Vince Gill‘s guitar picking skills are the stuff of legend in country circles, but the singer’s love for the instrument goes far beyond the music it makes. “Just looking at them is like art – it’s like a painting – and they each tell a story,” says Gill.
An avid collector himself, Gill has been named ambassador of the new Songbirds Guitar Museum, which opens this weekend in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I’m a guitar geek, a nut for guitars and I’ve been collecting for 40 years,” he tells PEOPLE. “But the museum’s collection is just unheard of. It’s absolutely breathtaking and mine pales in comparison.”
The museum boasts about 1,700 guitars, about 500 of which are currently exhibited, most coming from the private collections of two anonymous donors. Instruments include those played by Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, B.B. King and Chuck Berry, along with rare finds like more than 30 examples of the Gibson Les Paul Model Sunbursts from 1958-1960, a model played by the likes of Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
“The donors felt that having all these historic pieces locked away for their own enjoyment felt selfish,” says museum president Johnny Smith of the impetus for opening the space, located next to the famed Chattanooga Choo Choo.
A special exhibit curated by Gill includes guitars with special significance to the singer, including a gold sparkle Fender Telecaster from the 1960s played by Don Rich, guitarist for Buck Owens‘ backing band, The Buckaroos. “Is it the greatest Telecaster I’ve ever played?” says Gill, 59. “Not even close. But I saw him play it on the Buck Owens Ranch Show when I was an 8-year-old kid and it was life changing.”
Gill has followed his heart with his own collecting as well, choosing guitars based more on sentimental than monetary value, which is why it was so painful when he lost nearly 50 instruments in the 2010 Nashville flood. “As I looked at that pile of flooded, ruined guitars— I’d look at one and think, ‘Ah, shoot, that one played the intro to “One More Last Chance” The instruments tell my story. They remind me of what I’ve done and where I’ve been.”
For the singer, walking through the exhibits at Songbirds, “is nerding out in a big way,” he says. “With some of these models of guitars, they’ve only made like 90 of them. And getting to see something like that is pretty magical.”
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There’s not much that rivals Gill’s passion for music, but his love for his hometown Nashville Predators hockey team may come close. In fact, the singer recently agreed to work in the Preds souvenir shop and shoot a (hilarious) video to promote the team.
“I love going to games, I love helping out, I love to have fun and I’ve got a pretty warped sense of humor so it was a great way to use it,” he says of the video, which features Gill helping Preds fans pick out jerseys and gifts, and joking to the camera, “I wanted to be a Predator but I’m too old and fat and I can’t skate… so now I’m working here at the gift shop.”