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Sometimes, people don’t even know what tremendous things they have right in their own backyard. For instance, my wife grew up in Arizona, but never saw the Grand Canyon ’till she was 30. One of the famous seven natural wonders of the world, right in her own backyard! Well, the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix is arguably the eighth wonder of the world — a true gem, a cultural oasis, worthy of the most emphatic bragging. The MIM is home to an impressive display of global history, geography, arts and culture; a true delight for musicians and music lovers. And even though the MIM opened 2 years ago in my own backyard, I just recently paid admission and took a tour.

First, let me say that the MIM is the largest museum of its kind in the world, inspired by a once royal museum in Brussels. The musical instrument collection is housed in a very large — very expensive — modern building designed and built expressly for the museum. In addition to the displays, there is a 300-seat concert hall, conservation lab, cafe and of course, gift shop.

World's Oldest Guitar

A Portuguese Guitar from around 1590, with 5 pairs of strings. Considered the oldest full-sized guitar in existence.

Each thoughtful display is extremely accessible.  Honestly, you can almost touch the instruments! Each exhibit is augmented with HD video of performances — often of the actual instruments on exhibit. Wireless headphones activate automatically when visitors approach the exhibits.

rickenbacher 'Vibrola'

Bakelight and metal Rickenbacher

The extensive collection includes everything from the world’s oldest guitar, to a Rickenbacher vibrola, to a walking stick made into a fiddle. Of course, I’m partial to the guitars, but there were wind, percussion and keyboard instruments too. Even an air guitar. Seriously, an air guitar.

walkingstick fiddle

walking stick fiddle (the musician was always ready to fiddle around!)

Since the MIM opened, I’ve seen announcements about celebrity visits, like Donovan, or the press release about the Elvis estate bringing the King’s Martin D 28 to the MIM for restoration (the Elvis estate was so impressed by the facility that they “donated” the guitar to the collection after it was restored). I saw that guitar and many others as we spent 5 absorbing hours strolling through he exhibits.

Roy Orbison

Here’s a simple video —  Two Minutes in the MIM  — to share just a taste from my visit.

Link to MIM video

Martin Guitars are well represented at the MIM

Martin 2-34 style Guitar

A very rare Martin parlor made with Brazilian rosewood, ebony, an ivory pyramid style bridge, “rope” design top inlay and ivory binding around the body and fretboard.   Very cool to see a Martin with Abalone rosette and the original “coffin” case. For more information about this late 19th century 2-34 model checkout vintagemartin.com

Most every country in the world is represented. One instrument seemed more interesting than the next … a National Map, George Benson’s Breezin’ Gibson, a plethora of plucked lutes from around the world.


family of Mexican Guitars

Fascinating fretted instruments from around the world, both contemporary and vintage:

5 string plucked lute

A 5-string Mariachi band guitar from 2012

Russian 7 string

A Russian 7 string , the preferred configuration for professionals in Russia until the 1960s, according to the plaque

Russian 7 string Rosette

The beautiful snowflake rosette from this vintage 1900’s 7 string.

Harp Lute

Fishing string, animal hide and gourd harp-lute from West Africa.

One very simple exhibit was especially poignant. It really surprised me: John Lennon’s Imagine piano. This upright Steinway stands as silent as Lennon’s breath. The accompanying video reruns a day he sat playing and singing the song with Yoko at his side, listening with satisfied dignity.

I think the MIM is the kind of place where something new could be discovered with each return visit. So I think I’ll go again. After all, it’s  in my own backyard.

Until then, I think I’ll go practice with my guitar.