For the first time, pop music takes the main stage at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by the Museum’s Department of Musical Instruments together with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll presents some 130 guitars, basses, drum sets, and other instruments that helped craft the soundtrack to contemporary life.
The exhibition opens with two instruments that deserve the overused word “iconic”: Chuck Berry’s Gibson ES-350T electric guitar, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s gold-painted baby-grand piano. Berry took the possibilities of the electric guitar to new heights in his compositions and performances: The wail this instrument produced, as well as the intriguing distortions electric amplifiers could produce, proved foundational in the development of the rock sound. Concurrently, the captivating antics of Lewis, a consummate showman who was known to leap atop his piano and play the keys with his feet, set an influential model of rock musician as flamboyant virtuoso.
Details of craftsmanship help bring the development of rock to life. (A carefully curated soundtrack in the galleries provides crucial context as well.) As musicians took followed in the footsteps of Berry, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and other pioneers, the shape of the classical guitar took ever more outrageous forms. Exhibition attendees can look up close at the strings, frets, bridges, and other details that have shaped the sound of rock and roll, and consider the wear and tear music legends inflicted on these beautifully made instruments as they created music that’s now ubiquitous around the world. Visitors have to look carefully around the galleries or risk missing instruments strummed by some of the biggest names in the business, including Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney, and other legends. (It’s fairly hard to miss, however, the one-of-a-kind creations played by Prince and Lady Gaga.)
The exhibition considers pianos; amplifiers and other sound equipment; wind instruments; and even a sitar in its scholarly yet accessible examination of this popular art form. Digital content featuring Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, Tom Morello and other legends provides yet more context for how rockers have used the full potential of their instruments to innovate—and delight.
Anyone who wants to remember this landmark exhibition will savor the catalogue, by The Met’s Jayson Kerr Dobney and Craig J. Inciardi. And the exhibition shop, exuberantly accented by vintage vinyl records courtesy of Eat Records, features a wide selection of rock-themes apparel, accessories, and fun gifts perfect for any rock fan.