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If you recall a couple of months back, an article was released by one of the more mainstream sites talking about the “Death of the Electric Guitar,” and how guitar-based music is going by the wayside and will eventually fade away. That had me thinking, and realistically that’s partially true and partially false. If you pay attention to modern pop music or top 40 songs, then you’ll notice a lack of out-front guitar riffs driving the song. It’s taken a backseat to synths and a plethora of other instruments, or it’s omitted entirely. In other genre’s it’s not quite as bad, but even the likes of Keith Urban and many other country artists are moving away from incredible guitar work to catchier, pop-driven songs. It’s just the nature of the business; it’s what sells. Metal still has a pretty solid foundation, but if you notice it’s not necessarily traditional six-strings doing the heavy lifting. The guitar has taken a step back and become the supporting role again, being layered with effects to make it not even sound like a guitar anymore. You’ll find that even now pedal demos feature not just guitars, but synths as well. All things being said, does that mean the electric guitar is “dying?”
If the electric guitar is dying or is already dead, it’s because the internet and media have killed it. I can read your mind; you’re thinking “What in the heck is he talking about?” Reading that statement out loud, it seems like I’m talking out of my tail, because the internet has made it easier than ever to listen to and interact with some of the greatest musicians on the planet. So how could that possibly kill it? If anything, it has made it even more popular than ever in the music and gear demographic. That’s the exact problem though. Oversaturation and desensitization are slowly killing the electric guitar. Let me explain where my thoughts are coming from.
To start out, let’s back up a few decades…if you’re younger than 25, then you may or may not identify with this as much as some of us who grew up in the dawn of the World Wide Web. From the early days of music, what was the easiest way to hear the latest and greatest music? TV, radio, vinyl, 8-track’s, cassette tapes and compact discs were the only realistic and readily accessible form of listening, aside from catching a band live if they came to your area. I’ve heard many countless stories of guitarists picking up their guitars in the first place due to hearing one of those forms of music when they were growing up, and repeating them until the record was worn out. To hear such incredible music and artistry was mind-blowing with the onset of then-modern technology. Imagine discovering Hendrix for the very first time (many who read this may not need to imagine and were there), or listening to the heavy tones on the first Black Sabbath record.
All of these artists were discovered because they took the time to make a record and tour the music excessively. Concert tickets were cheaper, so it was easier to go out and witness these legendary musicians making their mark in the world during their hey-day. In general life was cheaper, it wasn’t as much of a financial endeavor to go out to a bar and see local music, or you could go to a music festival and hear some of the greatest bands of the era at a single venue. Of course, all of that changed over the years. Cost of living has gone up tremendously over time, where money could be set aside for special events like concerts, they have to go towards bills and rent and daily stuff that life throws at everyone. Let’s not get too far off track though, more on that later. In decades past the tools were fairly limited in regards to gear compared to today, so technical ability was what truly set various famous guitarists apart to put their unique spin on the instrument. These styles defined the very core of what spawned countless guitarists to follow in their footsteps. It was new, exciting and completely groundbreaking.
Let’s come back to the present and see how things have changed. If you’re into guitar and effects and gear, then it’s safe to say that when you go check Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or any other social media apps, there’s a high probability you’ll find someone playing with incredible talent and tone. Could be a random page sharing it, a friend recording a video, or your favorite brand showcasing a new piece of gear. We’re surrounded by guitar pretty much all the time due to algorithms these platforms use to track your viewing habits and all that fun stuff, and eventually, the bar gets raised higher and higher as the videos get better, the players get better, and the tracks get more technically impressive or over the top. Original music has gone from “Three chords and the truth” to have to think outside of the box to truly create something unique. Our idols have spawned some of the most incredible guitarists on the planet regarding technique. Players like Guthrie Govan, Tom Quayle, Jon Gomm, Tosin Abasi just to name a few… all of these players and countless others transcend what we’ve known for decades as great guitar, combining fluidity, note choice, phrasing and overall mastery of their instrument to define a generation by breaking the mold. But, let’s be honest here. If these social media platforms didn’t exist, how many of these great players would you have heard of organically? Again, it’s a different age where we can readily have digital media nearly instantaneously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We’re completely oversaturated on all things gear-related and playing that many find any way possible to break loose from those traditional molds. Hence the rise of more noise-making pedals, glitch effects and some far-out weird stuff, because many players just aren’t content with the sound of a cranked Plexi amp for example, or they don’t want to sound like a particular artist. It’s commendable, because they want to create their unique sound. That being said, it’s gone from straight-forward ripping and shredding to creating ambient textures using pads and synths or octaves, layered delays and reverbs and modulation, extended-range guitars and drop tunings, etc. They produce truly unique tones that are far from traditional but provide a different set of tools to let the player’s internal “voice” be heard. So in that regard, the electric guitar is thriving better than ever. The average musician looking to find something unique and different have more options than ever, with more coming out each month.
On the flip side though, at what point does it go from playing guitar to playing pedals? Joe Bonamassa sparked up some major heat in the guitar community when he was quoted in an interview with MusicRadar saying:
"I’ve really gotten over pedals. I can’t keep up with this craze of boutique pedals that make you sound like everything but your guitar. I can’t get my head around it. So you don’t want to play a guitar [properly] so you buy a box that makes it sound like an algorithm, like you just fired up your computer and you can spend the night staring at your fuckin’ shoes? C’mon man…. I know I’ll get shit for saying this, but it’s fucking lazy. It’s insulting to people who spent 35 years playing and learning, like a lot of players. And we continue to work at it! These guys can barely play a chord but call themselves soundscapists. Get the fuck outta here! It’s bullshit. There’s so much masking and spin going on there. Can we get real for a minute? What do you actually play? Pick up an acoustic guitar… try that!"
Is this his way of voicing his frustration with the drop in focus of guitar-driven music, or was it solely a clickbait scheme to drive social media buzz? I’d suspect a bit of both. Either way, it started a firestorm of anger from guitarists who rely heavily on effects to sculpt their sound.
So, what’s next? Realistically nobody knows. The younger generation has more opportunities than ever to either dive head first into guitar or completely ignore it altogether with the plethora of other options trying to take up their time and money. Will we see another Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix? Maybe, but I doubt in the traditional sense. I think it will be someone pushing the boundaries of current tech, not necessarily TECHNIQUE. It’s an ever-changing landscape that we’re all just along for the ride on, but there’s always the hope the old saying from Stephen King is true “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” Maybe a guitar renaissance is coming in the hopefully not too distant future. The electric guitar isn’t dead; I’d say it’s lying dormant waiting for it’s time to shine again.
I'll leave you with a little fun fact to think about: On January 1st, 1962 the Beatles were turned down for a record contract by Decca with the reasoning that "Guitar groups are on the way out." I guess you just never know what the future holds, right?