Believe it or not, the end of the guitar may be near—and the digital era is to blame, in part. Seriously, the age of classic guitar bands, strumming country stars, and acoustic coffee shop crooners is waning. Don’t believe me? Just turn on your radio or streaming music service and listen. Other than those in specified playlists, how many pure, guitar-driven acts are in the top 10 or 100 list?
Hip hop, rap, electronica, and other forms of music have taken over the industry—and their popularity is so great that even traditional guitar acts have crossed over. Former country music darling Taylor Swift segued from a guitar playing star to a hip hop cross-over act a few years ago and is going even deeper into the territory on her latest release. Following in her footsteps is Ed Sheeran, who’s guitar-driven tunes are being accompanied by more and more electronica and canned beats. And yes, they both did a hip hop song and video together.
The Changing Tastes of Music Listeners
The current climate in music isn’t some weird anomaly. Musical tastes have been changing for centuries. For a long time, there was what we call “classical” music. Eventually, other genres of music came to be—each morphing from one thing into something else. Big band and standards occupied the early days of radio, along with classical and jazz. Somewhere during that time, country, blues, R&B, soul, bluegrass, rockabilly, rock and roll, disco, punk, new wave/alternative/college radio, rap, hip-hop, modern jazz, techno, heavy metal, grunge, electronica, indie, post-punk, ambient, etc. all came to be. Now, we exist in a mainly guitar-less, dance/hip hop musical environment. And that too will probably change. Someday, we may very well be bopping around to the beeps and boops of neo-minimalist, robot code-rock. And maybe, after that, the love of guitar music will make a huge comeback. But right now, it’s a dying art.
People also listen to music differently. Long gone are the days of blasting it out of a Hi-Fi or boombox. Nowadays, many listen on their laptops, iPods, and cell phones. A large amount of young people have no problem listening to tunes with just one earphone in. It’s probably because they’re more concerned with checking their social media accounts or learning how to read text messages from another phone without installing software.
The State of Guitar Buying
Gibson, one of the biggest guitar makers in history, is on the brink of bankruptcy. A large part of their financial issues stem from their owner trying to grow their brand in order to keep up with the times. He borrowed and invested a lot of money to make Gibson Guitars a music industry go-to—like Guitar Center. However, the huge investment, drop in production quality, and increasing lack of interest in guitar playing by the public made it impossible for the company to pay back their loan.
And speaking of Guitar Center, they too are having their problems. According to industry professionals, the biggest reason is that people just aren’t into the guitar. They don’t want to take the time to learn the instrument. Why? Learning to play the guitar is hard. It takes real dedication. The reward isn’t instantaneous. Also? It hurts. Physically. So, why would a kid want to do that when he can go and create an entire rock opera on his laptop with just a few keystrokes?
The Circle of Death
How did this guitar death knell begin? I suppose it started with the advent of synthesizers (which, in a way, replaced the piano—which, in a way, replaced the harpsichord). Eventually, electronic engineers learned to do more with these instruments to create the technology that we have today. Yeah, it’s sad and a little scary, but a lot of what they did and what’s come from it is fantastic. Music may change, but it’s still music. And guitarists really shouldn’t get mad at how the technology changed things. After all, engineering altered their favorite instrument once upon a time (ie: the electric guitar).
Disco started the whole dance music thing back in the late 1970s. Dance got huge with hip hop and then electronic forms of music. Then, somewhere along the way, seemingly everything became dance music. Eventually, people got hooked on this type of music and recording companies started hiring more of these acts and less guitar ones. Somehow, this paved the way to indie music (which was sort of a newer version of college rock). However, indie music (which is short for independent, because a band doesn’t belong to a professional label) started incorporating non-guitar acts (like hip hop, dance, and electronica)—which brings us back around to why the guitar business is slowly dying.
Add to that the case that there aren’t really any modern rock gods around. No new Hendrix. No new Clapton. No new Van Halen. No new Slash. Yeah, there are still great axe players out there, but they aren’t worshipped by the masses. That means there’s no one out there trying to emulate them. No one bothering to learn the guitar. And possibly, even more disheartening … no one playing air guitar.
How the Digital Age is Helping the Guitarist
One of an independent musician’s best friends is social media and YouTube. YouTube is an incredible outlet for musicians to post their songs and promote their bands. Social media helps them reach out and stay in touch with fans. These tools, along with the technology to capture and produce one’s own work easily and affordably, have made it possible for the unknown artist to be seen and heard. The only problem is getting noticed—which has always been the case. But at least with the digital outreach, they have a fighting chance. The question is: is this enough? Can the guitar survive in this changed world or will it go the way of classical music and harpsichord? Still existing yet nowhere near the forefront of people’s interests. I guess only time will tell.
What’s your opinion? Are you a fan of today’s music? Do you play guitar? Tell us in the comments section below.