WHEN A BAND, famous or unknown, leads with a hit it can mean only one of two things: They’re anxious to get the hell off the stage and go back to snorting rails at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée (or smoking crack out of a Bic-pen barrel at the Super 8), or they’ve got hits for days and can afford to burn them like Weimar Republic cash.
The first thing that greets you as you walk into “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” at New York’s staid and storied Metropolitan Museum of Art is Chuck Berry’s blond Gibson ES-350T—likely, we are told, the one he used to record “Johnny B. Goode,” the legendary song from which all rock ’n’ roll is arguably spawned. To your right is the gold-painted piano that survived more than fifty years of the fists and feet of Jerry Lee Lewis, and beyond that is blues lord Muddy Waters’s “Hoss,” worn at the edges, and a pristine Gretsch version of Bo Diddley’s “Twang Machine,” the cigar-box-shaped guitar he originally built from a piece of wood fitted with the pickup of an old Victrola.
After that it’s just hit after hit, no time to even think about getting back to the hotel: the Fender Esquire-Telecaster “mutt” Bruce Springsteen wears slung over his back on the cover of Born to Run (1975). The Tele Keith Richards played on Exile on Main St (1972). Eric Clapton’s beloved Fender Strat “Blackie.” Eddie Van Halen’s homemade “Frankenstein,” its cratered back studded with plastic reflectors. The Beatles’ live setup, sans bass, is here, its spare lines a stark contrast to their rich body of work. There’s even a fragment of the Strat famously set ablaze by Jimi Hendrix at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, tastefully (and enragingly) devoid of char.
The exhibition occupies seven galleries, most of which are painted a dull lavender-gray that perfectly sets off everything from the 1948 Bigsby solid-body No. 2, a carved-wood juggernaut that recalls the heavy and ornate furniture occupying the museum’s nearby period rooms, to the circa-1995 horror-show Born to Rock F4B bass, a hollow mess of silvery aluminum tubes whose massive tuning pegs reside at the instrument’s bottom. In several of the galleries, fragments of classic songs play at an unobtrusive volume that would horrify their creators but is probably still sending the exhibition’s guards home with PTSD. Most of the instruments are presented in vitrines that are largely wall-mounted but occasionally freestanding, allowing viewers to inspect them from all angles.
Garnering zero attention in one of these cases at the start of the show was Elvis’s unassuming Martin D-18 acoustic. Then a woman, pausing to read the label, gasped, “Elvis!” and suddenly the instrument was surrounded by women of all ages surveying the buckle rash on the back and gleefully discussing the gyrations that must have produced it. Nearby is Buddy Holly’s acoustic Gibson J-45, the split seams of its hand-tooled leather case putting the viewer in mind of the coroner’s description of both Holly’s jacket and his skull after he was thrown from a small plane into a snowy Iowa field alongside Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper “the day the music died.”
I read that Jimmy Page was lured into loaning his guitars by the promise of their being exhibited near the Greek and Roman antiquities. I bet his young heart woulda beat right out of his ruffle-and-velvet-draped chest back in the day at the thought of rock ’n’ roll being entombed in a quiet museum.
Guitar overload continues in the second room, with a Gibson SG belonging to AC/DC’s Angus Young, with whom the model is synonymous (though Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the first to bring it to the stage); Stevie Ray Vaughn’s beat-to-shit “Number One”; and Jerry Garcia’s custom “Tiger,” which allegedly took two thousand hours to make. In perhaps one of the exhibition’s most inspired groupings, St. Vincent’s angular, electric-yellow, 2017 triple-pickup Ernie Ball Music Man HHH (retail price: just under $3,000) is flanked on one side by Jack White’s cheap red-and-white 1964 Valco Airline (a model originally sold at middle-class catalogue retailer Montgomery Ward’s) and on the other by a circa-1973 natural-wood-finish Japanese Hohner of a type that Prince is reputed to have bought at a Minneapolis gas station for thirty dollars in his salad days. Later in the exhibition, you’ll have the opportunity to watch a video of him wrenching George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” out of his original gas-station ax as he looks into the eyes of Tom Petty: just two talented guys who would needlessly die of opioid overdoses. Shout-out to the Sackler Wing!
At the entrance to the third room, visitors encounter the chilly diamond-plate-metal-and-orange-glitter stage setup of a short-haired, post-therapy Metallica, which suggests nothing of the hot, wild, sweat-soaked pits the Bay Area thrashers notoriously catalyzed in their beery, metal-breaking heyday. U mad, long-haired bro? Yes, I am! The Roots’ setup, including Sousaphone (!), occupies one side of the space, across from a field of synths. A modified 1960s-era Hammond L-100 electric tone-wheel organ belonging to Keith Emerson looks positively modest next to the keyboardist’s behemoth customized Hammond C3/Moog synth stack, but don’t be fooled—the former was “retired after it burst into flames during a performance.”
Also here are a ton of basses, including the 1980 Ovation Magnum 1 that Kim Gordon played on Sonic Youth’s groundbreaking first three studio albums and the 1977 Fender P bass on which Chip Shearin famously tossed off the lick sampled by the Sugarhill Gang on their seminal 1979 “Rapper’s Delight.” At the edges of the room are various instruments considered largely outside the realm of rock but that are heard on sundry classics of the genre. Among these are . . . Patti Smith’s clarinet. I guess this is a wholly different instrument when you are not being forced to play it in middle school? Ravi Shankar’s beautifully carved sitar, trimmed with hand-painted white borders etched with blue and red flowers, glows near a Sonic Wave theremin, whose silvery box announces its capacity to produce “sounds of time.”
The fourth gallery holds the stage rigs of four different guitarists—Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. Each setup faces a different corner of the space, and above each is a flat-screen monitor on which plays a brief interview with the corresponding artist. The videos are neatly timed in a clockwise rotation—as Page finishes speaking on one monitor, Richards rumbles onto the next one, and so on. In addition to preventing bleed, the arrangement guarantees a sort of audience experience as viewers wander from one screen to the next, and thus promotes the sharing of stories: As a snowy-haired Page articulately fingered a drifting and resonant “Stairway to Heaven,” an elderly man next to me reminisced excitedly about being recognized, along with his friends, and cheerily hailed by Page and the other members of the Yardbirds as he sat in the front pew of a thirty-row church the band was playing in. I went home and looked this up, and I concluded that it could have happened: By 1968, the band had been reduced to playing high-school proms.
The fifth room—anchored at one end by Lady Gaga’s circa-2014 Artpop piano in its custom case, a fantastic winged creation of clear plastic lit internally with LED lights, and at the other by the “Pictures of Lily” drum kit belonging to the Who’s Keith Moon—is an amazing carnival of color and kitsch. One of the best visual pairings here is Paul Stanley of Kiss’s Ibanez Iceman, with its cracked mirror face, next to a dawn-colored carved Ovation Adamas acoustic belonging to Nancy Wilson of Heart. Nearby is an eight-string Alembic bass owned by the Who’s John Entwistle, reported to be so loud that the roadies would migrate away from Entwistle’s side of the stage when he played it. Other people-movers on display include Don Felder’s cream-colored double-neck 1977 Gibson SG, on which he famously (some might say unforgivably) played the iconic solo on the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen’s first five-necker, made from a quintet of Hamer Specials and finished in a shockingly tasteful reddish-brown.
In the penultimate room, a strange mix of video clips plays, some capturing performers in the incandescent blaze of their primacy, others inexplicably showing latter-day versions of bands cranking through rote versions of the hits that made them famous years ago. The last room contains posters for decades-past shows, most of which epitomized what I overheard one woman describe as “dream bills.”
I read that Jimmy Page was lured into loaning his guitars by the promise of their being exhibited near the Greek and Roman antiquities. I bet his young heart woulda beat right out of his ruffle-and-velvet-draped chest back in the day at the thought of rock ’n’ roll being entombed in a quiet museum. Though rock is only seventy years old—not seventy decades—the show certainly makes it feel historical, the way a copy of Mojo or Rolling Stone does. Visitors seeking the spirit of the beautiful corpse so stunningly presented here are advised to turn their attention to less hallowed spaces—the bars, basements, and Bandcamp pages where tomorrow’s monsters are being animated today!
“Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” is on view through October 1.
Polly Watson is a musician, writer, and editor based in New York.