The Art Of The Ax: How Steve Miller’s Gargantuan Guitar Collection Bolstered The Met

"Play It Loud: Instruments Of Rock & Roll" Opening Reception & Press Preview
Steve Miller performs at the opening reception for “Play It Loud: Instruments Of Rock & Roll” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

It seems a bit foreordained that Steve Miller would become a prodigious collector of guitars. His godfather, after all, was none other than Les Paul. Miller’s love of music stretches back to his parents — both of whom were heavily involved in Milwaukee’s jazz and blues scene — and their best friend, who just happened to be the most important luthier of the 20th century.

So, no, it’s not a shock that Miller, with those seeds planted and the decades-long career he’s had that’s grown from them, amassed a 450-piece guitar collection.

And his commitment to music preservation is forthright. It’s not just the tangible history he preserves; it’s the music itself. After all, his career — and indeed his life — connects him with those days when early rock existed in a primeval stew with jazz and blues.

And all of that is important and grand and good, but there’s another, far more prosaic, reason Miller is important to music preservationists: he takes really good care of his instruments.

Rock ’n’ roll sometimes evokes visions of Jimi Hendrix lighting his ax afire or Pete Townshend or Phoebe Bridgers bashing theirs into an amp. But not Miller.

Jayson Dobney, the Frederick P. Rose Curator of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, practically gushes at the exquisite care Miller has paid to his collection.

“He obviously loves these things,” Dobney says. “Other musicians have stains and cigarette burns on their instruments, but he loves the objects and takes care of them.”

For example, the Met borrowed the synthesizer Miller used in the recording of 1976’s “Fly Like An Eagle.”

“It was in immaculate condition,” he says. “The manual was still in the case.”

Miller’s relationship with the Met dates back more than a decade. Dobney said he’d heard — through the musical instrument curator grapevine, presumably — that Miller owned a rare and beautiful guitar built by archtop architect Jimmy D’Aquisto.

The D’Aquisto was “much more than just a guitar he bought in a shop,” Dobney said. D’Aquisto famously eschewed the mid-century and Art Deco design that dominated electric guitar design for decades. This particular piece is unique even for him: it uses a heart-shaped motif that D’Aquisto didn’t often employ; it has a honey-colored sunburst design and ebony inlays. Miller was friends with D’Aquisto and purchased the instrument from him in 1993.

Dobney said it’s “one of the great works D’Aquisto built … a masterpiece of modern guitar-making.”

And Miller turned it over to the Met, to be “played and enjoyed,” as he said at the time of the donation.

When Dobney began planning for The Met’s “Play It Loud” exhibit of rock instruments, which opened in 2019, Miller was more than happy to chip in again, including loaning one of Dobney’s favorites from his extensive collection: a Les Paul TV Special painted by surfboard artist Paul Cantrell.

“It was late in the psychedelic art era and it’s so gorgeous and it was so important to his career and it’s in such good shape,” he says.

Some of Dobney’s effusive praise for Miller’s preservative efforts are, of course, professional. He is a curator, after all, and curators are interested in well-maintained heirlooms, but Dobney also says Miller’s care and collection of these instruments are an act of love that’s much deeper than just keeping things for the sake of keeping them. It’s part of an entire arc of memory-keeping that includes Miller’s work with Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Miller recognizes something that Dobney believes: that this music is our bequest to the future and the tools that make it possible are as important as the music itself.

“He loves the strange and unusual and cutting edge in technology, design and decoration,” Dobney says. “When the Stratocaster came out, it was revolutionary. We see them so often now, it’s like a fork, but it was a radical, special thing. … Twentieth-century American music is the art form that’s going to be remembered and the guitar is the tangible object that will survive.”