Plugged In, and Playing With Power

Its silhouette has become an icon of popular culture; its larger-than-life sound transformed modern music. Once shunned as a novelty and feared as subversive, the electric guitar is now equally at home in classrooms and concert halls, conservatories and garages. Its success sprung from the dynamic interplay of a medley of inventors, engineers, musicians, manufacturers, listeners and enthusiasts driven by the quest for a fuller, louder sound. From the Rickenbacker Frying Pan, the first commercially viable electric, to Prince's 1989 custom Yellow Cloud, the story of the electric guitar is a saga of American ingenuity and innovation.

The National Museum of American History traces this saga in a new exhibition — "From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric Guitar" — sponsored by NMAH's Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, and the Chinery Collection. On view through September 30, the show illustrates how innovators combined the guitar with a pickup and an amplifier to create a new instrument that, according to NMAH curator Charlie McGovern, "shaped the sound and direction of modern musical style, especially blues, rock and roll, country, and rhythm and blues."

From the Beatles to the Smashing Pumpkins, from Buddy Holly to Bonnie Raitt, from Charlie Christian to Eric Clapton, the electric guitar has sired a sound heard round the world.

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