Musical instruments are as visual as they are sonic -- from the freedom of movement afforded by electric guitars and the attention-grabbing quality of decorated or iconic instruments to the set-design framework provided by large drum kits and keyboard rigs. Instruments are often a musician's most personal and beloved items, providing the means to express their art and serving as an extension of their identity.
Rebellious and unpredictable, rock & roll has inspired generations of music lovers to pick up their own instruments and contribute to rock's continuous momentum. The instruments and artists here are a small sample of those featured in the 2019 joint exhibit by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which explored the deep connections between rock instruments, musicians and their audiences.
Setting the Stage
Rock & roll was born in the American South, where it was primarily played by African American ensembles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The music and instrumentation reflect the influence of earlier genres: rock & roll’s piano and saxophone came from R&B, and rockabilly’s acoustic guitars from country and western. Electric guitarists were inspired by other styles, including the energetic gospel stylings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the virtuosic jazz and pop of Les Paul and the blues of Muddy Waters.
Chuck Berry Performs "You Can't Catch Me" (1956) by Vanguard ProductionsRock & Roll Hall of Fame
Chuck Berry performs "You Can't Catch Me," 1956
Chuck Berry Performs "You Can't Catch Me" in Rock, Rock, Rock!, a 1956 black-and-white film starring Cleveland disc jockey and "the King of Rock 'n' Roll" Alan Freed as himself.
Chuck Berry Electric Guitar, 1959 Gibson ES-250-TRock & Roll Hall of Fame
Chuck Berry Electric Guitar, 1959 Gibson ES-250-T
Chuck Berry established the electric guitar as the primary instrument of rock & roll. He used this guitar for recordings and performances in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1957, Gibson introduced Seth Lover's patent-applied-for (PAF) humbucking pickups.
The humbucker-equipped, semi-hollow-bodied Gibsons Berry favored, combined with high-powered Fender amps, produced his iconic big, bold tone. Berry's expressive guitar solos and signature double-note runs led the way for generations of rock guitarists.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Chuck Berry revolutionized rock & roll with his guitar solos, making the electric guitar the primary voice and visual icon of the music.
Manufacturers responded with new instruments and equipment, producing many of the classic guitar models that would define the look and sound of rock music for generations.
Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band perform "Johnny B. Goode" at the Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (September 2, 1995)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Chuck Berry Performs "Johnny B. Goode"
Chuck Berry performs "Johnny B. Goode" with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1995.
One of the most important artistic movements in modern times, rock & roll was and continues to be a seismic influence, reverberating across culture and society and affecting fashion, visual arts, racial and sexual politics and free speech. Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll celebrated the iconic musical instruments that gave rock & roll its signature sound, and many artists an extension of their identities. Co-organized with The Met, the exhibit offered a rare, in-depth look at the artists and instruments that made possible many of the songs we know and love.
ROCK HALL EDU The essay "Roll Over, Beethoven: Chuck Berry's Significance in Rock 'n Roll" describes the critical role Berry played in developing the sound and image of rock & roll. In contrast to other musicians of his time, Berry's performances centered around his playing electric guitar (as opposed to piano) and his energetic stage presence, two facets of this "new style" that soon took the popular music world by storm. For his innovations, Berry is often referred to, among other honorifics, as the "Father of Rock & Roll."
SPOTIFY PLAYLIST What's an artist without an instrument? To make the music we know and love, these artists played their chosen tools passionately, brilliantly -- and more importantly -- played them loud. Hear the signature sounds of rock & roll trailblazers in this playlist created for Play It Loud.
ROCK HALL SHOP Check out Play It Loud gear available in the Rock Hall Shop!
Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, presented by Pepsi.
Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll was onsite at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame from November 11, 2019 to January 3, 2021.