CEDAR RAPIDS — From the ancient oud to modern day electric axes, humans have been playing some variation of the guitar for thousands of years.
That history, and the many forms the guitar has taken, are on display now through Jan. 26 at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. “Medieval to Metal: The Art & Evolution of the Guitar” is a traveling exhibit on loan from the National Guitar Museum.
“The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. Every year in America, there are 3 million new guitars sold — more than every other instrument sold combined,” said HP Newquist, executive director of the National Guitar Museum. “That’s pretty much true worldwide. The guitar is obviously a cultural icon.”
The ancient instruments in the exhibit are replicas, but they illustrate the forms early forebears of modern guitars took. The oud, which still is played today in the Middle East and Mediterranean, is found in references going back to 3,000 B.C.
It was probably invented in the region that is now Iraq and was widely played in Northern Africa. According to the exhibit, it is believed Moors brought the oud with them to Europe when they invaded what is now Spain and Portugal in 711 A.D.
From there, a variation developed that became known as the lute, which spread across Europe. Those eventually evolved into what we know as modern guitars. That evolution is traced in the exhibit.
Guitars are an international instrument, with influences from cultures and innovators around the world, including a key invention by the Slovak-American Dopyera brothers. Born in what is now Slovakia, they immigrated to the United States and created the National Dobro Company. Dobro is play on words — both a contraction of Dopyera Brothers and the word “good” in the Slovak language. In 1928, John Dopyera and George Beauchamp created a metal resonator guitar, and John Dopyera later joined his four brothers to start their own company. They placed the resonator into a traditional wooden guitar body, which become known simply as a Dobro.
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“I hope that people realize that the guitar is not just a prop or something they see in the hands of an artist. It’s something that has a long history. It’s had many, many thousands of people involved in its design and its evolution,” Newquist said.
After the section on history, the exhibit transitions into modern guitars — and most notably, electric guitars. Display cases show off electric guitars as art objects, with a wide range of colors and shapes.
“I hope people appreciate the beauty and variety of the guitars,” National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library curator Stefanie Kohn said. “It just makes you look at them in a different way.”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, as “car culture” became part of America’s cultural conversation, guitar manufacturers got in on the pop culture zenith, Kohn said. The first Fender Telecaster was sold in 1950, and was available in the same shades as popular cars of the day, colors like Fiesta Red, Surf Green and Lake Placid Blue.
“Post World War II, you have cool guitars, cool colors, cool cars. It all reflects the story of cool,” Kohn said.
The exhibit also includes moments of humor, like an empty case displaying an “air guitar.” Even when they’re absent, guitars are embedded in our consciousness.
“You have multiple generations of people who’ve experienced guitars in their favorite form of music, blues, jazz, rock, country,” Newquist said. “Guitars are the fixture of all of them.”
Traveling exhibits like this one are the only way to view items from the National Guitar Museum’s collect. The organization was formed in 2009, but Newquist said with the economic recession happening at the time, it didn’t make sense to immediately build a brick and mortar museum. Instead, they created traveling exhibits, and they’ve been booked out two to three years in advance ever since. Someday, there may be a physical National Guitar Museum, but Newquist said they’ll keep their shows on the road as long as they can.
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People don’t have to restrict themselves to just looking at guitars — they can play them, too. Three guitars, on loan from West Music, are in the hall outside the gallery, and visitors are welcome to pick them up and strum a few notes.
“We thought it was really important to have guitars for people to play,” Kohn said. “You can’t touch the ones in the exhibit, but it’s so tempting. This satisfies that.”
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If you go
• What: Medieval to Metal: The Art & Evolution of the Guitar
• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
• When: Through Jan. 26
• Admission: Free to $10
• Details: ncsml.org
• What: Music at the Museum: FunkDaddies
• When: 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 19
• Cost: Free
• What: Lukas Sommer Concert
• When: 7 p.m. Nov. 13
• Cost: $8 to $12