If you’re looking for somewhere to take your little rock stars in 2019, plug them into New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring. Some of the most iconic rock and roll instruments in rock and roll history will be on public display at the New York Met, starting April 8th. The Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll exhibition will explore one of the most influential styles of music of the 20th century, through the instruments that made it possible.
Highlights of the exhibition include Motown legend James Jamerson’s upright bass, Keith Emerson’s customized keyboards and Keith Moon’s drums, but the stars of the show are likely to be the electric guitars, many of which have never been on public display, apart from when they were being played on stage.
Let’s turn the spotlight on some six-string celebrities, the most famous guitars of the stars:
CHUCK BERRY’S GIBSON ES-350T
Back in 1958, Berry picked up the slimline Gibson ES-350T, an electric guitar powerful enough for a player who absolutely played it loud, but light enough for his energetic on-stage antics. Berry certainly played this Gibson, with its narrow frame and rosewood fingerboard, like he was ringing a bell, a clarion call for teenagers from all backgrounds to wake up and rock out.
Berry used this guitar to record Johnny B. Goode, then played it live hundreds of times. The song, written by Berry, tells the tale of a simple country boy who lives in poverty, has no education, but has a natural talent to play the guitar, learned by sitting at the side of the railroad track and copying the rhythm of the passing trains. The song’s message was simple and seductive: dream big, kids.
It told the teens of the late fifties that, if they wanted to see their name in lights, it could happen for them, if they could simply pick up a guitar and play.
Of course, while Berry took the credit for the song, we all know who really played it first: Marty McFly, back in 1955. Fun fact: The guitar Marty uses in Back to the Future is actually not the 350, it’s the semi-hollow Gibson ES-345, which wouldn’t be released until 1958, the year of Berry’s Johnny B. Goode.
ERIC CLAPTON’S BLACKIE
Eric Clapton likes to give his guitars names, possibly because he feels that he has a relationship with them. Influenced by the likes of Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, Clapton abandoned his beloved Gibsons, named Beano and The Fool, and in 1970 picked up his first Fender Stratocaster.
He first played Blackie—the Strat you’ll find in The Met—in 1973, and it was actually built from the best bits of three other guitars. He named it Blackie for its black finish, and came to think of the guitar as a part of himself, like an extra limb. Clapton played Blackie in the studio and on stage, for many years, such as when he appeared with The Band in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz.
He also used it to record many Clapton classics, like I Shot The Sheriff, Wonderful Tonight, and on several live recordings of Layla. In 2004, Blackie was bought for the then record-breaking sum of $959,500, with proceeds going to Crossroads Centre, the addiction rehab center set up by Clapton on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The music legend credits the island for his own recovery from addiction.
EDDIE VAN HALEN’S FRANKENSTRAT
Like Clapton before him, Van Halen wasn’t satisfied with commercially available guitars, so made up a guitar of his own from parts of others. In his case, he wanted the cool look of a Strat, with the classic sound and whammy bar of a Gibson.
He then painted the guitar using strips of tape as masks, to create the trademark fractured stripe effect. Van Halen called his Gibson-Fender construct ‘Frankenstein’ and, given his trademark technique of making his guitar strings talk, he could certainly claim “it’s alive!”
Of course, the one you can buy commercially today is better known as The Frankenstrat.
ST. VINCENT’S MUSIC MAN
In case you thought playing electric guitar was just a boys’ club, you’d be wrong. In 2016, Annie Clark, of St. Vincent fame, designed her own guitar, which has been applauded for better fitting the female form. But if you thought that meant the ironically named St. Vincent Music Man was an instrument only for girls, you’d be mistaken again: Jack White of The White Stripes fame played one live, in 2018.
DON’T FORGET: PLAY IT LOUD AT THE MET!
Be awestruck and inspired by more than 130 famous instruments like these, including other such legends as The Beatles and Elvis Presley, showing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Play It Loud exhibition. For parents of budding musicians and music fans alike, the exhibition is sure to impress. Catch it in New York City between April 8th to October 1st, 2019 before it travels to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.