Gui­tar he­roes

Me­dieval to Metal: The Art and Evo­lu­tion of the Gui­tar

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

The first pro­duc­tion-model elec­tric gui­tar was in­tro­duced by the Rick­en­backer com­pany in 1932. Why was such a thing wanted by the pub­lic in a year filled with feats by Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart and hit songs by Rudy Vallee and Duke Elling­ton? Oddly enough, it was be­cause of de­mand from Hawai­ian lap­steel play­ers. “From 1915 to World War II, the most pop­u­lar mu­sic in Amer­i­can was mu­sic by Hawai­ian lap- steel play­ers, who play the gui­tar in their lap and use a glass or metal slide,” said H.P. Newquist, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gui­tar Mu­seum. “As they played big­ger and big­ger venues in the U. S., they couldn’t hear them­selves. Elec­tric am­pli­fi­ca­tion was driven by Hawai­ian mu­sic, not by the blues and not by jazz.” Whether your cup of tea is “King” Ben­nie Nawahi, Ge­orge Har­ri­son, Duane All­man, Ed­die Van Halen, Wes Mont­gomery, An­drés Se­govia, Chet Atkins, Jonny Green­wood, John Fa­hey, St. Vin­cent, or Bill Frisell, if you’re a gui­tar afi­cionado, you’ll love Me­dieval to Metal: The Art and Evo­lu­tion of the Gui­tar, open­ing Fri­day, Feb. 5, at the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art. The 40 in­stru­ments in Me­dieval to Metal span cen­turies. There are gui­tars by Fender, Martin, Gretsch, Na­tional, Gib­son, and Ibanez. Also rep­re­sented are the lute, the­o­rbo, vi­huela, gui­tar­rón, and cha­rango. The ex­hibit is punc­tu­ated with graphic de­signer Ger­ard Huerta’s il­lus­tra­tions of his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant gui­tar de­signs and with rock-con­cert pho­tog­ra­pher Neil Zlo­zower’s pho­tos of Bon­nie Raitt, Jimmy Page, Johnny Win­ter, Chrissie Hynde, and other gui­tarists.

Me­dieval to Metal is a trav­el­ing show from the Na­tional Gui­tar Mu­seum, the world’s first mu­seum ded­i­cated to the his­tory, sci­ence, evo­lu­tion, and cul­tural im­pact of the gui­tar. It has a broader scope than the Ex­pe­ri­ence Mu­sic Pro­ject in Seat­tle. “One of the things Paul Allen did with the EMP is that he be­gan with the Seat­tle in­flu­ence, with Jimi Hen­drix and Nir­vana, and built the col­lec­tion around that,” Newquist said. “It is about fa­mous gui­tarists and some of their gui­tars. The dif­fer­ence in what we’re do­ing is re­ally look­ing at the his­tory of the in­stru­ment it­self: how its de­sign has changed and how it’s be­come an ar­ti­fact that’s not only beau­ti­ful to hear, but also beau­ti­ful to look at.”

Newquist was speak­ing from Wi­chita, where the mu­seum’s other ex­hibit, Gui­tar: The In­stru­ment That

Rocked the World, opened on Jan. 30 at Ex­plo­ration Place. One of the in­stru­ments in that show, which fo­cuses not just on gui­tar his­tory but on en­gi­neer­ing and how sound is cre­ated, is a re­ally big one. “It’s the world’s largest gui­tar, 43.5 feet long, which was made by a sci­ence academy in Hous­ton a decade ago and that we trans­port in pieces.”

Un­like the Ex­pe­ri­ence Mu­sic Pro­ject, a mu­seum de­signed by Frank Gehry that looks rather like a gi­ant melted elec­tric gui­tar, Newquist’s mu­seum has no build­ing. It was founded in 2009, a great ex­am­ple of bad tim­ing right at the start of the re­ces­sion. The orig­i­nal plan of Newquist and his part­ners was to build a mu­seum in New York. “We had al­ready be­gun ac­quir­ing the col­lec­tion and build­ing dis­plays, and with the col­lapse of the econ­omy and also the demise of two large mu­se­ums in New York — the Sports Mu­seum of Amer­ica and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame An­nex — we de­cided New York might not be the best place, and we de­cided to take the ex­hibit on the road. Seven years later, we’re just con­tin­u­ing that, and we will as long as dif­fer­ent cities and mu­se­ums ask to host the ex­hibits.”

Newquist said t he gui­tar’s lin­eage ex­tends back about five mil­len­nia. “As far as we can tell, the first in­stru­ments were gourds with strings made from plant fibers or catgut.” The gui­tar’s an­ces­tors are the Euro­pean lute and, ear­lier, the Middle East­ern oud, which was brought to the Iberian Penin­sula by the Moors in the 700s. Be­fore the gui­tar evolved into an elec­tri­fied in­stru­ment, it got fat­ter. “Part of the his­tory was about mak­ing it louder. You had Martin cre­at­ing much big­ger gui­tars be­cause of coun­try and western gui­tarists who were play­ing in bands com­pet­ing with the vol­ume of the pi­ano and the drums. The down­side, which is his­tor­i­cally in­ter­est­ing, is that at the turn of the cen­tury, the vast ma­jor­ity of gui­tar play­ers who were play­ing the gui­tar Span­ish-style, with the gui­tar fac­ing out, were women, and as the in­stru­ment got big­ger, it got more dif­fi­cult for women to hold it com­fort­ably. So to­day, women are in the mi­nor­ity when it comes to play­ing the gui­tar.”

Newquist grew up lis­ten­ing to Led Zep­pelin, Black Sab­bath, Yes, and King Crim­son, and in­spired by that mu­sic, he be­gan play­ing the gui­tar — mainly the elec­tric gui­tar — decades ago. He has been struck by the fact that you can play the gui­tar your whole life. “We tell peo­ple there are lots of things to do in your life — play foot­ball, play ten­nis, be a drum­mer — but you can play gui­tar un­til the day you die.

“One of the things that we’ve tried to fo­cus on is the in­stru­ment it­self. For ex­am­ple, the [Fender] Stra­to­caster, which is by far the most fa­mous and pop­u­lar gui­tar in his­tory and was played by Jimi Hen­drix and Eric Clap­ton and Yng­wie Malm­steen. So we want to fo­cus on the why — why it’s been so im­por­tant. Well, it was the first to have three dif­fer­ent pick­ups, which changed the elec­tric gui­tar from be­ing kind of a two-toned in­stru­ment, ba­si­cally low and throaty or a high tre­ble, but this added a middle sound, so with the com­bi­na­tions you could get five dif­fer­ent tones out of the gui­tar. The Stra­to­caster also was the first to be some­what er­gonom­i­cally cor­rect. It had no sharp edges and curved into the body; it was eas­ier to hold and play stand­ing up. So you had th­ese great bands like the Ven­tures get­ting into it be­cause it was com­fort­able and had a bet­ter range of tones. To this day you ei­ther love the Stra­to­cast­ers or you hate them, but there are mil­lions of them out there.”

Many fa­mous gui­tarists love col­lect­ing gui­tars. They have a range of in­stru­ments to play. “Joe Bonamassa, the young blues guy, is a huge col­lec­tor, and he has some of the most ex­pen­sive Les Paul gui­tars on the planet. You can only play one at a time, but you find some­thing dif­fer­ent in each of them. Even two gui­tars that come off the fac­tory floor at the same time will have slightly dif­fer­ent tonal ca­pa­bil­i­ties. It might be vari­a­tions in the wood, the cut of the wood, or the way it was dried. Very few of the three mil­lion peo­ple who buy a gui­tar ev­ery year are go­ing to be fa­mous. But that doesn’t mean they can’t ap­pre­ci­ate the in­stru­ment.” The elec­tric gui­tar has en­joyed an un­bro­ken run of pop­u­lar­ity, cer­tainly since the 1950s. “Peo­ple were say­ing be­fore Van Halen came out that the elec­tric gui­tar was over and done; disco had killed it and no­body could do any­thing new. Then Van Halen yanked it back into the pub­lic con­scious­ness. In­stru­ments come and go in pop­u­lar­ity. The ukulele is a per­fect ex­am­ple. For two years at a time, it’s the most pop­u­lar in­stru­ment in Amer­ica, and t hen it goes away for t wo decades.” Gui­tars are now evolv­ing into the dig­i­tal realm, and who knows what that may bring? John McLaugh­lin, Todd Rund­gren, and Pat Metheny are three who gen­er­ated new sounds with syn­the­sized gui­tar and elec­tronic in­no­va­tions. “They have all done re­ally in­ter­est­ing things, but at some point you still want it to be gui­tar. One of the peo­ple who un­der­stood that best was David Bowie,” Newquist said. “He played with a wide va­ri­ety of gui­tar play­ers, and ev­ery al­bum has gui­tar noise on it, strange noises that the gui­tar is mak­ing. King Crim­son is an­other band that pushes it be­yond melody to what it can pro­duce that’s still mu­si­cal but not nec­es­sar­ily part of the song struc­ture, like Hen­drix did with feed­back and sus­tain. Bowie was one who pushed that. I don’t know who it might be in the fu­ture, but I’m anx­ious to see.”

1952 Les Paul model by Gib­son Right, a 2012 Di Donato gui­tar with a kaya-wood body fin­ished in gold leaf with an In­dian rose­wood fret­board

The leg­endary Fender Stra­to­caster, 1954 Left, an oud, luthier un­known All im­ages cour­tesy the Na­tional Gui­tar Mu­seum

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