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Commentary: The Guitar Holds A Prominent Place In The Musical Landscape

Nancy Kranzberg

Lately, the guitar seems to be taking center stage.

The St. Louis Science Center recently closed an exhibition titled "Guitar, the Instrument that Rocked the World." It appealed to all ages and featured more than 70 guitars including acoustic, electric and antique guitars,15 hands-on STEM interactives that demonstrated the science of sound and music,100 historical artifacts,10 video displays, listening and viewing environments for different musical genres and photos, posters, graphics, illustrations, banners and more.

Of course, many folks in St. Louis don't realize how our own Chuck Berry literally rocked the world with his guitar named Lucille. One could see his 1960 Gibson guitar displayed in the exhibition.

And I took a trip to New York and went nuts at the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled "Play it Loud" which celebrates the musical instruments that gave rock and roll its signature sound. The guitars in this exhibition were incredible. The text panel says, "One of the first to exploit his instrument to such effect was singer, songwriter and guitarist Chuck Berry, arguably the most important figure in rock and roll. His electric guitar solos in songs such as ‘Johnny B. Goode’ (1958) revolutionized the music, making the instrument both the primary voice and a visual icon of rock and roll. Its amplification liberated players from having to stand behind a microphone. Berry capitalized upon this freedom by dancing while he played, unforgettably energizing his performances and thrilling audiences. Rock and roll guitarists ever since have made the most of the mobility afforded by electric guitars to perform similar antics."

John Lennon said, "If you had tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry."

Of course, the guitar is a major instrument in blues and jazz and both have their roots in the South as does rock and roll. The catalogue for "Play it Loud" also reminds us that race and racial tensions of midcentury American culture are, in fact, inextricable from rock and roll's history and development. This musical style is from the segregated American South, where it was first played by primarily black ensembles. Radio exposed white audiences to performances by African American musicians of R&B, gospel, blues and early rock and roll and the guitar was the front runner of it all.

The photographs and video elements of this special exhibition were a major part of the show along with the actual instruments. One photograph was of Sister Rosella Tharpe of whom Bob Dylan says, "She was anything but ordinary and plain. She was a powerful force of nature. A guitar-playin', singin' evangelist."

David Schiller in his book "Guitars, 500 of the World's Most Seductive Instruments" says, "There has never been another musical instrument like the guitar. There's never been an instrument as versatile; It plays rhythm, it plays melody, and it is as sophisticated harmonically as a piano. In the hands of a highly skilled player, in fact, it can perform all of these roles simultaneously. It is arguably the world's most pleasing solo instrument, and also performs brilliantly as accompaniment, particularly in the age of amplification."

If you really want to know everything about the guitar, this is the book for you. He talks of the history, the builders, the famous players (in all genres) and there are beautiful photographs of the wide variety of guitars and its antecedents throughout the ages.

The best way to see guitars today is to go hear some music whether it be at one of St. Louis' jazz or blues clubs, at a rock or folk concert or even one of the classical ensembles. And let's not forget St. Louis Classical Guitar whose first concert of the season features Iranian native Lily Afshar, the first woman in the world to earn a doctorate of music in guitar performance. Our wonderful St. Louis has a wide array of musical venues and opportunities to hear the guitar.


Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.