The posters say that “Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World,” now on display at the Carnegie Science Center, 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 H.P. Newquist, former editor of Guitar Magazine.
“I have very few vices, but one of them is collecting guitars,” he said. “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, Texas, that built it as a science project and had no place to put it.
“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,” Newquist said. “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,” Newquist said. “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 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 said, “but you can isolate them.”