Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix Review — One-Stop Shop For Global Travel Lovers

MIM (Museum of Musical Instruments) is on a short list of singular museums that in themselves warrant a trip to their home city.   For any tourist to Scottsdale, it’s worth noting that it’s a quick hop to get here by car.

For this sometime travel writer, a return visit to MIM in Phoenix to see their soon-to -close exhibit about decorative inlays in guitars and banjos reminded of a conclusion after a first –time visit--- WOW! If only I could move in.

Yes, there are other museums of musical instruments, including the museum of the same name in Brussels that is said to have inspired the founding of MIM by one-time Target Corporation CEO, Robert J. Ulrich.   Phoenix’ MIM though boasts instruments, nearly 16,000,from every country and nearly every culture. The oldest one is a paigu goblet drum that dates back to China’s Neolithic period. You also find there a guitar from Portugal circa 1590.

Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces

It was more modern day guitars and banjos sparkling with inlay designs that have become the trademarks of iconic musicians such as Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and more that is the current draw to MIM.   You only have until September 5 to catch MIM’s special exhibition Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces.

First you see a sign that reminds that all this decoration on instruments is not unlike tattoos.   True, some designs also function as fingerboard road maps, but most serious amateur musicians or pros don’t really need these guides. It’s more in the category of showing you are a well-dressed rock star who knows how to accessorize.

Recipes born of oceans and computers

Your tour continues with seashells, reminding that it is Mother Nature’s mother-of-pearl that is the source of all this guitar and banjo jewelry. As you walk through the gallery ogling the designs that have become musician signatures, you also learn the personal stories of the craftsmen that brought these to life via photo quotes and videos. Less competitors and more members of a unique craftsmens’ club, the many artisans who launched and still nurture this art form seem to be inviting you into their trailers or other small spaces where they ply their trade. We see machines too—CNC (computerized numerical controls) that established new levels of precision in this craft, or as a key pioneer of these inlays was quoted as saying, “approximations of impossibilities.”

This heirloom banjo (front view) was inspired by a hunting trip and was made over the course of two years
The exhibit was created in partnership wtih Pearl Works, a pioneer of guitar inlays
"Night Dive" OM guitar, crafted with awabi abalone to achieve a realistic ripped effect
Peacock guitar has thousands of hand-cut shell pieces in addition to gold and set diamonds
This heirloom banjo (back view) was the culmination of 700 hours of work
The decorative tree-of-life (vine) pattern on this fingerboard is a motif used in designs throughout Western history
DRAGON 2002 electric guitar inlay inspired by the movie JURASSIC PARK
Lindesfarme guitar, inspired by Book of Matthew, reproduces a manuscript that took an early Christian monk 20 years to produce

Global travel on one floor

Much as you’ll want to plant in this exhibit and take a second tour to drink it all in yet again, don’t. You may also need to walk past alluring music coming from an impromptu performance in the lobby.   Your time is limited, even if you bought a two-day pass. Instead, go upstairs and roam from continent to continent and country to country .

How delightful that the state-of-the-art AV technology (headphones) at MIM allows you to trigger music and video in a display just by walking up to it and then you just marvel and ogle to your heart’s content.

A flute that goes up the nose? – Malaysia.

Traditional indigenous dances of old that look like hip-hop? —Peru

A gamelan looking like a foxy dragon? — Indonesia

…and so, so, so much more.

You feel like you’ve just become a re-incarnation of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg of Around the World in 80 Days, yet you are traveling these distances with strides and without a passport.

Note to self—go for two days next time.

Lutes from Malaysia and Indonesia

For more information visit or call 480.478.6000.


Open Daily 9 - 5 (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas)

Dragons and Vines exhibit closes September 4, 2017


The Musical Instrument Museum
4725 E. Mayo Boulevard


1-Day Pass
General $20
Teens (ages 13–19) $15
Children (ages 4–12) $10
Children (ages 3 and under) Free
Members Free

2-Day Pass*
General $30
Teens (ages 13–19) $22.50
Children (ages 4–12) $15
Children (ages 3 and under) Free
Members Free
*Valid within seven days after first visit. Only available for purchase at the museum.

Special Exhibition
Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces
$7 with museum admission
$10 exhibition only

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