Eiteljorg pays tribute to guitars — and the people who made them famous
Most Americans associate the guitar in the American West with cowboys sitting around a campfire, strumming the instrument while singing their cowboy songs.
But the history of the popular and affordable instrument in the American West is a bit more complicated and interesting than that.
And when you look at it, the guitar emerges as a wonderful tool to demonstrate the diversity of its national origins and musical genres, says James Nottage, vice president and chief curatorial officer at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.
To tell that story, he curated "Guitars! Roundup to Rockers," an exhibition featuring more than 100 guitars and related anecdotes, plus photographs, an interactive station where museum visitors may strum and pluck 19 different guitars, and iPod and iPad stations where people can hear guitar technique demonstrations and historic recordings.
The Eiteljorg in downtown Indianapolis also has scheduled a variety of programs including concerts to run with the exhibition, which opened last week and remains on view through Aug. 4.
But the main event is the guitar itself, ranging from the humble "frying pan" to beautiful acoustic guitars with inlaid mother-of-pearl to electric guitars played by famous rockers.
The instruments in "Guitars! Roundup to Rockers" are on loan from various institutions and private collectors, among them Vince Gill — Nottage called him an outstanding and influential guitarist — and Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
The instruments have never been displayed together before and likely never will be together again.
They run the gamut of styles, from acoustic to double-necks to harps to electric. They were used in a range of musical genres, from Western swing to jazz to rock to punk to grunge and heavy metal.
And the exhibition also tells the stories of many famed players, some better known to the public than others. Among them: Jimi Hendrix, Patsy Montana, Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Gene Autry, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr., Charles Christian, Stephen Sills, Keith Richards and Carrie Brownstein, now of TV's "Portlandia" fame. She played with the bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag.
The oldest in the show is a 1793 Italian guitar made by Fabricatore — the famed Stradivarius company had been making guitars even earlier, Nottage said.
"The instrument had its origins in the Middle East and Italy and different parts of the world," Nottage said. "Guitars were first introduced to North America by the Spanish in 18th century California and Texas."
By the late 1800s, guitars were popular parlor instruments, particularly among women. Guitar and mandolin clubs in the early 1900s spurred interest in the instrument, Nottage said.
Museum visitors also will learn that at least three European immigrants who had moved to the American West developed the amplified or electric guitar.
Chris Knutsen, a Norwegian immigrant to Washington state, began creating acoustic Hawaiian, harp and other guitars with hollow necks and greater resonance. After he moved to California, he influenced Hermann Weissenborn, a German-Jewish immigrant who developed similar instruments from 1900 to 1936.
John Dopyera, a Slovakian who came to Los Angeles, created the dobro in the 1920s after inventing and designing resonator guitars for the National Company.
And Adolph Rickenbacker, one of the most famous guitar names, arrived in Los Angeles in 1918 and later became partners with George Beauchamp and Paul Barth. Their work led to the production of the first commercially successful electric guitar in 1931 and the formation of the Rickenbacker Company. Some Rickenbacker guitars are on display in the exhibition.
Among the instruments on display:
The first Fender guitar and amp, dating to 1942-43.
Hendrix's Gibson Les Paul custom guitar and a fragment of a sunburst Fender Stratocaster he destroyed on stage after a concert at Royal Albert Hall.
Johnny Cash's Martin D-21 acoustic guitar.
Buddy Holly's Gibson J-456, inside its spiffy tooled-leather case.
A Fender Telecaster played by Richards, and a Stratocaster played by fellow Rolling Stone Ron Wood.
Duane Allman's Gibson SG slide guitar, loaned by Graham Nash.
Kurt Cobain's Stratocaster.
A 1954 Mosrite double-neck guitar, owned by Larry "Kid" Collins of the Collins Kids.
The Flying V used to record tracks for the popular "Guitar Hero" game.
Guthrie's beat-up Martin 000-18 acoustic guitar.
Garcia's "Tiger," which he used to play lead with the Grateful Dead, from 1979 to 1989.
A Lloyd Loar Quartet of Gibson-made instruments. There are four complete sets in the world, Nottage said.
If you go
What: "Guitars! Roundup to Rockers," an exhibition of more than 100 guitars, some rare, that explores the Western connections of guitars and American musicians
When: Through Aug. 4
Where: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for 65 and older; $6 for children age 5-17 and full-time students with ID; free for children 4 and younger
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Information: 317-636-9378; http://www.eiteljorg.com
Live performances at the Eiteljorg Museum associated with the "Guitars! Roundup to Rockers" exhibition include:
Midwest premiere of the documentary "The Wrecking Crew," 4 p.m. April 13 — Denny Tedesco, producer and director, will introduce the documentary, which tells the story of Los Angeles studio musicians who created Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" and played on the top hits of the 1960s
Riders in the Sky, 7 p.m. May 11 — The Grammy Award-winning Western music and comedy troupe will perform (tickets $25 for the public; $20 for museum members)
The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, 7 p.m. June 1 — A Hoosier-grown, three-piece American country blues band (tickets $15 for general admission; $10 for museum members)