Bishop Museum celebrates the guitar
BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
“Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World,” a national touring exhibition on display through Labor Day at Bishop Museum, explores all things guitar from many perspectives.
‘GUITAR: THE INSTRUMENT THAT ROCKED THE WORLD’
Where: Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St.
There’s an in-depth look at the modern electric guitar from its development in the 1930s and 1940s to the present, a fascinating display of its acoustic predecessors and various “relatives” and ancestor instruments, and a unique-to-Hawaii section that covers the ‘ukeke (the only indigenous string instrument), the steel guitar, the ‘ukulele and slack-key guitar.
There are also several hands-on displays that are certain to intrigue and entertain inquiring minds of all ages.
THE FIRST instrument on display appears to be a solid-body electric guitar with no electronics; it’s billed as the world’s biggest playable guitar, at more than 40 feet long and 16 feet wide.
It’s theoretically playable, anyway: You can strum the giant-size strings and hear them vibrate against the frets. Three or four people working together might be able to create a chord. Who knows? At the very least the giant guitar is child-proof — something kids can jam on without breaking it or making a horrendous amount of noise.
That’s a good thing, because the exhibit overall has a tremendous amount of noise potential.
But first things first: Extending out on each side of the theoretically playable giant guitar are some ancestors and relatives of the instrument. Together they show that string instruments have a pedigree that goes back 5,000 years and across several continents.
“Origin” instruments — think of them as direct but distant ancestors — include the nyatiti (Africa), the tambur (Persia), the oud (Mesopotamia) and the lute (Europe). “Close Relatives” include the pipa (China), balalaika (Russia), sitar (India) and the mandolin (Italy).
Several other string instruments are products of cross-cultural evolution.
There’s a banjo, which is believed to have been created by African-American slaves in the Caribbean in the 1600s.
There’s the charango, a South American stringed instrument that uses an armadillo shell in place of a conventional wooden body.
And there’s the ‘ukulele, which we all know evolved here from a Portuguese instrument known as the machete.
Move deeper into the 5,000-square-foot exhibit and other acoustic instruments show how the modern acoustic guitar evolved out of the vihuela, a 15th-century Spanish instrument.
More contemporary displays hold the electric guitars that made rock music rock hard and rock loud — the Fender Telecaster, the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Stratocaster and the Fender Precision Bass.
Yes, let’s not forget the place of the electric bass guitar as a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm instrument, distinct and separate from the acoustic stand-up bass.
A National Reso-Phonic Resonator shows an early pre-electrification solution to the search for volume.
A pair of Rickenbacker “lap steel” guitars document the early electrification of the steel guitar.
Two other instruments became iconic when they became associated with rock superstars. One is the Hoffer 500/I electric bass, made famous outside Germany by Paul McCartney. Another is the Vox Teardrop guitar — popularized by Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones.
Curiosities include a Cold War-era Russian electric guitar and a “cyberpunk” or “steam punk” electric guitar.
One of the oddest instruments is the Rock Ock, a made-to-order eight-neck hybrid that has the necks of a mandolin, a ukulele, a six-string guitar, a fretless bass guitar, a standard bass guitar, a 12-string guitar, a baritone guitar and a seven-string guitar. A video unit near the Rock Ock shows it being played by a squad of eight musicians.
No one can say that the curators of the show lack a sense of humor. The collection of modern guitars on display also includes the ever-popular air guitar.
Static displays include a luthier’s work bench, the unassembled pieces of an acoustic guitar laid out to show how the body of a traditional instrument is built and reinforced, and a see-through guitar that does the same for electric instruments.
There are also X-rays of vintage instruments that were made as part of a study of old-time handcrafting techniques, and giant-size photos of some superstars of rock — Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Angus Young and Eddie Van Halen, to name five.
A video screen at one end of the exhibit shows performances by Johnny Winter and Joe Bonamassa. A screen in another corner shows a performance by Django Reinhardt.
Les Paul has his own display. He deserves it.
Hawaii’s string instruments have their own section.
The most interesting Hawaii items in pure cultural terms are the ‘ukeke. Several are safely displayed in their own cabinet; pick up a handset and you’ll hear Mary Kawena Pukui playing Hawaii’s only indigenous string instrument.
Other Hawaii displays document the development of the steel guitar, the ukulele and ki ho’alu (slack-key) guitar tunings.
Inexpensive materials are provided for kids to make their own ‘ukeke using a rubber band and a tongue depressor, and maybe even a simple guitar-type instrument.
Better still, there are a couple of real ‘ukulele with color-coded sheet music at another table so anyone can learn to strum a simple tune — at least if there aren’t too many people waiting to use one of the instruments.
Saving the best for last, there are hands-on displays for people of all ages.
Small kids can amuse themselves by banging on different types of wood at a display aimed at showing that different types of wood have different tonal properties. The young child who was there when I was checking things out, however, seemed more intent on showing how much noise can be made by banging on a piece of wood.
Older kids and inquisitive adults can experiment elsewhere, exploring the range of sounds that can be created by hitting the ends of plastic pipes of various lengths with rubber slippers.
The “Design Your Own Guitar” display allows visitors to electronically mix and match an almost infinite number of guitar bodies, necks, headstocks, pick guards, bridges, controls, neck inlays and pickups, and then select the background color that will complete the display — until the next person comes along, anyway.
Another electronic display shows how a simple chord would sound when played on different types of guitars and other string instruments. Interested in how those f/x pedals change sound of a guitar? There’s a hands-on display for that, too. Both can make lots of noise.
There’s also a display that allows visitors to guess how loud various things are compared to an amped-up electric guitar.
(Spoiler alert! A volcanic eruption is the loudest at 190 decibels. A dragster is second at 160 dBs. An electric guitar can reach 120 dBs, and a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail commuter train tops out at 95 dB. Repeated exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.)
A quiet and relatively low-tech display shows how strings vibrate differently when strummed or plucked. A comprehensive video presentation explains the scientific reasons guitars work and sound the way they do.
A souvenir booklet that covers the history and shows most of the historic instruments costs $14.99. It’s a handy memento.
To borrow a thought from an old soap commercial: “Guitar” has plenty in it that kids will enjoy, but adults will enjoy it, too.