Arizona Trip 2020 – Musical Instrument Museum

January 21, 2020

When we awoke on Tuesday morning in Winslow we were greeted by Portland winter weather: cold, cloudy, and rainy. Sporadic snow was in the forecast for Flagstaff so after breakfast we headed out to try to get up and over the mountain down to Phoenix during the warm part of the day. It rained pretty steadily the first half hour but was moderately clear as we made are way up to Flagstaff. We could see big dark clouds on the west side of the city, probably blocked by the mountain.

Heading down I-17 into Phoenix was a bit hairier with many more clouds and as much rain as we wanted. As we descended we drove three separate fog banks that limited visibility to maybe 100-200 yards for a mile at a time. Even when we were at the base of the mountain and in northern Phoenix it was still cool and rainy. We stopped at an In ‘n Out for lunch. Yum.

We’ve been trying to get the Musical Instrument Museum on the north end of Phoenix for a while now. One of our yoga group friends, Jim, is a retired music teacher. He and Terry have been raving for years about the displays. Others in the group have been in Phoenix and also came back with glowing reports. Let’s go.

The first thing we noticed is that there is no Senior discount as there usually is in museums. Looking around it was clear why: we were in the land of the olds. Over 80% of the visitors were older or school age so there is no need to coax us in.

The organization of the museum is great. You are fitted with a set of headphones as you go in, but you don’t have to fiddle with entering some code when you get to a display. Instead, when you stand in front of a display a sensor automatically starts a narrative of what you are looking at. Most of the displays are accompanied by video.

Not to be hyperbolic, but excluding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the special exhibit on Congo Masks and Music is one of the best museum exhibits I’ve seen. I took a bunch of pictures of the masks and related costumes but they lose their impact in the static displays.

Congo Chihongo (Left) and Ngulu masks
Congo Chihongo Mask
Congo Minganji masks

Almost every mask has a video with the music and dancing associated. I’ve tried to find some on the internet to share but have only found a few – none of the ones in the displays. Some of the samples I share here are not even from Congo, but from other west or central Africa countries.

From YouTube (
Not from Congo I think. Dancing starts at 0:21
YouTube (
Leggings more like the Congo displays we say.
Dancing starts in earnest at 0:45
YouTube (
Definitely from Congo.

Most of the videos linked above are more modern; the private videos in the exhibit are in black and white and probably from the mid 20th century.

Our next stop was the upper floor where we explored music from around the world. Since one of our daughters-in-law is from South Africa we made sure to stop there. The video on how them make these guitars out of discarded materials is amazing.

South African musical instruments

Both of our sons played trombone in high school and our younger son was a touring professional for a few years before settling down into teaching. So of course we took pictures of every trombone-like instrument we saw. The Sackbutt is the ancestor of the modern trombone.

Sackbutt – Early trombone

Sackbutt is loosely translated as “to pull out the end”.

Though we were tired after hours of standing, we went down to the first floor exhibits which are organized around instruments. There is a large display of Martin guitars including a video of the repair to Elvis Presley’s 1975 D28. The linked video here is both a good example of the MIM displays and the painstaking restoration work done AT MIM.

We watched videos of guitarists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, big bands, pianists, and more. We kept saying to each other, “I’m tired, let’s go to the hotel” but as we walked through the museum we’d be pulled into another fascinating exhibit.

The Musical Instrument Museum in just off exit 31 on the 101 highway at the north end of Phoenix. You can see their web presence at Go there.

After dinner and a good night’s sleep we prepared to head to the airport for our flight home. Our flight was in the afternoon so we had time to squeeze in a walk. Just north of our hotel, there is a large open area with a sidewalk along the southern border. We strolled for about an hour.

Phoenix Desert Ridge area

After that we packed up and drove back to the airport, stopping for our last In ‘n Out burgers for a while.

You may be thinking to yourself that I’ve had 5 posts from Arizona with no trains. Not to worry; my next post will have as many trains as you can take – maybe more.

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