania didn’t launch the electric guitar. That happened decades before, with pioneers like jazz musician Alvino Rey.
The exhibit includes several of Rey’s guitars, and as well as others played by legends Bob Wills, Tommy Tedesco, Bo Diddley, and Pete Townshend. Other electric instruments, including the banjo and violin, are also part of this eclectic mix.
Stories shared by musicians amplify these objects' impact. It’s one thing to see guitars played by jazz greats. It’s quite another to watch a video that includes George Benson's early memories of the electric guitar.
Curious about how he could hear music coming out of a speaker on one side of a room while his dad was playing his guitar on the other side of the room, Benson sat with his back against the speaker and felt the vibration of the sound. That’s when the magic happened.
There’s a space at the back of the exhibit where people converge to watch concert footage of musical greats from Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen. It’s as if the music is a magnet, and everyone drawn to it brings their own history of hearing or playing the guitar.
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That coming together around music affirms the way music touches all our lives, uniting us even when other forces seek to divide us.
When it comes to the guitar, everyone has a story to tell.
Editor's Note: In a previous version of this story, Bob Wills' name was accidentally spelled
The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon. Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard, 480-478-6000. Tickets to the special exhibition are $7 with general admission, which is $20 for adults. Tickets are $10 to see just the special exhibition. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit continues through Sunday, September 15. Visit mim.org.