I'm familiar enough with Geoff Edgers' accomplishments to understand that he's an excellent journalist and writer, who is well-versed in the areas of arts and performance from a broad cultural perspective. He's certainly qualified to comment on the current state of the electric guitar.
His recent article, entitled "The Slow, Secret Death of the Six-String Electric," has gained a tremendous amount of publicity and traction, and has (predictably) made a significant impact in the guitar-playing community at large.
I believe that Edgers' comments, while reasonably researched and well thought out, are incomplete and over-dramatized to such an extent that he greatly exaggerates the presumed "death" of the electric guitar.
This is my response to his piece, which I hope will counter-balance some of the anxiety that it may have produced within the guitar community.
Is "sustainability" really a problem?
Edgers' article starts out with a video-graphic of a green electric guitar on fire, which becomes dramatically more burnt as the reader scrolls towards the bottom of the piece. It's meant to convey the slow but certain demise of a once powerful and iconic piece of the music industry.
One of Edgers' premises is a matter of simple economics.
He refers to several quotes by long-time music dealer and Nashville native George Gruhn, none more dire-sounding than the following:
“There are more makers now than ever before in the history of the instrument, but the market is not growing,” Gruhn says in a voice that flutters between a groan and a grumble. “I’m not all doomsday, but this — this is not sustainable.”
Gruhn, whether he realizes it or not, is using language that is often thrown around when trying to predict and speculate about economic realities that have yet to become solid science.
Whenever you hear the words "sustainable" or "sustainability," in this context, you're hearing language that makes a slew of speculative assumptions. Primarily, a "lack of sustainability" assumes that the makers of these guitars are selling instruments now, but won't be able to in the future or that those interested in the electric guitar will suddenly stop being interested after they've made a purchase.
No offense to Gruhn, but you throw out a lot of critical thinking by looking at a wide-range of retailers and assuming it's indicative of an unsustainable market. In fact, an increase in retailers is, traditionally, an indicator that the demand of a given product is increasing. For example, why would the personal health and fitness industries be so swollen with programs, diets and exercise videos if there wasn't a demand for those products?
The reality is that those markets are large because demand is large.
The same is true with musical instrument manufacturers.
Moreover, in the case of the NAMM conference (the context of Gruhn's commentary), Edgers and Gruhn both seem to ignore the fact that not all manufacturers are focusing on electric guitars. On the contrary, almost every company that builds electric guitars, regardless of size, focuses on acoustic guitars as well. This is yet another example of how the market corrects itself (more on this later).
The reality is that those markets are large because demand is large.
While I understand that the demand for electric guitars might be stagnant, or even declining, this doesn't mean the instrument itself is dying out or that the manufacturers can't adapt to the market changes and attract a pool of musicians that is actually larger than it has ever been.
The bottom line is: all those manufacturers exist for a reason.
Is there really a deficit of guitar heroes?
Edgers' second most prominent point is one of a perceived lack of guitar heroes, which he defines as the greats of past decades. Examples include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, and several others from the late '70s and '80s that helped establish the electric guitar in its heyday.
Once again, he cites a particularly pessimistic comment from Gruhn:
“John Mayer?” he asks. “You don’t see a bunch of kids emulating John Mayer and listening to him and wanting to pick up a guitar because of him.”
First of all, I wouldn't even concede that point, but let's give Gruhn the benefit of the doubt, for the sake of argument.
The broader point is that the guitar "icons" of our day haven't achieved the same level of mainstream success as those of prior decades, which is certainly a valid argument. However, is this proof that the electric guitar is dying, or would it be more accurate to say that the heavy commercialization of the electric guitar is dying?
I don't know what circles Edgers runs in, but in my network and sphere (limited though it may be) the electric guitar is firing on all cylinders. No, it's not the mainstream powerhouse that it used to be, but it's still one of the most loved and desirous instruments available.
Besides, isn't it fair to say that the "culture" of the electric guitar thrives more as something outside of the mainstream?
Even Kurt Cobain, in many ways, resented the mainstream success of his own music. What he did for the electric guitar was bring it into the mainstream, while being a flavor of what life was like outside of pop music. While Cobain and many of the guitarists Edgers cites in his piece are now gone, I would in no way conclude that due to of a lack of representation in the mainstream we are no longer left with any "electric guitar heroes."
These are just off the top of my head (and my alphabetically ordered playlists):
- Billy Howerdel of a Perfect Circle
- Mark Tremonti and Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge
- Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Prophets of Rage
- Chris Robertson and Ben Wells of Black Stone Cherry
- Brad Paisley
- Dan Donegan of Disturbed
- Tony Rombola of Godsmack
- Lzzy Hale of Halestorm
- Mike Einziger of Incubus
- Joe Bonamassa
- Joe Satriani
- Eric Johnson
- Kenny Wayne Shepherd
- James Shaffer and Brian Welch of Korn
- Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit
- Brad Delson of Linkin Park
- Matt Bellamy of Muse
- Bo and Bear Rinehart of Needtobreathe
- Korey Cooper and Seth Morrison of Skillet
- Mike Mushok of Staind
- Adam Jones of Tool
Now, are all these guitarists re-inventing the wheel? No, of course not. They are all, however, distinctly electric guitar players and all have had a profound impact on their respective fan bases.
You might look at the above list the same way you should look at all the guitar manufacturers at NAMM. Instead of just a few big names at the top, you've got a slew of smaller, more focused creators that are playing to a more particular audience. The guitar-focused renaissance that gave us Clapton, Hendrix and SRV was unique and certainly marked a mountaintop experience for the electric guitar and those who sold them.
That being said, the passing of that generation does not necessarily indicate that subsequent guitar heroes, and the electric guitar in general, are all dying with it.
Instead of just a few big names at the top, you've got a slew of smaller, more focused creators that are playing to a more particular audience.
If you know where to look, and especially if you dare to look past the top 20, there are still a ton of guitar heroes that, collectively, are doing far more than their predecessors.
Is it really about the top 20?
Moreover, is it really fair to declare the "death" of a musical instrument simply because it doesn't frequently show up in the Top 20? If so, let's be honest and admit that there's little in the way of actual musical innovation or instrumentation that shows up in the Top 20, ever.
If that's the measurement by which we determine the pulse or vibrancy of an instrument, then we should also prepare eulogies for the electric bass guitar, traditional drum kits and even the acoustic piano.
I would argue that using pop music, and the culture thereof, to measure the success of an instrument that was never truly welcomed in that arena gives, at best, an incomplete analysis.
What about the sales figures and the changes in the way people buy guitar gear?
Edgers makes some persuasive arguments as they relate to the profitability of the major players in the electric guitar industry. Fender, Gibson, PRS and Guitar Center are all cited as being in significant financial trouble (though Edgers does mention that PRS sales have remained consistent, through a slew of "economy" models). This reality can still coexist with my previous argument, that though the bigger players are being cut down to size, the electric guitar isn't necessarily going down with them.
Markets are cyclical and self-correcting, so the issues with profitability are not unexpected, considering how long these companies have been in business and how successful they were in past decades.
Changes and cycles in every industry are normative.
What's stranger are some of the examples Edgers gives about the gear that is supposedly cutting into the electric guitar market.
For example, he mentions the Tascam Portastudio:
"In 1979, Tascam’s Portastudio 144 arrived on the market, allowing anybody with a microphone and a patch cord to record with multiple tracks." - Edgers
For me there's an obvious disconnect here - why does a portable recorder have anything to say about the demise (or success for that matter) of the electric guitar? At best, this is an indirectly related product that can coexist with any number of electric guitar sales figures.
While it's true that the digitization of music has continued to permeate, isn't it true that musicians are still the ones using these products? Dendy Jarrett of Harmony Central certainly thinks so.
Inspiration and influence is agnostic of instrumentation
Edgers goes on to mention Link Park's Brad Delson and his source of inspiration. Edgers' argument here, as I understand it, is that electronic music was, and is, replacing the analog "vibe" of the electric guitar.
"So instead of Hendrix or Santana, Linkin Park’s Brad Delson drew his inspiration from Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell,” the crossover smash released in 1986. Delson, whose band recently landed atop the charts with an album notably light on guitar, doesn’t look at the leap from ax men to DJs as a bad thing." - Edgers
Now I should admit, I am no fan of anything Linkin Park did after Meteora, but, isn't the answer that Edgers is looking for right in front of him? He even goes on to quote Delson on LP's most recent albums, right before Chester Bennington's death.
“Music is music,” he says. “These guys are all musical heroes, whatever cool instrument they play. And today, they’re gravitating toward programming beats on 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.” - Brad Delson of Linkin Park
What difference does it make, whether Delson drew his inspiration from Run DMC or Carlos Santana? Would he somehow have been more of an electric guitar player if it had been Santana? Whatever his motivation, Delson is still a guitar player, and a good one.
Personally, I know a lot of guitar players my age (I'm 30 at the time of writing this) and few of them would cite Carlos Santana as a source of inspiration.
But, here's the thing:
All of them still play the electric guitar.
Personally, I've found Run DMC far more compelling than Carlos Santana or any of the guitar greats of his era. Yet, I still love to play and pursue the electric guitar as an instrument. In fact, Linkin Park was in their prime when I was growing up and I found Delson's guitar playing tremendously motivating. Just because he wasn't the prototypical guitar hero, as defined by Edgers, that didn't make me any less interested in the electric guitarist's craft.
No, Delson wasn't Hendrix, nor would I give him the same "gravitas" that's attached to the Hendrix name and his accomplishments, but I would much rather listen to "With You" or "Don't Stay" then "Foxy Lady" or "Purple Haze."
Plenty of heavy guitar playing to go around.
The Big Names Don't Tell the Whole Story
Edgers rightly points out some of the bizarre contorting that companies like Gibson and Fender have been doing in an effort toeither re-brand or simply to sell more physical products. Gibson, for example, (largely at the hands of Henry Juszkiewicz) tried for awhile to re-brand themselves as a consumer electronics company. They even went so far as to put robotic tuners on their guitars' headstocks as a standard feature, a venture that was quickly abandoned.
It reminds me of McDonalds' misguided attempts to become a "healthier" option by offering granola, salads and apple slices. The obvious problem with that type of re-branding is that McDonalds is, and will forever be, a burgers, fries and shakes operation. Try as they may they are never going to be Whole Foods or, as Jim Gaffigan puts it, a "farmer's market."
The same is true of Gibson. They make guitars. Their strength is analog, not digital. And Edgers is entirely correct to point this out, even to the extent that he clearly illustrates the poor decision making of Juskiewicz.
Gibson will never be Roland or Ableton. It's not who they are.
The Desperation of Fender Play
Edgers also mentions the new program that Fender rolled out in July called "Fender Play". This is essentially an online learning tool that Fender launched attempting to keep more young customers who might otherwise give up the guitar. It's also an effort to get more of a foothold in the smartphone and mobile device market which is obviously substantial.
This is where I would agree with Edgers, in regards to his sentiment that the aforementioned movement is indicative of major problems with these manufacturers.
Fender is not an education company, the same way Gibson is not a consumer electronics company.
There are a ton of other online guitar lessons that are far better and have been around for much longer.
If Fender really believes that they're losing customers or that sales are down (CEO Andy Mooney wouldn't concede this) due to a lack of access to guitar lesson content, they should spend some time on YouTube. Moreover, it should strike everyone as extremely bizarre that they're using common names in the YouTube guitar instruction space to produce these videos.
But I digress.
What I'm saying is, Edgers makes a valid point when he states these companies are showing signs of a changing, tumultuous market.
What I don't believe is that the dire imagery created by Edgers' burning effigy of a Stratocaster is an adequate reflection of the state of the electric guitar, especially if a major part of his evidence is the frustrations being experienced by the likes of Fender and Gibson.
Here's the point:
Gibson and Fender could lose big, but the electric guitar will continue to live on.
You can't simply look at the biggest companies (particularly the failing ones) and understand what's going on at a ground level.
The Bigger Picture
You have to take into account the bigger picture and culture of fretted instruments at large, which would include all of the following:
- Acoustic Steel String Guitars
- Classical Nylon String Guitars
- Bass Guitars
- Electric Guitars
- Classical fretted instruments (violin, cello, etc.)
If you go over to Flickr and search for live shots of bass players, you'd have a hard time believing that Fender isn't at the top of their game. Throw Fender amplifiers in the mix (for bass and electric) and your argument becomes even more persuasive. You'll have a terribly difficult time avoiding electric fretted instruments if you pay any amount of attention to the world's live music scenes.
Electric guitars, amps and basses are everywhere.
Moreover, the popularity of the acoustic guitar is holding steady, if not growing, largely thanks to the likes of Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. Again, they're hardly guitar "heroes" but, they're still extremely influential. Thus, you need to look at the guitar as a whole, taking into account the shifts to acoustic-driven music and the recent surge in popularity of folk styles, as well as a number of other factors that aren't necessarily exclusive to the electric guitar.
Truthfully, the electrical guitar never had its own autonomous culture or tradition, even if it seemed that way when Hendrix and SRV were running the show. It was always about music and the broader meta-narrative.
Musical Culture is Shifting But the Electric Guitar Lives On
While that meta-narrative might be shifting, it simply means that the pieces within it, including the electric guitar, are going to shift and get pushed into different positions. That's why you're seeing pain at the top, with companies like Gibson, Fender and Guitar Center trying to hold onto what was once a far more powerful market force.
Edgers is right to point out their faults and poor business decisions. Yet, his declaration that the electric guitar is dying a slow, horrible and fiery death suggests to me that he's only seeing the pain at the top of the market, while ignoring (or simply missing) a lot of what's happening beneath the surface.
This is the advantage that someone in my position has over someone like Edgers. I've played the electric (and acoustic) guitar for over 20 years now and have been immersed in the culture of the instrument, having seen the many changes and modifications it has gone through since the early 1990s.
While I certainly respect Edgers' contributions to journalism and the arts as a whole, I must respectfully disagree with the overall sentiment of his article. I implore fellow guitar players who might read it to not be discouraged or panicked by the idea that their instrument of choice is burning before their eyes.
On the contrary.
The electric guitar is alive and well.
ADDITIONAL CREDITS AND CONTRIBUTIONS
- Proof reading: Sarah Flood
- Formatting and article layout: Bobby Kittleberger
- Banner image: Flickr Commons via ANSPressSocietyNews