Sensational Musical Instrument Museum Arizona

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – This isn’t a state known for its cultural offerings. The Musical Instrument Museum should help change that.

I’d heard a bit about the museum from Scottsdale’s tourism folks, although the museum is technically over the city border in Phoenix. But I didn’t think I’d love it as much as I did.

I wish it was closer to the Scottsdale’s terrific and very walkable downtown, or closer to up-and-coming downtown Phoenix, but it’s still a beauty. The exterior is a handsome and clean design with creamy stone that blends nicely with the desert surroundings. Inside, there’s tons of light and a million things to see.

Okay, not quite a million. But there are more than 10,000 instruments from around the world; lutes and pianos and guitars and saxophones and bagpipes and thumb pianos. There are instruments fashioned from sticks and from cow stomachs. There are instruments shaped like giant black snakes and wildly decorated electric guitars, as well as drums owned by Keith Moon of The Who.

Music is a wonderful thing, of course. But the museum also makes the point that it’s a vital part of civilization; a way of communicating danger in small villages and of expressing the utmost joy or sadness. The movie they show near the first exhibit calls music “amplifiers of human emotion,” and that’s a great way to look at it.

One thing I really like about the museum is that it’s organized by country. You can stroll through Sweden and see Swedish bagpipes (who knew?) called sackpipa. And you can hop down to Honduras and see a band of xylophone players banging away.

They’ve got a ton of video to see and great exhibits where you can hear the sound of an Indian chaturangui or a Canadian fiddle. Instead of having to push a number to hear the music from a particular exhibit, the headsets are programmed so the music from, say, Egypt starts as soon as you approach the exhibit. My set was a bit wonky and I had to reset it several times to get the right music to play, but my wife’s set worked like a charm.

You learn a ton about world music at the museum. For example, I didn’t know the harmonica was inspired by an ancient Chinese instrument called the sheng. Nor did I know that Adolphe Sax of France invented not only the saxophone but the tuba, thus making U.S. college bands what they are today. I also learned that the ukulele belongs to the “plucked lute” line of instruments, that Willie Nelson wrote the song “Crazy” that was popularized by Patsy Cline and that there were more than 240 Canadian companies making pianos as the turn of the century.

One other cool bit I learned was that Castelfidardo, Italy is known as the accordion capital of the world. Just so you’re forewarned…

The U.S. gets a huge exhibit, which is fair enough. There are displays on Hawaiian music (with Burl Ives crooning “At the Beach in Waikiki”), as well as a great jazz exhibit and displays on hip hop, country and rock, where you’ll find wonderful video of everyone from Buddy Holly to Pink Floyd and The Police with a very young-looking Sting on the guitar. They also had a wildly psychedelic drum set belonging to Keith Moon of The Who, plus displays on Bob Marley and drummers from Sri Lanka and Turkish guitars and the Beijing Opera and native American music.

There’s also an experiential centre where you can bang away on drums or ring a gong or try a xylophone yourself. Right now they also have a display on Women in Rock, with great video bits from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Madonna and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. They have everything from shopping lists of Madonna (“buy wine vinager,” she said, proving that great musicians can’t necessarily spell) to wild costumes won by the likes of Lady Gaga, Cher and Tina Turner, as well as a display focussing on Arizona’s own Linda Ronstadt, a personal favourite of yours truly.

I can’t imagine even the most devout music fan not learning something on a tour of this facility. A most definitive two thumbs up and well worth the $18 admission price (U.S.) for adults.

Scottsdale is said to be home to more restaurants per capita – apparently more than 600 – than Manhattan. I don’t know about that, but we took a fun walking tour of six different places with Destination Food Tours .

The highlights for me were the pork shoulder tacos at The Mission restaurant, a fun spot in the centre of the Old Town, and the chopped Stetson salad at a place called Cowboy Ciao. The salad is a crazy mixture with salmon or chicken, plus chopped arugula, Israeli couscous, tomatoes, sweet corn and a trail mix with pumpkin seeds, Asiago cheese and black currants, all tossed with a pesto-buttermilk dressing. They also have a wine list with more than 1,800 varieties, a couple dozen of them more than $1,000 a bottle. Crazy, but fun.

Also worthwhile was a stop at Outrageous , an olive oil and balsamic store where we learned about how to properly store good olive oil (NOT in a clear bottle) and about how balsamic is made in Modena, Italy. They have a ton of interestiing varieties, including balsamic with fig and olive oil with basil or lemon. Yum.

We took in a San Francisco Giants-Colorado Rockies spring training game at beautiful Scottsdale Stadium, which is right downtown and features lovely views of the surrounding mountains and great food and drink options. The game was a bust for us Giants fans, but it’s a glorious place to watch a ballgame.

We had a post-game dinner at a local restaurant called Don and Charlie’s , where every nook and cranny is packed with sports memorabilia. This being home to 15 major league teams for spring training, you’ll find thousands of signed baseballs and magazine covers and photos and more. I spotted autographs with likes of Shawn Green and Candy Maldonado, as well as Paul Molitor, Ernie Banks, Roger Clemens, Hubie Brooks and Gary Garter, who was honoured in Montreal on Friday night at the Blue Jays-Mets spring training game.I also spotted jerseys from John Elway and Wayne Gretzky.

The food is classic steak house; with creamy or vinegar cole slaw, a bread basket with bagel chips and rye bread and a huge array of steaks, ribs and other classics. I had a steak crusted with toasted parmesan cheese. Interesting and pretty good, but I’d probably stick to a regular steak next time around. The ribs were terrific; moist and meaty with a nice barbeque sauce. And reasonable prices, too.

A great spot for sports fans in a great food town, for sure.

NEXT UP FROM SCOTTSDALE: The oh-so-fab Hotel Valley Ho, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and a first-class meal at Virtu

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