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Exhibiting the History of the Electric Guitar in American Museums

By Edward Wilson-Stephens

As part of my PhD research into ‘objects of electronic sound and music in museums’, I am exploring the potential for exhibiting electric guitars (amongst other electronic musical instruments) in museums. Within these publicly accessible spaces of knowledge and experience, electric guitars have the potential of being presented in ways that differ from, and expand upon, what could be discovered elsewhere. For example, although many electric guitars once owned by famous musicians are displayed in Hard Rock Cafes, they are often exhibited with limited information and are preserved silently behind glass or kept out of visitor’s reach. Additionally, the display of electric guitars within these dining establishments helps to generate an aesthetic experience involving classic rock memorabilia. This practice is in danger of reducing the instrument to a one-dimensional object: an icon of American rock music frozen in time, devoid of a history of innovation in design and use.

However, after visiting museum exhibitions of electronic musical instruments in the UK, I discovered that their exhibits are also preserved silently in glass cases or kept out of visitor’s reach. I therefore decided to travel to Canada and the USA where I explored over thirty museums and art galleries across a five-week period in the hope of discovering a wider scope for exhibiting objects.[1] Although similar orthodox approaches were experienced within institutions abroad, a plethora of additional examples demonstrated how the material, visual and audio dimensions of electronic musical instruments could be presented to the public.

The orthodox approach: an electric guitar associated with the band Cream, displayed in the Hard Rock Café, Universal Studios, Los Angeles.

In this article I will discuss examples of exhibition work observed at two American museums: the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Scottsdale, Arizona (a musical instrument museum, as the title suggests) and the Grammy Museum in Downtown Los Angeles, California (a museum of popular music). My argument, here, is that although many may experience the electric guitar through popular forms of entertainment as a one-design, one-use, American icon of rock music, curators can expand upon the history of the instrument's multiple designs, uses and sounds in various ways, depending on the exhibition and museum contexts in which the instrument is displayed. Therefore, curators have the choice of either expanding upon or divorcing the association between the electric guitar, America and rock music. Divorcing this link can be beneficial because not everyone wants to hear rock music, but some people may enjoy the sounds of the electric guitar when they are used in other forms of music from around the world.

Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix:

Although the museum’s collections have only been stored and exhibited at this location for less than a decade, the building and exhibition work creates the look and feel of a traditional European art gallery. Exhibition material largely consists of an ethnographic collection of historic musical instruments displayed in separate galleries named after different parts of the world. Instruments are accompanied by works of art indigenous to each geographical area. These features help to create a sense that this is an institution of high art which celebrates (and preserves) the older, traditional forms of (mainly acoustic) instruments that are usually associated with high-brow forms of music such as classical and jazz.

I arrived at the museum in time for the temporary exhibition The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon at the Musical Instrument Museum.[2] In comparison to Hard Rock Cafes, the title of this exhibition already signifies an exploration of the history of the instrument’s design, without being constrained to the history of rock music. Although this is an exhibition on the electric guitar as an American instrument, the temporary exhibition space could otherwise allow curators to break away from the ordering of instruments by geographical regions and focus instead on a specific instrument, musician or type of music whose impact transcends spatial restriction.

Although this is not the only exhibition presented in a room that is separate to the main content of the museum, the separation of the electric guitars from the ethnographic collection of traditional instruments presents a problem: the electric guitar, as an Icon of popular culture, is isolated from what may be considered as high art elsewhere in the museum. This is also the case with the museum’s permanent Collier STEM Gallery which demonstrates the relationship between electronic musical instruments (including electric guitars) and science and technology. These examples help enforce the link between electronic musical instruments, modernity, popular culture and accessibility, in contrast to acoustic instruments, tradition, high art and professional musicianship. This is also true of the museum’s interactive space, the Experience Gallery, where the experience of using instruments as interactive exhibits and making noise (an experience often associated with science centres, for example) is separated from the traditional practice of silently observing the form and craftmanship of instruments, where only the curators, conservators and technicians at the museum (as well as those who originally owned the instruments) are allowed to touch them. However, it could be argued that both the separate temporary exhibition and interactive space offer an access point to the rest of the museum, helping the museum to attract additional visitors who may have otherwise felt that visiting the MIM would be an experience they would not enjoy.

A simple timeline demonstrating some of the innovations in the design of electric guitars since 1932, displayed in The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon exhibition at the Musical Instrument Museum

Within the Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon exhibition, a wide variety of historic and rare electric guitars were displayed in a rough chronological order and framed within the themes Defining the Electric Guitar, Inventing the Electric Guitar, and Influence of the Electric Guitar. Notable examples included “The Get Drum” custom electric guitar built by rhythm and blues musician Bo Diddley, various double-necked guitars, and Tommy Tedesco’s Telecaster whose unique and interesting markings helped bring to life stories relating to the impact of the instrument and the musician on multiple genres of music. The objects were accompanied by text and visual content, which included the printing of short, friendly quotes on the walls such as “now the man in the last row can hear” (which helped explain the benefits of electricity in the amplification of vibrating guitar strings).

As an additional way of demonstrating how guitars are used and what sounds they make, the museum’s website states that ‘most displays are enhanced by state-of-the-art audio and video technologies that allow guests to see the instruments, hear their sounds, and observe them being played in their original contexts.’[3] For this exhibition, video montages of popular electric guitar performances were shown on television screens. Visitors could listen to the footage by pointing their individual Sennheiser guidePORT audio guide devices at the screens in order to stream music from a wireless hot spot and listen through headphones connected to the device. In juxtaposition to the footage of noisy concerts, these private listening experiences coerced visitors to observe the content in silence: an experience that has more in common with the appreciation of high-brow music at concerts of classical music (concerts, of which, the instruments found elsewhere in the museum are closely related to) and the traditional reverence expected in art galleries. In addition to the audio-visual content in this exhibition, the museum’s Experience Gallery also provides the opportunity for visitors to touch, hold and play guitars (although none of them are electric).

Some rare electric guitars were designed to be used as hybrid instruments, such as ‘The Get Drum’ displayed in The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon exhibition at the Musical Instrument Museum

Grammy Museum:

The Grammy Museum’s website states that the institution ‘explores and celebrates the enduring legacies of all forms of music; the creative process; the art and technology of the recording process; and the history of the GRAMMY Awards, the premier recognition of recorded music accomplishment’.[4] The museum focuses on popular culture, which is exhibited as artefacts of recorded music, memorabilia, marketing and other content that represents the history of the Grammy Award ceremonies, which includes a range of musical instruments used by Grammy Award winners and nominees in recordings and live performances. The building is located within L.A. Live, the ‘premier destination of live entertainment’ in Downtown Los Angeles.[5] From this, one could deduce that the museum provides a daily gateway to the Grammy Awards not just for those with expert prior knowledge and musical abilities (for example, those who have planned their visit), but also for those who have little knowledge or experience of musical instruments (which may include passing tourists, for example), as well as those who fall within these boundaries.

The permanent Roland LIVE gallery is an integral part of this museum experience. The word LIVE signifies a focus on allowing visitors to interact with some of the electronic musical instruments that the Roland Corporation have designed. As opposed to the separate temporary exhibition space at the MIM, visitors must pass through Roland LIVE in order to access subsequent museum content. The focus of this space is a performance stage hosting two electronic drum kits, a keytar, a microphone with voice processor, and an electric guitar device plugged into an assortment of guitar effects pedals. It is the type of retro-futurist band setup that visitors might connect to the sounds of eighties Synth Pop, or alternative (but nonetheless popular) music composed and performed by bands such as Devo. In comparison to the MIM where visitors could observe video footage of the performance of electric guitars in their original context, this manufactured stage and ensemble of instruments are available for the public to use, breaking down the barrier that would otherwise exist not only outside the museum between stage and house, musicians and audience, but also inside the museum between content and visitors. This enables visitors to actively contribute to the content of the museum through musical performance, rather than feeling coerced into performing the passive role of merely observing content in a traditional art gallery.

The stage area of the Roland LIVE exhibition at the Grammy Museum

Although most of the instruments on the stage are displayed in their original form and can be played in the way they were originally designed to be played, the electric guitar is a unique interactive exhibit. The form of the electric guitar’s body could be considered as an archetypal representation of a (Stratocaster) electric guitar. However, the interface consists of ‘museum-born’ raw materials and electronic components which replace the components one would usually expect to find such as strings, tuning pegs and control knobs. Visitors are provided with a selection of buttons to press in order to hear examples of electric guitar performances relating to different genres and moments in history (for example, ‘Metal’ and ‘Vintage’). This effectively reduces the instrument to a sound playing device: instead of learning how to play the Instrument, the visitor hears examples of how it has been played. However, the sound of each performance is sent to real guitar effects pedals designed by Boss (a division of the Roland Corporation), helping visitors to hear and understand the ways in which an electric guitar’s sound can be further designed before it is heard through guitar amplifiers and headphones. Unfortunately, this guitar is glued into position on a stand, disabling the full corporeal experience one would expect from holding a guitar.

The ‘bespoke’ interactive electric guitar in the Roland LIVE exhibition at the Grammy Museum

Additional Thoughts:

As has become clear since visiting many different museums and galleries, there is no universal way of exhibiting electronic musical instruments. Certain curatorial practices work for individual cases or types of institutions and may not transfer over to other museums effectively. Much depends on the types of visitors that each museum anticipates and attracts. For example, ‘performing’ with a fake electric guitar on a manufactured stage may feel like an appropriate, entertaining and memorable experience for many visitors at the Grammy Museum, encouraging them to make return visits to the museum and recommend the experience to others. However, the same experience may seem out-of-place at the Musical Instrument Museum where professional musicianship is celebrated: evidenced by the provision of real instruments in the museum’s Experience Gallery.


My PhD is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between the University of Leeds and the National Science and Media Museum, assisting with the realisation of planned sound and music exhibitions within the Science Museum Group. My work as an academic and musician involves research, composition and performance focusing on the history and sonic-tactile dimensions of electronic musical instruments and sound technologies. I am currently organising an event which celebrates one hundred years since the Theremin instrument was first made commercially available, and I hope to disseminate my research further by performing my Sound Travels DJ set to new audiences (additional information can be found here:


[1] Many of the museums and galleries visited were not focused on music-related material. However, visiting a broad range of museums allowed for an even wider understanding of how knowledge could be publicly disseminated. Some of these museums and galleries included the Canada Science and Technology Museum (Ottawa), Montreal Science Centre, Museum of Making Music (Carlsbad), Exploratorium (San Francisco), Griffith Observatory (Los Angeles), New York Hall of Science, and the Guggenheim (New York).

[2] Musical Instrument Museum, ‘The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon’ [accessed 15 October 2019].

[3] Musical Instrument Museum, ‘Our Story’ <> [accessed 16 October 2019].

[4] GRAMMY Museum, ‘About Us’, 2019 <> [accessed 15 October 2019].

[5] L.A. LIVE, ‘About L.A. LIVE’ <> [accessed 15 October 2019].

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