Rock ‘n’ roll is one of America’s most beloved cultural institutions. For decades, many have immersed themselves in both the sights and sounds associated with this genre. Beginning Sept. 24, The Gulf Coast Exploreum & Science Center will establish the Azalea City as the rock ‘n’ roll capital of Alabama, as the local epicenter of interactive learning hosts two rocking exhibitions.
The National Guitar Museum is bringing “Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World” to Mobile. This exhibition will provide visitors with a fun and educational look into an instrument that is synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll.
Originally on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, “It’s Always Rock & Roll” will fill the Exploreum with a prolific collection of photographs giving viewers a look into rock’s legacy. Both of these interactive multimedia exhibitions are sure to excite and inform fans of all ages.
When he first heard Led Zeppelin’s classic “Immigrant Song,” the National Guitar Museum’s chief curator, H.P. Newquist, established a fascination with the guitar. The driving rhythm of Jimmy Page’s trademark Gibson Les Paul captured Newquist’s teenage mind and soul. To this day, Newquist admits “Immigrant Song” is the ringtone on his phone.
“I guess that I was probably 15 when I bought my first electric guitar,” Newquist said. “Ever since, I’ve been playing almost every day, and that’s more decades than I want to count.”
In the following years, Newquist kindled his love affair with the guitar. The ‘90s provided him with an editor-in-chief position at Guitar magazine. He also penned several guitar-centric books such as the “The Way They Played” series (with Rich Maloof), “Legends of Rock Guitar” (with Pete Brown) and “Music & Technology.”
Naturally Newquist (along with his wife) also spent a great deal of time collecting what he considers “unusual” guitars, displaying them on the walls of his house like artwork. One day, a fellow parent came to pick up his daughter after enjoying a play date with Newquist’s daughter. When this man saw the guitar collection, he noted it was essentially a “guitar museum.”
While Newquist initially found the exclamation humorous, the words haunted him. He had never heard of an established guitar museum. Newquist began calling his various contacts in the music industry to see if there was a comprehensive guitar museum in existence.
“They [industry connections] said, ‘There must be one. There’s gotta be one somewhere,’” Newquist said. “There wasn’t one. Fender had a museum of its own stuff. The Martin Company has its own museum. Nobody had created a museum dedicated to the legacy of all guitars, especially beginning a thousand years ago with the instrument that preceded the guitar.”
As Newquist and his industry acquaintances pondered the idea, they realized no entity was preserving the guitar’s legacy. Together, the group decided they would establish a museum dedicated to the “world’s most popular instrument.”
The collaborators did not want the collection to be a random mix of guitars in general. Instead, the collection had to be what Newquist describes as “emblematic” of the instrument’s evolution beginning with its predecessor, the lute.
Newquist and his partners scoured private collections, auctions and the “deepest, darkest recesses of eBay” for potential additions to the collection. Guitar maestros/board members Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa and Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) also contributed instruments to the museum. So far, the National Guitar Museum boasts 240 of these emblematic guitars with 190 ready to display. The museum’s exhibition at the Exploreum will feature 70 guitars from the collection.
“We wanted to have those instruments represent in a way that people could see why the guitar looked the way it did, why certain people played the guitars that they did play and how they differed from each other over the course of the last several centuries,” Newquist explained.
One aspect of the exhibition is the guitar as an American icon. Long before Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston established rock ‘n’ roll with “Rocket 88,” America was a land in love with the guitar. Newquist notes that guitars were as common as farm implements and firearms as some of the first items brought to the New World by the Spanish and English. He found records of guitars in America dating back to the St. Augustine settlement in the 1500s. He has also found evidence of guitars being strummed at Plymouth Plantation in the 1600s.
“For 500 years, the guitar [has] been a constant in American society and American culture, and it’s only gotten more popular with time,” Newquist said.
Patrons will also have the chance to view rare, historical guitars. The oldest guitar on display will be a “Fabricatore” from 1806, one of only 17 in the world. Named after the Fabricatore luthier family, this guitar represents what is considered the first six-string guitar.
According to Newquist, guitars before the Fabricatore featured eight to 16 strings. The Fabricatore catered to the period’s guitarists, who chose to tune only six pegs. The exhibition also features a first-year production 1934 Rickenbacker “Frying Pan,” which is considered the first production electric guitar.
Even though the collection boasts many historic and unusual guitars, Newquist has a hard time identifying a favorite. “If the building was on fire and I had to choose one guitar to run out with, I would just stay in the fire,” he said.
The collection itself is not the only great thing about “Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World.” The traveling exhibit features the science behind the guitar as a means for patrons to go backstage with the instrument.
The National Guitar Museum amplifies the exhibit with touchscreens, interactive videos and hands-on features Newquist says “people from age 5 to age 95 can bang on, play with, learn from and enjoy.” One display educates attendees on how electromagnetism is used to produce sound. Another explains the concept of a decibel and the guitar’s decibel limitations.
The “world’s largest guitar” is a 43-foot instrument detailing the construction and structure of a guitar. Patrons can walk on it and even try to strum it. A gear table shows how tuning pegs work. A “strobe guitar” explains how strings vibrate.
“We have something that people can amuse themselves with for hours at a time, regardless of their age,” Newquist said.
Newquist hopes visitors will leave having learned at least one new aspect of the guitar. From what a luthier does to the fact that Leo Fender never learned to play the guitar, “Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World” has plenty of knowledge to impart. As far as the future of the National Guitar Museum, Newquist says it will remain a traveling exhibit for at least two more years. However, he does admit the final goal is to establish a permanent location.
“Ultimately, we’d like to see every single one of these guitars in a permanent home, so people can some visit and learn everything that they’ve wanted to know about guitars and guitar players and the music made with guitars,” Newquist said.
The rock experience captured
After touring the National Guitar Museum’s collection, Exploreum patrons will have a chance to experience the rock world through the lens of photojournalist Janet Macoska. “It’s Always Rock and Roll” is an extensive and diverse collection of photographs from one of rock’s most prolific photographers.
Macoska’s decades of experience have allowed her to capture dramatic moments with hundreds of rock icons, such as Paul McCartney, David Bowie, The Ramones, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen and many more. Macoska describes it as “the visuals to the soundtrack of your life.”
Before becoming a traveling exhibition, “It’s Always Rock and Roll” was on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. In 2004, Macoska and the curators at the museum collaborated on the compilation of stills from the previous 30 years of her career. Macoska said the exhibition allowed her to analyze the power of her art.
Until the collection’s run at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Macoska had only seen her work displayed in print publications, which gave her very little insight as to her photographs’ impact on viewers. She says that seeing the museum’s traveling exhibition of her work both humbled and “floored” her.
“It really is interesting to go to another city and stand and talk to the people who are looking at the exhibit,” Macoska explained. “There’s a commonality. We’re all rock ‘n’ roll fans. We all love the music and the artists. That’s where I come from as a photographer, and the people who come to the exhibition are no different from me.”
“It’s Always Rock and Roll” is the artistic culmination of a career combining fate and being in the right place at the time. Macoska’s love affair with rock ‘n’ roll began with the British Invasion. At that time, she was a 10-year-old in Cleveland, Ohio, taken not only with The Beatles’ music, but also enthralled by their fresh personalities and charisma.
“Even though I had been aware of music before that, I think my world totally changed, as did everybody else’s,” Macoska said. “I knew that I had to do something or become something to get close to the music that I loved, as well as explore what it is that creates entities like John, Paul, George and Ringo.”
After finding her parents’ camera in a closet, she began snapping shots of neighborhood kids and pets. Eventually she decided to focus on her passion for music, which evolved into a career. Macoska wanted to capture vibrant yet candid images of rock’s greatest performers and accent these photos with behind-the-scene stories. The young photojournalist drew inspiration through her mother’s subscription to Life Magazine.
“It was a photography magazine, but it told stories,” Macoska said. “Their photographers got a license to hang out with James Dean and go to his hometown and find out who that person was behind that famous persona. I was already set up by publications like Life. I wanted to tell those stories.”
Macoska was 12 when she got her first peek into the world hidden behind the rock stage’s curtain. The would-be photojournalist began working at a local radio station, where she became the head of the fan club for the station’s disc jockeys. She spent much of her time answering fan mail sent by club members. All the while, she kept her camera close.
A station visit from Sonny & Cher provided Macoska with the opportunity to transform from an amateur to a professional. During the visit, she was able to snap a candid shot of the married duo. With the radio station’s surroundings accenting the time period, Cher rests her head on a thick black phone receiver as her husband is caught in deep conversation. Macoska sold the photo to a teen magazine for “two bucks.”
After graduating high school, Macoska’s college newspaper allowed her to hone her skills in both photography and journalism. When her fellow reporters were unable to complete assignments, the staff sponsor allowed her to submit music stories. The relatively lax attitude toward journalists and photographers during the ‘70s allowed Macoska to flourish. In fact, she refers to the ‘70s as “the golden age for the rock and roll photographer,” when Macoska says it took very little effort to obtain credentials to concerts.
“People actually opened doors and let me cover things, because I wasn’t a threat,” Macoska said. “I was a college kid and writing for a college newspaper. I guess they thought that I could only do good for them by putting these stories in front of kids who actually bought records and concert tickets.”
Macoska sought to capture magical, spontaneous moments during concerts, split-seconds of emotional experiences for both the crowd and the artist. Macoska captured glorifying images of Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Faces, The Clash and The Ramones as she submitted photos to magazines such as Creem, Circus, Teen Beat and Tiger Beat. One publication paid her to “hang” with The Runaways at Dairy Queen and document their visit through an interview accompanied by photos of the event. She captured the experience of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein promoting the latest Blondie album.
According to Macoska, her subjects were always welcoming. They knew the publicity she was providing was valuable.
On Oct. 5, Macoska will be at the Exploreum in person to discuss “It’s Always Rock and Roll,” an appearance that will also include a meet and greet. Both exhibitions will remain until Jan. 1, 2017.