The Science Behind the Six-String

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Sure, you’ve heard the strumming of a guitar, but have you really seen it? Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World at Liberty Science Center gives a scientific and historical look at what’s said to be the world’s most popular instrument.

H.P. Newquist founded the traveling National Guitar Museum — the basis for the show.

“We decided if somebody was going to put together a guitar museum, now is the time because, given the way the guitar is evolved, who knows what it’ll be in 20 or 30 years,” says Newquist. “So we’re hoping that preserving the kind of guitars that you see here, that there will be a legacy that people can appreciate for years and years to come and not forget about them.”

What started from Newquist’s personal guitar collection has grown. The National Guitar Museum now has originals and reproductions of historic guitars, new takes on the instrument and interactive exhibits that explain how the six-string works — including the world’s largest playable guitar.

“We really wanted people to learn a little bit about the science, so how an electric guitar makes sound, how an amplifier projects sound, how an acoustic guitar is able to structurally stand the pull of 200 pounds of metal strings,” Newquist explains.

Newquist wasn’t a fan of science class growing up, but became one after school through music. “Being involved with the guitar for so many years, I started learning the science behind it,” he says, “especially pickups, and the way they’re constructed, and the way density of wood makes a difference.”

He’s worked with collaborators to develop exhibits that demonstrate scientific principles through the stringed instrument. He says it’s “stealth science.”

For example, “A mosquito gets to about 20 decibels,” Newquist explains. “But, if you actually hit a guitar, a guitar (fully electrified) can get up to about 120 decibels, and it tells you what happens at that level.”

Hands-on instruments also demonstrate the relationship between the type of wood and the sound it generates, and the link between frequency and pitch.

“We’re hoping that, when they walk away from here, they’ll go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that guitar strings made those kind of vibrations or that pickups actually are a form of electromagnetism,'” Newquist says.

And that’s exactly what fifth-grader Hailey Chiu, a guitar player herself, did. “I just thought that it’s really cool that there’s science behind it — playing music,” she says.

Liberty Science Center’s Guitar exhibit runs through January.