By GUY D’ASTOLFO
The guitar is arguably the world’s most popular musical instrument.
But it’s also a work of art in and of itself, and its shape and design have been evolving for centuries.
A unique exhibition coming to the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown explores the guitar’s history from its earliest days to the present.
“Medieval to Metal: The Art and Evolution of the Guitar” will open Sunday with a free reception from 1 to 3 p.m.
The touring show, which will run through April 16, was developed by the National Guitar Museum. It includes more than 40 instruments, as well as artifacts, illustrations and photographs, that demonstrate the art, history and cultural impact of the guitar.
Visitors will see instruments ranging from the intricately inlaid Moorish oud and 6-foot-long Renaissance theorbo, to the modern Italian design of the Eko and transparent acrylic bodies of California’s B.C. Rich guitars.
Louis Zona, director of the Butler, brought in the exhibition because of its emphasis on the visual.
“While I do love the sound of guitars, going back to my childhood and being the biggest fan of Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, I requested the exhibition since it focuses on the aesthetics of the instrument,” said Zona.
“The guitar has had transformations through the centuries, and that includes its magnificence in terms of craftsmanship,” he continued. The guitar just may be the most beautiful of musical instruments. Rare woods, in the hands of master craftsmen, have brought about objects of singular beauty.”
Zona pointed out that many great artists, including Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp, have portrayed the beauty of the guitar in their paintings and sculptures.
The National Guitar Museum has a significant collection, but no actual museum that is open to the public. It is planning to create a museum in the near future, but for now, the museum is limited to traveling exhibitions.
The NGM also has a larger touring exhibition, geared toward science centers, that includes interactive exhibits and an added focus on the sound.
H.P. Newquist, who founded the guitar museum about nine years ago and remains its executive director, said the exhibition coming to the Butler would appeal to art museum patrons. He described it during a phone interview.
“The emphasis is on the evolution of the design,” said Newquist. “It starts with the oud, which goes back 5,000 years, on up to the modern day. It goes from spruce and mahogany to carbon fiber and acrylic. And along the way, the design has gone from tear-drop shaped to something that can have as many curves as the designer wants.”
Speaking of shape, Newquist notes that it’s a widely held belief that the two most recognizable man-made shapes on the planet are the Coca-Cola bottle and the electric guitar.
Which brings up an interesting question: How did the guitar get its hourglass shape?
“The mythology about the acoustic guitar that most people like to hear starts with the oud, which is teardrop shaped, based on a gourd,” said Newquist. “It was brought to Spain by the Moors. At that time, the Iberians adapted that shape and created the lute. They made it a European instrument.
“During the first Crusade (1096-1099 A.D.), when the Moors were kicked out of Spain, the story goes that the Spanish were forbidden to create a teardrop shaped instrument to rebuff their Moorish oppressors. So they thought, ‘What greater shape to make it than Spain’s greatest asset – the Spanish woman’.”
Newquist admits that’s a great story, but it might not be true.
“The reality is probably that an oval or teardrop shape makes it hard to hold when playing it, so at some point, someone probably figured out that a notch would make it easier to play,” he said.
So much for colorful mythology.
Newquist has another interesting story about how the guitar museum was born – and this one is undoubtedly true.
After serving as editor of Guitar magazine in the 1990s, and as an author of books on guitar players, Newquist stepped away from that world in the early 2000s to write popular science books. But the collection of guitars that he and his wife had amassed remained on display on the walls of their home.
“In 2008, a friend of my daughter’s had come to the house, and she said, ‘Wow! It looks like a guitar museum in here!’ Then it struck me,” he said. “I called some friends and asked, ‘Where is the guitar museum?’ After three weeks, I realized there wasn’t one anywhere. And it was so obvious that there should be one. My partners and I said, ‘If we don’t do it, who will?’”
Newquist and his group immediately made plans to open a guitar museum in Manhattan, but then the recession hit that year.
They decided to instead take their collection on the road, and launched the first tour in 2011. The exhibitions were a hit and are now booked for the next couple of years.
Newquist said he hopes to decide on a city to start a permanent museum in the next three years, noting that it most likely will not be New York.