In guitar circles, he is known for single-handedly changing the way we hear music. The rich, velvety, hornlike sounds plucked from his instrument, stunned audiences and led him to short-lived stardom. Charlie Christian is revered as one of the first guitar gods. Yet, many people don’t even know his name.
You can see and hear Christian’s instrument and more than 100 other priceless guitars at a new exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
“Guitars! Roundups to Rockers” explores the Western connections of these powerful instruments and artists who have provided the soundtrack for America.
Christian, who was raised in Oklahoma, started playing in 1937. When he played his amplified Gibson, he demonstrated that the guitar did not have to be relegated to the back of the band.
James Nottage, museum vice president and chief curatorial officer, says it is an honor to feature Christian’s instrument, because of the profound mark he made in the world of music.
“With his charismatic performance twang, Christian landed the guitar, front and center, as a lead jazz instrument for the first time in history,” Nottage said. “His is one of the most important guitars in our exhibition.”
Christian joined Benny Goodman’s band and became a key figure in the early development of bebop and cool jazz. Unfortunately, he would not live to see the fruits of his gift. At age 25, Christian died from complications related to tuberculosis.
However, his contribution to the music world lives on. Those inspired by his style include: Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Chuck Berry and Jerry Garcia.
Christian is not the only African-American guitarist featured in this one-of-a-kind show. Mounted inside a glass case are two instruments once played by Jimi Hendrix. Visitors will stand steps away from Hendrix’s Les Paul custom guitar and the remains of his Sunburst Fender Stratocaster.
Hendrix, who is arguably one of the most influential rock guitarists in the world, did not start that way. Before he rose to greatness, he was asked by some Seattle band-leaders to leave the stage. Many audiences were turned off by his playing style. Despite early setbacks, he persevered to become a legendary guitarist, singer and songwriter. He died in 1970, from an accidental drug overdose, at the age of 27.
“Guitars! Roundups to Rockers” allows you to see these artists, learn their stories and hear their gifts.
Other guitar and music legends included in the Eiteljorg exhibit, include Roy Rogers, Kurt Cobain, Woody Guthrie, George Harrison, Buddy Holly, Les Paul and many more. “Guitars!” presented by Eli Lilly & Co., will also include interactive content, guitar-playing lessons and performances by local and national recording artists. The exhibit runs through Aug. 4.
For more information, call (317) 636-9378 or visit Eiteljorg.org.