By Richard Bienstock
“I’ve always said that this is the one place where you can tell your kids you’re taking them to a museum and they won’t hate you for it,” Joel Peresman says with a laugh. Peresman is speaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, which he oversees in his role as CEO of the Hall of Fame Foundation.
Situated on the shores of Lake Erie in a dramatic 150,000-square-foot structure designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, the museum opened to the public in 1995. In the years since then, it has played host to some eight million people from around the world, offering a dizzying array of visual and audio materials, artifacts, and exhibits that celebrate rock and roll’s legacy as well as its musical antecedents and offshoots.
And while that means visitors have the opportunity to glimpse such eye candy as, say, Jim Morrison’s Cub Scouts uniform or Keith Moon’s school report card, there is also plenty in the way of indispensible and iconic tools of the trade. This is particularly true of the hundreds of guitars scattered throughout the museum, which include such impressive specimens as one of Jimi Hendrix’s Gibson Flying Vs, a Fender Esquire played by Jeff Beck during his tenure in the Yardbirds, and one of Les Paul’s Clunker guitars. According to James Henke, the Hall of Fame’s vice president of Exhibitions and Curatorial Affairs, it is the historical significance of these and other guitars in the museum that makes the collection so unique.
“When we first started gathering instruments, the only frame of reference for most of the artists we talked to was the Hard Rock Café,” Henke explains. “So they’d say, ‘Well, I’ll autograph a new guitar for you.’ And I’d tell them, ‘No, we don’t want that. We want a guitar that you played on an important record or at an important show or that is connected to an important moment—something that means something to you and the fans.’ ”
As a result, the Hall of Fame—situated in Cleveland partly due to the city’s significance as the place where local deejay Alan Freed popularized the term rock and roll in the Fifties—functions as a celebration of the music and an educational tool. “You can get into an argument about whether or not it’s too ‘straight’ to have this art form on display in a museum,” Peresman says. “But I don’t think so. As cliché as it sounds, rock and roll truly is the soundtrack of generations. And to have a place where you can go and experience it, learn more about it, or even just relieve a memory, is really special and important.”
And so while Peresman says that most people associate the Hall of Fame primarily with the annual induction ceremonies that serve to honor artists and industry figures (this year’s induction class included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses, and the Faces, among others), he stresses that something special awaits those who choose to make the pilgrimage to Cleveland. “People come to the museum and our collection blows their minds,” he says. “They figure they’ll stop in and zip through in a hour or two, but they end up staying all day, spending the night in the city, and coming back the next day. There’s just so much to see.”
For those who have yet to see it firsthand, Guitar Aficionado presents in the following pages a specially curated selection of some of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s finest six-string offerings.
Pete Townshend’s 1968 Gibson J-200 (above)
Employed by Townshend during the writing and recording of Tommy, among other Who albums, this J-200 holds pride of place as the first guitar to become part of the Hall of Fame’s permanent display. Townshend donated the instrument upon attending the 1993 groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum in Cleveland. The guitar sports a sunburst top, a black pickguard with engraved floral pattern, and a rosewood “mustache” bridge. As would be expected of any guitar repeatedly subjected to the highly percussive strumming at the heart of songs like “Pinball Wizard,” the J-200 shows obvious signs of wear, particularly near the bottom of the soundhole, a susceptible point of impact with Townshend’s pick.
Muddy Waters’ 1958 Fender Telecaster (above)
It’s fitting that this guitar is one of the first seen by visitors upon entering the Hall of Fame, as Waters, widely considered to be the father of electric blues, played a vital role in rock’s beginnings. He was associated with the Les Paul for his earliest electric recordings for Chess Records, but Waters soon began playing Telecasters as well. The 1958 model shown here, which Waters nicknamed Hoss, was one of his primary recording and performing guitars for much of his career. Reportedly, it began life with a blond finish and maple neck and subsequently was painted red and refitted with a wider neck with a rosewood fingerboard. The Hall of Fame received the guitar courtesy of Waters’ estate.
Carl Perkins’ 1956 Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster (above)
Introduced in 1949, the ES-5 was the first ES Series instrument to sport a three-pickup configuration with four control knobs—one for each pickup, and a master tone—but no selector switch. In the mid Fifties, the guitar was reimagined as the ES-5 Switchmaster, with a four-way toggle switch and individual volume and tone controls for each pickup. Perkins’ Switchmaster was a relatively early model, purchased in 1956 following the massive success of “Blue Suede Shoes.” It was reportedly his primary instrument for his subsequent recording sessions at Sun Records in Memphis until he left the label, in 1958, and can be heard on tracks that include his classic “Matchbox.”
Johnny Thunders’ 1960 Gibson Les Paul TV (above)
In his earliest days with the New York Dolls, Thunders played a two-pickup, single-cutaway Les Paul Special, but around the time of the band’s sophomore effort, 1974’s Too Much Too Soon, he began to favor this guitar (even though the album’s cover features a photo of him wielding the Special). The double-cutaway instrument has a mahogany slab body, a rosewood fingerboard, and a single P-90 with one volume and tone control—“stripped down,” in the words of Dolls co-guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, “like our songs.” Thunders also added his own touches, including a sticker of the Virgin Mary on the pickguard and an ample amount of bangs and bruises on the guitar’s body.
Duane Allman’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul (above)
If the sunburst 1959 Les Paul is among the most coveted of electric guitars, then this instrument, previously owned by Duane Allman, is a particularly iconic example. Though Duane’s 1957 Goldtop was his main workhorse for much of his time with the Allman Brothers Band, he traded that guitar at a gig in Florida in 1970 for the Burst shown here, keeping the Goldtop’s pickups for his new acquisition. Allman used the 1959 Burst for subsequent live work, and the guitar is believed to have made an appearance at final sessions for Derek and the Dominos’ 1970 opus, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. HIs first name is inscribed in capital letters, with fretwire, on the guitar���s back.
Johnny Cash’s 1943 Martin D-28 (above)
This guitar, used by Cash during recording sessions at Sun Studios between 1955 and 1958, was donated by the artist himself prior to the Museum’s opening in 1995. It features Brazilian rosewood back and sides, a slotted headstock, and ornate inlays along the fingerboard, on the headstock, and around the soundhole. Herringbone purfling rings the spruce top. Henke says the guitar was a fortuitous find. “There’s one section in the Museum where we examine the music associated with various cities,” he explains. “We were working to put together an exhibit on Memphis, and so this guitar, which Johnny played at Sun, fit in perfectly.”
Bo Diddley’s Square Guitar (above)
If Bo Diddley’s finest sonic contribution to rock and roll was the “Bo Diddley beat,” his most lasting visual impact on the genre was his famous square guitar. Diddley constructed his first square guitar around 1958. He took his cue from a tradition, one that stretches back to the mid 19th century, of building homemade stringed instruments using cigar boxes for bodies. He used various iterations of the instrument throughout his career, and Gretsch at one point produced the square-shaped G5810 Bo Diddley signature model. The example shown here is one of Diddley’s handmade guitars and was purchased by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at auction in 2006.
Mick Jones’ Les Paul Junior (above)
The Clash guitarist’s love for this particular Gibson model can be traced to his childhood. The first guitar he ever purchased was a Junior similar to the one played by his idol, Johnny Thunders. Jones would go on to change the face of punk and rock and roll with the Clash, utilizing a variety of Gibsons along the way. This double-cutaway Junior, with a cherry-red finish and tortoiseshell pickguard, sports a bit of homespun modification: his name is carved into the body below the bridge and opposite the single volume and tone knobs. Jones donated the guitar to the Hall of Fame. Says Henke, “Mick has been very generous to the museum over the years.”
Photos courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum