National Guitar Museum rolls into Carnegie Science Center
The posters say that "GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked the World," opening at the Carnegie Science Center on Saturday, was created by the National Guitar Museum, and you might think, "Oh, I'd like to visit that place someday."
You'd need a time machine to go into the future, because the National Guitar Museum is hauled around in the back of a semi. Like many of the people who play the instrument, it is a museum on the road, under the helm of HP Newquist, former editor of Guitar Magazine.
"I have very few vices, but one of them is collecting guitars," he says. "A visitor to my home once walked in and said, 'This place looks like a guitar museum.' I went about looking around to find out where there was a guitar museum. It's the most popular instrument in the world. It seemed like such an obvious thing that there be museum for it. There's a museum for barbed wire, for tea cups, for ventriloquist dummies."
He found a few factory museums, like one at Martin, but no museum fully dedicated to the history of the guitar. He thought, "Someone's going to do it; it might as well be me."
In 2009, he assembled a board of advisers in Manhattan to explore the venture, but with the economy tanking, two major museums in New York already were closing -- the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex and the Sports Museum of America -- so they decided to put the collection on the road for five years and see how people react to it, with the thought of putting the museum in a historical musical city such as New Orleans, Chicago or Kansas City.
The exhibit features more than 60 guitars, running the gamut from reproductions of Middle Age instruments to Gibsons, Fenders and Rickenbackers, including a few on loan from Johnny Winter, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai and Joe Bonamassa.
Of course, to get into a Carnegie Science Center it has to be more than a static display of guitars, so there are interactive pieces with touch screens that allow visitors to memorize riffs and design their own virtual guitar. There are videos that explore the science of how guitars create sound and the physics behind a rock concert. For pure novelty, visitors can strum the world's largest playable guitar -- as certified by the Guinness World Records -- which is 431/2 feet long and weighs 2,200 pound and fills a good bit of the touring truck. He acquired the giant guitar from a science academy in Houston that built it as a science project and had no place to put it.
Mr. Newquist says of the exhibit, "We wanted to make sure that people learned several things: first of all, the evolution of the instrument -- the instruments that predated it like the oud and the tambur and the lute, and show its evolution through Spanish guitars, classical guitars, the electric guitar, on up to video game controllers. We also wanted them to know it was more than strings and a wooden box. There's a lot of science -- we call it stealth science -- that you can learn from a guitar. For instance, the electric guitar works based on electromagnets. You can learn the way a guitar uses physics and moves sound through the air."
Some people peruse the exhibit to learn about soundwaves, others to bang away on the playable stuff and others to see what Steve Vai is rocking.
"It's a combination," Mr. Newquist says. "There's no way to pinpoint what people will focus on, but by and large, adults take the time to read about the individual guitars and their history. But we've designed the interactives so that kids can enjoy them, but adults have to think about them as well."
Suited to the subject matter, there is some shredding going on in the room, from the various video displays. "The constant sound of guitars is wafting," he says, "but you can isolate them."
A tug at the heartstrings
Mr. Newquist's interest in guitars developed like any other kid from his generation, which relied on radio, magazines and concerts rather than YouTube or cable channels.
"We can start with a 15-year-old listening to Led Zeppelin. Like any kids growing up in the '70s we were inundated with pictures of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton -- it was almost inescapable as a teenager."
He learned to play and still plays every day, he says, noting, "I don't play as well as a Steve Vai but better than most of the things on the radio."
After college, he says, "I realized that being a rock star wasn't as easy as it looked, judging by the number of records at the record store."
He went to college and got a job writing for a high-tech magazine, where he wrote a story about how guitarists could tap into new technology to enhance live performance. One thing led to another, and he was hired as West Coast editor of Guitar Magazine in the early '90s and moved up to editor-in-chief.
Anyone who knows anything about the guitar culture in rock can appreciate how high pressure that job can be. There is no end to the debates that rage about how guitar heroes are ranked.
"The only other comparable passion you'll find is the sports fan," Mr. Newquist says. "With sports, you have people who love their teams and particular players, and they're rabid to the point of being fanatical. And you see that with guitars. You don't see so much of it with drummers and keyboard players and bassists, and it becomes really interesting to watch when people try to compare how guitarists play and how successful they are. But it's not a sport, and you can't say one guitarist is the best or one guitar is the best. It's very much a personal thing. It can't be quantified like sports can, because you can't use statistics. There's no resolution to the argument"
So who is his favorite guitarist?
"The guy that inspired me the most and made me want to play the guitar is Jimmy Page. Page was not the most technical player, there are players who play much more clean and with a higher level of skill and dexterity, but I don't think anyone ever bought the kind of emotion to the guitar, at least in hard rock, that Page did."
If you run into Mr. Newquist at the Science Center, feel free to engage him in that guitar-hero debate. He's used to it. "I've been gone from the magazine for 15 years," he says, "and I still get it almost every day."
First Published June 14, 2012 12:00 am