Randy Rhoads inspired me when I was in sixth grade. I don't even recall the brand or model of my first guitar, but I can remember it was bright red and shaped like a Fender Telecaster with its single cutaway body. I wanted to play "Crazy Train." I took lessons for years, later buying a 12-string Takamine guitar, traded in the starter for a red Kramer electric, and decades later, bought a Taylor acoustic. I've always been fascinated by guitars — their ability to make such a wide range of sounds and the ease at which other people can play them. Me? I still don't play outside of the comfort of my own home. (I prefer to write about others who can.)
In addition to the guitar's place in many people's personal history is the history of the instrument itself — from its origins thousands of years ago as the tanbur in Persia and oud in Mesopotamia to its modern incarnations we are all familiar with — its physical modifications and the science behind its sound. A new exhibit at Discovery Place entitled Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World showcases all sides of the instrument through Sept. 7.
"The goal is to show the diversity of the instrument and how it's evolved and how experimental it can be," H.P. Newquist, executive director of The National Guitar Museum, said. "We want to showcase the design and engineering milestones with this exhibit."
From its earliest beginnings through to a 3D printed model, Guitar uses more than 60 instruments to showcase the evolution through the years. You can marvel at a wooden tanbur, nyatiti and oud dating back 3,000 years. A vihuela dating to between 1400 and 1600 is considered the first strummed instrument. There's a resonator and a B.C. Rich; there's a Gibson Les Paul and Martin D-28 acoustic; there's a Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster; there's a Hofner bass, a 43-foot-long Gibson Flying V and even an air guitar — seriously.
As much as you want to hear how each one sounds — the main thing lacking from the exhibit — it's interesting to see how the models developed and were modified over the years for both sound and visual appeal.
You can read why Paul McCartney liked the Hofner model — it looked the same when he flipped it to play it lefty — and how that PRS Guitar with the dragon inlay uses wooly mammoth tusks as part of the 238 pieces in its design.
You also get a look at the visual aspect of the guitar — not only through videos of musicians including Chet Atkins, Mississippi John Hurt and Joe Bonamassa, but of the sound waves strings make and the visual (and sonic) differences between steel, nylon and catgut guitar strings.
Hands-on interactive pieces teach participants about how guitars are made, how amplifiers work and the range of decibels in the world — from mosquitos to volcanoes.
Guitar is a traveling exhibit that's gone to more than a dozen cities so far, with more planned into 2018. After that, Newquist says one of the cities will be chosen as the permanent home of the National Guitar Museum.
Before I walked out, I stopped to have a brief, in-person conversation with the devil himself, "Mr. Scratch," who shared a bit of Robert Johnson's legend when the two met down at the crossroads. As the story goes, Johnson made a deal with the devil and became one of the greatest guitar players in the world. After talking to him about my own mediocre ability on six strings, Scratch said, "You know where to come if you ever want to start playing better..."