We Sing the Guitar Electric

by Dan Daley • in
  • Last Word
• Created: September 6, 2017

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The values of vintage electric guitars have taken a hit in recent years, and electric guitar sales are down overall by about a third in the last decade.

No less an authoritative voice than the Washington Post fretted in an article this past June about the “slow, secret death of the six-string electric.” In it, the venerable George Gruhn was quoted decrying the lack of guitar heroes, while the article’s author pointed, more practically, to the financial woes of the category’s two most luminous brands, Fender and Gibson (and to the fact that the big-box retailer who very name starts with the word “guitar” is so deep in debt that it refused to make an executive available for an interview if there were any questions about finances, as if that were its own allegory about the state of the electric guitar). 

Has the electric guitar run its course as the iconic instrument of contemporary music? Probably, if for no other reason than that popular music itself has changed. Drake, Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Rihanna dominate the charts that once belonged to now-aging, guitar-toting rockers who, paradoxically, still top the concert-gross charts, where ticket prices are affordable mainly to the same once-young fans who saw them decades ago in the their prime. (Irony +1: the same cohort that remains largely the buyers of expensive vintage axes.) A raft of bro’-country warblers notwithstanding, contemporary pop music these days makes little room for electric guitars in its backline, where backup singers, turntables, and synthesizers dominate. 

But guitars require one thing that those other instruments don’t to the same degree: you actually have to put in the hours to master it. Even Holiday Inn lounge acts now tour with backing tracks, vocals taken from their demos, putting more visual than vocal responsibility on singers; turntablists may have gotten a certificate from any number of DJ schools, but it likely took less than a month of once-a-week classes to attain it, and virtuosity on synths has been suspect ever since sequencers were invented. The electric guitar, however, remains unique among contemporary pop-music instruments in that you have to know how to play the damn thing to get anywhere with it. And that may be its saving grace.  

The electric guitar has eluded being captured and corralled by digital means, though not for lack of trying. Synth-guitar hybrids have been rolled out regularly over the years, seeking to reduce axe handling to what digital keyboards did with (or to) pianos and organs. All these attempts have ultimately failed; the best they can do is sample played parts, but the nuance that a finger can bring to making a minor third into a major third is light years beyond any digitally induced portamento. 

That’s not to say that the electric guitar isn’t capable of useful evolution. Some of its technical progressions have been as spectacular as they are practical: the locking nut let tremolo-arm dive bombs stay in tune, enabling an entire category of rock to dominate the charts in the 1980s. Some, unfortunately, are more regressive; the digitally self-tuning guitar just infantilizes the instrument’s inherent complexity and undermines the notion that the electric guitar is something you have to master, not that you point a remote at like you’re getting ready to watch Game of Thrones

Then there’s electric guitar design, which is tethered to little more than the imagination. The internet abounds with lists of striking electric guitars, restrained only by the need to actually make some noise and to be visually outrageous. Some personal favorites are Thunder Eagle Guitars’ Villanizer Steampunk Guitar, a Rhodes Jackson V as though seen through the prism of Fritz Lang; an AK-47 assault rifle converted into a guitar by Colombian musician and activist Cesar Lopez, to raise awareness of violence through the repurposing of rifles that had been used in conflict; and the Zoybar TOR, the first guitar made using a 3D printer. Only Elton John and a piano in the same room come close. 

So, it may be a while before the electric guitar comes back. But it can, if the emphasis is put on the correct aspects, and no one tries to attach a keyboard to it. Guitars can be hard to play masterfully, but they are meant to be mastered by humans, not conquered by simple GUIs. At a time when hit records are being made on laptops using commercially available loops, that can mean a lot in the long run. 

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