Medieval to Metal: The Art and Evolution of the Guitar
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