String Theory –

The VMFA’s stepped strings give the guitar its lead.

Leo Mazow says the first thing people want to know about Storied Strings, the guitar-centric exhibit he put together at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), is what kind of famous shredders will be on display.

“Although we have some of the earliest surviving American guitars in the show, and a few played by famous musicians,” says Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art at VMFA, “these guitars are exactly what has inspired American artists, from the 19th century to the present day.

Supported by a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Storied Strings, which opens October 8 at VMFA, will be the first major exhibition to study the guitar in American art. In more than 125 carefully selected pieces, it explores the instrument’s ubiquity in American life, beginning with its days as a 19th-century ladies’ parlor instrument to its modern transformation into a protest tool of Woody Guthrie, bearing the message: “This machine kills fascists. and the rock ‘n’ roll axes wielded by Led Zeppelin’s Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.

“The guitar has long enabled artists to tell stories that are either underappreciated or not at all,” says Mazow, who once curated a similar banjo exhibit at Penn State University’s Palmer Museum of Art. From Thomas Cantwell Healy’s 1853 portrait of Charlotte Davis Wylie playing frets to Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photograph of a Mexican laborer strumming, the images offer a window into the soul of the nation.

stepped strings will also house a glass-enclosed music studio where, once a week for the duration of the show, a series of notable guitarists will host live recording sessions while visitors watch and listen. Players will include popular Australian virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel, avant-folk artist Yasmin Williams and Nels Cline, famed lead guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco.

The goal, he says, is to “unpack the storytelling potential of the guitar”. The recordings will be filmed, mixed and uploaded to the VMFA website and YouTube as “The Richmond Sessions”, in homage to the 1927 Bristol Sessions, known as the Big Bang of commercial country music.

“The themes explored in Bristol ranged from courtship and Christianity to trains and transport, mortality and beyond,” says Mazow. “As with those 1927 sessions, I hope these recordings will engage the guitar in a thoughtful exploration of personal relationships, national identity, popular religion and sense of belonging.”

What guitarists choose to record is up to them. “It will definitely be a first,” says MacArthur Prize winner Corey Harris, who admits he’s thrilled at the prospect of appearing in a museum exhibit. “But I guess growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone.” The Charlottesville-based blues and reggae musician says his contribution will “focus on Virginia blues – John Jackson, John Cephas. It’s important to highlight the blues of Piedmont in there.

Mazow, who also plays guitar, is a big fan of Wilco and the Jayhawks, whose touring lead guitarist Stephen McCarthy advised him on the project. But he insists he hasn’t played favorites with the show’s lineup.

“I think it’s a pretty daunting task to put together an exhibit on the guitar because of all the different genres and time periods – we’re really talking about centuries,” McCarthy says. “But Leo is a smart, motivated guy and, yes, he’s ambitious because that’s what he does.” Richmond-based McCarthy wrote an original song specifically for stepped strings and will record with multi-instrumentalist Charles Arthur.

“The guitar has made a strong appearance in American life and it hasn’t gone away,” says composer Joel Harrison, author of Guitar Talk: Conversations with visionary players. “You can play both simple and complex music on the guitar. It is the only instrument, apart from the accordion, both harmonic and portable, where one can accompany oneself and sing. You can’t drag a piano around with you.

Brooklyn-based Harrison said his Richmond session with fellow guitarist Anthony Pirog would display the instrument’s range. “It’s amazing what people have been able to get out of the same 12 notes.”

“All of these people are great guitarists,” Mazow says of the musicians he’s assembled. “But they are also storytellers. They use guitars to bring up topics that might not be appropriate out of the blue in conversation.

While the performances showcase the guitar as a storyteller, the visual art illustrates how it influenced American art. “Guitars are recurring props in portraits,” says Mazow. “People feel comfortable holding the guitar; it could cover their body, it could fit on their knees. There’s also this trope of people holding guitars like a child, like Madonna and the Child.

During its five-month run, stepped strings will also include a film series, talks, a cigar box build event for kids, and finally, over 30 rare and unique guitars, including the first-ever custom-painted Fender Stratocaster. and magnificent specimens gnawed by Eric Clapton, Freddie King, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and John Lee Hooker. “So, yes,” Mazow said, “there will be guitars.”

Storied Strings runs from October 8, 2022 through March 19, 2023 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 publish.

Sharon D. Cole