On June 22, 2017, The Washington Post published an article with the title “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps -The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care.” The article references declining sales overall, increasing debt and falling revenue for manufacturers Gibson and Fender and retailer Guitar Center, and, layoffs and a focus on cheaper guitars at PRS (Paul Reed Smith).
The author correctly identifies some possible causes of this sad state of affairs: a lack of guitar heroes, the popularity of electronic music, and, the aging of the Baby Boomers. The popularity of rap however is only indirectly mentioned with a reference to the introduction of the Oberlin DMX drum machine in 1981. This ignores the fact that drum machines have existed since Leo Theremin’s Rythmicon in 1930 and became prominent with Sly and The Family Stone’s number one hit Family Affair a decade before the DMX in 1971. Drum machines, like drum loops today, were useful to guitarists and songwriters. The negative impact came later from the combination of drum machines with the use of sampling, turntables, and, rapping. In other words, the ability to make popular music without learning to play an instrument.
There certainly may be a lack of contemporary guitar heroes. Nevertheless, I don’t recall many guitar heroes from the 1990’s and yet students were flocking to teachers asking to learn songs by Jewel or Oasis. They could just as easily want to learn Taylor Swift songs now. When I developed my interest in the guitar I was listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the early and mid 1960’s. The first time I remember playing (badly) with others we were trying to play My Girl by the Temptations – not exactly Hendrix.
However, I think the author really misses the point by overlooking the impact of online sites like ebay and Reverb.com, which offer attractive deals on quality used guitars. Any examination of the popularity of the guitar should take into account the (Huge, in my opinion) secondary market for instruments. Just like the emergence of malls in the 1960’s had a devastating effect on downtown shopping districts, online sales are now hollowing out shopping malls. My local music shop is currently moving out of the mall. The owner told me that the mall’s management has taken to putting Sheetrock over the entrances of vacant stores so as not to call attention to them.
It used to be that if you wanted a previously owned guitar (or any instrument) you had to buy one at a music store, unless you bought it from a friend. I bought my first decent electric guitar from a friend of mine. It was a 1970’s Gibson Howard Roberts Custom – a beautiful instrument. I traded it in at a music store to buy my next guitar. But, in recent years, I have purchased guitars from ebay and from Reverb.com. Why? Because I could get a quality instrument for a fair price by cutting out the middleman. One guitar was barely a year old and in mint condition, yet, I paid about half of what the retail stores charged for a new one.
To use a business cliche, a paradigm shift has occurred. Sales of new guitars may be down, but, this may be a result of the ease of buying legacy instruments online. True, not everyone who sells their guitar online is trading up to a new one. When I was young I knew several friends who got mom and dad to spring for a Les Paul and a Marshall amp before they could play a lick. After a while they would lose interest and sell their gear. Perhaps, in the future even the secondary market may dry up, yet, I think it is too early to predict the demise of the guitar.
After all, it is almost a perfect instrument. It is compact, portable, and yet complete in itself, able to play both melody and harmony. The electric guitars of 60 years ago still look sleek and modern. The guitar is quintessentially rebellious – the perfect embodiment of liberty and freedom. You can just picture someone like Robert Johnson traveling from town to town sustaining himself on nothing but his talent and his guitar. Yes, the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.