PITTSBURGH – Eric Clapton closing his eyes in deep concentration as his fingers dance across the fretboard.
Pete Townshend windmilling with his Fender Stratocaster.
Jimi Hendrix setting his Stratocaster ablaze.
These are some of the evocative images that come to mind when we think of the guitar. The riffs and solos played by rock and rollers going back to at least Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins propelled popular music in a new direction in the 1950s and beyond, and helped make the guitar the most popular instrument in the world running away. All told, there are 3 million acoustic and electric guitars manufactured annually, more than all other instruments.
The origins of the guitar, however, do pre-date Elvis Presley. In fact, precursors to the guitar extend back to at least 3,000 BC and the 13-stringed oud that could be found in such locales as Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. The history of the guitar, and the science behind it, is the focus of the exhibit “Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World,” which is at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh through the end of October.
The creation of the National Guitar Museum in New York, “Guitar” contains close to 70 guitars or guitar forerunners. There’s an oud behind glass, as well as a sitar, vihuela, tanbur and nyatiti. Cigar box guitars of the type that were crafted by rural farmers in the early part of the 20th century are also on display. However, it’s probably guitars that have become readily identifiable thanks to their use by rock and country legends that will readily turn most heads. There’s a Hofner bass guitar on display just like the one that Paul McCartney has used since the Beatles’ earliest days, an acoustic guitar like the one Hank Williams strummed, and a “twang machine” like the one Bo Diddley wielded.
“Guitar” has a sense of humor, too – one case is empty, containing the “air guitar” that thousands upon thousands of fans have enthusiastically picked like guitar wizards like Eddie Van Halen or Prince, even if they have never taken a guitar lesson in their lives, or never got too far past “On Top of Old Smokey” if they did.
“Guitar” is a feast for musical gearheads, but it also “explores changes in our society,” according to Jason Brown, director of the Carnegie Science Center. “By the 1960s, the guitar had evolved to become every bit as important as newspaper editorials and politicians’ speeches.”
And having landed at the Science Center, “Guitar” also looks at the mechanical and scientific aspects of the instrument. A typical guitar is comprised of over 100 different parts, from tonewoods and strings, an assortment of metal and plastic hardware and, in the case of electric guitars, plenty of electronics. The ins-and-outs of sound, how it travels and how it is generated on the guitar through the vibrations of strings. Magnetic coils are used to capture the vibration of strings on an electric guitar and turn it into amplified sound.
Marcus Harshaw, the Science Center’s senior director of museums experience, explained, “We wanted to offer a unique exhibition that everyone can relate to and this one does that, and it is surprisingly scientific. Combining music and science is the perfect combination that demonstrates what the Science Center is all about.”