Anyone wishing to see the actual guitar that Robert Johnson was playing when he sold his soul to the devil might be disappointed. Or if you’re expecting to ogle the battered Hofner on which John Lennon wrote “Help!” or to witness the cigarette burns on Jimmy Page’s first sunburst Les Paul, forget about it.
Celebrity worship and collectible mania are downplayed in favor of science and history at Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World. The exhibit is on display through May 6 at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Visitors learn how guitars are made. They see how acoustic models are braced and how electric models are wired. They get to use stomp pedals to manipulate sounds. They discover how the instrument evolved from a minor band piece to a cultural phenomenon that indeed rocked the world from about 1950 onward.
Including a celebrity guitar or two would have been a nice touch, but the exhibit’s straightforward, educational approach works well.
A guitar has been like a third arm to me ever since I was 12. I’ve spent thousands of hours running my fingers up and down guitar necks, strumming strings, reading about various brands, and buying, selling, and trading pieces. Still, I discovered new things at the museum. For instance, I’ve referred to large acoustic guitars as “dreadnoughts” for years. I never knew that the word was borrowed from World War I British battleships that were so oversized and stout that their crews feared nothing or “dread nought.”
The day I visited the museum, several toddlers were there with their parents. The kids were fascinated by the world’s largest playable guitar, a copy of an electric Flying V that is 43.5 feet long and 16 feet wide, weighing in at more than a ton. The Guinness Book of World Records declared its record-breaking status in 2001. Kids climbed on it, plucked its fat strings made of aircraft cable, made a bunch of noise, and had a grand time.
The exhibit, though, is more suited for older children and adults, especially those interested in slinging an axe. More than 70 different makes and models are on display, along with numerous interactive TV screens demonstrating the science behind the sound. Large photos depict guitar gods such as Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton playing their signature instruments. Videos show Steve Vai, Chet Atkins, and others performing live concerts. (A cool touch: The video and interactive screens are housed in replica guitar amplifiers.) But the focus remains on wood and steel rather than glitz and glamour.
Live music from local artists is incorporated into the exhibit every Thursday beginning at 6:30 p.m., allowing patrons to see professional musicians wielding those tools of the trade. Joe Rose of Holy Moly performs this Thursday.
Full disclosure: This exhibit was brought to town by National Guitar Museum founder H.P. Newquist, the New York City-based brother of Fort Worth Weekly owner Lee Newquist. I’m under no obligation, though. If the exhibit sucked, I could and would say so in these pages. Instead, I found it interesting and informative and figure most people will feel the same whether they are guitar nuts or fair-weather fans – or just a rug rat wanting to pound on a giant guitar.
Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World
Thru May 6 at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, 1600 Gendy St, FW. $12-15. 817-255-9300.