Heroes are Where You Find Them – You Just Have to Know Where to Look

by Dan Daley • in
  • June 2018
  • Last Word
• Created: June 11, 2018

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The widely reported decline in electric guitar sales has been attributed to a number of things, from how the hyper-masculine image that electric guitars have projected since the 1980s has lost mojo in the era of #MeToo, to the rise of synth-heavy, guitar-lite EDM.

Then there’s the fact that hip-hop surpassed rock last year to become the biggest music genre in the U.S. in terms of total consumption, according to Nielsen Music’s year-end report. Another purported reason offered is the dearth of genuine guitar heroes. There are simply far fewer new role models to look up to for the guitar anymore.

But maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong places. Thirteen-year-old Yang Tae-hwan was the featured performer during the spectacular closing ceremony for the Winter Olympics in February, and the kid killed it, shredding the appropriately chosen “Winter” movement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Yang’s entire performance was an ode to the electric axe: the dance sequence behind him was choreographed as though its acrobatic terpsichoreans were scaling the glowing strings of a guitar undulating under his flying fingers. If after the broadcast more than a few viewers found themselves walking into MI stores and drawn inexplicably towards the guitar section, a solid case could be made for the usefulness of subliminal messaging.

The fact is that there are plenty of young guitar virtuosos around. Twenty-one-year-old Marcus King, the son of bluesman Marvin King, fires up a brand of roots music he calls “soul-influenced psychedelic Southern rock,” leading the Philadelphia Inquirer to dub him a “guitar superstar.”

Then there is Christine “Kingfish” Ingram, an 18-yearold stringslinger from Mississippi who is reinventing the blues. And 28-year-old Samantha Fish has been ripping it up ever since she won the 2012 Blues Music Awards’ Best New Artist Debut honor.

These guitarists and others are known to the cognoscenti, of course, but the trick is getting them into situations and contexts that refresh the focus on the electric guitar. It’s challenging – it’s just a much more cluttered world vying for everyone’s attention today. And the guitar itself is not enough – the generic Strat and Les Paul outlines have been co-opted by already-passé video games and hack advertising, with Flying V shapes rocketing out of neon beer cans. The guitar has to be in the right hands in order to make a difference.

Yang isn’t what you’d think of as a typical guitar god: the diminutive prodigy and his owlish John Lennon-esque eyewear evoke more a slightly plump Harry Potter than a lean Eddie Van Halen. On the other hand, “The Big Bang Theory’s” leading-man astrophysicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper earns one million per episode and has over four million Twitter followers. What constitutes a matineé idol these days is very different than what it was when the term “guitar hero” was coined a half century ago.

Today, we have a few figureheads to lead a new vanguard: St. Vincent and Jack White, to name a couple; the former brings a David Byrne-infused feminism to guitar playing (research funded by Fender in 2015 revealed that 50 percent of all buyers of new guitars in the last five years have been female), the latter maintains a necessary punkish connection to the instrument (like Billie Joe Armstrong before he went all Broadway on us), and both broaden the narrow image of the guitar god in ways that nearly calcified trope needed to be stretched. We’re even getting some help from Disney, which just licensed the Disney Super Guitar LP, an all-star album featuring shredders including Zakk Wylde, Paul Gilbert, George Lynch, and Orianthi performing popular Disney songs.

The decline of electric guitar sales (which incidentally is a real thing and isn’t offset by Live Nation producing more concerts and other weird non-sequiturs, as some industry cheerleaders have asserted) is happening, but it’s not irreversible. MI retail can play a part in this perceptual renovation, by broadening its own views of guitar imagery. Whose pictures are in those posters on the walls? They’ll make a difference between resonating with the Baby Boomer customers who’ve been buying the electric guitars for decades and the Millennials and Gen Zs whose buying habits are still being formed.

Rock on, Yang Tae-hwan (who is now a Cort endorser). You’re a marketing exec’s composite dream, and the sooner everyone realizes that, the better.

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