Strum und Drag:
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
Has Guitar Music Lost Its Innovation and Relevance?
ONE of the biggest changes I have noted about modern music…
IN THIS PHOTO: Wolf Alice (one of the most impressive British bands of the moment)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty
is the transition from guitar-based songs to other forms of sound – modern electronic-produced music and variations. Maybe I hark to better times like the 1990s: the last real explosion of profitable guitar-based music. I suppose bands like The Strokes and The Libertines had relevance and pull over a decade ago – the scene seems to have dwindled since then. Not only has the value and strength of the electric guitar waned: acoustic songwriters are not as impressive and prominent as once were. The excitement has gone out of this side of music. What are the reasons behind this, then? Before I look at tastes, guitar lessons and the examples set by the mainstream – a quick glance at guitar sales from the U.S. Looking at a piece from the Washington Post - and it seems fewer people are picking up the guitar:
“The numbers back him up. In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt. And at Sweetwater.com, the online retailer, a brand-new, interest-free Fender can be had for as little as $8 a month.
Over the past three years, Gibson’s annual revenue has fallen from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion, according to data gathered by Music Trades magazine. The company’s 2014 purchase of Philips’s audio division for $135 million led to debt — how much, the company won’t say — and a Moody’s downgrading last year. Fender, which had to abandon a public offering in 2012, has fallen from $675 million in revenue to $545 million. It has cut its debt in recent years, but it remains at $100 million”.
That article was written a few months ago and provides a small glimpse into the problem we have. If one looks at the breakdowns by manufacturer and type – acoustic and electric guitar – and one notices sales figures are declining and troublesome. I suppose interest in the guitar starts at childhood: are children asking for guitars as presents? Maybe the rise of modern technology means one can simulate the guitar without having to pick one up – many youngsters are asking for tablets and various gadgets for presents; as opposed to more conventional and traditional gifts. I remember asking for an acoustic guitar when I was younger – I failed to master it within hours so, naturally, disposed of it! – and that makes me wonder why there is a bit of a dip in fortunes.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
What commentators are noticing is how, even though there is a sales-dip; the electric guitar is out-selling acoustic. I will come to look at artists who might inspire this but it is interesting fewer guitars are making their way into the hands of our potential musicians. Perhaps prices are too high and patience is low. Does one have the discipline to learn the guitar and master their craft? Every year we embrace technology more: the less time we explore instruments and handle anything physical and challenging. There are those keen to preserve the self-taught method – fewer people are going to guitar tutors in 2017. I worry fewer children are getting into the guitar: fewer are taking up piano and it seems music learning and fascination is moving in another direction. Music is in a strong state but I can see certain genres fading – other styles coming to prominence and replacing the old order. Maybe the sheer dedication and cost needed to learn the guitar is putting many off. Even a decent acoustic guitar can set one back £100 or more. You put lessons into the mix and, before you have recorded a song, your wallet is considerably lighter. A lot of our music academies and schools are promoting courses like Production and Vocals – guitar not as emphasised as previous days. Technology, as I say, makes it easy to replicate guitar sounds: musicians and the curious are producing entire songs on tablets and laptops.
IN THIS PHOTO: Goat Girl (another guitar band who have the potential to add potency and potential to the scene)
Electric guitars, in my mind, have always been featured in bands – fewer solo artists play them. The opposite is true of acoustic guitar, so, perhaps, it is easier succeeding as a solo artist? There might be some truth there but all of these debates and findings can be linked to what one can observe in modern music. I will bring in an article from Guitar Player – who go into extreme depth about the decline (or uncertainty) of guitar music. What I find is there are two types of guitar-playing musician: the acoustic-strumming solo artist and the electric guitar-fuelled band. Sure, there are solo artists who play electric guitar – fewer bands with an acoustic element; maybe Americana and Country acts – and a real split between the mainstream and underground. I am hearing a lot of promising guitar bands who are unsigned and away-from-the-mainstream. Plenty of acoustic solo artists capable of providing something deep and meaningful – tinged with energy and exciting. The reason many people take up instruments is down to their favourite artists - on the radio and in the charts. When was the last time we got really excited about guitar bands?! For every underappreciated IDLES, there is an overrated Royal Blood – there is a quality imbalance that means few people are excited about guitar music. I want to review and look at the quality of guitar sounds but, before I do, a look at the Guitar World article:
“The intense pull of that rock-star dream was probably no different than our fervent desires to be astronauts, fighter pilots, or super heroes in our pre-teen years, but acquiring the skills to play guitar was infinitely more achievable than developing x-ray vision or indestructibility. So we got our hands on typically horrendously bad guitars and often suffered our way to competence—and, hopefully, a path to technical and creative excellence. And most of us have stayed dedicated to the guitar throughout the decades, and we will likely continue this devotion until our hands can no longer manage a ragged version of “Hey Joe.”
IN THIS PHOTO: Royal Blood (whose latest album, How Did We Get So Dark? failed to add much to their debut)
But this is a story of an age gone by.
While society—and history—can be cyclical, there is no current globally seductive force such as “The Beatles,” “Jimi-Jimmy-Jeff-and-Eric,” “The Sex Pistols,” “Stevie Ray Vaughan,” “Nirvana,” “Unplugged,” or “Green Day” to drive an explosion of young people starting bands or solo acts and buying epic numbers of guitars and guitar gear. In fact, even if there were a 2017 version of “The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964,” would it be compelling enough to inspire Millennials to launch a million bands?”
There are still plenty willing to play the guitar but there isn’t the same sort of freshness and interest there was when I was young. Guitar manufacturers are developing products making it easier to learn the instrument – many become frustrated they do not have an instant aptitude and affiliation. One of the most pleasing aspects of guitar music is more women coming onto the scene. Bands like Honeyblood and PINS are putting female guitar players into the spotlight and inspiring others (women) to take up the instrument.
IN THIS PHOTO: Jimi Hendrix/PHOTO CREDIT: David Redfern/Redferns
Although there is sexism and imbalance in music: the shift away from a 'men-only' attitude to guitars is fading. That is a good thing but my concern is with the quality and excitement we have with guitar sounds – are the best of the bunch really pushing guitar music forward? It is great to see women tackling the guitar with as much passion as men – responsible for keeping sales healthy, if not spectacular. One of the main reasons a lot of girls/young women are picking up the guitar is artists like Taylor Swift. Times have changed so much - people are asking whether acts like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page are as significant as Taylor Swift – when it comes to young people picking up the guitar. Ed Sheeran is someone who will inspire many to take up the guitar. Female artists are promoting videos on YouTube with more and more releasing music through D.I.Y. methods – streaming them online and avoiding the studio.
IN THIS PHOTO: Taylor Swift
Any interaction with the guitar is valid and impressive. I wonder whether the status and quality of the artists getting people into guitar music are leading a problem of blandness and generic music? My fear around guitar music’s health is more aimed at electric sounds and bands – fewer electric guitars seem to be making their way onto YouTube when compared with the acoustic guitar. I am pleased, regardless of who inspires it, more people are picking up the guitar. One can quibble and debate whether sales are falling significantly and whether fewer people are taking up lessons – I would argue there is enough to be worried about – but it seems traditional music shops are not as prolific as once they were. A lot of young players who arrive on YouTube focus on cover songs – few have their own material at that stage. One of the things that concern me about surveys – young women asked why they play guitar – are names like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. They both play Pop music – albeit it different sides of the spectrum – and hardly the most exhilarating and original artists out there. I wonder whether the rise in acoustic guitar sales is because of great and reputable players – or those mainstream artists who represent the worst side of the industry. Taylor Swift is hardly known for her guitar chops so I wonder whether the fact she is famous and popular is more important than the quality of her music?!
IN THIS PHOTO: Ed Sheeran/PHOTO CREDIT: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
I grew up listening to bands like Oasis and Manic Street Preachers who, during the 1990s, created some of the finest music ever. I listened to a lot of the best bands of the 1970s; legendary 1960s examples and musicians who knew how to captivate and entrance. I am glad acoustic guitar artists like Ed Sheeran have a career but there is very little to get excited about. Many would argue acoustic music has never been exciting. That is contentious but, when considering the best artists, they were interesting, inspiring and different. Consider everyone from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to Nick Drake and Muriel Anderson. They could write incredibly intricate and beautiful songs that got into the heart: the acoustic guitar a pivotal guide and entrancing component! I hear a lot of great underground/unsigned artists and have hope they will inspire future generations. Thinking about the current crop of acoustic artists and the mind goes to solo performers: it does, unfortunately, draw a few blanks. I find so many solo artists are relying on electronics or placing the guitar very low in the mix. Even artists who expose the acoustic guitar – Folk, Americana and Pop, for instance – struggle to create anything truly exceptional. There are exceptions but, for the most part, I find myself unmoved and bored by a lot of acoustic guitar music. The fingerpicking can appear limited and narrow; the melodies predictable and formulaic. Tastes have changed so we will never have another big Folk movement as we did in the 1960s and 1970s. The mainstream media are hooked on what is seen as ‘cool’ and ‘fashionable’ – how likely are they to feature newcomers and unsigned guitar players?!
IN THIS PHOTO: Oasis
One of the biggest problems at the moment is low confidence in the mainstream. There is too much sugary, stale Pop: genres like Folk pushed aside and, the best artists from that side, bringing in other genres and tastes. Some of the most influential musicians have all time have wielded an acoustic guitar – able to transfix listeners and create spellbinding lines. Where are the modern legends and those doing incredible things with an acoustic guitar?! You can see parallels when it comes to band-made electric sounds. A lot of the guitar magazines and media hark back to the times of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. I wonder why we have very few modern equivalent and struggle to name any new electric guitar geniuses? The best I can think of – Jack White, Matt Bellamy and Queens of the Stone Age (if we are naming bands) – have been around for years and have already inspired millions. Where are their replacements ready to pick up the mantle? In the same way there are few acoustic guitar innovators: it is a stretch naming a lot of great Rock bands and guitar players who can get us truly hooked and seduced. I think of the best albums of this year and, aside from Queens of the Stone Age; guitar-led music is pretty low down the list – most of my favourite albums of the year are not guitar-heavy.
That is worrying when we are looking around for modern-day Eric Claptons and Jimmy Pages. We need to showcase the best guitarists out there and ensure guitar music does not die out. I am given hope seeing a lot of great female Rock bands emerge and some terrific Indie acts coming through at the moment. Most of them will struggle to break to the mainstream soon because there is still that demand for Pop and what is considered commercial. Away from those few bands here and there; one finds very few standout guitarists. Guitar magazines hark back to the old days and the guitar boys: there are a lot of great female newcomers and artists showing what they are made of. Is the fact we have a rather indeterminate and underfed guitar mainstream stem from the lack of exposure our best talent is afforded? I want to quote from the previous article which explores how education and guitar competitions might change the mind of the mainstream and magazines:
“The time-honored way to reach new players has been through education. The publishing industry is always a big part of that endeavor, and tech-oriented manufacturers such as BOSS, Fishman, Line 6, and others have long supported their artists and product managers getting out in the field and explaining how to make sounds with their gear. Many times, of course, these seminars correspond to a particular product, but, at times, also share general information on tone creation along with power-user tips.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Line 6, for example, offers its Tone Made Pro seminars around its Helix multi-effects processor for guitar, but details the building blocks of some classic tones during the discussion. The nuts-and-bolts details of tone construction by guitar heroes such as The Edge, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and others can certainly be transferred to digital processors by other manufacturers, and even accomplished in the analog realm if a player has the time and budget to col- lect a bunch of actual amps and pedals and physically recreate the signal paths learned in the seminar.
“For 20 years, we have analyzed every nuance of the guitar amps, cabs, and effects used to create the most recognizable tones ever,” said Marcus Ryle, Line 6’s co-founder and President. “Now, we can use this expertise to help guitarists expand their knowledge and create the next generation of legendary tones.”
Another route to seduce engagement is to inspire young players to share their music. Again, music publications often run contests where guitar stars and/or editors rate audio files or YouTube videos from solo artists and bands. The idea here is to provide a thrilling “end use” for a guitarist’s creative toil and trouble, and hopefully inspire them to continue working their way towards popular acclaim. (GP recently relaunched its Guitar Player Records imprint in order to provide players a professional venue to distribute their instrumental-guitar music.)
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
In a similar vein, Ernie Ball has produced its Battle of the Bands program for a few years now, inviting unsigned acts to vie for the opportunity to perform on big stages at major music events. Other companies also have competitions from time to time where bands can win gear, perform with their heroes, or get booked on killer tours—all for simply having the ambition to create some music and share it with either the public and/or their contest judges.
On the face of it, these initiatives are directed at people who already have some facility with their instruments, rather than beginners. But a beginner could be energized by seeing a friend’s band win a contest, or intrigued by having someone enthusiastically relate what they had learned at a seminar. The trick here would be the next step: How do we transform that interest into action, and get the novice to risk picking up a guitar and trying it out for themselves?”.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Amazons (whose eponymous debut album failed to truly ignite)/PHOTO CREDIT: SHOT BY PHOX
Interesting points are raised but the fact remains: what we have in the public gaze is not good enough. Those acoustic artists that cause chills with their finger-picking and incredible compositions are a rarity. A few Folk albums from last year stunned me; a couple of great albums this year. Not only are there few standout acoustic guitar artists sticking in the memory: the genuinely great and promising are struggling to get their music played on popular stations. It is fine being inspired by musicians, but I fear big mainstream stars like Taylor Swift are not going to produce the next generation of guitar innovators – even if, in a good way, more girls get into the guitar because of her. Ed Sheeran is one of the world’s biggest Acoustic artists but his music makes me a little bored and disconnected Few of his songs contain great chord sequences and intriguing choruses; there aren’t the big names there once were or artists you feel a true bond to. Perhaps there are a lot out there: the fact they have not come to public attention means we need to make changes and addresses this issue. It is great seeing so many types of music and genres mixing alongside one another. I yearn to discover great acoustic guitar players who are saying something interesting. If the bland and commercial are the reason so many people are picking up guitars then that is going to create a pattern we will struggle to break. A lot of the most-popular guitar bands such as Foo Fighters and Royal Blood, in my view, lack real clout and originality. We need to unearth those bands, female or male, that can push guitar music to the masses...
IN THIS PHOTO: Girl Ray (a fantastic trio who mixes 1990s Britpop and modern Alternative in a dreamy blend)
A lot of mainstream riffs have teeth but lack nuance; the playing does not have the same electricity and richness as Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page – perhaps those are lofty ideals but it is possible to get to within touching distance of their majesty. Modern guitar music is not even close to that giddy peak. Worse than that; it is boring and instantly forgettable. I wonder why there aren't more guitar solo artists – like Jack White, for example – and band-music all blends into one another. I admit it would be naïve to assume there are no great guitar bands or solo artists – I can rattle a few names, at the very least. They are in the minority and a lot of those guitar acts we are force-fed are rather tired and routine. Paul Weller, in a recent article, was interviewed about guitar music - and his thoughts on its well-being:
“The former Jam frontman struggles to think of many rock bands that have caught his attention lately and says he is more of a fan of hip-hop like Kendrick Lamar, with the exception of singer/songwriter Lucy Rose and his pals in Syd Arthur and Savoy Motel.
He admitted: "I find it insipid at the moment. I can't think of any guitar bands, English bands anyway, at the moment.
"I quite like an American band called Savoy Motel; I like their last record. And Syd Arthur I really love - they're mates as well, I really like them.
IN THIS PHOTO: Lucy Rose/PHOTO CREDIT: Harry Wade/Press
"Lucy Rose has got a new album coming out in the next few months that's really great. There are a lot of great individual records and individuals really."
On the R&B stars he is into, he added: "I like the J Hus single 'Did You See' - that's really good. Band-wise, nothing's really moving me at the moment, but there's some good R&B things. I like the Anderson .Paak record and I liked Kendrick Lamar's album."
Lucy Rose slipped my mind - but she is someone giving guitar music a good name. Like Laura Marling, Billie Marten and This Is the Kit – great female artists added something new and beautiful to guitar music. What of the bands and the new breed of heroes? Weller, as he says, prefers Hip-Hop and finds more innovation and relevance in people like Kendrick Lamar. Jim Reid, of The Jesus and Mary Chain, added his voice when chatting with NME:
“There’s not much of guitar music left at the moment, I don’t hear many guitar bands out there,” frontman Jim Reid told NME. “It’s kinda pushed underground, guitar music seems to be limping at the moment.
“You can’t tell the difference now between a pop act and a rock band, the production makes them almost identical.”
A big problem lies with what artists are talking about – and what they are not saying. A lot of the guitar wizards of the 1960s and 1970s were articulating a desire that was hanging in the air. Many of the 1990s’ best guitar bands were part of Britpop – at a time when a lot of working-class artists were speaking about what was happening in real life. In fact, a lot of the finest acoustic artists of the past engaged their audience with something relevant and deep. I find a lot of the modern acoustic equivalent is still hooked on love. Even those who do not remain on Relationship Road are not tackling what is happening in the world. This is true of guitar bands who are unwilling to venture from territory they feel is safe and profitable. We are in a state of confusion and separation and, whilst a lot of U.S. Hip-Hop artists – and some of our emerging talent like Loyle Carner – are reflecting what is happening in their country – where are those acts documenting the trouble in which we find ourselves?! It seems, as with America, our Urban artists are the most honest and conscientious. Too few guitar bands either shy away from such areas or feel ill-suited to adequately voice the stress and uncertainty percolating. Armed with electric guitars and a Rock/Indie spirit – one would hope a raft of bands would step up to the plate and provide the kick the music industry needs. In an article published by Music Radar, today, in fact; Eric Clapton's provided his thoughts:
“I didn't realise it was that bad,” said Clapton. “My kids listen to classic rock, but that may only be because of me, because that’s what I’ve played to them. I mean, from the time of their conception, they’ve been listening to music through the womb. I played them playlists, just brainwashed my kids, and at the back of it was always the guitar or some kind of solo instrument or a singer.
“My belief in music is it’s all good. It’s all good. Even stuff that doesn’t appear to be so, it’s all good. I don’t know. Maybe the guitar is over.”
Perhaps it is down to the next generation to deliver that punch but I feel guitar music today, whilst offering some incredible artists, is struggling to…
IN THIS PHOTO: Eric Clapton/PHOTO CREDIT: ©WARREN TODA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
DELIVER any real meaning and inspiration.