“Guitar Music Is Dead!” – What’s Wrong With That Statement?

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Some myths addressed about the “death of guitar music”

Update – we revisited this topic in 2018 here.

I just read another article on the topic of guitars in music becoming less popular, and all but predicting the end of guitar in modern music. To put it bluntly, I think it’s complete crap, and I’ll tell you why in this article.

It is interesting however, when you read an article like that – as a guitarist – how you feel a mix of denial, anger, and … maybe a little concern, somewhere in the back of your mind.

So here’s my two cents on the topic. In my mind, it boils down to three myths.

Myth #1: Modern popular music has less guitar in it

It is true that right now, things don’t look as good as they have at other times. But the question really is – what are we looking at?

Modern music was a whole lot different when I first got into guitar. If a song didn’t have a guitar in it (and probably a guitar solo) it was odd. Now, we’ve seen a serious decline in the number of guitar solos in popular songs, and even though it saddens me to have to say this – I’ll say it – a serious increase in popular songs with no guitar at all in them.

Is it popular music?

So is it the fact that the “Popular Music” seems to have turned it’s back on our favorite instrument? Things are certainly different in the music industry these days. Almost anyone with a little bit of talent can make a recording, and get it out there via channels like YouTube, ReverbNation, BandCamp, etc., and there are way more less expensive tools (like computers) for making completely electronic music than there were years ago. Back then, the guitar was the cheapest way to make music.

Discovering unsigned bands is also easier – and the power that the Music Industry once had to almost dictate what we listened to is significantly diminished.

So it seems that the whole concept of “Popular Music” is flawed to begin with, because for every million albums Selena Gomez sells, there are hundreds of other bands using technology to collectively match and beat her sales, but because no single one of them has high enough volume of sales, we don’t hear about them unless we look for them.

So the question of whether modern popular music has less guitar in it is a flawed and somewhat loaded question to begin with – in fact, I’d say it’s not worth even trying to answer.

Myth #2: Guitar Sales are down

Are guitar sales a problem? Ask guitar manufacturers like Fender – who have seen revenue increases of 50 plus percent over the past few years, but a shrinking profit margin. We’re talking 3% margins, here.

Fender isn’t manned by dumb business people, and they don’t make a shoddy product. There is something else at play here. And it’s not just Fender – other guitar manufacturers are feeling a bit of a margin squeeze as well.

But if sales are up – as is the case with Fender, it’s the profit margins causing the problem – so we’re probably just looking at more of an economy problem than a guitar problem.

We know that guitars are more expensive – adjusted for inflation than they were 30 years ago – but they’re now more accessible because there are cheaper options out there – guitars being made overseas are cheaper than ever. Cheap guitars are still guitars – and nowadays, the quality on a cheap guitar just blows the older cheap guitars out of the water.

The cheaper guitars might make the top line revenue smaller, but there are more guitars in the hands of new guitarists than when they were more expensive.

Myth #3: There is less interest in guitars

People do search “Guitar” less on Google – way less than they used to.

If you go to Google Trends, you can type in any keyword and see a relational graph that will show you how often the word is searched in the search engine – over time. Check this out:

I decided to compare four terms here for a good reference.

Guitar (Blue) – our subject matter

Dubstep (Red) – a decent comparison / style of music.

Lady Gaga (Green) – A good reference – everyone knows of her.

Hip Hop (Baby puke yellow) – Another musical reference.

Piano (Purple) – Another musical instrument.

Guitar - Interest over time - Google
Click to Enlarge

What struck me at first about this graph – before I compared it to any other search terms – was the distinct downward slope the “guitar” searches take, over time. But after I added the other search terms, I realized what a powerful word “guitar” is in the Google search world. Even though “Lady Gaga” is stomping all over “Hip Hop” and “Dubstep”, she’s only ever barely touched guitars in search popularity.

“Piano” has stayed relatively stable, but still isn’t even matching the popularity of “Guitar”.

What this chart teaches us is that guitars will have their ups and downs, but the instrument and the music it creates is so huge, that it isn’t going anywhere.

Contenders for the ears of music fans, like Dubstep and Hip Hop aren’t rising in relation to the Guitar’s drop.

Plus this chart only goes back to 2004 – it’s not really an accurate representation of – well, anything. It does indicate that there is less interest now than in 2004, but it’s hardly worth proclaiming the death of an instrument that first showed up in the 12th century – based on 8 years of data.

It’s a small subset of data that’s likely part of a larger trend – and speaking of which …

Don’t worry. This has all happened before.

If anything is indeed “happening” or not happening.

In the 70’s with Disco some people thought it was happening, but was it really? In the early 80’s it seemed especially bad – in fact, that’s when people started saying that guitar was on it’s way out – until folks like Eddie Van Halen, Vai, and many others – who we’re still talking about today – came along.

Why guitar music won’t die – ever.

How can something so alive die? How can such an expressive instrument just vanish like a dream? What other instrument allows you to  bend notes quite as soulfully, or add distortion to and get an arena full of people’s adrenaline up so quickly?

What other instrument sounds as good around a campfire as it does in a studio?

What other instrument allows you to shred?

What other instrument allows you to express your personality so specifically – with everything from effects, to different picking styles, to string types and amp types, finger-tapping, etc.?

How many instruments are so in touch with the musician – you’re making contact directly with the strings – the part that actually is producing the vibrations that eventually turn into the notes we hear. Isn’t this part of why the guitar is so expressive? You can pick, pluck, flick, tap, mute, use your teeth, a slide, pick with your left hand, fret with your right hand – whatever makes your sound.

These are just some of the reasons that guitar music will never die. As musicians, we need to express what’s inside. Whether that’s anger, sadness, frustration, joy, cheekiness, or loneliness, I challenge anyone to find a better instrument to do it on.

The end story to me is this: Guitar music isn’t dead – and it’s not dying. If you look at a small chunk of time, you might see that guitar music is less “popular” today than it once was. But if I can remember times in my short life where things were similar, we’re just seeing a dip that’s happened before. We can count on guitar music to continue to endure, and I would bet – if you’re interested in “popular music” – a serious “comeback” in that arena as well.

Will you be a part of it?

Let us know what you think in the comments at the bottom of the page!

 

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Tim Monaghan

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.

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