The Musical Instrument Museum

Blooms in the Desert
The Musical Instrument Museum
(CLOCKWISE TOP LEFT) 1962 National Glenwood 95. 1952 Les Paul. 1973 Hayman 3030H. 1852 Ashborn Style 6. 2003 Hamer Improv. 1932 Dobro Model 66B. The 2007 chaturangui, built by Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya. Photos by Micael Wright. All Guitars: Troy Sharp/MIM. National Glenwood: Jaqueline Byers. ’52 Les Paul: Jaqueline Byers.

When traveling the American desert southwest, one should expect the unexpected. Visit in the springtime and you might witness the elusive flowering of the torch cactus, which happens on just one day each year. No matter when you visit, though, you can see 1,000-year-old Native American pueblos (complete with ball courts), marvelous relics of long-lost civilizations that thrived long before the desert itself was formed. And whenever you go, you’ll certainly want to experience the Musical Instrument Museum, in Phoenix.

Many museums contain musical instruments; Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have excellent collections on display, though they’re subsidiary to wider assemblages of art and artifacts. There are also museums devoted to musical instruments, such as the National Music Museum, in Vermillion, South Dakota, the Museum of Musical Instruments in Hamamatsu, Japan, and the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium (which led directly to the founding of the Phoenix museum). Most display at least some non-Western instruments, especially the Ethnologisches Museum, Stattliche Museen zu Berlin.

This instrument, used regionally in China, has an ornate horse-themed headstock carving.

The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is surrounded by sand, cacti, haggard camelback mountains, and towering palm trees. While there are plenty of densely populated parts of Phoenix – the city is 1.5 million, metro area 4.3 million souls – there are also swaths of undeveloped desert within city limits; the 20-acre campus of the MIM sits on the edge of one of these patches, just off Route 101 at the Tatum Avenue exit.

Brainchild of Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and Chairman of Target Corporation (think “big red logo”), and his friend, Marc Felix, the MIM is intended to showcase the music and musical instruments of every country in the world. Ulrich collects African art and happens to be a museum aficionado, and the two were visiting the instrument museum in Brussels when they were struck with the idea to push the concept to the max. That did not mean simply collect and hang a bunch of drums and bagpipes. No. They wanted the visitor to understand something of the cultural context and enjoy an intimate interaction with the instruments using technology to enhance the experience.

The two created a non-profit organization and gathered a team of musical-instrument experts under the direction of Dr. Billie R. DeWalt, then dispatched it to assemble the collection. A team of architects led by Richard Varda (RSP Architects), designed a building to house the collection. In 2010, the 200,000-square-foot MIM arose after more than five years’ work and planning.

When you pull off the freeway into open desert, you might spot a dust devil spring up, wobble portentously, then drift until it hits scrub brush and promptly collapses. Take a left, and the MIM looms as a massive structure growing from a parking lot adorned by native plantings. On the outside, the facility is a huge two-story structure faced with Indian sandstone designed to represent an Arizona canyon. The entrance is set back on an inviting plaza planted with more lush foliage surrounding babbling brooks, allegorical sculptures, and outdoor seating for the museum’s Café Allegro. Enter through the large black-glass doors and you’re bathed in natural light as the canyon metaphor continues with a meandering central corridor dubbed “El Rio.”

Basically, MIM’s public areas and specialty galleries reside on the first floor, while the main collection lives on the second, with its “cliffs” overlooking El Rio. The lower level hosts a gift shop, restaurant, “family room,” a Mechanical Instrument Gallery, the Target Gallery for special exhibitions, and a special Artist Gallery. Plus, there’s another gallery where anyone can play real instruments.

The Artist Gallery is where you’ll find the Martin D-28 played by Elvis just before his death in 1977, the Steinway on which John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” Carlos Santana’s “Buddha” Yamaha solidbody, the ES-345 Eric Clapton played in the ’60s, George Benson’s Gibson Johnny Smith, and Dick Dale’s collection of Fender guitars. There are celebrity instruments sprinkled throughout other galleries – including a locally made doubleneck owned by Duane Eddy (on loan from Deke Dickerson) and Buck Owens’ Harmony-made red, white, and blue acoustic – and these often change as MIM works closely with other organizations and foundations.

An exhibit of Elvis Presley items.

The first floor also houses MIM’s 300-seat theater. In addition to complete recording studio gear, the theater is “acoustically tunable” to accommodate whatever kind of music is playing that night, which can be anything from Asleep at the Wheel to the Zydeco Experience – the schedule very heavy on guitar players. The room’s sound is sculpted with adjustable baffles and it’s booked most nights.

While the MIM is not dedicated to the guitar, its first exhibit is “Guitars: Many Forms, Many Countries” and pairs an Ampeg Dan Armstrong with a Maccaferri plastic guitar, a Gianinni Craviola with a Charturangui from India, electrics with acoustics, an Alan Gittler “fishbone,” etc. Basically, it challenges the visitor to open their mind to consider wider definitions, and it’s just a small taste of what’s to come.

From India, a rudra vina.

In the minds of most people, the concept of “museum” involves history; it’s where you go to see old paintings, a reconstructed 16th-century Buddhist temple, or a stuffed carrier pigeon. In a way, that’s inherent in the nature of museums. Even if you put the most modern of modern art on the wall for the public to see – a painting finished just that morning – tomorrow, it will be fixed in time while the world marches forward. History.

MIM contains many old instruments, so it is intrinsically historical. However, it also houses many completely new instruments, so “history” is not a big enough idea to encompass the MIM collection. Again, one of MIM’s missions is to show the cultural context of the music. That might mean showing a Mariachi costume on a mannequin next to the bajo sexto he might play. But, it also might mean showing an acoustic guitar from the ’30s next to a monitor with an old piece of video of the Carter family. Walk up to the Klezmer display and be treated to antique video of a raucus orchestra.

A guitar built for Duane Eddy in 1960 by Phoenix resident Tom Howard McCormick.

Plus Audio
Most museums today use headset stations where a visitor listens to a curator’s recording on the importance of a specific element, especially during special exhibitions. MIM goes one better; visitors receive a wireless headset with a detection feature, so as one walks toward a display, relevant audio turns on. If there’s video, it syncs with its audio track. As much as possible, curators let you hear the very instruments you’re looking at, or one almost identical to it. This all feels very natural and adds an immersive dimension to viewing the instruments.

This display highlights guitars from several countries.

While an historical perspective is one way to parse the MIM collection (its oldest instrument is a Chinese drum dating to 5000 to 4000 BC!), its primary organizing principle is geographical, not historical. Think of the second-floor galleries as a massive map of the world and you’re a giant, able to stride around it in a couple hours. Begin in Africa and the Middle East, stroll over to Asia and Oceana, then Europe, the United States and Canada, and finish in your trek in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each of these continental galleries is subdivided into constituent countries and territories, more or less arranged as you’d find them on the map. Thus, you might move from instruments found in the Arabian peninsula to those found in Syria, then Iraq, etc.

An ud, made in Iraq.

Another way you might slice and dice the MIM collection is to look for comparative relationships between instruments within a particular kind of music – say Arabic or Latin American – that you can investigate sometimes by moving just a few feet away! Or perhaps you want to compare bowed instruments from different parts of the world. It’s all there. In the past, the only way you could see and compare musical instruments this way was with an authoritative book compendium. Now, the real thing is right in front of you.

There’s also a strong nod given to instrument making. MIM maintains close relationships with many manufacturers and salts its displays with things like a luthier’s bench contributed by C.F. Martin. And, of course, there’s a purely aesthetic dimension. The people who make musical instruments like to make them pretty and, wherever practical, curators have chosen examples that show off the bling. A pearl-encrusted l’oud with a delicately carved rose? Check. A finely carved Chinese horsehead peghead? Ditto.

That said, the curators are not loath to show the curious but sometimes unlovely “folk” side of instruments. For example, there’s a fascinating handmade guitar from the African bush that looks a lot like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein! Clearly, the maker had some idea of what the parts needed to be, but wasn’t so clear on how to put them together (and how it would actually be played is something else altogether!).

As an aside, MIM is active in educational and outreach programs, not the least of which is the Paraguay’s Recycled Orchestra, a remarkable group of children who play instruments fashioned from trash – old cans and wire – salvaged from the local garbage dump. Some of the instruments are on display with an accompanying video.

The MIM collection is mind-bogglingly vast. On display are more than 15,000 instruments and related artifacts from more than 200 countries and territories. Plan for your dogs to be sore and your brain to be a little numb when you exit the MIM. Also, plan not to see everything in one single visit!

A display of instruments made and/or used by musicians in the Appalachians.

Obviously, an exhibit of musical instruments will require the ability to conserve/restore them. MIM maintains a state-of-the-art lab where, for example, a stunning and rare James Ashborn Model 6 was recently brought back to life after enduring decades of neglect in the back of a closet. Also obviously, not every instrument MIM owns is on display. Behind the scenes are row after row of instruments in carefully climate-controlled storage. Hundreds of vintage acoustic guitars wait to be included in an exhibit, all delicately supported by linen straps and perched on little pillows individually shaped to fit the instrument, sewn by MIM volunteers.

Back on that fateful day when Mssrs. Ulrich and Felix perused the instrument collection in Brussels, they may (or may not) have realized they were about to bring museum history almost full circle, actually integrating many aspects of its historical tradition.

“Museums,” or at least collections, have been around since antiquity. But the modern concept of a museum dates back to around the 15th century, when the term was used to refer to the private collection (probably of art and fine objects) held by Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence, Italy. Museums as a public entertainment destination probably date back to the 17th century, when collectors of “oddities” began opening their doors to the public – for a price, of course. These museums were often called “cabinets,” and the oddities could mean anything from exotic stuffed animals to mastodon bones to historical artifacts. One of the first oddity museums in the U-.S. was opened in 1786 by Charles Wilson Peale, in Philadelphia. Around this time, displays began to include portraits of famous people and interesting paintings, especially landscapes of exotic places. One of the most influential U.S. museums in the mid 19th century was P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, in New York City, which pioneered the addition of music concerts and dramatic presentations of Shakespeare “cleaned up” and suitable for the whole family. America’s first Disneyland!

A few of the hundreds of guitars in storage at the MIM.

During the second half of 19th century, especially under the influence of popular World’s Fairs and new scientific approaches to organizing knowledge, exhibitions became increasingly specialized. Gone were the cabinets of miscellaneous curious oddities. Objects were separated, classified, and grouped into collections with something in common, displayed as examples of natural history, cultural history, industrial production, art and sculpture, etc.

Museums exploded during the early 20th century as great political changes re-shaped notions about public access to museum collections – the idea that great collections are part of the people’s cultural heritage. Along with the concept came the obligation on the part of the facility to elevate the public, through aesthetics, through education.

Much of this evolutionary development is reflected in MIM. It’s a musical-instrument museum, and as such is focused on a specific subject, like modern museums tend to be. Yet, the inclusion of “contexts” – the environments where the instruments originally existed, the costumes and accessories that accompany them – almost returns the concept to the cabinet, just with a relevant educational purpose. The theater is reminiscent of good ol’ P.T. The first impression is complete awe at the importance of music for humans all over the globe, and how much – often along totally independent evolutionary lines – we have managed to create instruments to make that music. And how much those creations are – never mind that they’re intended to be played – in themselves works of high art.

In the final analysis, MIM is not an “art museum.” It is the ultimate musical instrument museum. Its “geographical” organization is brilliantly neutral and its presentation masterful and state-of-the-art – an art long in development.

Curators say this guitar was built by a musician in Zambia.

Special thanks to Erin Miller, Media Relations Manager for the MIM, and Rich Walter PhD, Curatorial Assistant.

From the Trove

Two Instruments Demonstrate Variety at the MIM

The 2007 chaturangui, built by Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya.

Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya Chaturangui

Those who appreciate the guitar owe it to themselves to visit the Musical Instrument Museum. Any fan of the guitar or guitar music and happens to live in Phoenix will likely want to visit over and over as they gain an ever-deepening appreciate for all that is contained in its walls. Here’s a look at two examples of the facility’s many and varied offerings.

Sometimes, worlds collide in unexpected ways and with unusual chronologies. The Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya chaturangui comes from India, but it’s not some ancient predecessor of Western guitars. Rather, it’s a recent creation directly inspired by the modern archtop guitar. Not only that, it was created to play traditional Indian – as well as other contemporary world musics – as a radical version of an archtop slide guitar!

One way or another, when one follows the history of the chaturangui and its style of music (sometimes called Hindustani slide guitar), all roads ultimately lead to Hawaii. There are a number of good accounts of the development of Hawaiian guitar music, and most are full of apocryphal stories one had best take with fingers crossed. The subject still needs a good scholarly treatment.

When Captain James Cook “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, they were originally called the Sandwich Islands. By 1820, they were swarming with missionaries and had become a frequent stop for whalers and merchant marines. In 1893, they nefariously came under American control, then became an official U.S. Territory in 1898.

No one knows how the guitar got to Hawaii, but in 1818, King Kamehameha the Great sent soldiers to California (then part of Mexico), where they may have encountered the instrument. In any case, the presence of missionaries and sailors after 1820 could account for it; missionaries were fond of singing hymns and sailors of dancing jigs, so guitars would be natural. Certainly, guitars and banjos were well-known in the Islands by the late 1870s, when Portuguese sugar-cane workers arrived, bringing their versions of guitars and inventing the ukulele.

Two distinctive guitar techniques developed in Hawaii, though they are by no means exclusive to the Islands. One was the use of scordatura, or non-standard tunings, usually into open chords not unlike the Russian seven-string guitar. Since this usually involves de-tuning, it acquired the name “slack-key” guitar.

The other style was the “fretting” of strings with the use of some form of “steel bar.” Some credit playing with a slide to one James Hoa in 1876, but the most accepted account has Joseph Kekuku, who, according to himself, at age 11 in 1885, was walking along some railroad tracks when he found a loose railroad spike and slid it along his guitar’s strings. Now… in 1885, a guitar’s strings would most likely have been made from animal gut; steel strings didn’t become popular on the mainland until after 1880, and that occurred very slowly. It’s possible Kekuku had steel strings, but that’s a stretch. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a railroad spike, and I ain’t sliding one over the strings of my guitars, even if they are steel!

The best tale is that an Indian (as in Calcutta) lad named Gabriel Davion was kidnapped by a merchant and taken to Hawaii in 1884. There, he reportedly played something called a göttuv dyam, which was played using a slide. That would provide some cool symmetry to the chaturangui story, but, like I said, cross your fingers.

Hawaiian music began to dribble into mainland U.S. consciousness beginning with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Its influence spread slowly but it was immensely popular by the teens and through the ’20s, leading to the first commercially successful electric guitars, Hawaiian lap steels, in 1931.

Indian interest in Hawaiian guitar reportedly dates to before World War II, when a Hawaiian musician named Tau Moe emigrated to India, spreading Hawaiian music and eventually teaching and building lap steels in Calcutta. Indian musician Brij Bhushan Kabra is credited with being the first to adapt the Hawaiian guitar to Indian music. Slide guitar is well-suited to Indian music because many forms like to glide (or glissando) between notes and wander above and below pitch. Kabra played a Gibson Super 400 outfitted with a raised nut and an extra drone string. Another musician, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, adopted the style and added many more sympathetic strings to a German archtop guitar, dubbing it the mohan veena.

It was probably a mohan veena that Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya modified to become the chaturangui. Bhattacharya was born into a prominent musical family in 1963 and, according to his online biography, both became interested in Hawaiian lap-steel guitar and broadcast his first radio performance at four years of age. According to online accounts, Bhattacharya invented the chaturangui in 1978 or ’79. Bhattacharya plays fingerstyle slide, composes music, and performs pretty much all types of music, not just traditional Indian, alone and with scores of other world musicians.

This Bhattacharya chaturangui was built by the Trideb International Guitar Co. (Kolkata, West Bengal, India) in 2007. The six primary strings equate to a Spanish guitar, and there are two drone strings and 12 sympathetic strings. The idea is to combine the tonalities of the rudra veena, sarode, sitar, and violin in a single instrument.

The instrument has a spruce top and rosewood body that incorporates a hollow neck inspired by Weissenborn guitars. It’s roughly equivalent in size to a large archtop.

Since the chaturangui is a relatively modern invention and is primarily hand-made, you won’t find too many “vintage” examples. However, several companies (and individual luthiers) produce them, so it’s possible to find one on the secondary market. Student-grade chaturanguis run $1,200 to $1,500 new, with professional-grade models beginning around $3,500. The fanciest versions can be exquisitely inlaid.

So, the chaturangui is really a guitar and yet another example of the amazing number of guitar progeny that populate every corner of the globe as disparate cultures collide and reassemble themselves as modern entities. If only George Thorogood would play one, it might even catch on…

1964 National Glenwood 95.

1964 National Glenwood 65

Every once in a while, you encounter a vintage guitar that hits the trifecta – technology and aesthetics crossing paths with an important part of guitar history. There’s certainly a trifecta surrounding this ’64 National Glenwood 95 on display as part of the MIM’s “Guitars, Many Forms, Many Countries” exhibit.

The Glenwood was part of a group of models designed by Valco in 1961 and put into production in ’62, colloquially known as “map” guitars because, if you squint, it sort of looks like a map of the U.S. (the lower 48, at least). There should be no need to point out that Valco had a hallowed pedigree dating to the mid ’20s, when John Dopyera invented the resonator guitar in an attempt to increase the volume of acoustic guitars. In the fall of 1926, he and several of his brothers started the National String Instrument Corporation, and by ’28, they were joined by guitarist George Beauchamp.

Some of the Dopyeras left National in ’29 to found Dobro, then returned in ’32. In ’35, the companies merged. Beauchamp tried to introduce electric guitar pickups to National in ’31, but other management wasn’t interested, so he left to form Ro-Pat-In, with the intent to make electric Hawaiian lap-steel guitars with partner Adolph Rickenbacher (later Rickenbacker). In ’36, National-Dobro moved from L.A. to Chicago, the heart of the American guitar industry, and control of the company passed to Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera. The name then became Valco Manufacturing. When the Glenwood debuted in ’62, the company’s name was changed to Valco Guitars, Inc.

National-Dobro had reluctantly begun amplifying guitars before WWII, but it was Valco that ditched resonator guitars and remade itself into a primarily electric guitar company. Valco, along with Harmony and Kay, would become one of the powerhouse American mass manufacturers of the guitar, serving the beginner and middle ranges of the market during the fabled guitar boom of the ’60s.

National-branded guitars were Valco’s premium range, with downscale versions being marketed as Supro models. Valco also branded some as Val-Pro, and famously supplied Montgomery-Ward with Airline brand guitars, as well as others branded Atlas and Tonemaster (England).

National “map” guitars came made of two different materials, either fiberglas or traditional wood. Fiberglas models included the Glenwood 95 (cherry red, seen here), 98 (white with black neck), and 99 (white with white neck), plus Val-Pro 82 (red, one pickup), 84 (white, one pickup, transducer), and 88 (black, two pickups, transducer); and Newport 82 (red), 84 (seafoam green), and 88 (black). Wood-bodied National maps included the Westwood 72 (blond or cherry, one pickup), 75 (black cherry sunburst, one pickup, transducer), and 77 (cherry, two pickups, transducer).

Valco’s use of fiberglas – which it called Res-O-Glas – was not confined to the map guitars; it was used on the top models in other designs, as well. Bundles of glass fibers are, strictly speaking, an ancient technology. However, as a modern medium, its discovery dates to 1935, when an engineer at Corning Glass figured out how to make glass fibers efficiently. Another glass company, Owens-Illinois, was also working on the material, and in ’38, the two merged to become Owens-Corning. During World War II, American and German companies worked on combining fiberglas with cured polyester resin to make the substance we recognize today. Around the time National’s map guitars debuted, building fiberglas canoes and other products was a popular back-yard pastime among American handymen, so it was no surprise that Valco would turn to the sturdy, colorful, and easy-to-work material.

Valco’s map guitars are among the most collectible of the company’s guitars from the Swingin’ ’60s, mainly thanks to their unusual shape and snappy hues. Guitars have pretty much had their iconic figure-8 shape since the instrument began to coalesce around 1000 AD. The 19th century saw lyre- and lute-guitar hybrids, but they’re mostly curiosities. Ro-Pat-In’s first Hawaiian lap steel was the famous “frying pan,” shaped more like a banjo, but in the general neighborhood. Cutaways appeared in the ’30s, but it was with Gibson’s late-’50s Flying V, Explorer, and Moderne that radical shapes were applied to electric guitars. These didn’t rock the world, but they did inspire bizarre imitations like the ’59 Kay Solo King (often called the “map of Ohio” guitar and possibly the ugliest design ever). This was about the time Semie Moseley flipped a Strat upside down to “develop” the Mosrite Ventures models. Obviously, being “modern” meant being non-traditional, meaning being non-Spanish in aesthetics.

Valco’s map guitars were nothing if not Spanish! As for the colors, it’s important to recall that when they were introduced in the early ’60s, “uniforms” were de rigueur for pop-music combos; the Kingston Trio had striped shirts, The Beatles had collar-less jackets and scandalous mop tops. Playing eyecatching, often matching/distinctive guitars was the cat’s pajamas. The paisley anti-uniform bell-bottoms of the hippies didn’t happen until ’67, the Summer of Love, when – perhaps not coincidentally – Valco’s map guitar bit the dust.

Then again, the map’s disappearance may have been inevitable. As the guitar boom exploded, guitar companies became targets for corporate takeovers. One of those was the 1966 purchase of Valco’s competitor, Kay, by the jukebox maker Seeburg. In ’67, Valco purchased Seeburg/Kay. In ’68, the company collapsed in bankruptcy. Cheap Japanese product is often blamed for this implosion, but it may have been that everyone who wanted a guitar by then had one. Many Japanese makers also went out of business at this time.

Nevertheless, the National Glenwood 95 reflects a golden age of guitars. Made of Res-O-Glas, looking oh so cool, and part of the rich texture of American guitar history – a trifecta in anyone’s book.

This article originally appeared in VG March 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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