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Tennessee State Museum hosts an exhibit of rare, fascinating & storied guitars like Nashville’s never seen

Good Vibrations



To coin a phrase: If at first you don't succeed, try again.

Even if that old maxim has seen more wear than Keith Richards' fretboard — maybe even more than Keith Richards — guitar fans of all stripes should thank their lucky Starcasters for the sentiment behind it. Without that determination, we might not have The Guitar: An American Love Story, a stunning exhibit of 170 rare, historically significant and just plain awesome guitars at The Tennessee State Museum, the likes of which have never before been seen here in the undisputed guitar capital of the world.

Some of the seeds for the exhibit were sown two-and-a-half years ago, when Joe Glaser, a guitar builder and repairman for the stars, and Paul Polycarpou, a guitar collector and player (and CEO and editor of Nashville Arts Magazine), held their Leiper's Fork GuitarFest, a one-day exhibit of great guitars at Leiper's Creek Gallery. The date: Saturday, May 1, 2010.

Ring a bell? Suffice to say most of the nearly 1,000 folks who replied "Going" or "Maybe" on Facebook didn't wind up making it, as the worst flood in Nashville history was submerging a fair bit of the city. Vince Gill managed to make it, but he nearly got swept away by floodwaters on his way home. That's not to say the event was a failure, exactly — the folks who did show up got treated to a great exhibit, plus live performances by Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, Jack Pearson and more.

Furthermore, the festival was likely responsible for saving a few valuable guitars that otherwise would have been in storage at rehearsal facility Soundcheck, which was rapidly becoming part of the Cumberland River. Still, Glaser and Polycarpou couldn't help but feel it was ... well, something of a washout.

Meanwhile, Renee White, the Tennessee State Museum's curator of popular culture, had been dreaming up a guitar show of her own. White is no stranger to guitars — she was the longtime assistant to country music mogul Tony Brown and worked for eight years at Welk Music — and she started talking to Gruhn Guitars' George Gruhn, widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the instrument, about putting together an exhibit.

"Initially my job was to acquire musically oriented artifacts for our permanent collection," says White, a Detroit native who has fond memories of seeing Jimi Hendrix play in her hometown. "We're not trying to be the Country Music Hall of Fame, but music is so important to Tennessee history." After hearing about the Leiper's Fork exhibit, she brought Glaser and Polycarpou on board.

Guitar historian Walter Carter, author of 10 books on guitars, and Jay "The Guild Guy" Pilzer, who runs New Hope Guitar Traders, also became consultants. With White as curator, The Guitar: An American Love Story was born.

With more guitar geeks per capita than any city in the world, Nashville is no stranger to vintage guitar shows, which have frequented the fairgrounds and now-defunct I-24 Expo Center for years. But those are more about dealers hawking their wares than anything else. That's great for collectors and sellers, but as far as ogling goes, there's no context, and typically the chaff outweighs the wheat.

The Guitar is something altogether different: plenty of context, thematic continuity, zero chaff, and a surfeit of dazzling eye candy that will have guitar freaks drooling. I recently had an opportunity to see the exhibit with Glaser, Gruhn, Polycarpou and White as tour guides.

"When you do an exhibit, it needs to tell a story," White says, and that's precisely what the exhibit strives to do. The first section, titled "What Is a Guitar?" features an attempt to define the instrument. I say "attempt" because for every definition it offers, it acknowledges exceptions that defy the rule. For example, "It has six strings — except for those with four, seven, eight, or twelve strings, or more."

That futile stab at pigeonholing the instrument gets at the heart of the exhibit. There may be fabulous and rare pianos, violins, trumpets and the like, but no other instrument has anywhere near the diversity of style, appearance, functionality and technology as the guitar. Furthermore, it's the iconic image for country, blues and rock 'n' roll. The evolution of American society and culture are reflected in its colors, shapes and ornamentation.

The guitar's primacy in popular music is due in large part to its unique combination of portability and polyphony. Prior to the widespread availability of guitars, most portable instruments — horns, violins, woodwinds — were monophonic, meaning they were typically used to play one note at a time. Prior to the guitar's ascendancy in America in the mid-20th century, if singers wanted to accompany themselves chordally, they typically played piano.

"We've embraced the guitar for the simple reason that it's as close to the perfect instrument as you can get," Carter writes in the exhibit catalog. "You can play rhythm on it or you can play melody. You can sing while you play. You can express virtually any emotion, from angst to joy, protest to celebration. And you can carry it with you. What's not to love?"

Aesthetic factors also play a role in the guitar's mystique — most notably, the familiar hourglass shape reflected in the most ubiquitous designs. Guitar historians point out that the waist-like indentation in the traditional acoustic guitar's shape made it easier to rest the guitar on your leg while you played in a seated position. But considering that guitar building has been a male-dominated field, the proportional similarities to the female physique were likely no accident. Add the phallic implications of the guitar's neck — not to mention all that fingering — and you've got a recipe for all sorts of innuendo. For visual evidence, check out YouTube clips of Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, where the acrobatic ax-master all but acts out the trajectory of a relationship from fiery consummation to flame-out finish.

Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the hourglass shape. Bo Diddley's rectangular guitar and two Gibson models — the Flying V and the Explorer — are just a few examples of styles that deviated from the norm. The reason for the seemingly infinite variations in design is addressed in a section of the exhibit titled "The Search for Loud." As the text explains, "The driving force behind many of the changes in guitar design has been a search for greater volume." Long before guitars became electrified, builders experimented with structure, shape and body size in attempt to increase the volume.

Once amplifiers came along, however, the acoustic properties of the instrument became much less important. And with the advent of solid-body electrics, when it came to design, the floodgates were open.

The Guitar includes quite a few celebrity guitars — owned now or previously by the likes of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Roy Orbison, Keith Urban, Vince Gill and Dave Rawlings — but many of the most intriguing pieces have been loaned anonymously. "The point wasn't to show celebrity instruments," Glaser says. "It's really to show great instruments."

"Or historically important ones," Gruhn chimes in, without missing a beat. "Here's something that's not great, and not celebrity-owned. But it is historically very important, because it is constantly being said that Leo Fender invented the fretted solid-body bass. Well, no, he didn't!"

Gruhn points to an odd-looking instrument, which might be considered the runt of this litter. He continues talking, betraying a lack of patience for ignorance. "Here's one from the '30s, and it is a fretted electric solid-body bass. I'm not sure Leo was even aware of Audiovox. Audiovox had basses, guitars, lap steels and amplifiers that they made in Seattle. ... Leo Fender didn't do the Precision bass till '51."

Another guitar catches Polycarpou's eye. It was built in 1883 by the great Antonio de Torres Jurado, the 19th century luthier who revolutionized the instrument by increasing the size of the soundboard and refining the curvaceous form to make it easier to hold and balance. In keeping with his creed that an instrument for serious music should not be sullied by distracting flourishes, it has little ornamentation — just classic styling, simple, no frills.

"De Torres really came up with what we know as the Spanish guitar," Polycarpou says. "This really defined what a guitar sounds like today. Spanish guitars today, guitars used for the folk boom, right off this guitar here. So rare. The real deal."

Glaser, meanwhile, is a sucker for blondes — Gibson blondes, so named for the natural finish that reveals the color of the wood. He points to a suite of six blonde archtops from the 1930s and '40s, all sporting f-holes, the f-shaped cutouts that help project the sound out of the top of the guitar.

"These are all from an anonymous collector," Glaser says. He points at one of them. "This guitar went to World War II in the USO. Some guy played that in World War II, and it survived."

He gestures toward another guitar, from 1940. "This is in theory the first year of the cutaway blonde," he says, referring to the curved indentation where the neck meets the body, which allows players easier access to high notes. "This one belonged to Ray Edenton, and was used on Elvis sessions and stuff. They all have a history they don't talk about."

Glaser gets giddy talking about a 1951 Epiphone Emperor Regent, which features six push buttons to select pickup variations: "It looks like my grandmother's Chrysler with the push-button transmission," he enthuses. "You can see the evolution of the American vision."

That evolution is apparent in a display of eight 1960s Gibson Firebirds at the back of the exhibit. Their asymmetrical body and eye-popping colors reflect the dawn-of-the-space-age milieu from which they came.

"It's meant to be sexy," Glaser says. "There was no question these were designed to look modern, like they were going somewhere. You put this in a playing position, and it looks like it's moving. That was not by accident."

"Not only did they have automotive colors," Gruhn adds, "but the guy Gibson hired to do the design of the original reverse-body Firebird was an automotive Detroit designer." That was the famed Ray Dietrich, the first chief of design for Chrysler, whose sleek designs for Packard and Lincoln are prized by auto historians. Sure enough, you can see the tail-fin craze of the late '50s echoed in the body shape.

As with cars, certain guitar collectors become obsessed with specific models. Case in point: Of the eight Firebirds on display, seven belong to Derek Hawkins, a collector and dealer who's a familiar sight at vintage guitar shows around town.

Another great automotive mind was behind one of the exhibit's most valuable and curious pieces: an odd-looking 1952 Bigsby electric with two necks — one for guitar, one for mandolin. It was built for the late session star Grady Martin, a member of the storied "Nashville A-Team" responsible for recording many of country music's timeless classics. The guitar's creator, Paul Bigsby, had been the foreman of high-end motorcycle builder Crocker Motorcycles, and was heavily involved in the design of the first V-twin bike.

"The true beginning of what we consider to be a Fender-style electric guitar has to be traced back to Paul Bigsby," Glaser says. "His engineering is phenomenal. He's a perfectionist not only in his manufacturing, but in his design and engineering concepts. The stuff looks haphazard, but if you get up close and look, you see what he went through to make these parts."

That unrelenting perfectionism likely accounts for the relatively small number of Bigsby guitars in circulation. "He was expensive, and it was a one-man operation," Gruhn says. "He probably made more money on his motorcycles than on his guitars. But he's better known today for his guitars." Despite the paucity of his guitar-making output, his revolutionary vibrato tailpiece design remains the industry standard to this day.

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