To enter “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” — an exhibition currently running at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 1 — you must first walk through a Met gallery devoted to Greek art from the 5th century BC. Jarring as it may be to hear the strains of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” or Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have a Party” seconds after passing some prime specimens of Athenian red-figure vase painting, it also makes a weird sort of sense. Ancient wine vessels and modern guitars are, after all, both implements of Dionysian revelry, even if they’re separated by over two thousand years of history.
For those who worship at the altar of rock, “Play It Loud” offers a truly head-spinning array of holy relics, including roughly 130 instruments, as well as stage costumes and vintage concert posters. Regardless of your musical denomination, odds are you’ll find yourself in the presence of at least one item in the exhibit that induces serious goosebumps, and quite possibly involuntary drooling. For my wife, it was the twin Gibson J-180 acoustic guitars designed for the Everly Brothers in the early 1960s, and Eddie Van Halen’s iconic “Frankenstein” axe — the impossibly janky-looking home workshop project that was somehow used to create some of the most jaw-dropping guitar solos in the rock lexicon. For me, it was the “Twang Machine,” the rectangular red guitar designed by rock n’ roll founding father Bo Diddley in collaboration with the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company, and The Who’s pop-art “Pictures of Lily” drum kit used in 1966 and 1967, which (thanks to loving restoration) bears little trace of the savagery inflicted upon it by the late, great Keith Moon. I saw one beaming exhibit attendee getting his picture taken next to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s beloved “Number One” Fender Stratocaster, another posing alongside Prince’s flamboyant “Love Symbol” guitar, and yet another practically paralyzed by the awe-inspiring sight of “Micawber,” Keith Richards’ trusty Telecaster.
“Play It Loud” isn’t just about guitars and drums, however. There’s the dulcimer that Brian Jones played on The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane,” and a mellotron owned by the band that the doomed Stone may have employed for the psychedelic classics “We Love You,” “She’s a Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years from Home.” Keith Emerson’s hulking Moog synthesizer, with its perpetually flashing “Em-o-vision” monitor, dominates the room like a robot that might lurch into malevolent life at any moment. Clarence Clemons’ Selmer Mark VI tenor sax, which the Big Man blew on “Jungleland” and many other Bruce Springsteen anthems, is on display, as is a Selmer flute that Ian Anderson parped and posed with at many a Jethro Tull concert, and the Oscar Schmidt autoharp strummed by John Sebastian on the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic.” While guitar effects pedals — which have played their own important role in shaping the sound of popular music in the 20th and 21st centuries — are largely (and unfortunately) absent from the exhibition, we do get to see the Echoplex tape echo machine used by Steve Miller to achieve the fantastically spacy effects on his classic rock staple “Fly Like An Eagle,” and the Sonic Wave theremin put to freaky use by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and “No Quarter.”
There are also instruments on display that, while not particularly iconic in themselves, add depth to our appreciation and understanding of the iconic figures who used them. I’d forgotten, for example, that Neil Young used a 1959 Gibson Flying V during his 1972-73 tour with the Stray Gators, until I saw it hanging in the exhibition in all its angular korina glory. There’s the upright bass that James Jamerson employed on Motown sessions during the late Fifties and early Sixties, before switching to a Fender Precision and becoming one of the most influential and imitated electric bassists of all time. And there’s the 1961 Epiphone Wilshire that The Who’s Roger Daltrey sold to bandmate Pete Townshend, who used it to write two of his earliest songs before switching to the Rickenbacker guitars now associated with the band’s formative days.
If some of the items included in “Play It Loud” aren’t exactly fully intact, that doesn’t make them any less worthy of veneration. The exhibition includes a chunk of the Stratocaster burned in offering by Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and the original headstock of Eric Clapton’s Cream-era Gibson SG that was given a psychedelic paint job by Dutch design collective The Fool, both lovingly showcased like slivers of the True Cross. (A restored incarnation of Clapton’s guitar is also on exhibit, paired with the Fool-painted Fender Bass VI of Cream-mate Jake Bruce for maximum trippiness value.) There’s a left-handed Stratocaster smashed by Kurt Cobain onstage at the L.A. Forum in 1993, and the remains of a SG Special thoroughly and utterly destroyed by Pete Townshend for a 1973 Rolling Stone photo shoot; encased in Lucite, the latter guitar now resembles a cross between a painting by Georges Braque in his Analytic Cubism period, and a giant trilobite preserved in amber.
But as thrilling as it is to see all of the aforementioned instruments (and so many others, including ones played by such marquee names as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia and Metallica) assembled together in one place, “Play It Loud” is not without its puzzling, and even frustrating, aspects. So many of these instruments were chosen (or specifically designed) as visual extensions of the artists who played them, yet there are relatively few photographs scattered throughout the exhibition of the guitars being brandished by their owners. For instance, Bo Diddley’s “Twang Machine” is certainly aesthetically arresting in its own right; but to get the full visual effect, you really need to see it strapped to the man himself. How hard would it have been for the curators to include the cover of Bo’s Have Guitar, Will Travel album in the same case? It’s cool to see Joe Strummer’s ragged, sticker-covered Fender Telecaster, but why not also include a photo of it hanging from The Clash frontman’s sweaty frame?
Ask any musician about their relationship with a particular instrument, or how they personalized it sonically or aesthetically, and they’ll almost always be glad to share a story about it. There are indeed fascinating stories behind many of the instruments included in “Play It Loud,” yet the item descriptions only graze them, if they bother to mention them at all. We’re informed that Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon gutted her Ovation Magnum I bass of its original electronics, but we aren’t told why. “The Hoss,” Muddy Waters’ favorite Telecaster, was likewise heavily modified over the years by the blues giant — in part to better accommodate his enormous hands — but we wouldn’t know that from the display. When Bruce Springsteen bought the Fender Esquire pictured on the cover of “Born to Run,” one of the reasons he loved it was because the guitar (thanks to modifications by a previous owner) was unusually light in weight, which came in handy when performing marathon three-hour concerts. Yet, all we learn from the accompanying verbiage is that this guitar was Springsteen’s primary instrument from 1972 until about 2005, and that he brought it out of retirement for his Super Bowl halftime performance in 2009. (The exhibition’s catalogue, which eschews any additional information about the individual instruments in favor of several rambling and often redundant essays on the importance of the electric guitar in popular culture, is an even more woefully missed opportunity in this regard.)
While technical (and legal) limitations undoubtedly prevented the exhibition’s curators (which include Craig Inciardi, who’s the curator and director of acquisitions at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) from featuring recordings of all of these instruments in action, their sound and the way they were utilized are ultimately more important to the story of popular music than the artifacts themselves. To that end, the brief song snippets on repeat throughout the galleries, and the five-minute video compilation we’re shown of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Joan Jett, etc. playing live, don’t really cut it. The one section of “Play it Loud” where aesthetics, story and sound really do come together is in the “Creating a Sound” gallery, where the onstage setups of Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello are displayed in conjunction with video interviews where the guitarists not only tell the stories behind their instruments, but actually put the axes and amps through their paces. These videos are absolutely fascinating from a guitar-geek perspective, and also go a long way towards humanizing these “rock gods,” all of whom express the sentiment that the guitar chose them, and not the other way around. (Richards’ sheepish admission that he scribbled acrylic paint pens all over his 1957 Les Paul “Black Beauty” while tripping on acid may also be the most endearing part of the entire exhibition.)
And while it’s impossible to convey the full story of rock and roll in a single exhibition, one also can’t help but notice that several visionary and influential musicians are missing from Play It Loud: B.B. King, distortion pioneer Link Wray, surf guitar king Dick Dale, Dave Davies of The Kinks, Clarence White of the Byrds, Lou Reed, Curtis Mayfield, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, Queen’s Brian May, Bootsy Collins (and any other instrumental member of Parliament-Funkadelic, for that matter), John McLaughlin, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood are just a few that immediately come to mind. It’s quite possible that many of these omissions were due to the unavailability of instruments, or lack of cooperation on the part of the musicians or their estates, though Davies recently took to Twitter [https://twitter.com/davedavieskinks/status/1113223630618595328?s=20] to express his outrage and disappointment that The Kinks were not included. In any case, the exhibition rarely strays from the well-trod “Chuck Berry to Beatles to Woodstock to Classic Rock” narrative; and while I’m hardly one to push the “rock is dead” trope, the relative lack of 21st century instruments or musicians represented in “Play It Loud” really does kind of make the exhibition feel like the celebration of an era whose time has come and gone, whose artifacts will ultimately be as relevant and useful to our culture as those red-figure Athenian vases in the neighboring gallery.
Still, “Play It Loud” is a fantastic way for any music fan to spend an hour or two; even with its glaring omissions, the sheer sensory overload of all these instruments in one place will doubtless make many visitors want to visit the exhibition two or three times before it closes — either to make sure they haven’t missed anything, to bask again in the joy of seeing a fabled instrument of a favorite musician up close, or idly daydream of plucking that “Twang Machine” from its case and riding the Bo Diddley beat off into the sunset.