By Sherry Jackson
The electric guitar hit the music scene in the early 1930s and ’40s as an experiment. It has since influenced and defined American music forever.
On November 9, the Musical Instrument Museum opens its newest special exhibit, The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon. Visitors can follow the electric guitar from its early beginnings and learn the history of the instrument that spawned new genres of music.
On display will be vintage amplifiers and personal instruments of groundbreaking artists who were among the first to play and popularize the electric guitar, such as Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Bo Diddley and Eldon Shamblin. Authentic guitars played by next generations of influential musicians, such as Pete Townshend, Ron Wood and Keith Richards will also be on display. Interviews with Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist George Benson, guitar historians and collectors, friends and family of the pioneers of the electric guitar will round out the exhibit.
“We hope visitors will gain a new appreciation of the origins and new development that really went into amplifying these stringed instruments at the start,” says Richard Walter, MIM’s lead curator on the exhibit.
“People were being quite resourceful and using the technologies that were available at the time. This was real cutting-edge stuff. This new exhibit will provide a new appreciation of musical genres that embraced the electric guitar right off the bat, even before there was such a thing as rock ‘n’ roll.”
Many of the items in the exclusive exhibit are from the private collection of avid guitar enthusiast and collector Lynn Wheelwright of Utah. Walter said he realized the “scope and depth” of Wheelwright’s collection after a conversation with the collector, especially the unusually rare and early amplified instruments that could be turned into something special.
“We started envisioning a prequel of sorts of the electric guitars’ story to show people everything that had to happen along the way, for several decades before that energy got it going in the ’50s and ’60s with artists such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles,” Walter says. “Once we realized we had the core of an unusual and thought-provoking version of the amplified electric guitar story, we reached out and found other collectors to round out the collection to bring in other aspects that we wanted to touch on.”
It took about a year to pull everything together, says Walter, and the exhibit showcases more than 80 of the rarest electric guitars and amplifiers in the world―from some of the first ever heard, to those played by the most famous electric guitarists known today. “We probably have more individual pieces in this exhibition than other special exhibitions,” he says.
One of the special pieces on display is Rey’s Electro A-25 (1932). This instrument was likely the first electric guitar played on a national radio broadcast. Considered the “Father of the Electric Guitar,” Rey was not only a performer but also a direct contributor to the research and development of amplified instruments for brands such as Rickenbacker, Gibson and Fender.
“That very guitar was basically the first electric guitar that much of the country as a mass audience would have heard,” Walter says. “That is especially exciting for us as it takes us back to, in some cases, the first exposure that a wide audience had to the concept of an electric guitar. It’s a defining instrument in a lot of ways.”
The MIM will also have on display some of the earliest known prototypes and early demonstration models of the electric guitar. “A lot of the designs, the construction details and the construction materials themselves were bold, stylized instruments that were quite futuristic and looked radically different than the standard acoustic guitars that were common at the time,” Walter says. “It’s really an eye opener.”
The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon, Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix, 480.478.6000, mim.org, various hours November 9 to September 15, $7 with paid museum admission, $10 special exhibition only.