The Death of the Electric Guitar?

Who’s saying it’s dying? Well, in case you missed it, there was an article in the Washington Post recently entitled “Why my guitar gently weeps: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care.” It was written by Geoff Edgers who, if you read my Kinks series, is the same guy who went on a quixotic quest to bring the band back together and even made a documentary about it.

In case you can’t see the article, here’s a quick summary:

  • There are more guitar makers than ever before but the market isn’t growing.
  • 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.
  • Guitar Center is $1.6 Billion in debt.
  • Boomers are retiring, downsizing and adjusting to fixed incomes. They’re looking to shed, not add to, their collections, and the younger generation isn’t stepping in to replace them.
  • Once upon a time, guitar culture was pervasive from records to radio to TV to movies (Back to the Future, Crossroads.) Now, not so much.

If in fact, the guitar is in decline, the question is why. Paul McCartney makes a good point: 

“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after. So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there. Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently. They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”

“Music is music,” Linkin Park’s Brad Delson says. “These guys are all musical heroes, whatever cool instrument they play. And today, they’re gravitating toward programming beats on an Ableton. I don’t think that’s any less creative as playing bass. I’m open to the evolution as it unfolds. Musical genius is musical genius. It just takes different forms.”

Ok, so disclaimer. I play guitar and am a great, great lover of guitar in all its forms and styles – acoustic and electric, jazz, blues, rock, flamenco, etc. And to me, improvisation is the height of that skill. So yes, I’m biased.

I want to emphasize some of the points made above, namely that there was at one point in time an environment, a cauldron if you will, in which the guitar could grow. So you had early rockers such as Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, James Burton, Danny Cedrone. (Cedrone played the still awesome solo in “Rock Around the Clock” which inspired, at least, David Gilmour.)

That generation inspired the Brits (Clapton, Alvin Lee, Beck, Page), etc. All of them were playing blues and soloing there was key. And then, of course, the whole British Invasion and the Beatles with George Harrison. Harrison was not a blues-based guitarist or an improviser per se but he was incredibly influential.

So now you have this perfect storm: the cohort of 76 million baby boomers, this brand new thing called rock ‘n roll, the discovery of the largely electric guitar-based blues, and a bunch of incredibly talented musicians willing to experiment. Into this mix drops a (lest we forget) blues-based guitarist named Jimi Hendrix who inspires thousands (millions?) of people to pick up the guitar.

And so that was then. What about now? Well, as mentioned, blues is a big driver of improv lead playing. (As is jazz but jazz was IMHO, never a big driver of the electric guitar, not like rock.) So whither blues today?

Sure there are guys like John Mayer, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark, Jr. etc. But really the last big blues guy – I mean BIG – was Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was not only all over the radio but also all over MTV. But he died in 1990. Bands like Record Company and Black Keys are bluesy but the guitar isn’t primarily for soloing. (I don’t think Record Company even have one.)

And music, like it or not, has changed. There’s still a lot of great rock but it is no longer the dominant force it once was. It’s not in the forefront. That’s not just recent either. Even on a lot of the songs I do hear, like indie rock, I don’t hear a lot of soloing, verily though I wait in vain. Was there much real soloing on a U2 record? REM? And those guys started in the early Eighties.

Point being the guitar’s use as a solo instrument has been declining as a force in popular music for years now. My son is a rock fan for sure but not a big blues fan. He has no desire, as he put it, to shred on guitar. Yet he’s been playing for almost 10 years. He prefers to play textures, soundscapes. It’s not the guitar that’s dead. It’s soloing! Or if not dead, not popular. When’s the last time a song like “Hotel California” (2+ minute solo) or “Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) (1 1/2 minute solo) was mainstream?

There don’t seem to be any real guitar heroes. Or certainly not a ton of them like there used to be, all at the same time. Take a look at Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists when you get a chance. Of the 100, almost half (40) are no longer with us, most are at least In their 50’s, only two are relatively young (Jack White, 41; Derek Trucks, 38. And those guys aren’t new.)

So yeah, that generation is dying off and the new one ain’t hurrying to replace them. Question- if Rolling Stone wanted to do a Top 100 list of today’s guitarists, exclusive of that group, could they do it? I don’t think so.

I want to dispel one idea that Edgers mentioned. He did a TwitterChat on this subject. He said that kids today consider the instrument too hard. That’s just intergenerational “why aren’t they as good as us” bullshit. Being a virtuoso is one thing but that’s not what the article is about. Remember the punks? They couldn’t play shit but they picked up instruments anyway. Some fell away, some learned. The Clash got WAY better.

This is the thing – they always count rock n’ roll and hence the guitar, out. They did that in the early Sixties. “Guitar groups are on their way out,” the Beatles were told. Disco came in, guitars were out. For a while. Then SRV showed up. And the Allmans came surging back. Rock is dead they said in the early Nineties. Then Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam showed up.

From the article: “If there is a singular question in the guitar industry, it’s no different from what drives Apple. How do you get the product into a teenager’s hands? And once it’s there, how do you get them to fall in love with it?

Fender’s trying through lessons and a slew of online tools (Fender Tune, Fender Tone, Fender Riffstation). The Music Experience, a Florida-based company, has recruited PRS, Fender, Gibson and other companies to set up tents at festivals for people to try out guitars. There is also School of Rock, which has almost 200 branches across the country.”

Clearly they aren’t selling as many guitars these days but just as clearly, the electric guitar is still very much around. But a headline that says “Is the electric guitar no longer in the forefront?” just isn’t as sexy or compelling. The Post wrote the headline and worked the facts to support it. (Fake news!) 😂

So bottom line, is the electric guitar dead? Dude, not while I’m around. Of course, I won’t be around forever. So let me here both channel and misquote (the ghost of) Tom Joad:

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look. {Violins swelling.} Wherever there’s a band that needs a guitar – I’ll be there. Wherever there’s blues comin’ down the alley, I’ll be there. [Ladies weeping} When people are listening to Clapton playing “Crossroads,” Hendrix wailing on “Foxey Lady,” or Page laying down “Stairway,” I’ll be there too.” {Academy Award for overemoting goes to Music Enthusiast.}

The electric guitar dead? Not even hardly. Right now there’s some twelve-year-old kid out there – or more likely a whole lot of ’em -who’s gonna knock our socks off one day.

“Long live rock, be it dead or alive.” – Pete Townsend.

Article copyright Washington Post. 

BTW, this guy, who I guess gives online lessons, makes some good points: (suggest avoiding the comments section unless you’re into that sort of thing. They devolve fairly quickly into the usual name-calling.)

43 thoughts on “The Death of the Electric Guitar?

    1. So do I. I think it’ll take another wave of artists for that to happen. My thought is that if Hendrix came along today, he’d still be celebrated but maybe not on as widespread a scale. You need all the elements in place.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Interesting. Thanks for sharing the idea and your thoughts, Jim. I like that comment about differentiating between the guitar (as an instrument) and guitar solos. That seems to make sense (not that I listen to contemporary music, of course).

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    1. Interestingly, the article makes the (unproven) assertion that Taylor Swift may be the most popular influential guitarist as she is frequently seen holding or playing one. At first I thought, give me a break. But then I realized, hey, better to have popular stars playing guitars than not. (All the country music people do.) And if Swift playing guitar leads to a bunch of wannabes but maybe even possibly the next Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell, I’ll take it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think the article misses the point on WHY the electric guitar isnt as popular. Instead of buying 3-4 whole instruments to make a band, one person could just buy an electronic system to play all those instruments and then some. Good article, though. It made some good points

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  3. Good point. I can tell you though that there’s nothing as thrilling as actually playing a given instrument. I suppose someone can get B.B King’s vibrato or David Gilmour’s tone out of some electronic device. But there’s nothing like hearing that from, or playing that on, a guitar.

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  4. There out there Doc you just have to dig. CB is programmed for the sound from an electric guitar. Neil Young’s music is wide ranging but when he turns on the electricity he’s got me. Guys like Trucks are still doing it. The only mainstream sounds I get are by accident but the sound bites that I hear I can’t get away from fast enough. The younger folks I know are still digging all the people you mentioned and new players. Why? Maybe because they’re good. Sales are down because guys like Springsteen are still using the same guitar (a little CB logic).

    As usual you get me going on your pieces. Cliff Gallup, Gene Vincent’s guitarist is in that early list. One of Jeff Becks go to guys. Funny how we intersect sometimes. 1537’s piece that I borrowed on Fu Manchu is one long guitar riff. Might not be everyone’s style but Bob Balch is on lead guitar and he’s good. Gold star for this one Doc.

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    1. Agreed that they’re out there. But the article seems to miss that point. The guy in that video I posted mentioned that he reads a mag called ‘Prog’ that deals with prog-rock and is just loaded with guitar stuff. (And BTW, there are at least three guitar magazines I can think of that are going strong.) Effectively, rock and roll has gone back underground and maybe, who knows, better for it. Anyway, I needed to say something about this and I wanted to post it in case guys like you and other blog denizens missed that article. Seems like there’s a point to be made but he missed it. I’ve got that 1537 disc in the queue for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You nailed it. I like that it has always been on the outside. It’s all about keeping that edge for me. So many good guitarists. And they come from all genres. 1537 likes his heavy music. This one appealed to me. Why I keep my mind and ears open. Keep the passion burning.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A bit of a depressing account, especially for those of us who play guitar!

    I also recall seeing McCartney’s statement somewhere. I’m afraid he’s right!

    But, I’m definitely not with Linkin Park’s Brad Delson. Call me old-fashioned, but to me there is a difference between creating music that’s essentially computer-generated and music that involves something called instruments and true craftsmanship!

    Nothing can ever replace a real guitar, a real bass, a real set of drums and a real piano or organ, to name some of the core instruments. And let’s also not forget about the value of strong vocals!

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  6. Well, only depressing if it’s the spot-on truth which I don’t believe it is. I mean, McCartney’s telling it like it is. But there are other things. For example, I mentioned in comments (didn’t think of it for post) that I know of at least three guitar magazines that I buy on a semi-regular basis. I just bought one the other day. Somebody’s reading these. I was talking to somebody on Reddit and he said that one reason guitar sales are down is simple – the market is flooded with cheap knockoffs they can buy online. Kids don’t need a fucking Les Paul. Let them work their way up. I started with a Sears Silvertone. And the guy in the video said he reads a prog magazine online all the time. It’s like CB said, it’s out there but you gotta know where to look. And to your point, yeah, electronic music will replace live bands when robots completely replace human beings.

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  7. Interesting piece and a lot of good debate here too.
    Like you say “music moving away from the only cool instrument available at one time” isn’t such a headline grabber and we live in a world where journalism is often sacrificed for clickbait.
    I have this theory that greed is to blame for a lot of it. If you look back I’d say mainstream music has experienced a sort of paradigm shift every decade, be it the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll and it’s going mainstream with that guy with the sideburns from Tupelo making someone like Frank swear inwardly or the King’s own eyebrows twitching in the same way when four blokes from Liverpool appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

    There was leather and mohawks then hairspray then flannel and Dr Martins… each time the medium of the era broke a new sound into the mainstream and the currents shifted to incorporate it as fans and purveyors of the former either embraced or were washed over by it (it’s no bad thing that Nirvana and co killed off so much hair metal).

    My theory is that the greed and birth of shows like X-Factor and Wherever Has ‘Talent’ via those mediums has, in fact, stood on the hose pipe and stopped that evolution (which is happening) reaching the mainstream as they’re now dictating what should be popular. They can make a not-so-small fortune as both networks and individuals by getting some dreamer from a supermarket checkout to over-sing someone else’s song in time for a Christmas number one year after year and churn out pop bands with ever-shorter lifespans one after the other all the while the show still attracts ratings. Over here there’s a big who-ha about who will be number one at Christmas and the bookies are taking bets on “X-Factor Winner” as odds-on favourite long before that year’s show has even finished it’s cattle-call process. To me that essentially proves my theory: the fact that a song will sell not because the artist is popular but because the producers of these shows tell the audience it is and push it on radio with the same orders to consume. It’s not because people don’t want to get out and have their fingers dance over the frets it’s because the mainstream media is now effectively muzzled. Those ‘guitar’ bands that do get played mustn’t dare use it in a threatening way or they’ll lost the privilege of airplay.

    There’s also, of course, the growth and explosion of rap and R&B into a sort of parallel mainstream. I say parallel as while music is music they very rarely cross over and we’re talking guitars here.

    I’m gonna also side with the theory posited by others – it is still there but, because the mainstream is too busy with this year’s boy band with doodles on their arms, you’ve gotta know where to look. The ever changing outlet possibilities raised by the internet means more and more bands can and are doing it for themselves and there’s still some great soloing out there.

    Far from dead, just biding it’s time to tear it up again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent point. The simultaneous corporatization and dumbing-down of music is something that hasn’t really come up yet in my discussions here and on Reddit. (I posted this piece there. Some idiot wrote back and said, “SRV was NOT all over MTV” as if that was my central thesis or if it really mattered.) A TV show debuted here last month called “Boy Band.” Wikipedia: “The 10-episode first season features young male vocalists competing to become a member of a new five-piece boy band. The winning singers who form the boy band will receive a recording contract with Hollywood Records and perform the band’s debut single on the show.” Fucking shoot me now.

      Also, I don’t know how radio is these days in Old Blighty but here terrestrial radio sucks – as my grandpappy used to say – donkey dick. We had about 1/2 dozen excellent FM stations including WBCN, one of the founders of underground radio, and WFNX, a great “alternative station” ‘BCN died in 2009, ‘FNX in 2012. This was a major, major blow to local radio that played this type of music and from which we have never really recovered. ‘BCN was especially telling as they had been doing it since 1967 when they played their first song, “I Feel Free” by Cream. Sure, we still have satellite. But you’ve gotta pay for it, meaning, as we all agree, you’ve gotta go looking for it.

      I think that next paradigm shift is coming. I just don’ t know when. “Calling Elvis. Is anybody home?”

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      1. Terrestrial radio here does pretty much fellate the mule too. Those commercial shows that do try and play alternative have such a limited playlist that it gets a bit tiring. I tend to stick with just the one for my commute and they will play some good stuff but.. not enough.
        I need to look into switching to digital but in terms of priorities….
        Great final reference by the way

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        1. Satellite here is $273/year. As the advertisers like to say, “just pennies per day!” If they double it, I’ll still pay it. I ain’t rich but in the grand scheme of things, not overwhelmingly expensive. I probably paid multiples of that for car repairs (own three) last year so, screw it. As to the quote, popped into my head at the last moment. Have to serialize those blokes one day.

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        2. I’m not sure there’s a charge for radio here, just a case of replacing the stereo in the car (mine missed the factory-standard upgrade by six months).
          There may be argument for 80’s era Knopfler and his headband on MTV making the solo less attractive to a younger audience…

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  8. Satellite can’t be free over there, can it? I can’t imagine they’d charge here and make the rest of the world free.

    As to Knopfler, you’ve commented in strong terms about him before and I wasn’t sure why. We love him over here. Now I understand. It’s the headband! 😀

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  9. Interesting topic. I never think about an instrument “dying” or “disappearing.” There are just popularity ups and downs. Electric guitar will always be around, it’s just on a downswing right now. Baby boomers getting older and mellowing out, combined with young people who don’t know about, or care for, blues music or early rock ‘n’ roll. I’m sure there’ll be a resurgence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, well and succinctly said. Alas, your future as a newspaper reporter on these things is seriously constrained. The Post needed an “interest-generating” headline and as noted in other comments, one that said something like “The Guitar as Lead Instrument in Music: Somewhat in the background now but bound to resurge” would have garnered interest but little emotion. And in some quarters, outrage.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. BTW. that’s not to say that you love or should love AC/DC ‘coz you’re an Aussie. Just that if you use the words ‘Australian’ and ‘guitar’ to the average American rock fan, there is only one name.

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  10. I do love me a bit of Aka-daka but I picked 3 young bands to show the stereotype is not the whole picture. Sure, electronic music is probably more popular with the younger listeners but not to the exclusion of other forms. My son and his 20 something friends love Jazz for instance.

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  11. My millennial daughter’s taste is pretty wide-ranging and eclectic. She loves the Indispensable 150 Oldies I posted, is into Broadway, Disney soundtracks, Twenties jazz, Forties big-band and current stuff. She played sax and clarinet from grade school up through college and between that and dear old dad’s record collection, assimilated quite a bit.

    My son had the same influences but I think his palette is tighter and more directly rock-oriented. Neither one of them (alas) much gives a damn about blues .My son once asked me to make up a random collection of songs on a couple of CDs. I tried to be fairly diverse but it didn’t do it for him at all. I took the CD’s out of his car and a year later he hadn’t noticed. (Sob). At least he plays guitar. His style couldn’t possibly be different from mine. He can’t play blues, I can’t play what to me sounds like Edge stuff. That said, he told me he and his bandmates are very heavily influenced be the guys who were in My Chemical Romance. What I’ve heard of those guys is very good.

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    1. I feel like blues has become kind of a niche thing now (maybe everything has). People often like the bands who have been influenced by blues a lot more than the actual bands who were the inspiration. I suspect blues can seem a little culturally irrelevant to those raised in the tech age. Songs about holes in buckets and the tribulations of life in the Delta probably don’t speak all that loudly to the smartphone generation.

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      1. Actually, blues has always been a niche thing, at least here in the States. Many blues (and jazz) performers wind up playing and/or living in Europe where they can actually make a living. Both are much more respected genres there than in their home country. About the only time I can recall in my life where blues was less “niche-y” is the late Sixties, early Seventies. That is absolutely the height of widespread blues saturation here. (Butterfield Blues Band, Joplin, Hendrix, Doors, Ten Years After, Allmans, Savoy Brown, Robin Trower, Canned Heat – the list goes on and on.) And even then it wasn’t mainstream. But given the vast amount of boomers, it was fairly widespread (in an underground kinda way.)

        But the Delta language of which you speak is largely relegated to country blues. “Modern” blues – at least since Muddy Waters in the Forties – was less about that and more about the standard heartbreak stuff – my woman left me, I drink too much, my woman left me ‘coz I drink too much, I’m broke but as soon as I get my paycheck (Friday) I’ll blow it on wine, women, and song (broke by Saturday). ( All songs, by law, must start with “I woke up this morning.”) In this, blues has much more in common with country music. Just two different ways of getting to the same place. (Although in country music, they have more trucks and, I believe, dead dogs.)

        But blues is by no means all downbeat. Much of it is fun, upbeat and danceable if you’re into that sort of thing. But at the end of the day, my guess is the average person – not just millennial – thinks of it in the terms you’ve described it regardless of how I might try to convince otherwise. But I’ve learned to live with that because – SRV aside – blues has been back to being a niche for some 40 years now.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I kinda love country blues (the most depressing blues of all). I love the more straight ahead variety too, though. Some of the best party gigs I ever went to were blues bands and though you’re right, it was always niche, there were always bands playing around the local pubs where ever I’ve lived. That’s changed over the past few years. You really have to look for it now.

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  13. Mr. Jim S, THAT WAS AN AWESOME POST MAN!! I’m 19 and I am completely obsessed with the guitar, I currently own an acoustic but am scraping together some cash to buy a Les Paul Epiphone. Your post was totally awesome and I had a blast reading it sir! I recently wrote a post on my blog, “The Top 10 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”, check it out if you have some time, I think you’d like it. Keep up the great work!

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        1. Yeah, nice to see the young dudes getting into the game. BTW, random question for CB: He has to go to a desert island for a while and can only bring the recordings of one band, Kinks or the Band. Which does he bring?

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        2. They will always be getting into the game. The music speaks to them. I think Woody Guthrie said something like “That’s why there’s that other music so we can listen to this stuff”. (Bruce Springsteen ‘Sings The Kinks and The Band’)

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        3. Woody wasn’t kind to the commercial music, people were listening to. I’m kinda in that group myself. There’s always going to be people like us Doc. When they hear that special sound, they are going to stop what they’re doing and say ‘Man does that sound good!!” Think of all those riffs that come to your head right away, ‘Purple Haze’ ‘Layla’….. Can’t deny it.

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  14. Do we know if this data includes sales of second hand guitars? I would imagine a lot of people are going vintage which could be skewing the results?

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    1. No I don’t think the article mentioned that. Someone else suggested that as a likely contributor to the issue. Unfortunately that inconvenient fact didnt fit in with the Post’s narrative.

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  15. i enjoyed this post. i agreed with alot of the things you said. my taste in music is very similar to yours and im twelve years old and alot of my friends listen to “popular music” and well… it sucks. I play guitar and pretty much ALL my friends DONT play guitar or even an instrument at all!

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    1. Well, keep on going. A lot of rockers started at your age. The teenage years are great for learning as you suck up the information at a more rapid pace. Suggestion – find some friends that like music and want to play. You might find it rewarding. Thanks for checking in.

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