Hard Rock Café: An ode to the guitar
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Hard Rock Café: An ode to the guitar

Rock & Roll! It's the music of the world and it's sound is stroked from a group of musical instruments, but central to its melodies is the guitar. Who can love rock & roll and not have a favorite guitar riff, or favorite guitar moment? Step inside the world of the Hard Rock guitar legend.

By Louis M. Brill

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  • The Gatlinburg's Hard Rock Cafe guitar (25-foot Gretchen guitar with its golden neon string) hangs off the side of its building and is visible for blocks around town. It can't be missed, anyone hungering for a Hardrock hamburger & fix'ns can home right in on its sign.

    Rock & roll has its history, its museums (The Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Rock & Roll Museum in Cleveland) and it has its own watering hole, the Hard Rock Cafe, an international theme restaurant for all things rock & roll. As of 2010, there are at least 166 locations worldwide (includes all Cafes plus live venues, Hotels, Casinos and stand-alone bars) restaurants residing in 52 countries. Of this group of properties, 133 are Hard Rock Cafes. The rock & roll cafe concept originated in London and was created in 1971 by Peter Morton and Issac Tigrett. While each cafe is unique in design, they all serve high quality American cuisine and offer a cultural ambiance dedicated to a high energy musical atmosphere of decades of rock & roll music and history.

    While one might argue that there are several 'trademarks' of rock & roll, no one would disagree that one of its signature points is the guitar, a visible part of every rock & roll band that ever was. Certainly the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and other rock musicians have amazed cheering audiences with their great musical moments. Who can forget that? Certainly not the Hard Rock Cafe who extends their worship of rock & roll into a vast memorabilia collection that includes stage props, photos, costumes, posters, and of course lots of famous guitars.

    The Hard Rock Cafe Las Vegas on The Strip, Featuring 42,000 square feet of pure unadulterated rock n' roll and is the only HRC that offers a million dollar unobstructed view of the world famous Las Vegas Strip.

    "Mine's as good as his"
    It was a guitar, in fact that launched the Hard Rock Cafe's memorabilia collection which started when Eric Clapton, a regular customer at the original London Cafe asked if he could hang his guitar, a burgundy, Fender Lead II used for studio and live performances on the wall to mark his favorite bar stool as "his spot." They did and one week later, a package from The Who's Peter Townsend arrived with a guitar and a note bearing the message, "Mine's as good as his! Love, Pete."

    Since then, the Hard Rock Cafe has built a huge world class memorabilia collection that has blossomed with an expanded range of other world famous guitars including a Jimi Hendrix Gibson Flying V guitar, Bo Didley's first hand made guitar (1945), Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder's personal guitar and a Duane Allman's 1954 Fender Stratocaster - one of the first fenders strats ever made.

    The worship of the guitar at Hard Rock has pushed beyond its inner sanctum to its outer court yard as in certain locations, a gigantic guitar of some famous make or owner has become literally a shinning beacon shouting its presence to fans and customers for blocks around. Of the 166 worldwide Hard Rock Cafe's, approximately 35 sites have gigantic guitar sculptures as a frontispiece of signage indicating that all things rock and roll can be found here. The exterior guitar sculptures are upwardly scaled replicas of famous guitars whose size (ranging from 40-feet to almost 112-feet in length) could make a player out of the Jolly Green Giant if he had the gumption to play.

    The Biloxi Hard Rock Cafe casino's beachfront emblem, is the world's largest guitar Hard Rock sign, replicating the HP Signature(TM) guitar, named for Peavey's founder and sole owner, Hartley Peavey. Hartley operated the prestigious Mississippi- based company known throughout the world as one of the best manufacturers of musical instruments and sound equipment.
    The iconic 112-foot neon Peavey guitar, withstood the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and came out mostly intact, and was restored and repaired during the property's reconstruction.

    Each guitar sculpture is a perfect replica of whatever original guitar it duplicated including the guitar body, the neck, the strings (which are neon, making it easily visible at night) and all the tuning keys and frets that combine on a guitar to make it the great instrument that it is. Using standard sign materials of fiberglass, aluminum, steel, neon, and paint, the resulting gigantic guitar sculpture facing its admirers is a thing of beauty - a remembrance to an instrument of great musical heritage.

    Just look for a guitar on the building
    Once a guitar is selected, the next concerns are, what's it going to look like and how will it be fitted on the building? Both were addressed by former employee Craig Scott, HRC Project Manager. "There are certain guitars that lend themselves to preferred mounting positions, better than others. If a guitar's going to be mounted flush (one side facing out), that a consideration. If a guitar is going to be two-sided on a pylon, we'll try for a symmetrical design. In some cases if it's viewable from both sides, we may have a front guitar face on both sides, or in other two-sided situations, we might create a 100 per cent duplication of a guitar with both its front and back sides identical to its original guitar."

    Chicago's Hard Rock Cafe's, one of the city's main destinations, presents a 35-foot Flying V guitar which is mounted in front of the building where its guitar neck juts out and hangs over the sidewalk.

    Within Hard Rock Cafe's collection of guitar sculptures, many have graced various Cafes with all kinds of interesting and extraordinary sign structures. In Miami, that Hard Rock guitar (1957, Fender Stratocaster, at 65 feet long) sits on top of a building and also rotates (Houston and Cleveland also have rotating guitars). In Los Angeles at Universal City Walk, the front courtyard of the Cafe hosts what is one of the tallest outdoor guitars in the entire collection, a 78-foot long vertically mounted neon green Fender Stratosphere guitar at its entrance. At Baltimore's Inner Harbor (an entertainment destination district), the Hard Rock Cafe is located within a building known as the Power Plant. The guitar [a Paul Reed Smith at 65 foot length] is actually affixed to the chimney above the building, creating a great sight line and making it immediately visible to everyone within the Inner Harbor area. Chicago's Hard Rock Cafe has a Flying V guitar mounted on the front of the building. The guitar with its neck facing outwards juts from the building and hangs right over the sidewalk in front of it. Of the entire collection of sculptured guitars, the largest exterior guitar in the world (built in mid-2005), was a 112-foot guitar, and unveiled at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Biloxi, which withstood Hurricane Katrina and opened in July 2007.

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    "You can't miss it. Just look for the building with a Flying V guitar wedged right into the front of it.." Phoenix's Hard Rock cafe features its Flying V guitar and a logo that projects off the building side

    In Destin Florida where the largest and most elaborately equipped fishing fleet in the State of Florida docks at the Destin Harbor is also the home of a Hard Rock Cafe (opened July 2, 2004) complete with a 25-foot Rickenbacker carefully balanced on a pedestal in front of the Cafe's building.

    A guitar is born
    "A Hard Rock Cafe's guitar's distinction is more than its size or location. In some instances the guitar strings (which are always highlighted in neon) flicker on and off as if being strummed," says Chris Tomossa, a former VP of Sales and Marketing. "That vibrating string effect is not standard for all our guitar sculptures, but it's something we like to do because it brings life and movement to the guitar. Sometimes sign ordinances don't allow us to do that, but we love to do it in every situation we can - when our fans see it, it's an automatic attention getter."

    Speaking of sign ordinances, Scott noted, "the two most common sign code issues we have to work around are sidewalk encroachment and logo signage. If we have a guitar sign on the side of a building, we usually have to seek a variance for "an encroachment on the side of a building or 'right of way.' Some cities have restrictions on total square footage of a sign placement. In that case they might consider the entire guitar as a sign instead of just the logo portion. To solve that problem, we've had guitars without logos that we were able to permit as 'art in public places.' We will occasionally sacrifice the logo to get the guitar installed. We also deal with city permitting issues with the sign's installation. Usually in putting it up, we have to block streets as just the delivery alone is an extra-wide flat bed truck which is at least followed by one giant crane truck."

    Deciding which Hard Rock Cafes get guitar sculptures and managing the resultant creation of each musical totem is driven by the Design and Development group at the company's headquarters in Orlando, Florida. Craig Scott, Hard Rock Cafe project manager, spoke of the guiding hand of his department and the intricacies of dealing with the city municipalities who, in the first run decide if they will allow a Hard Rock to include a gigantic guitar. If the city decides in the positive, Design and Development will create a 'concept guitar' for that project and use a Request For Proposal process to determine who the designated sign shop will be to fabricate the guitar and install it on the building hardscape immediately in front of it.

    The "be-all" of having a guitar sculpture installed on the outside premises of a Hard Rock Cafe in a new city is all decided by that city's sign code and regulations for what kind of a sign can go where within a city area. "When a new Hard Rock Cafe is prepared and its clear that a gigantic sculpture will be placed on location, we at Design and Development are involved in all three stages of bringing a guitar sculpture to completion, which includes; the initial design of the guitar, the commission of that design to the designated sign shop and supervising the receipt and installation of the final product," says Scott.

    "The main criteria for choosing a guitar sign is consideration for the area where this iconic sign is going to be forever," says Tomossa. As to what influences the decisions of what kind of a guitar sculpture will go inside, these determinants are usually historic, architectural and esthetic issues. Hard Rock Cafes are preferred in very highly trafficked entertainment international and national tourist destinations with location that is easily visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, such as Universal City Walk (Los Angeles), Orlando, Nashville, or Las Vegas). In the case of an 'historic area,' the municipality tends to be more cognizant of the intended Hard Rock Cafe's surrounding area and more sensitive as to whether or not a guitar sculpture might want to be installed," says Tomosso.

    "As soon as we have the go-ahead," says Scott, we first establish the conceptual perimeters. What kind of a guitar will it be and what will its dimensions be? What is the surrounding environment around it? How is it going to be mounted on the site? Some guitars are on pylons or post mounted. Sometimes they're roof mounted and in a great once in awhile they're mounted off the front of the building. We begin a guitar sculpture project with a conceptual art rendering, usually in Adobe Photoshop. We start by taking an elevation of the building facade or the surrounding building and we'll super impose an image of the guitar we want to use."

    "Once we know what we want, and we've selected the sign shop to fabricate the sign, they take it from there and produce their own conceptual drawings and detailed shop drawings," says Scott, "which we approve of at various steps throughout the guitar sculpture's creation process. The assigned sign shop is totally responsible for the structural and electrical engineering of the fabricated guitar. Sometimes we even request samples of the finishes of the materials they'll be using on the guitar. We then follow the creation of the guitar sculpture all through its various fabrication stages, right up to its on-site installation and the turning on of the guitar's signature neon strings and other embellishments."

    This note's for you!
    For the 35 or so gigantic guitar sculptures that grace the fronts of these Hard Rock Cafes, they're like sky beam spotlights indicating to rock music fans an outstanding venue for great food, good music and opportunities to see famous rock & roll memorabilia and most of all enjoy live music concerts as they happen. Tomossa summed it up perfectly, "Our gigantic guitar sculptures are more than just signs, we view them as icons and cultural memorabilia as well." The guitar is a crucial part of rock & roll's history and with the Hard Rock Cafe's presence to immortalize it, they pay tribute to the legends of rock musicians who make it so.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net

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