Welcome to the July/August issue of ShortRiffs — the monthly column that focuses on all the guitar, music and life things going on around The Guitar Cave. Terrifying news items from the internet: The slow, secret death of the electric guitar! I’m not sure that it has been either slow or secret, at least if you’ve been paying attention, are of a certain age, or, read blogs like The Guitar Cave. I certainly have written about this topic, although maybe in not so dramatic terms. Anyhow, we have a Washington Post article: WHY MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric and why you should care. The article included a burning guitar graphic in case the over-the-top title wasn’t enough. The author, Geoff Edgers, is also interviewed on NPR here and it’s kind of a rehash of his article repackaged as Why Does The Electric Guitar Need A Hero? What is sending everyone into a panic is not the fact that guitars aren’t being made or being played. In actuality, too many are being made and they aren’t selling. Probably…too many people think “GAME” when they think “Guitar Hero”, but anyhow…some quotes:
…In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt…
So the guitar isn’t hip anymore? Looks that way, doesn’t it? A half million guitars a year is 33% of sales and that’s a pretty big percentage. However, it seems that the business landscape of the USA isn’t quite as rosy as some would have you believe. There are a lot of retail industries in trouble right now. There was a certain prosperity happening back in the 80s and 90s and that enabled brisk instrument sales. I know, everyone in government says the country recovered from the big 2007-08 recession. Is this true? I don’t know. Another thing — I’ve never fully embraced Guitar Center as I’ve related in posts here, here and here. While I’ve tried to accept that stores like this are how we do business now, I’m about as comfortable there as the people in this clip from the 1996 movie, Fargo: TruCoat!
As Guitar Center was ascending (at least where I live), the independent music stores were closing down and I liked and patronized those stores. They did me right over many years of buying, selling, trading, jawing and hanging out. Also, anyone who had been in the scene for a while was cognizant of the fact that as this brick and mortar landscape was changing, the next generation(s) weren’t forming bands and turning out to shows — at least not in great numbers. Plus, this was around the time that whole blazer over the hoodie thing was in fashion…The first guy I saw with that outfit carrying a guitar was a death-knell for rock and I knew it at the time. Anyhow, according to people like George Gruhn:
…What worries Gruhn is not simply that profits are down. That happens in business. He’s concerned by the “why” behind the sales decline. When he opened his store 46 years ago, everyone wanted to be a guitar god, inspired by the men who roamed the concert stage, including Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page. Now those boomers are retiring, downsizing and adjusting to fixed incomes. They’re looking to shed, not add to, their collections, and the younger generation isn’t stepping in to replace them…“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says.
And starting in 2010, the industry witnessed a milestone that would have been unthinkable during the hair-metal era: Acoustic models began to outsell electric.
The hair-metal era was a long time ago and those guys are now in their 50s and 60s. Back in the day though…whoa boy did they move a whole lot of gear. Hair metal was an expensive proposition because many of the 80s heroes had invested big bucks in their guitars and rigs. The emergence of grunge brought it all back to small amps and stomp boxes, but there was still some money invested. How about today? Aren’t there any hot younger guitar players who could be called today’s heroes? Nobody’s playing? Or spending any dough on their guitar gear? Could there be something else going on here? Is it all about the video games and people wasting their lives away on the internet? At the beginning of the quoted article Gruhn is at the annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants Show) show and opines that:
“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.”
Call me crazy, but maybe the solution is less makers? I dunno. While one could say that Hendrix, Clapton, and Page in the late 60s (or the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show) and Edward Van Halen in 1980 caused a whole lot of guitars to be bought, the sales of the instrument could be thought of as a by-product of some pretty big cultural changes too. Most of the cultural changes post-1992 haven’t involved guitars or musical instruments at all. If so, that probably accounts for some of the missing 33% of sales. There was also probably always a 5-15% demographic that bought themselves or their kids guitars and those guitars never left the closet, but in this day and age, why not just buy an iPad? The guitar biz is like the music biz in that it is full of people with economic expectations…that maybe aren’t so realistic. Donald Fagen (from Steely Dan) is hitting the road again because in this era of streaming music, no one is buying albums. But the dude is 69…who exactly should buy his albums? 20-year olds? The people who were 20 when Steely Dan recorded The Royal Scam? When he is on the road will he be selling out stadiums? Probably not. Artists and guitar companies from the glory days of rock have counted on a steady revenue stream in perpetuity, but things haven’t worked out like that in the new economy.
There is, however, a very futuristic and twisted solution (depending on your point of view) on the horizon, proffered by cutting-edge technologies. The late Ronnie James Dio, who passed away in 2010, is going on tour as a hologram! Take that Donald Fagen! While it looks convincing enough to get people out, not everyone is on board, (like most of the headbangers at Blabbermouth). But, some people are receptive, and once the exploitation thing kind fades who can’t see this taking off? And projecting the possibilities out…can a 2019 tour of the Jimi Hendrix Experience be far behind? I mean, why not? I always wanted to see them live! This might be just what Guitar Center needs to get people in the door! I’m kidding and I find the whole thing a bit creepy, but it does illustrate the crazy world we’re living in and, of course, other people feel totally positive about it! Look at the art world — all of the “late” artists are way more valuable than most of the current ones. Is this going to be a new paradigm? Time will tell.
A new book on the market that details the history of Progressive Rock! Yea! David Weigel’s, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock is all about those crazy days of the heady, halcyon 1970s. In case you’re in the dark about what exactly Prog Rock is, a list of the 50 top albums can be found here, and there are some really great albums on that list. Prog bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Rush, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, were the bane of critics (and later, punk rockers), but they were major top sellers and very popular with many fans, especially in the USA. The book has elicited a few reviews, like this thoughtful musing in the New Yorker, The Persistence of Prog Rock:
Progressive rock, broadly defined, can never disappear, because there will always be musicians who want to experiment with long songs, big concepts, complex structures, and fantastical lyrics.
Nowadays, it seems clear that rock history is not linear but cyclical. There is no grand evolution, just an endless process of rediscovery and reappraisal, as various styles and poses go in and out of fashion. We no longer, many of us, believe in the idea of musical progress. All the more reason, perhaps, to savor the music of those who did.
Last fall I wrote about Pink Floyd’s Dogs, off of the Animals disc; a classic moment in Prog Rock history that I think is succinctly summed up by these two quotes from the New Yorker article. While there was certainly ostentation and excess to be found during this period in rock history, the best of the genre was well worth the slog through some of the not-so-good bits. The best Prog guitarists: Steve Howe, David Gilmour, Alex Lifeson, Martin Barre, Robert Fripp, are some of the most influential guitar players who ever strapped on an axe and their influence looms large in many later-day bands, like Tool.
Jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb recently passed away. He was an accomplished player as a member of Stan Getz‘s group, in Steps Ahead with Michael Brecker and on his own as a solo artist. Above is a great solo guitar take on Stompin’ at the Savoy.
Finally, I like to listen to the swinging sounds of Space Age Pop, Bachelor Pad or Exotica online at Illinois Street Lounge on the soma FM Network. Music from this style released in the (1950s-1960s) combines elements of jazz, pop, Afro-Cuban and other Caribbean rhythms with very strange instrumentation like the theremin and all of the studio trickery available at the time. The arrangements are soft and slightly cheesy or silly. Spaceagepop.com offers a real primer on all of the sub-genres under this umbrella of mid-20th century music and it’s pretty interesting to read and listen to. Back when I was a kid, many of the big names of this music were listed on the record sleeves of (especially) albums from Columbia. They included Ferrante & Teicher, Enoch Light (and the Light Brigade), Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and Henry Mancini. When I was a child, the family owned the very ubiquitous Whipped Cream album — that was a total mystery in sound and picture for an 8-9 year old kid. As it turns out shaving cream was used on the iconic cover because whipped cream turned runny under the lights. But that racy image is very evocative of the music; playful, seductive, swingin’ and naughty.
There is a full list of Space Age Pop artists here and catch all of the great guitar player names that jump out: The Ventures, Chet Atkins, Jerry Byrd, Mundell Lowe (who I wrote about here), Al Caiola, Tommy Tedesco, and Tony Mottola. All of these guys are six-string legends and got a lot of work in the studios for the composers and bandleaders who produced the music. That’s why right in the middle of some really off-the-wall Space Age Pop rendition of some jazz standard there will some great guitar work and it’s usually one of these guys doing it. Some of the music is very much like The Ventures or The Shadows and other instrumental stuff of the time. It was a very interesting and optimistic period in American music history and it never fails to make me feel like I’m on top of the world. Give it a listen and feel the magic!