Classic Axes Meet the Big Apple

Historic guitars come together at the NYC Met’s landmark exhibition.
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Don Felder’s “Hotel California” Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck is one of the many legendary rock guitars on display at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s part of an exhibition called Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock and Roll, a collaboration between the Met and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The show opened at the Met on April 8 and runs until October. From there it goes on to a six-month stint at the Rock Hall.

Felder was also in attendance at the star-studded opening party for the exhibit on April 1 at the Met. His double-neck guitar had previously been on loan to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “They called me about six months ago and asked me it if would be okay if they included that guitar in this exhibit at the Met,” Felder recounts. “I was absolutely flattered by the request, to the point that I couldn’t believe it was happening in that way. It was quite an honor for me.”

For Met curator of musical instruments, Jayson Dobney, the Felder guitar illustrates one of the exhibition’s key points. “When Don Felder walks onstage with that guitar, the crowd goes absolutely bonkers,” Dobney says, “because they know that means that ‘Hotel California’ is coming. That’s such a rare thing — that the audience knows so much about an instrument that just the mere sight of it provokes a response.”

Dobney collaborated on the exhibition with the Rock Hall’s curator and director of acquisition, Craig Inciardi. The two men had previously worked together on the Met’s 2014 exhibition, American Guitars: The Instruments of C.F. Martin. And while Play It Loud isn’t exclusively a guitar show — there’s also a plethora of historic drum kits, keyboards and more arcane rock instruments — it is heavy on iconic axes. The instruments’ names are almost as legendary as those of their rock star owners: Blackie, Frankenstein, the Red Special, Pearly Gates, Rocky.... Encompassing the full range of rock history, the show includes significant guitars owned and played by artists that include Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, John Lennon, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller, Wanda Jackson, Prince and many others.

The exhibition was inspired in part by the 2016 book by veteran music journalists Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna, Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound, Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar. Di Perna was also drafted to write the lead essay for the exhibition catalog.

“The book was an inspiration not only in terms of the show’s title but also with respect to some of the conceptual ideas the Met ended up adopting,” Dobney says. “For instance, the authors explain how rock and roll musicians innovate in terms of timbre in ways that are unusual compared to other genres. Some of the book’s historical, cultural and social perspectives on the electric guitar’s development were influential as well.”

Dobney adds that this is the first Met exhibit that addresses the instruments themselves — the source of the music that changed the world. 

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