‘Acoustic America’ Exhibition Celebrates the Instruments and Players that Have Shaped Acoustic Music

The exhibition represents a good balance of musical instrument types and makers, time periods, and styles, grouped thematically and by era.
Acoustic America exhibit entrance at the Musical Instrument Museum
Courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum

Vintage instruments from pioneering companies like Martin and Gibson can be collectible and valued for their beauty, artisanship, or rarity. But they are also musical tools that, in the hands of great players, have helped define the sound of modern music—contributing to the development of folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other quintessentially American idioms.

A new exhibit at the Musical Instrument Museum, in Phoenix, Arizona, celebrates this connection between historic instruments and the musicians who cherished and played them. Acoustic America: Iconic Guitars, Mandolins, and Banjos, open now and running through September 15 of this year, is a collection of 90 fretted instruments, many of them heard and seen by a vast audience of music enthusiasts at key moments in cultural and recording history. There’s the custom 12-fret dreadnought, still with a set list taped on its upper bass bout, that Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary played when he sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder at a celebration designating Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday in 1986. There’s the 1929 Dobro 125 that LeRoy (Mack) McNees picked with the Kentucky Colonels when the seminal bluegrass group appeared as the Country Boys on The Andy Griffith Show in 1961 and for decades thereafter. 

The idea for the exhibition came about when its curators connected with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman, who ultimately loaned 30 pieces from his personal collection, most notably including the 1925 Gibson F-5 “Fern” mandolin that was his primary instrument for decades. Rich Walter, MIM’s senior curator, says, “We reached out to David and got some initial ideas going, then started reaching out to a whole range of potential contributors, friends, collectors, and performing artists. The theme just kind of kept on defining itself as people were able to agree and confirm availability of some of their own historic instruments. Those included John Oates, who has the Mississippi John Hurt guitar from the Newport Folk Festival, and artists like Alison Brown and Jerry Douglas from the bluegrass world and Jake Shimabukuro from the ukulele world.”


The exhibition represents a good balance of musical instrument types and makers, time periods, and styles, grouped thematically and by era. To display the instruments, rather than enclose them all behind uniform glass cases, MIM commissioned custom mounts that hold each out in the open in a specific position, whether upright or angled as in playing, so that museumgoers can see the instruments up close and in their best light. At the same time, the instruments are presented just as they have been received, without being specially cleaned up for presentation.

“You see fingerprints and scratches and true unique identity on them all,” Walter says. “And I think it really emphasizes the idea that things can be related and yet be individual and distinct. That’s just a great metaphor for how we can explore the world. You can get a portrait of American music in all of its diversity, but it really applies to human beings around the world.”

Collected here are some of the highlights from Acoustic America.

1852 Ashborn Style 6

Though the surname Ashborn is not nearly as well known in the guitar world as Martin, the English-born luthier James Ashborn did much to contribute to the development of the acoustic guitar in the United States. As the first mass producer of guitars in the country, Ashborn operated a factory powered by water-driven machinery along the Naugatuck River in Connecticut. He built around 12,000 guitars from 1842 to 1864, utilizing interchangeable parts instead of crafting individual components for each instrument. This ornate parlor is one of only six known Style 6 Ashborns in existence.

Ashborn Style 6 Guitar
Ashborn Style 6 Guitar. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum

1912 Dyer Style 8 Harp Guitar

Some of the most innovative early fretted instruments in the United States came from Swedish brothers Carl and August Larson, who established their Chicago workshop in 1900. The Larson Brothers sold under names like Stahl, Maurer, and Dyer. One of their more curious instruments was the harp guitar, with its regular six-string neck flanked by an arm of sub-bass strings. This Dyer Style 8 harp guitar is one of only 15 known examples. It sports the opulently detailed sort of ornamentation that the makers reserved for only their finest instruments. 

Dyer Style 8 Harp Guitar
Dyer Style 8 Harp Guitar. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum


1935 Martin D-28

The prewar Martin D-28 is considered by many to be the quintessential flatpicking guitar. What makes this herringbone-trimmed example special is not just that it comes from the most desirable period for vintage Martins, but that it was played—fingerstyle—by folk and blues singer/guitarist Elizabeth Cotten, who used it on her signature song, “Freight Train,” and other tunes she recorded in 1957 for the Smithsonian Folkways label. At the time, the guitar was owned by Mike Seeger, whose musical family discovered Cotten after a chance encounter in a department store and subsequently hiring her as a housekeeper. 

Martin D-28 played by Elizabeth Cotten
Martin D-28 played by Elizabeth Cotten. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum

1964 Guild F-30

While it may be the most modest guitar featured here, this Guild F-30 boasts an impressive pedigree. The instrument was once played by bluesman Mississippi John Hurt at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, shortly after his rediscovery. In the early 1970s, singer-songwriter John Oates borrowed the F-30 from his guitar teacher, who had received the instrument after Hurt’s passing in 1966. Oates used it to record the first two albums with Hall & Oates. Today, he owns the guitar and played it on his most recent album, Arkansas, which pays homage to Hurt.

Guild F-30 played by Mississippi John Hurt and John Oates
Guild F-30 played by Mississippi John Hurt and John Oates. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum


1933 Martin D-18

The dreadnought might seem like a rather ordinary body size these days. But when it was introduced in 1916, it was a large and revolutionary style that offered the sort of impressive projection and powerful bass response not previously available in an acoustic guitar. This remarkable early example, which left the factory in 1933, is the eighth D-18 that C.F. Martin & Company built. Compared to the 14-fret design that debuted the following year, note the slotted headstock, 12th-fret neck junction, and extended body length of this spruce and mahogany cannon. 

1933 Martin D-18
1933 Martin D-18. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum

Gibson Lloyd Loar Quartet

The oldest examples of the L-5 archtop and F-5 mandolin—those signed by Gibson engineer Lloyd Loar in the early 1920s—are considered the holy grail of their instrument types by musicians and collectors alike. The L-5 is the prototypical archtop; famous early adopters include Maybelle Carter and Eddie Lang. In this special quartet, an F-5 and L-5, both made in 1924, are joined by their less common cousins—a 1923 H-5 mandola and a 1924 K-5 mandocello. Those two instruments are exceedingly rare; there are only 25 known H-5s and eight K-5s known to have been signed by Loar.     

Lloyd Loar Quartet: L-5 archtop guitar, F-5 mandolin, H-5 mandola, and K-5 mandocello
Lloyd Loar quartet: Lloyd Loar Quartet: L-5 archtop guitar, F-5 mandolin, H-5 mandola, and K-5 mandocello. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.


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  1. Truly a great exhibit—and the museum has hosted one concert with Mike Marshall and Katerina Lichtenberg, Mike playing Lloyd Loar’s personal F5. Look for future similar events in the future.

    The Museum gift shop sells a nice book with photos of each of the exhibit instruments in the show.

    The museum’s broader collection of permanent exhibits are equally worth seeing but plan for a whole day or two to see it all.

  2. If you are an acoustic lover, this is must see exhibit! Allow yourself an hour or two if you ONLY visit the “Acoustic America Exhibition”. This will allow you to read and listen to the audio for each item and area of the display. Legendary instruments with a little associated story as well as the musicians.
    The museum itself is VERY interesting and well worth a visit. You will need to allow a full day or split into two visits to absorb all the museum has to offer.