‘Play It Loud’ exhibit revitalizes rock ‘n’ roll relevance

The above photo captures the guitar of legendary singer-songwriter Jerry Garcia of the rock band The Grateful Dead. The instrument is on display at the Met exhibit “Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll,” which will run through Oct. 1. Courtesy of Dean Kopitsky

There’s a multi-million-dollar work on display at the Met this spring. It isn’t paint on canvas, and it’s not a bronze sculpture. It is, “Contoured alder body, two-piece maple neck; 25 1/2 in. scale; Olympic white finish; bolt-on neck with black dot inlays.” It’s Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. The one he played at Woodstock. Maybe the most famous guitar in the world.

The exhibition “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” runs from now until October, and displays one of the most remarkable collections of guitars, drum kits, synthesizers and basses ever assembled.

The current narrative surrounding rock is that is it is dying. Its most recognized voice, the guitar, is going with it too—or people keep trying to kill it, anyway. Rock is long past its heyday when it and pop music were one and the same. In 2017, Eric Clapton, one of the most influential guitarists ever, said, “Maybe the guitar is over” (Billboard, “Eric Clapton on Declining Guitar Sales: ‘Maybe The Guitar Is Over,” 09.11.2017). Earlier this month, Rolling Stone ran an article titled, “Is the Guitar Solo Finished?” It cited a perfunctory but welcomed John Mayer solo on the Khalid track “Outta My Head” as the last of what was once a staple of every pop song.

Is this how guitar dies? In a modern pop song, overshadowed by synth and played by John Mayer, a guy with his own laundry detergent? (People Magazine, Laundry Aficionado John Mayer Put His Name on an ‘Out West’-Scented Detergent, 10.06.2016)

Not at all. The guitar is still an integral part music in all genres, even if we don’t realize it. Rap artists utilize live sound, and indie music is still lauded on the crunchier of college campuses. Frank Ocean’s magnum opus “Blonde” is built on guitar. The sweeping, weeping sound of the album is punctuated by the melody and rhythm of a guitar. The album isn’t the same without that sacred instrument that is supposedly dying.

Of course, this may all be eager and selective listening. As the Rolling Stone article points out, the fact that guitars are now displayed behind glass in a museum means its most important work is behind it, meant to be glorified but not revamped.

Hopefully this is not the case. Guitars are beautiful works of art, but they are also tools. The exhibit showcases rare instruments, but any enthusiast would want to take one from the wall and play it loud themselves. Guitars of the ’50s and ’60s, of the ilk played by their heroes, are cherished for the unique sound, technical achievement and simplistic purity.

Courtesy of Dean Kopitsky

The exhibit signals how much the public still covets these instruments, and perhaps the Met is playing on their cultural relevance.

The packed exhibit halls and giddy atmosphere within them seemed to prove just that. It was an indescribable experience seeing the Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster that played the legendary “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock ’69. Led Zeppelin was famous for their audacious onstage theatrics, and the Met secured a Jimmy Page telecaster that he played with a bow at their live shows. The drum set that Ringo Starr played on the Ed Sullivan show is displayed along George Harrison and John Lennon’s Rickenbackers.

Rock ‘n’ roll would never have come into existence without two men whose guitars are also displayed. One is the red ’57 Telecaster that Muddy Waters nicknamed “Hoss.” He played it from 1957 until the ’80s, and can be seen in most recordings of him from that era The blues-inspired Rolling Stones took their name from his song, “Rollin’ stone.”

The other is Chuck Berry’s Gibson ES. Nothing stands out more in the history of rock ‘n’ roll than the twang of that Gibson. If you’ve seen “Back to the Future” or heard “Johnny B. Goode” (very few people can say neither), you know that sound. As John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’” (CNN, “Musicians remember Chuck Berry’s genius,” 03.18.2017).

When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to play guitar. I sheepishly outlined the swooping curves of a Fender Stratocaster to demonstrate the one I dreamed of playing. And though I was still on the younger side of those gawking at vintage guitars at the exhibit, streaming services open endless opportunities for any generation to admire the studio and live performances of rock history.

If the folk guitarists of the Delta had never been discovered, the blues might have ceased to exist with their passing. If a select few of those giants never moved out of Mississippi and plugged electric pickups into their guitars, then a bunch of post-war English teens scrounging for anything that wasn’t post-war England would not have sought out their records and created rock ‘n’ roll.

The story of guitar, and the story of rock, is remarkable and stubborn. Who is to say it ends now? Here’s to hoping that a new generation is inspired by the alder and ash body statues showcased by the Met. That they do more than admire their “spaghetti” Fender logo and “lipstick” pickups and yearn to “play it loud” themselves.

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