In the USA, during the Golden Decade of electric guitars two brands, Fender and Gibson/Les Paul were breaking the ground for a new era of guitar making while legendary musicians like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Eric Clapton let the strings rip and riff in ways unheard of. At the same time, two little twin brothers in a town in the north of Sweden were building their own instruments out of cardboard and thin rope imitating the sound and moves of the giants. With the wide-eyed fascination and passion of a child the brothers Michael and Samuel Åhdén embarked on a life-long love-affair with American guitars from the 1950s and early 60s.
Half a century later the two guitar aficionados exude the same pure child-like delight owning one of the world’s largest private guitar collection – some 500 prized guitars, basses and amplifiers. In a manner typical of many in the north of Sweden they express a humble tenderness in regard to their accomplishments. They are neither interested in putting a monetary value to their vast collection nor will they sell any of their guitars. In contrast to many collectors they actually use all of their instruments: “A guitar is meant to be played.”
Still, when visiting the newly opened Guitars – the Museum one can’t help but reflect on the enormous historical, artistic, cultural and financial value that is on display. Behind rooms and rows of pleasantly and brightly lit glas monitors 100s upon 100s of electric guitars are revealed. Michael showed me the guitar opening the exhibit, a Fender Broadcaster, the first truly successful electrical guitar ever made. The year was 1950. This guitar was soon renamed Telecaster and the few guitars produced in the overlap were simply called Nocaster. The Broadcaster was only made in around 200 exemplars, perhaps 100 still exist. The price back then was $140, today the collectors pay a quarter of a million dollars. Talking about investment! Factors playing into the appreciation in value include rarity, exquisite craftsmanship, ingenious mechanical and technological solutions, as well as international icons creating history by strumming certain instruments. Take, for example, Jimi Hendrix inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis’ wild performance in 1958. Playing Great Balls on Fire Lewis put his white Steinway grand piano into flames. In measurable passion Hendrix set fire on his white Stratocaster guitar. The burnt remains later sold for nearly 1 million dollars. On and on the stories go about the hand-made guitars created in the USA between 1950 and 1966. So intriguing are Michael and Samuel’s collection that the BBC are currently producing a one-hour documentary about the two Umeå-twins and their stringed dedication. Fender and Gibson knighted the twins’ acquisition the most impressive internationally.
Guitars – the Museum is located downtown Umeå, “the capital” of the Northland (Norrland). Strategically tucked in-between the Norrlandsoperan (the only professional opera house in the vast northern Sweden) and the renowned cultural center, Umeå Folkets Hus (holding international festivals of jazz, folk music, etc.). At this creative core an old school built in brick (Vasaskolan, 1917) has been turned into a hub of what has longed been claimed the cutting-edge music scene of Sweden (Scharinska), a music store (4sound), vintage record store (Garageland), restaurant, bar and of course the world-class guitar collection and museum. Approaching the building one is struck by its architectural style of national romanticism. Upon entering, the massive stone floors and stairs invite the gaze to windows reaching up to the high ceiling. The bar is modern against red brick walls bringing the mind to hip places on Manhattan. In the gastrobar the chef Peter Gustavsson serves American-inspired food on rustic plates of wood and cast iron. A new music stage and club has been built. It honors the hugely important Straight Edge and Hardcore movements with bands like Refused that burst forth in Umeå while also hosting a constellation of many other genres. Around the corner of the corridor one finds the music store with its organized chaos of speakers, amplifiers, drum sets, keyboards, music tools and, well, yes, guitars. In the middle of the store towers wooden stairs in a steep angle two stories up. The museum is located all the way on the top floor. A bit sweaty I finally ascend the last step.
Charmingly and almost shyly I am greeted by the twins. Immediately I am struck by the welcoming feeling. Michael and Samuel are genuinely happy to share their passion for these strung beasts and beauties living in the so very recently created museum. When Michael took me on a tour through the white washed rooms he pointed to the lofty ceiling framed by a higher and a lower molding. He explained that when together with his brother and their friend, the industrial designer Magnus Melkersson, they were watching the construction workers tear down the then much lower ceiling revealing its original classical design. These classrooms were also fashioned with a gird paneling along the walls below the windows. The designer chose to keep and to incorporate the older more stately style which is now off-set by the enormous amount of glas coupled with modern cast-iron candelabras (Buster + Punch) suspended from high above. Descending the stairs I notice the rockstar pics by Roger Degerman. Black and white, edgy, in your face demanding attention. The museum includes a guest exhibition hall renewing its shows every 3 months. Currently it’s hosting a raw exhibit about the Straight Edge movement and Hardcore music. In the summer it will be featuring two Finish artists who combine visual art and music in a unique way.
The school transformed into a hip world-class scene continues to educate, not only through the electrifying life of guitars but also through the continued vibrant and living expression of music, drink, food and design. I highly recommend an extensive visit and complete experience enjoying the architecture and design, a drink at the bar, a delicious dinner, a night rocking it out in the avant-garde music club, and of course a long stay with the twins soaking in the art and history of electric guitars.
Guitars – the Museum / Vasagatan 20 / 90229 Umeå / Sweden / +46 (0) 90 58090
By Ottiliana Rolandsson / February / Umeå2014