Musician Chris Grova demos a rare 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst.(Photo: Damien Rogers)
As a self-proclaimed “guitar nerd,” country music icon and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Vince Gill owns a serious collection of stringed instruments himself. So it’s no surprise that he was named as ambassador of the brand-new Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Gill enthusiastically embraces the role and ties it to his own career. “These things make a beautiful sound and they are inspiring to play and hear and hold. There is really something about the kinship of an instrument in someone’s hands who is trying to be creative. Without the guitar, I would not have written all these songs, I wouldn’t have played all these shows and I wouldn’t have done all the things that I’ve been able to do.”
The Songbirds museum is the new home to what is considered by aficionados as the premier private collection of rare guitars in the world. The collection features approximately 1,700 significant guitars from the early 20th century to the 1970s. At 7,500 square feet, Songbirds will be interactive, displaying approximately 500 of the instruments in permanent and rotating exhibits, grouped by manufacturer, theme and era, with a selection of vintage acoustic, electric, jazz, bass, mandolin, banjos as well as memorabilia.
With a grand opening set for March 10 (and a soft launch just underway), the museum organizers expect it to be a significant boost to Chattanooga tourism, attracting more than 100,000 visitors annually. It is located in a space intertwined with city’s history: the legendary Chattanooga Choo-Choo terminal station that opened in 1908. (The namesake song turned 75 last year).
Exhibits will showcase the evolution of the guitar through various musical genres, including blues, jazz, Motown, country, the British Invasion and surf guitar — and of course rock ’n’ roll. The museum is not focused on which musicians owned or played the guitars, but rather the beauty, craftsmanship and significance of the instruments themselves.
Valued at more than $200 million, Songbirds’ extensive collection of American-made instruments includes 300-plus one-of- a-kind custom-color Fender guitars; 75 custom-color Gibson guitars; plus original five-string banjos and mandolins from Martin, Gibson and other companies.
The museum will offer VIP access to other exclusive experiences with advance reservations (and added expense). The Green Room is a separate area for pre-arranged private or small-group guided tours that features guitars considered “best of the best.” Further back, the Songbirds Vault houses the crown jewels of the collection.
In addition, Songbirds will display a section of special guitars curated by Gill that will evolve. The first includes Don Rich’s gold sparkle Telecaster from 1964, a one-of-a-kind instrument that Rich played often with Buck Owens in the 1960s.
Other rare instruments included in Gill’s personal exhibit will be a 1942 Martin Herringbone; a 1938 Gibson Advance jumbo; and a 1959 Gibson Les Paul sunburst, considered by many to be the “holy grail” of electrics, each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Gill adds, “The instruments are as much a part of our history as the people who played them. Maybe even more so.
“If you think about it, when you casually start listening to favorite songs that you love, nine times out of 10, you will know what it is by the instrument played before the singer sings.
“These instruments have defined so much of our legacy musically.”
Developed as a passion project by museum president Johnny Smith, a professional musician, along with curator and CEO David Davidson, Songbirds was created to showcase this exceptional collection of guitars that had never been on display.
Smith explains, “We are thrilled to have Vince as the museum’s ambassador, as he truly appreciates the instruments. He is such a versatile musician and a great storyteller and you can tell that the guitars evoke some real emotion with him.”
Chattanooga was chosen for the museum because of its location near multiple metropolitan areas and affordable operating costs, boosted by the tenacity of Smith and other locals.
Smith adds, “I want to be a cultivator for the local music scene. In Chattanooga, we are always looking for a place where the local musicians can have opportunities. We have such great local talent here.”
Davidson says: “Songbirds features exceptional quality guitars that play well, sound well and have a place in history.
“All the guitars were chosen for not one of those reasons — but all of those reasons.”
He continues, “Songbirds is an art, history and cultural museum blended together.”
Housed in a renovated space that most recently held a train museum, Songbirds has soaring ceilings, charred-wood walls, exposed brick and steel.
Decidedly family-friendly, it will include guitar lessons, performances and the chance to learn the human stories behind the guitars.
Throughout the space, LED video screens, animation and artifacts show additional information about the displays.
Gill has his eyes on the future: “I think if we have the opportunity to reach the young people and get them inspired to understand and fall in love with some of these great old instruments, it will perpetuate the history of all these instruments, and they will go on to live for another 100 years — and be respected and be revered.”
IF YOU GO
Address: 35 Station Street, Chattanooga, TN, 37408
Contact: 423 531-2473 (BIRD); firstname.lastname@example.org; songbirdsguitars.com
Admission prices to main exhibits:Adults: $18.95Children (ages 5-12): $11.95Children ages 4 and younger are free with purchase of adult admissionStudents (over 13), Seniors (over 65), Military (with ID): $15.95Family 4-Pack (two adults and two children up to 18 years old): $49.95
All Access Tour: Songbirds museum offers a guided All Access Tourthat includes a VIP visit to the “Green Room” and “Vault” that houses extremely rare guitars. Tickets are limited and advance booking is recommended. General admission is included in the All Access Tour price. Visitors should allow for an additional hour if choosing this tour. For security purposes, children ages 12-17 must be accompanied by an adult and children under 12 are not permitted.All Access Tour individual (18 and older): $38.95Family 4-Pack All Access Tour (two adults and two children 12-17): $99
Songbirds also offers memberships and can accommodate groups.
Hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily
All Access Tour Times: 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.
Closed : Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day