“GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World”

Whether or not you’ve ever played the instrument yourself, the guitar is likely to mean something to you. And here in Cincinnati, in a region with a rich and varied American music heritage, this seems especially likely.


But the guitar’s legacy extends well beyond our corner of the world. According to the National Guitar Museum’s founder and executive director, HP Newquist, “People everywhere have some relationship to the guitar,” In fact, he says, “There are more guitars sold every year than all other instruments combined.”


From Sept. 21st–Jan. 6th, the Cincinnati Museum Center invites visitors to come explore the roots and inner workings of this highly versatile stringed instrument. The National Guitar Museum’s traveling exhibit, “GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World,” will offer CMC visitors a full-immersion, multi-sensory, interdisciplinary experience that delves into the history, science, and cultural impact of the world’s most popular instrument.


As an award-winning author of books on science, technology, biology, and music, HP Newquist has interpreted a variety of topics for audiences of all ages. He also served as editor-in-chief of Guitar Magazine, and had written several books on the guitar before deciding in 2008 to open a museum dedicated entirely to the instrument.


The initial vision was for a permanent museum in New York City, but with a “recession that was engulfing everything,” Newquist opted to “put it on the road” and find a home when the timing was right.


The project could not wait, Newquist says, because he felt his generation — having grown up with the visual and material culture of records, album covers, posters, and MTV — should be the one to get the ball rolling toward preserving and promoting the legacy of the guitar. In fact, he was baffled to find that that such a museum didn’t already exist. So what began as a casual conversation during a “play date” with a neighbor, who was fascinated by his museum-like home guitar collection, quickly evolved into the creation of the National Guitar Museum (NGM).


Ever since 2011, the NGM’s exhibit “GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World” has been touring the country, traveling as far as Hawaii. Cincinnati will be its twenty-second stop, and its permanent home has yet to be determined.


The exhibit provides ample hands-on opportunities to explore “the balance of craftsmanship and technology” that goes into the design of an instrument easily taken for granted. Visitors can hear, feel, and experience for themselves how different types of wood and strings, for example, have their own distinct sound qualities. And how technology converts sound vibrations into electrical signals, a development that has revolutionized the guitar and music world in unforeseen ways.


There is a science lesson hidden in there somewhere, for adults and kids alike. And that is part of the value and the fun. There is also plenty of room for surprise, especially when it comes to the instrument’s lesser-known roots.


Newquist points out that the guitar has a long history preceding its modern rock-and-roll era. With more than 80 instruments and 100 artifacts — which will include some Cincinnati additions from local collections — visitors can trace the popular instrument’s evolution across eras, geographies, and cultures, beginning in the 3000 B.C.E. Nile River Valley.


The exhibit demonstrates how the past 250 years have been particularly dynamic for the guitar’s evolution into the models — both acoustic and electric —that are so familiar to us today. The collection includes one of the world’s first six-string guitars, a classical model made in Italy during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency; one of the world’s first electric guitars, which developed through Hawaiian music; early country/western-style Gibson models; and the world’s first mass-produced solid-body electric Fender.


Also noteworthy is The World’s Largest Playable Guitar. At over 43 feet long and 16 feet wide, Newquist admits it is probably “easier to dance on than to play” and sounds more like a spaceship than a proper guitar.


Supplementing the instrument collection are photographs, performance videos, audio stations and hands-on interactives. Visitors can also expect to find Cincinnati-specific programming, featuring local guitar professionals and musicians.


While the NGM’s exhibit certainly provides opportunities to admire the instruments and skills of rock stars and guitar heroes, the central focus is found in zooming out to the guitar’s broader story, and zooming in to the instrument’s inner workings.


For anyone who has ever wondered where the guitar comes from, how it has evolved over time, and how guitarists achieve such a variety of tones, volumes, and effects, this is a must-see exhibit.

Support for STEAM in the Museum is provided by Cincinnati Museum Center as it educates and inspires the leaders, builders and dreamers of this generation and the next.

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Read more articles by Sarah Dupee.

Sarah Dupee is a freelance writer, teacher, translator, and musician with a background in French and Francophone Studies.