candid of Jimmy Page playing the electric guitar at The Met

Grandlife guide

Playing It Loud At The Met

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Rock and roll’s most iconic instruments go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“This is something that I would never have dreamed of in my life,” said Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page on the opening day of Play It Loud, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcasing some of the most iconic instruments in the history of rock and roll. Page was clearly moved by the experience of seeing the guitars he and so many of his peers used to create the soundtrack of the past 60-plus years. “You’re talking about somebody who got the guitar when he was about 11 or 12 years old. I’d take my guitar to school, have it confiscated and given back at the end of the day,” he recalled. “It changed my life. It was all due to the phenomenon of the electric guitar—these six strings that are amplified.”

Over 100 instruments, including guitars, drum kits, keys and horns, played by the likes of Bob Dylan, Kim Gordon, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Elvis Presley, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, St. Vincent, and many others, are the featured attraction at the exhibition, which runs through October 1. Co-organized with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it features many of rock’s most celebrated and recognized instruments, representing artists across generations and genres, and is the first time a major museum exhibition has examined the instruments of rock and roll.

In addition to institutional and private collectors, some of the biggest names in rock have lent their performance and recording instruments. Among them, guitarist Steve Miller who has long been involved with the Met’s musical instrument department and is one of the creative minds behind the exhibition. “I agreed to loan some instruments to an exhibition nine years ago, and then again a few years ago when they did an exhibition of Martin guitars,” he recalled. “That was really successful, and so we decided to get louder—and so, this is called Play It Loud, and features mostly electric instruments,” Miller explained. “When I walked in, I was stunned by the power and the elegance and the intelligence of this assembled collection. It’s really why I love the Metropolitan Museum so much. They’re the best. This is an exhibit that only the Met could bring together.”

Fans have long been fascinated with the instruments played by their heroes, leading many to seek out and acquire the exact models used by their idols, not to mention more than a few hours wielding tennis rackets in front of mirrors, trying to emulate their favorite rock star, so there’s no doubt that the instruments used in rock and roll had a profound impact on the explosion of the art form.

“I did not dream that my old bass would one day be displayed not far from weapons of the Middle Ages and the sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt,” Talking Heads’s Tina Weymouth said. “I kid you not. This turnaround is very surprising to me. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has invited us to celebrate more than 80 years of rock instruments….In good hands, these instruments are capable of giving voice to feelings and ideas that words simply cannot.”

Alongside complete setups used by bands like the Beatles, Van Halen, Metallica, The Who, and The Roots, Page’s Led Zeppelin guitars are featured prominently, as are instantly recognizable instruments once played by early rock and roll icons like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Jerry Lee Lewis; 60s legends like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards; and a laundry list of artists who came in their wake, including everyone from Prince and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to Joan Jett, Tom Morello, and even Lady Gaga. The highlights are aplenty.

Jayson Dobney, the Met’s curator of musical instruments, said that he was out to create an exhibit featuring the most recognizable instruments in rock and roll that would, in turn, illustrate the genre’s development. “The instrument, the artist, the audience—that’s what it’s about….We really wanted to tackle the subject of musical instruments and the different ways that rock and roll musicians use them. The muse for the creation of the music, the tools for the performing of music, and, of course, as an art museum, it was really important that we represented the visual, so you’ll see many decorated pieces as well as iconic images, up close in a way that you’ve never been able to before.”

Rock and roll was and still is defined by a boundless creative spirit and rebelliousness that, more than 60 years later, still attracts countless fans, young and old. Play It Loud elevates the genre as a legitimate artistic movement of the late-20th century, and beyond.

WORDS Jeff Slate

IMAGE Jimmy Page, 1976

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