Editor's note: This article was changed on April 12 to correct the spelling of sanxian and the transition in the museum's offerings.
At the guitar exhibit in the Bridgeport Discovery Museum and Planetarium, kids go gaga over the world’s largest playable guitar, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. Requiring two people to play each note, weighing more than a ton and stretching over 43 feet long, it resembles a parade float.
The National Guitar Museum, founded by Fairfield resident HP Newquist, has taken over the 4450 Park Ave. museum's ground floor to showcase its collection. The exhibit will be moving to Orlando in June, and, after a few months there, it will tour the country for five years before Newquist settles on a permanent home.
An enthusiast, musician and former editor of guitar magazines, Newquist had a decent-sized collection of instruments when one day, a friend of his was checking out some of the older ones and said that his holdings were “like a museum.”
His interest piqued, Newquist then went onto Google. “Outside of a few manufacturers and galleries, I realized that no one was telling the whole story,” he said. “How can the world’s most popular instrument not have a museum?”
So he found backers and partnered with manufacturers, some of which loaned him significant items. Now fully budgeted, he’s ready to embark on the next phase.
To put the guitar into perspective, the exhibit celebrates the history of string instruments. Instruments from around the world, including a Chinese sanxian, a Greek tambour and a Mexican quinto, hang on a column in the building’s entrance hall.
One theme is interactivity, so Newquist has installed several touchscreen displays, one of which plays back the sounds of several guitars and other stringed instruments, another that illustrates the guitar’s decibel levels, and one that highlights the parts of an electric guitar and lets users create a custom axe.
Related programs include live guitar performances. And, a guitar builder, who has constructed a half-dozen instruments since the show opened in February, shows off his skills. One clever display shows the difference in tone between valued wood like Rosewood and Mahogany. Slats of the various wood types are laid out in a marimba, which is struck with a mallet. Kids can’t help but play them, yet they rarely notice that the plywood plank makes a thud rather than a musical tone.
Heavy on the history of guitars and their predecessors, the displays include replicas of instruments that date from ancient times to the last 100 years, most of which are rounded because their earliest incarnations were made out of gourds.
Several legends surround the baroque guitar from Spain, the first guitar-like instrument with an hourglass shape. Its creators may have purposely refused to use the oud shape because it reminded them of their Moorish conquerors. Another theory holds that it was easier to hold this type of guitar and play it on one’s knee.
Nostalgia for the heyday of the real guitar heroes fuels Newquist's quest. “Kids growing up today will never get to see Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page or some of the great guitar icons in their glory,” he said. “I want to relate interesting things about the guitar before the music comes out.”
The oldest artifact held by the museum is a large, circa 1910’s harp guitar, which features two different sets of strings, essentially creating two instruments in one. One of the newest is a reflective steel resonator guitar, also known as a dobro.
“I thought it was important to [exhibit] a bright, shiny and new version without rust,” he said.
Other subtle touches include the use of road cases used by professional bands to lug their gear, made by Calzone Cases of Bridgeport, which serve as platforms for several displays and evoke a rock-star vibe.
Oddities include a Silvertone guitar, the kind sold by Sears from the 1930s to the 1970s, which sits in a case that includes a built-in amplifier for extra convenience. Guitars made from Plexiglas and aluminum are also featured. Several renowned performers have donated guitars to the museum, including Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa and Johnny Winter, who lives in nearby Easton.
The Brigeport museum itself is undergoing a transition, said Newquist. It's always been a hands-on kids' museum and now they're expanding it to be science, technology, and the arts.
The exhibit conveys plenty of information about the physics behind guitar mechanics and sounds. Blowups of old advertisements and technical drawings dot the rooms and amplifiers on display have had their wooden casing replaced by Plexiglas so visitors can see inside. Even though some amps can “rip the paint off the walls at high volume,” as Newquist put it, they consist mostly of an empty cabinet with speakers powered by an amplifier head filled with tubes and wires.
The museum also has a scientific advisor, Dr. Mark Lewney, who holds a Ph. D. in guitar acoustics and regularly performs lecture-demonstrations in Britain while reeling off lightning quick riffs on an electric guitar.
Lewney’s three-minute video, “The Physics of Rock Guitar,” illustrates several basic principles of sound as he uses a medieval castle for a backdrop. There’s even a bass player joke.
So far, the exhibit has drawn crowds. On a recent weekend day, around two dozen people filled the halls and several kids lingered wide-eyed at the displays.
“Some people come in here who have never been in before and others haven’t been in since they were kids or their kids were young,” said Newquist. “And they all come to see the guitars. I can’t believe that someone didn’t do this already.”