The guitar migrated to our shores by a circuitous route, from the Middle East through Europe. It became the world's biggest, baddest, loudest music machine thanks to a long line of eccentric inventors and entrepreneurs, most of them immigrants, too.
In other words, it's the quintessential American instrument, a microcosm of our cultural history. And that tale is told well in Guitars! Roundups to Rockers, opening March 9 at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. The 5,500-square-foot exhibition features more than 100 rare, vintage and historic instruments, played by names like Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Christian, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Woody Guthrie, Barney Kessel, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain and members of Metallica, Black Flag, Sleater-Kinney and the Decemberists. Never before shown together - and probably never again - the pieces are on loan from such institutions as the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and from private collectors who include regular folks, Colts owner Jim Irsay and various country and rock stars. Together, the specimens illustrate the technological and stylistic evolution of this strange stringed beast, from the Baroque era through Western swing music to Guitar Hero.
The interactive gallery experience allows visitors to hear representative audio samples for most items on display, via iPods checked out at the door. The exhibition's run through August 4 includes ongoing programming in the form of live music, films, guitar instruction and a guitar "petting corral" where guests can pick and grin.
But what really makes the guitar "Western"?
"The guitar story has unique elements in the American West," says James Nottage, vice president and chief curatorial officer at the Eiteljorg. A bit of a guitar geek himself, he and colleague Johanna Blume, assistant curator of Western Art, History & Culture, began organizing the show in 2011. It's the latest piece in a broader strategy to bring new visitors to the downtown museum, following recent shows about firearms and motorcycles.
In support of that Western connection, Nottage says, the iconic image of cowboys strumming by the campfire barely scratches the surface. The standard six-string guitar was introduced to North America by Spanish immigrants in the Southwest. The slide guitar traveled with Portuguese sailors to Hawaii, from whence it invaded the West Coast and spread eastward across the continent, infusing folk, blues, country and rock music. In the history of guitardom, the key technological innovations have taken place on the West Coast, specifically California, seat of the commercial recording history. "The amplification of the guitar, all of its success is in the American West," Nottage says. "What we want to do is open people's eyes well beyond the stereotype. Musical styles you'll see in the West go from classical to grunge and Hawaiian. All sorts of musical forms were part of the Western story." One of the exhibition's goals is to debunk common misconceptions, such as the notion that Les Paul - undoubtedly a great musician and tech innovator from 1940 onward - invented the solidbody electric guitar. Here, the evidence is plain in a selection of quirky six-string and lap steel experiments from the 1930s, which could pass for props in a Buck Rogers serial with their Deco-industrial styling and their mad-scientist pickup designs.
One of them is a 1932 prototype lap steel from the Los Angeles-based Ro-Pat-In Corp., precursor of the storied Rickenbacker brand. It's a shiny, solid block of cast aluminum with a big magnet for a pickup and a small round body, nicknamed "Frying Pan." The original 1932 companion amplifier is also part of the collection.
"This is the very beginning of the manufactured electric guitar in the world," Nottage says.
As prelude to electrification, innovators like Slovakian immigrant John Dopyera in California amplified the acoustic guitar by installing arrays of speaker-like aluminum cones, creating the resonator guitar that became a staple of bluegrass and rural blues. So if you thought the dobro was a 19th century Appalachian creation, think again; it came from L.A. in the '20s, and it's part of this exhibition.
Education and myth-busting aside, the magic of the Eiteljorg show is that the items on display are not just celebrity-graced artifacts, not just milestones in the development of an iconic mass-market product. Many of them are the specific instruments employed at pivotal moments by some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.
For example, there's the 1940 Gibson ES-250 hollowbody played by jazz pioneer Christian on the seminal Live at Minton's Playhouse recording, a milestone in the transition from swing to bebop and a breakthrough in establishing the guitar as a lead instrument.
There's also a 1961 Gibson SG, given to Duane Allman by bandmate Dickey Betts for use as an open-tuning slide guitar. Though its Western credentials are more tenuous than most, it is one of curator Nottage's favorite pieces in the show. Heard on the Allman Brothers' legendary Fillmore East recordings, as well as the Layla sessions with Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominoes, this is the instrument that - for good or ill - launched the Southern rock industry.
In that same display case, alongside a couple 1950s Fenders played by Richards and his Stones bandmate Ron Wood, is another SG. It's the one used by Harrison for the Beatles' groundbreaking Revolver sessions, represented auditorily in this display by the psychedelic classic "She Said She Said." Hendrix - to many the king of electric guitar, and with Christian and Allman just one of many premature casualties - is represented by:
* a generous shard of a sunburst Fender Stratocaster, smashed onstage at London's Royal Albert Hall in February 1969 after a show-closing rendition of "Wild Thing." (The museum has footage from the show.)
* a black 1955 Gibson Les Paul, purchased by Hendrix and longtime friend Larry Lee in the early '60s and later played at Woodstock by Lee as a member of Hendrix's Gypsy Sun and Rainbows band.
Yes, they're just assemblages of wood, metal and plastic. But they must have tales to tell.
"You want them to talk," Nottage says, "to hear the full story."
- Opening Day
The second Saturday of each month during the exhibit's run will feature local bands, guitar-related films, airbrush tattoos and guitar-wielding caricatures by local artist Mike Altman.
2 p.m. - Performance: Riders In The Sky - Grammy-winning Western music and comedy troupe; included with museum admission
4 p.m. April 13 - Film Screening: "The Wrecking Crew"
For the Midwestern premiere of his award-winning film, producer-director Denny Tedesco will introduce this feature on the L.A. session musicians who served as unsung heroes of 1960s pop. Admission included with general museum admission.
7 p.m. May 11 - Performance: Riders In The Sky
Grammy-winning Western music and comedy troupe. Tickets: 317-636-9378
7 p.m. June 1 - Performance: The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band
Acclaimed Indiana-based country blues trio. Tickets: 317-636-9378