Let the guitar rock your world at Berkshire Museum

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PITTSFIELD — The guitar may well be the best-known, most familiar instrument in the world. Now, a new exhibit opening Friday at the Berkshire Museum, goes behind the sounds and shapes that have bound the guitar and all its forms — historic and contemporary — together for centuries.

Displaying 80 select specimens of the instrument, "Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World," a touring show from the National Guitar Museum in Connecticut, looks at the science, history and cultural impact of the instrument.

The science component offers interactive elements that show how guitars work, how they generate sound, how an electric guitar uses magnets to produce sound through an amplifier, how strings vibrate and push sound in the air using the instrument's soundboard and other technical details.

In examining the history, the exhibit traces why each guitar in the exhibit is relevant from an historical perspective, why the instrument grew in physical size and why the electric guitar was invented.

The cultural section offers visitors a chance to examine certain significant instruments in rock-and-roll history, such as one of B.B. King's Lucilles and one of Tony Iommi's SGs from Black Sabbath, as well as the first six-string guitars made in 1806.

"The very first electric guitar, which was made to play Hawaiian music in the 1930s," said the National Guitar Museum's founding executive director, H.P. Newquist, who conceived and curated this show. "It's made of metal, it's shaped like a frying pan; it's called a frying pan. And it's nothing like anybody would imagine the first electric guitar would look like."

Based in Fairfield, Conn., the museum spreads its collection among two traveling shows and one storage facility.

"We use that storage for not only holding those guitars that aren't on the road but also those that we don't think should be on the road or those that we need to swap out with other pieces, depending on the local markets," Newquist said. "At any time, about half of the guitars, maybe two-thirds, are in museums while about a third are in storage."

The collection was gathered from a list of 300 guitars that the museum's advisers marked as providing a perfect representation depicting the history of the guitar. They are found in a number of sources, some from the private collections of museum board members, some from online garage sales and auctions. The museum scours Craig's List, which is how they found one of their guitars in Alaska and another in Ukraine.

Newquist estimates the collection is about 60 guitars short of where he wants it to be.

"When we started we wanted to make sure it was about guitars and not about guitarists," he said. "What we really thought to do from the outset was show why the guitar was important to all of these different people."




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