"Loud" is not just the description of a sound. It is an attitude. Rock and roll musicians took "loud" and built it into one of the defining artistic movements of the twentieth century. Fashion, art, politics—all were influenced by rock music and its countercultural appeal.
The wail of the electric guitar and the distortion of amplifiers became the currency of early rock musicians, who understood the power of volume to command attention like never before. That sound—piercing, pounding, vibrating through audiences—would evolve into rock and roll's signature.
This exhibition explores the instruments that came to define the music. Often an extension of the artists themselves, these objects are designed and engineered to perform both visually and audibly. They are decorated, exaggerated, and, most importantly, beloved—by those who play them and those who watch in awe. They are the link between the artist and the audience, the physical source of a glorious noise.
The iconic instruments here were played by some of the most influential musicians across seven decades of artistry. In their own way, they represent the countless instruments picked up by ordinary individuals, inspired by their musical heroes and rock and roll's defiant spirit.
Rock and roll was born in the American South, where it was first played primarily by black ensembles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The music and the instrumental choices reflect the influence of many earlier genres: the piano and saxophone came to early rock and roll from R&B and boogie woogie, and the large acoustic guitars used in rockabilly came from country and western. Electric guitarists were inspired by a range of earlier styles, including the gospel guitar playing of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the virtuosic jazz and pop performances of Les Paul, and the electric blues sounds of Muddy Waters.
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Chuck Berry revolutionized rock and roll with his guitar solos, making the electric guitar the primary voice and visual icon of the music.
Manufacturers responded with new instruments and equipment, producing many of the classic guitar models that would define the look and sound of rock music for generations.
The Beatles' electrifying debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 had an enormous effect on American culture. Thousands of rock bands were formed using the same equipment and instrumentation: two guitars, a bass, and a drum set. Although earlier blues and surf rock bands had also used that lineup, the power of those iconic performances helped solidify the four-piece ensemble as the quintessential rock band.
In 1966, graffiti started appearing across London proclaiming "Clapton is God." Electric guitarist Eric Clapton was a musical phenomenon who quickly drew a following for his artistry and the speed and intricacy of his playing. Over the next few years, many outstanding musicians were given the guitar god moniker, including Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
Some of these guitarists became the center of cult-like obsession from fans who purchased recordings, memorabilia, guitars, and equipment to emulate them. These musicians shared a similar set of attributes: virtuosic playing, spectacular creativity, and a swaggering attitude on and offstage. They were also almost exclusively men; at the time, women tended to be limited to vocalist roles in rock music and overlooked as instrumentalists.
Certain guitars used by these performers have become famous among fans, earning nicknames such as Clapton's "Blackie," Hendrix's "Love Drops," and Page's "Number One."These and other remarkable instruments in this gallery represent the distinctive voices of some of rock's influential guitarists.
In subsequent generations, the idea of a guitar god has expanded to include musicians from different styles of playing, from punk to heavy metal. By the 1970s women were increasingly fronting bands, forming groups, and finding a platform for their own personas and masterful skills.
Early rock and roll was defined by musical characteristics such as the use of a harsh, clipped vocal style, simple repetitive chordal structures, and prominent electric guitars. Its key defining trait, though, was its powerful, straight-ahead rhythm with accented backbeats. While lead guitarists and lead singers usually drew the most attention and fame, members of the rhythm section—at its core, the drum set and the bass guitar—provided the intensity that drove rock music.
The introduction of the electric bass guitar, which replaced the acoustic double bass, and substantial drum sets that could be played with greater force allowed rock to become bigger and louder through the 1950s and '60s. Chordal instruments such as a second guitar or keyboard might be added to contribute to the rhythmic texture and outline the harmonic structure. Many of the great rhythm section musicians were not band members but musicians employed by recording studios to play on countless well-known songs, often with their contributions uncredited.
The diversity of sounds and subgenres in rock and roll has allowed its players greater freedom to choose instruments than in many other musical genres. As exemplified by the wall of bass guitars in this gallery, this has manifested in an enormous number of sizes, shapes, designs, and models.
The four-piece band—with two electric guitars, an electric bass, and a drum set—had become the archetypal configuration of the rock group by the early 1960s. It was a popular lineup and easy to use on the road for live performances. In the studio, however, rock musicians have always utilized a host of instruments.
The Beatles' Rubber Soul (1965), the Rolling Stones' Aftermath (1966), and The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966) introduced sounds drawn from across the musical spectrum, ranging from a classical orchestra to a dulcimer, experimental electric keyboards to non-Western instruments such as the sitar, marimba, and bongos. Many of the instruments show the influence of related genres. Harmonicas, electric organs, and horn sections, for example, emerged from blues, funk, and soul; acoustic guitars, mandolins, and dulcimers show the effect of country and folk music styles.
No matter the instrumentation, the same rule-breaking, anti-establishment attitude has served as a unifying force across generations and genres, from punk and heavy metal to hip-hop and grunge. This gallery includes examples of some of the varied instruments used in rock music, including the expanded instrumentation of the Roots, a hip-hop group that coalesces standard rock instrumentation with the use of a sousaphone, synthesizers, additional percussion, and occasionally a full horn section.
In the mid-1960s, electronic music pioneer Robert Moog created modular synthesizers using transistor technologies. His early synths featured modules that generate and modify the pitch, timbre, and volume of sounds when connected, or "patched," by cables. This allowed for unprecedented control of sonic parameters but made it difficult to replicate the same sound twice. Moog's inventions came to the attention of the rock world when they were demonstrated at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The following year, Wendy Carlos's album Switched-On Bach became the first chart-topping hit utilizing a Moog synthesizer. The instrument had its performance debut at a 1969 concert in the Sculpture Garden at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where Moog introduced a quartet of synthesizers built specifically for live events.
Rock and roll music's inextricable link to electricity and technology sets it apart from most art forms. Amplification and the numerous variables it offers would not be possible without electricity. Guitarists' central tools—the electric guitar, amplifier, and effects—provide limitless options for textures and melodies; experimenting with these tonal possibilities has become essential to rock and can make a musician instantly recognizable by an unmistakable signature sound.
In this gallery, the guitars, amplifiers, and effects of four distinctive guitarists—Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, and Tom Morello—are presented as they would be set up onstage or in the recording studio. Both visually impressive and sonically sophisticated, these equipment rigs show the complexity of the choices that generations of rock and roll musicians have made and how those choices affect their music.
Musicians have long used choreography, stage costumes, set pieces, and novelties to enrich live performances and assert their self-image. Some rock and roll musicians have radically embraced these visual tactics, especially since the advent of stadium concerts and televised spectacles.
The invention of the electric guitar offered early rock performers a new freedom of movement, bringing them out from behind microphones. Chuck Berry capitalized on this with his famed duck walk, setting a bar for subsequent artists.
Specially decorated or designed instruments often become hallmarks of style. Solid-body guitars and basses and electric keyboards can be custom built in nearly any conceivable shape, size, or color. Striking examples on view here include Rick Nielsen's five-neck instrument, Prince's "Love Symbol" guitar, and Lady Gaga's Artpop piano. Other musicians have become so closely identified with a specific instrument over time—be it highly adorned or notably plain—that it has become a symbol of their artistic identity.
Representing an array of styles, the selection of ultra-individualistic stage items and instruments in this gallery includes psychedelic and fantastically painted guitars, fabulous costumes, and even the remnants of smashed instruments.
Destruction of Instruments
The destruction of instruments and equipment has been a subversive aspect of some rock and rollers'; live acts for decades. Broken instruments and amplifiers created some of the distorted sounds that became fundamental to the genre. In 1951, guitarist Willie Kizart's amplifier fell out of his car on the way to record "Rocket 88," giving a fuzzy distortion to the bass line that many sought to imitate. Guitarist Link Wray later used an amplifier whose speaker he intentionally punctured to record "Rumble" (1958).
One of the earliest stories of rock lore tells of Jerry Lee Lewis setting his piano ablaze before launching into "Great Balls of Fire." In 1964, Pete Townshend accidentally cracked a guitar on the low ceiling of London's Railway Hotel before smashing it to disguise his mistake. Townshend's guitar smashing became a signature part of the Who's performances, along with bandmate Keith Moon detonating his drum sets. Jimi Hendrix ritualistically set his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and Keith Emerson regularly stabbed his Hammond organ with knives and pulled it to the floor on top of himself. In many ways, instrument destruction became the ultimate expression of rock and roll's anti-establishment attitude.
The Who became known for aggressive and violent stage shows that regularly involved members destroying their instruments, including Pete Townshend smashing guitars and Keith Moon blowing up his drum set with explosives. These acts were only one part of their performances, which incorporated choreography such as Townshend's famed "windmill" playing technique, stage costumes, and customized instruments. The Who also took rock and roll into ambitious narrative forms, producing the rock operas Tommy(1969) and Quadrophenia (1973).
The emergence of rock and roll in the mid-twentieth century coincided with the advent of mass media. Through radio, film, and television, music was broadcast to millions of people, available across divisions of race and class. Many of the most important shared cultural events of the twentieth century were rock performances, whether as part of televised variety shows, sporting events, or sprawling outdoor music festivals.
In these famed moments, many of which are captured in the video presentation nearby, musical instruments played an integral role through both their function and iconography. The Ludwig drum set used by Ringo Starr on The Ed Sullivan Show, the startling white guitar played by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and the sunburst Stratocaster Bob Dylan debuted at the Newport Folk Festival all left an indelible mark on popular culture as well as on the history of rock music.
This gallery features two instruments that were used at ground-breaking performances; they are surrounded by a selection of posters that recall legendary events and testify to printed ephemera's essential role in the visual history of rock and roll.
Collection of David Swartz unless otherwise indicated.
Posters promoting music events long predate rock and roll music. In the 1950s, they were produced primarily for commercial reasons, to announce the concert, ticket prices, venue, and date. A wide range of printing methods of varying quality were employed. By the mid-1960s, rock posters had gained their own identity, as artists and graphic designers began to create elaborate visuals that reflected the changing music and counterculture. The medium has continued to evolve over the decades since.
Many of the posters exhibited here are rare and represent iconic moments in rock music; a number of them feature performers and instruments seen throughout the exhibition.
Gibson Guitar Corp. (Kalamazoo, MI); painted by Keith Richards. Les Paul Custom electric guitar (serial no. 7 7277), 1957; painted 1968. Carved mahogany body and neck, ebony fingerboard, 24 3/4 in. scale; black finish with hand-painted design; three patent-applied-for (PAF) humbucking pickups, three-way selector switch, two volume and two tone controls. Collection of Keith Richards