The first electric guitar played in public. The first Hawaiian-made ukulele. Eric Clapton’s 1956 Fender Stratocaster, “Brownie”, which helped create his signature sound on classic songs like “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues”.
All these elements and more than twenty new rare and precious objects will be exhibited from Friday November 11 in the special exhibition of the Museum of Musical Instruments, Rediscover treasures: legendary musical instruments. Twenty of the original 80 items from the previous iteration that ended in October, titled Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments, were removed to make room for these 28 pieces.
The objects span time, geography and cultures, and are the “best of the best,” says MIM curator Rich Walter. They are instruments that are “most artfully created, [have] been in the hands of the most important people and used in the most important contexts. He adds: “It’s the objects that really stop us in our tracks when we see them.”
While MIM’s regular collection is impressive, everything about this exhibit is “superlative,” says Walter. “We asked people, ‘What does it mean to be a treasure?’ This sample of responses is interesting… Whimsical and decorative things, things that belonged to chefs and rock stars, things that were hard to find. There are examples of all of this throughout the gallery.
He adds: “Each of them has real energy and gravity around them.”
Some instruments were created thousands of years ago, while others are contemporary, and all reveal exquisite craftsmanship. One of the objects that excites Walter is a Chinese bronze bell that is around 2,500 years old. These objects “help us understand musical traditions around the world, but they are works of art,” he says.
Other objects include one of four surviving examples of an ancient pedal harp, a carved figurative drum from Gabon on the west coast of central Africa, and a 14th-century Japanese emperor’s hitoyogiri flute. Walter says all the instruments are “incredibly well preserved, so you not only get a sense of the history, but the artistic ability, the tastes, the aesthetics, of cultures from around the world.”
Of course, he understands that many people will be excited about the newer pieces, including Clapton’s guitar and items that once belonged to Prince on loan from his home and studio, Paisley Park. The musician’s purple “Beautiful” Yamaha grand piano that he danced to on his 1997-98 Jam of the Year tour and a bright green stage outfit worn on the 1997 tour will be there, along with his electric bass “Black Power”. These items will remain on loan once the exhibition closes in fall 2023.
“They were very generous in loaning three pieces that would represent his career at an interesting time,” says Walter. “A lot of these items don’t travel far from Paisley Park, so having them here in Phoenix is cool for Prince fans.”
Other celebrity instruments added to this exhibit include Dizzy Gillespie’s gold-plated Martin Committee trumpet with its distinctive angled bell and Lionel Hampton’s bespoke Deagan vibraphone.
Some items are firsts, such as the first electric guitar played in public on Halloween weekend, 1932, by bandleader Gage Brewer of Wichita, Kansas, and the first Hawaii-made ukulele, believed to have been made by Portuguese immigrant Jose do Espirito Santo.
How do they know these items have the pedigree they claim to have? Loans like these come from collections of peers who have done their own research or from private collections where people “have devoted their lives to passionate study,” Walter notes.
The notoriety of other instruments has been well documented historically. For example, the 1889 Erard grand piano from the original exhibition – which ran from November 2021 to October 2022 – is one of the most lavish ever built. It was a centerpiece originally shown at the Paris World’s Fair “where the Eiffel Tower was this brand new incredible landmark,” says Walter.
As in the rest of the museum, the instruments of Rediscovered treasures are not static objects sitting on a shelf. Audio and visual context is provided so visitors can actually hear and often see them play.
“You can see on the screens people playing with these rare and historic items and explaining why they are so important or explaining why they have been so carefully preserved over time,” says Walter. “It’s so important to see how the instruments are played and to hear what they sound like.”
He says it’s vital for the museum to be an immersive experience for visitors, adding: ‘We actually hope that by the time they walk through the whole gallery they will have an expanded sense that it’s all extraordinarily special and that they represent the best of their kind for display.
During the opening weekend of November 12-13, MIM will be scheduling talks and demonstrations highlighting the exhibit, so check the schedule at mim.org for a schedule. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; adult admission is $10 for the special exhibit or $27 to enter both the exhibit and the full collection.
Rediscover treasures: legendary musical instruments. Opens Friday, November 11 and runs through Fall 2023. Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The cost is $10 for the exhibit or $27 for the museum and exhibit. Call 480-478-6000 or visit the Musical Instrument Museum website for tickets, information, and a schedule of exhibit opening weekend programming.