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.
The Rhythm Section
The key trait of rock & roll is its powerful, straight-ahead rhythm with accented backbeats. While lead guitarists and singers often draw the most attention, members of the rhythm section – drums, bass, rhythm guitar and keyboard – provide the underlying intensity driving the music. Many of the greatest musicians of early rock & roll were not band members at all, but musicians employed by recording studios to play on what became hit songs, often with their contributions uncredited.
Oral History with Carol Kaye of the Wrecking Crew (May 2005) by Rock & Roll Hall of FameRock & Roll Hall of Fame
Oral History with Carol Kaye of the Wrecking Crew, May 2005
Carol Kaye, bass player for the Wrecking Crew, on being one of very few women session players in the 1960s.
Ray Manzarek of the Doors Electric Organ, Vox ContinentalRock & Roll Hall of Fame
Ray Manzarek of the Doors Electric Organ, Vox Continental
Rock bands adopted so-called combo organs like the Vox Continental for their thin, bright and punchy sounds. Having transistor-based circuits, they required fewer mechanical parts than large, heavy tonewheel-based Hammond organs.
Manzarek was one of the first rock musicians to use a multi-keyboard setup, playing chords and melody on an organ like this and bass parts on a Fender Rhodes bass keyboard stacked on top of it. The combo’s distinctive tone became a signature sound of the Doors.
The Doors and Eddie Vedder Peform "Light My Fire" (January 12, 1993) by Rock & Roll Hall of FameRock & Roll Hall of Fame
The Doors and Eddie Vedder Peform "Light My Fire," 1993
The Doors and Eddie Vedder perform "Light My Fire" at the 1993 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth Bass Guitar, Ovation Magnum IRock & Roll Hall of Fame
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth Bass Guitar, Ovation Magnum I
Bassist, guitarist and vocalist Kim Gordon is a founding member of the New York-based experimental rock band Sonic Youth. This Ovation Magnum I was her main bass from 1983 to 1987, used on Sonic Youth's first three albums, Confusion Is Sex (1983), Bad Moon Rising (1985) and EVOL (1986).
Gordon stripped down the bass's complicated electronics, removing the original pickups and stereo circuitry and replacing them with just the essentials needed for her sound.
Jerry Lee Lewis Petite Grand Piano, George Steck and Co. Petite GrandRock & Roll Hall of Fame
Jerry Lee Lewis George Steck & Co. Petite Grand Piano
Jerry Lee Lewis was a superstar of rockabilly, an early style of rock & roll combining elements of country music with R&B influences. Lewis, along with Fats Domino and Little Richard, was part of a generation of pianists who dominated rock & roll with high-energy performances.
According to rock lore, Lewis once set a piano ablaze with lighter fluid before performing "Great Balls of Fire." This instrument was Lewis's home piano 1957-2017.
Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band perform “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” at the Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (September 2, 1995)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Jerry Lee Lewis Performs “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”
Jerry Lee Lewis performs "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 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.
Use the Instrument Inventor Writing Prompt to ask students to describe a new musical instrument that they have created.
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.
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.