Museum’s guitars featured on show

Museum's guitars featured on show
Imagine being "one of the best" of something. Wouldn't that be a magical experience?

Not for the instruments housed at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, when the only time they are played is for special occasions, such as being heard on live radio by millions of people.

The museum's guitar collection is so rare that guitarist Pat Donohue, whom Chet Atkins described as "one of the greatest finger pickers in the world today," spent hours in the museum trying the instruments out for Saturday's episode of A Prairie Home Companion, a national radio show hosted by Minnesota native Garrison Keillor.


Donohue, along with guest Tim Sparks, played about a dozen of the instruments on Thursday prior to the show in order to cull the number down to the few that they would eventually play on the live radio broadcast.

"I've played so long the past couple of days that my fingers are sore," Sparks said just before the show began.

The two guitarists selected a 1902 Orville Gibson model that was built before there was a Gibson Guitar Company, along with two D'Angelicos, two C.F. Martins and another Gibson.

"This was D'Angelico's first attempt at a cutaway," Donohue said when explaining the guitar to the Keillor's radio audience of 4.5 million listeners. "You can't see this on the radio, but he just cut out a chunk of it right here."

Donohue described this 1947 vintage arch-top New Yorker model as the "Chrysler Building of guitars," and its non-cutaway D'Angelico sibling as the "Empire State Building of guitars." Donohue and Sparks proceeded to play "Misty" on the guitars, producing a sweet melody infused with a jazzy edge.

After playing the '47 New Yorker, Donohue said that he might have to spend a couple hundred-thousand dollars and get one for himself.

The Martins belonged to Johnny Cash and Merle Travis, one of Donohue's favorite players. Both guitars are made of rosewood and spruce, woods that Donohue looks for in his own acoustic guitars.

Though Donohue admits to having only one Gibson, an electric, in his personal collection, he said that the '02 Orville Gibson was his favorite of the day.

When Sparks arrived on Thursday and picked up the heavy-looking, but surprisingly light, black beauty, Donohue warned him that the tuners were not of the modern style.

"You're going to really have to twist those things," Donohue joked, after breaking the G-string while initially tuning it. This led to a furious search for strings by the museum staff.

On Saturday, Donohue said the black Gibson, with its extensive mother-of-pearl inlays, looked like a beautiful piece of furniture, while Sparks found the 1944 Gibson Country Jumbo to his liking.

Each guitar was put through its paces Saturday by the two guitarists, playing everything from country swing to jazz.

Donohue said after the show that he and Sparks thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing instruments so rare, and that he would love to do it again. So, for the ageless wonders in the Lillibridge Guitar Gallery at the National Music Museum, maybe the wait to do what they do so well won't be so long the next time around.

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