The evidence is all around us and it’s plain for all to see: the guitar has had its day. The time has come to put it out to pasture with lute, celesta, cor anglais and other similarly esoteric instruments. Now, before you close the tab and dismiss that statement as total, utter tosh, I need you to know that this isn’t just conjecture, it’s based on tangible evidence, and that it’s as painful for me to write as it is for you to read.
Who are you to talk?!
Just to give you a little context, I’ll briefly explain who I am, why I care, and how I went about gathering the evidence to support this disheartening claim. My name is Guy, and I love guitars. I’m not particularly amazing at playing them, but it’s a satisfying love affair, let me assure you. I was raised on a heavy diet of c̶h̶i̶c̶k̶e̶n̶ ̶n̶u̶g̶g̶e̶t̶s̶ guitar music: my dad’s blues, rock and prog; and my mum’s softer rocky, folky, poppy tastes. I’ve played the guitar for more than half of my life and in half a dozen different bands, from blues to industrial rock, metal to dance music. I’ve played guitar on stage, and I’ve played guitar for money. I’ve produced a few records in my time – for myself and for other bands and artists – and a few crazy people have even had me play guitar on their records.
In 2009 I joined the small crew at Red Dog Music, a super-cool, friendly musical instrument retailer. Because of this, I’ve had the pleasure of playing and testing out hundreds – if not thousands – of guitars, learning their unique quirks and qualities in order to better inform and serve our loyal customers. Over that time, I’ve seen a noticeable drop in the number of guitars being brought in for set-ups, being tried and tested in store, and – most importantly – being sold. The same alarming trend has sounded the death knell for a few very notable instrument shops that specialised in selling guitars.
But Guy, maybe you’re selling fewer guitars because your shop sucks?
That would be the obvious conclusion to draw, sure. Fortunately for me and my team – it’s false. Red Dog Music have gone from strength to strength, more than doubling our turnover in the 7 years I’ve worked there, expanding from our Edinburgh headquarters to Clapham, and again to central London, and has been awarded a slew of industry awards for excellence. There’s no doubting our passion, as practically all of my colleagues are also absolutely mad about guitars, or at the very least can bash out a few chords on an acoustic. There has to be another reason…
To get a better understanding of the guitar’s seemingly waning appeal, I set myself to task; listening to 5 decade’s worth of top 40 singles and finding out what in the name of Hendrix’s ghost was going on.
At the start of January 2016, I listened to the full UK Top 40 singles chart and was literally dumbfounded by the lack of electric or acoustic guitars. I thought it would be interesting to take that same snapshot of popular music from ten years earlier, and ten years earlier again, right back to January 1976, to see if I was hopefully worrying about nothing.
Why just the UK chart, you massive racist?
3 reasons, dear reader. Firstly, I’m from the UK, and being born in the mid-80s I’d be at least vaguely familiar with most of what I heard. Secondly, the UK Official Charts website is a phenomenally useful resource, cataloguing dozens of charts right back to when they started counting sales figures. Finally, the UK has a long track record of influencing global music tastes, and has the highest per-capita chance of getting a golden (or better) record in the world.
My secret fourth reason is that I wouldn’t have to listen to “We Are The World” by U.S.A. for Africa. That song is total, total balls.
I set up an ugly little spreadsheet to take notes and to see if the 200 pop songs in question matched any of the following criteria:
- Does the song contain any electric guitar?
- Does the song contain any acoustic guitar?
- Does the song contain a guitar solo?
- Is the song by a “guitar band”? (ie, a named group – not solo artist – where a member has the named role of ‘guitarist’)
You were wrong, weren’t you? The guitar is, was, and always will be popular. Right?
Not quite. The discoveries I made don’t really suit prose, so here’s a nice bullet-point list of notable stuff I found by listening to over 11 hours of popular music:
- 2016 is dominated by sparsely arranged, dark electronic music with heavily effected vocal / voice-like samples used as melodic elements. Only 9 songs in the Top 40 feature any sort of guitar, and for the most-part use looped, heavily processed sections of guitar playing.
- 2006 was a healthy mishmash of rock, dance, ballads, R’n’B, hip-hop and what I affectionately refer to as ‘mum-pop’. The guitar had seen better days, but it wasn’t out for the count.
- 1996 was an odd one. A total free-for-all of cringey dance tracks, power ballads, Brit-pop, soft rock and novelty songs (Frank Bruno’s “Eye of The Tiger”, anyone?!) – but more than half of the songs on offer featured either acoustic or electric guitar.
- 1986 was all kinds of wrong. Paul McCartney’s “Spies Like Us” might be the worst song I encountered in the whole endeavor. Even though the guitar is present in more than half of the Top 40, practically every classic song from this year’s chart – “West End Girls”, “I’m Your Man”, “Take On Me” – were entirely guitar free.
- Quite a few 80s “guitar bands” (Level 42, UB40 and A-Ha in particular) charted with singles that didn’t feature guitar at all.
- 1976 was all about guitars. Almost embarrassingly so. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was at number 1, and a whole host of the other outrageously catchy, instant classics were guitar-based. They’re all there: David Bowie, ABBA, Hot Chocolate, Bay City Rollers, Mike Oldfield, The Small Faces, Roxie Music, Rod Stewart, and Queen, obviously. Oh, and The Wombles. Only 6 songs in the Top 40 didn’t feature guitar.
- There is a noticeable, undeniable, decline in the use of electric and acoustic guitars in pop music from the 70s to the present day, and the guitar is now at the lowest ebb in its popularity.
- Guitar solos, once a stalwart in about a quarter of all pop songs in the 70s are now literally non-existent.
- From having a sneak-peek at coinciding album charts for the years in question, it looks as if albums sold by “guitar bands” have remained pretty steady, but they’re mostly the same old bands; Oasis, ELO, The Beatles and ABBA (and before you say it, shut up, Björn is one of the greatest pop guitarists of all time.)
- Equally depressing and hilarious: the last bastions of guitar in 2016 are – wait for it – Justin Bieber, One Direction, and Coldplay.
To top off this damning revelation, a quick check of Google’s great “Trends” tool shows that every year since 2005, fewer and fewer people are searching for “electric guitar”, “acoustic guitar” or “guitar lessons”, suggesting that there aren’t as many people who want to start learning the instrument in the first place, let alone search for it.
You better say something good about guitars soon, matey…
So now we’ve seen the evidence, let’s take a quick look at some of the reason why this might be the case.
The most obvious reason that guitars are less popular now is that other instruments have replaced them. Synthesisers – whilst in their impossibly expensive infancy in the the 70s – are ludicrously affordable now, with hugely powerful, great sounding analogue-modelling synths available for less money than a games console, let alone their equivalent quality of guitar. Home recording gear has become inexpensive and effective, whilst recording software has become so outrageously powerful and user-friendly it takes people with only a casual musical knowledge mere hours to create an impressive sounding track.
Compare this trend – if you will – to Gibson’s mortifyingly unpopular decision to “modernise” their 2014/15 range of guitars by adding robotic tuning pegs? Where are the disenfranchised to turn?
I’m loathe to say “it’s the internet’s fault”, but it sort of is. Digital distribution has largely and lamentably killed the traditional album by making it incredibly easy to preview tracks, buy the ones you like and ditch the rest. Social media communities now control what songs enter the charts; radio and television – the go-to place to find new, exciting music in the 70s, 80s and 90s – are now outdated and on the back-foot, reacting to trends rather than creating them. This is another nail in the coffin for big record labels, who historically employed thousands of talent scouts and agents who would seek out and groom the stars of tomorrow in local bars and small venues. Take a wild guess what instrument those future-stars would be playing in that dingy working man’s club?
I suppose it’s also vaguely important to talk about prevalent genres in modern music: it’s self-evident that the formation of new guitar-based musical styles has stagnated to an unparalleled low. Djent has seen the most notable rise in popularity, with bands like Animals As Leaders, Periphery, and Tesseract leading the oblique, down-tuned charge. The only problem is that Meshuggah have been making this music for almost 30 years, and every prominent djent act wears this influence firmly on their respective sleeves. In stark contrast, during that same 30 years there have been what’s professionally referred to as a “butt-ton load” of new electronic-based genres; trance, drum ‘n’ bass, rave, hardcore, dubstep, trap, glitch, synthwave, electrohouse and CDM to name a few.
The slow march of time is also an undeniably important factor in the guitar’s slow and steady demise. Look at it this way: There is half a century between children born now and the release of “Electric Ladyland”. People trying to convince new listeners on the merits of guitar by recommending Hendrix is the equivalent of people expecting me to be passionately interested in the musichall songs of the 1930s when I was born in the ‘80s. Music has changed. Music has moved on.
I hate you. Why are you telling me this? What’s the point?!
Don’t be fooled by my frankness. I’m as gutted as you, and I hate being the bearer of bad news to all the noodlers, strummers and shredders out there. If it’s any consolation, to close this article I’d like to offer you a few points of advice based on everything I’ve learnt from this experiment:
- Singles don’t reliably make a lot of money, even if you chart well. Steady album sales, gigging, clever licensing and merch are where the money’s at.
- It’s purely opinion, obviously, but I feel that playing guitar in a band – that moment when it all knits together – when several people become one musical entity – is still one of the most exhilarating, exciting and rewarding experiences a person can have in their life.
- In terms of popular music, however, guitar seems set to join cello and other antiquated instruments, only used to add an ‘organic’ feel to computer generated music. Having said that, maybe we guitarists should embrace that role? Cellists don’t complain about the lack of cello in popular music since the advent of electricity – they’re too busy sending shivers up people’s spines and enjoying their instrument to the full.
- It’s been proved time and time again that learning an instrument – guitar or otherwise – increases measurable intelligence, concentration length, and relieves depression, and unlike all the prescription drugs that do the same thing, there are no nasty side effects. Apart from having way less money. And bleeding fingers, I suppose.
- If you want to start a career in music and are looking for success within a decade, the guitar is a very bad choice. If you want to learn something tactile and tangible, give Maschine, Push, Launchpad, or any synth a shot. They may surprise you with how fun they are to play!
- If you wanted to go solo, acoustic guitar is where it’s at. Vine and YouTube have launched the careers of dozens of chart-toppers, armed with only an acoustic guitar, a catchy tune and a nice voice.
Finally, the point I’d like to leave you with is IGNORE THIS ARTICLE COMPLETELY. Trends are yesterday, not tomorrow. Grab your beautiful, dented, dusty guitar and make the history of the future.
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