This nationally touring exhibition, now at the Carnegie Science Center through Sunday, strikes a nice balance between razzmatazz and education, hands-on experience and the reflected light of celebrity.
Modestly titled GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked the World, it was organized by The National GUITAR Museum (which is intent on avoiding confusion with The National ZITHER Museum).
There’s plenty of stuff for music, science and craft geeks, including pre-assembled versions of both acoustic and electric guitars; a station exploring the differences between catgut, nylon and steel strings; and various displays explicating the physics of sound.
The show’s core, however, is display of 60 stringed instruments, starting with ancient varieties. But it’s mostly devoted to the multifarious makes of electric guitars, from a mass-marketed 1962 Sears Silvertone (with the amp fixed in the case!) to the Eddie Van Halen-inspired Superstrat, and even a model with a video screen in the body. Well-written ccompanying text places the instruments culturally, musically and in business terms.
Among my favorites is the USSR Rostov Stella, made in the 1970s and ’80s, before you could legally import guitars from the U.S. and Japan into the Soviet Union. The industrial-strength looking axe sports no fewer than 13 knobs and switches. (See, the Soviets really did appreciate consumer choice!)
You can’t touch any of these guitars, obviously, but there’s plenty else to handle, including an interactive display on pickups, the magnetic coils that turn the vibrations of plucked strings into electronic signals. Visiting this Sunday, I even saw folks reading the text on these exhibits, which is rarer at museums than you’d think.
Meanwhile, though GUITAR is all-ages-friendly, the iconography is deeply ’70s-rock-dude-centric. In other words, the photos and videos feature way more people who resemble Jeff Beck than otherwise.
Given the gender politics of popular music — where girls with guitars remain more notable than routine — not to mention its racial divide, that’s not unexpected. But why no funk or soul players, for instance? Or even Prince — he’s a pretty good picker.
To its credit, the exhibit does broaden the discussion, with performance video of not only Steve Vai and Johnny Winter, but also the likes of country master Chet Atkins; classical guitarist Liona Boyd; bluesman Mississippi John Hurt; and, perhaps best of all, jazz legend Django Reinhardt, seen in a grainy 1939 clip.
Finally, here’s a brief and amusing account by CP’s Margaret Welsh of touring the exhibit with local rock guitarist Dave Wheeler.