For music fans who’ve spent their lives examining the liner notes of their favorite albums, they’ve already gone beneath the surface of the songs, seeking to unpack the individual layers of what they’re hearing on record.
These expeditions can extend into conversations — and often debates — about who played what and who was responsible for those elements and riffs that have become as classic as the overall landscape of the songs they occupy. Concerts — and later music videos — gave fans a chance to get visual confirmation on exactly how artists achieved that particular sound or nailed that one solo. It’s an opportunity to inspect the tools of the trade employed in the studio.
Those details make Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock & Roll, which recently opened at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, a special experience. The exhibit made its debut earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and featured a collection that presents a cross-section of rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s one of the first opportunities fans have had to see so many classic instruments — including drums, keyboards and lots and lots of guitars — in one location.
Former Eagles guitarist Don Felder was on hand at the Met in April to help kick things off, playing the classic “Hotel California” in front of an invited audience that included Jimmy Page. Understandably, he was a bit nervous. “I’ve played in front of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said at that time.“I’ve never been as nervous as I am to play this guitar in front of Jimmy Page.”
He’s referring to a white Gibson double-neck guitar, which he used during the tour in support of Eagles’ hit 1976 album Hotel California to reproduce what he accomplished in the studio on the title track. Fans can get a look at the instrument up close, thanks to its inclusion in the Play It Loud exhibit, which will remain at the Rock Hall through September 2020.
Watch Don Felder Perform ‘Hotel California’
Felder delivered an encore performance of “Hotel California” last month in front of a packed house at the Rock Hall for Play It Loud‘s introduction. In a backstage interview before he played, Felder, who has a collection of more than 300 guitars, shared some of his favorite pieces in the exhibit.
“I think the one that really hit me the hardest was Jimi Hendrix’s white Stratocaster,” he tells UCR. “I was at Woodstock. I saw Jimi Hendrix play that guitar. When I saw it, it was like, ‘Wow. Okay, this is the real stuff.’ [Eric Clapton’s] Blackie was another fun guitar I loved to see. Jimmy Page’s red double-neck for [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was great to see. The Everly Brothers’ acoustic guitars that are on display here, I have one of those Everly Brothers guitars exactly like that with the pick guards on the body and the stars on the neck, issued about the same time that those were made. So there were certain things there that I really enjoyed seeing that really struck home to me that I related to a great deal.”
Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo have their own memories attached to the instruments on display. Trujillo started playing Tobias bass guitars early in his career, borrowing money from his Suicidal Tendencies bandmate and former schoolmate Rocky George to help pay for his first custom instrument from the company. Tobias’ basses, including the Aztec De La Chloe, which Trujillo first used on Metallica’s 2008 tour came to hold special significance as the years stacked up.
“I had several basses before I started touring, and that particular instrument was my first official touring bass,” he recalls. The Aztec De La Chloe “was the first instrument that my wife [Chloe] had actually done her wood-burning artwork on. It’s got the Aztec theme, so it’s very special. I haven’t seen that bass in years. It’s so special and meaningful to me, because her creativity and my first impression of being on the road and that particular model and brand and the artwork and the unification of all of that brings back great memories.”
Hammett’s KH-3 Custom Eclipse ‘Spider 13’ was one he received not long after he started endorsing ESP Guitars. As he remembers, it was a thrilling experience after years scraping to make ends meet.
“Back then, getting a guitar from anyone was just a major thing for me,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, someone gave me a guitar, it’s so cool!’ I remember anticipating the arrival of this guitar, and we were in the studio recording ‘So What.’ The guitar arrived that day. I opened up the case and saw it and was like, ‘Oh my God, it looks incredible!’”
He quickly plugged it in and noticed it sounded so great that he wanted to commemorate the moment by putting it on tape. He used the guitar that same day to play the solo on “So What.”
He also wanted to take the instrument on tour, but had some trepidation as he started looking at the routing and where the band was headed. “I’ve got to bring it on tour!” he says. “But then the next thought was, ‘We’re going to Russia.’ We’d never been to Russia before, and the Berlin Wall had just come down about a month previous and the U.S.S.R. had ceased to exist. I was remembering that I was very nervous about bringing it to Russia because of all of the old past Cold War stuff and thinking, ‘Oh, it will be okay! It’s all different now!’ I brought it to Russia and subsequently on that entire tour for the Black Album and the Load and Reload tours as well.”
Watch Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo Perform at ‘Play It Loud’ Exhibit
Each Play It Loud instrument has a story to tell. As fans go through the exhibit, they’ll unlock these tales. “They [all] have music attached to it, so when you see them, you kind of hear that,” Rock Hall president and CEO Greg Harris explains. “When you hear that, you remember the people that you listened to it with. You remember the greatest road trip of your life, you remember what was being played in the dorm room your freshman year. All of those things. It connects all of us. This exhibit is about getting these things that were the tools and the iconic pieces that made these songs that then connected all of us.”
The exhibit was developed in collaboration with the Met and came together over five years. The collection has been tweaked and expanded for its Rock Hall appearance. Harris credits the curators, who did an “amazing job” pulling things together from the initial wish list of items they hoped to acquire. Whether it was the guitar Chuck Berry used to record “Johnny B. Goode” or Clapton’s signature “Blackie” Fender Stratocaster, there were instruments curators knew had to be part of the experience.
“You make those lists, and then every one is sort of a different approach and a different move,” Harris noted. “But I will say that with a combination of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once approached, the artists were enthusiastic. They look at it and to some of them, it was like, ‘Rock ‘n’ roll has come of age. We’re going to be in the Met?’ Which is really cool.”
You can see a selection of the instruments on display below.