Striking the Right Chord
By Tom Adkinson | Photography courtesy of Songbirds Guitar Museum and Tom Adkinson
Songbirds Guitar Museum is guitar heaven in Chattanooga with hundreds of classic guitars on display, plus opportunities to play one or two.
Try to imagine B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, or Chet Atkins without a guitar in hand. You can’t.
Your mind goes to King in a blues club holding Lucille, his name for his Gibson ES-345s and ES-355s. You see Hendrix at Woodstock ripping out “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a Fender Stratocaster with an Olympic White color scheme. And it’s likely your image of Atkins is in a Nashville recording studio making magic on a Gretsch Country Gentleman.
King, Hendrix, and Atkins were three world-famous entertainers from different musical worlds, but with a common bond — notable and memorable guitars.
As famous as they were – and as famous as thousands of other guitarists are — you’d never have heard of them if they hadn’t coaxed music from the works of art that hung from their necks or rested across their laps.
That’s the point of Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., where guitars are in the spotlight instead of musicians. Entertainers sometimes help tell a story or offer some historical context, but make no mistake, guitars are what’s important here.
“You won’t hear us brag about a player or someone who owned an instrument. We want the guitar to be the show,” says General Manager Damien Rogers.
Located on the campus of the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo on Station Street, the museum opened in 2017 to showcase the collection of a private individual who stays out of the spotlight himself (or herself, perhaps). The collection contains approximately 1,400 instruments, and between 500 and 600 are on display at any one time.
Your first glimpse can be overwhelming, especially if you’re not a guitar player yourself. Walking into Songbirds is akin to entering a connoisseur’s vast wine cellar or a sports car collector’s display building. You know what’s there is valuable and important, even if you don’t know exactly why.
Rogers and his staff make the museum understandable and illuminating, whether you are a non-player, a recreational picker, someone who has been in a band, or a true professional. Visitors in all those categories come to Songbirds.
A general admission ticket includes a guide’s assistance in the first display area before you are turned loose among the numerous cases. Guides remain available for questions. However, special ticketing provides you access to the Green Room, where temporary displays are housed, and to the sanctum sanctorum called the Vault, where approximately 60 fretted treasures are stored.
Songbirds focuses on solid body electric guitars, along with some acoustic guitars, banjos, and amplifiers. A guide might mention the existence of a 3,300-year-old stone carving of an unnamed Hittite bard playing an ancient guitar precursor, but the story here launches in the 1950s with well-known names such as Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, and Rickenbacker.
The very first display contains a Fender Esquire and a Fender Broadcaster from 1950, a Fender No-Caster and a Fender Telecaster from 1951, and a Gibson Les Paul prototype from 1952. These are guitars that changed American music.
Evidence of that change is in the far corner of the case — a photo of Buddy Holly and a Fender Stratocaster, along with a replica poster advertising Holly’s last show, the Feb. 2, 1959, Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake, Iowa. It’s easy to think that we wouldn’t have “Peggy Sue” or “That’ll Be the Day” without Fender Stratocasters.
Wandering through the museum’s main space reveals the gradual evolution of electric guitars in shape, decoration, construction, and especially color. Rogers points to a Gibson Les Paul with a sunburst finish, that finish made only from 1958-1960.
“That design didn’t sell all that well, so it’s rare by definition,” Rogers explains, noting that Songbirds has more than 30 of them. “It has become one of the most desired electric guitars in the world.”
If you have an “I’d feel as if I’d died and gone to heaven if I could play one of these instruments” sensation, you don’t have to die. The museum makes it possible with “player experiences” called the Jam Session, the Rockstar Session, and the VIP Studio Session.
They are progressively more expensive, but not unreasonable, opportunities to play selected instruments from the Songbirds inventory. The VIP Studio Session even includes professional photography and videography, recording time, and accompaniment from a professional guitarist if desired.
“These experiences are for guitar fanatics who might have thought they’d never even see a particular rare instrument, much less play one,” Rogers says.
Performances also are a part of museum operation. Sometimes, display cases are eased aside to create a performance space for about 200 listeners. Artists such as surf music pioneer Dick Dale and acoustic guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel have played there.
One level below the museum is a larger venue that can accommodate up to 500. Acts such as the Bacon Brothers, Lizzo, and Ana Popovic have packed that space — all basking in the aura of the Songbirds Guitars Museum’s collection.