“Guitars are back,” declares The New York Times – but did they ever leave?

Another entry into the “is the guitar dying?” saga.

A guitarist playing a solo

Image: Yoss Stybel / Alamy

Guitars are dead. Long live guitars. When it comes to the creative and economic wellbeing of the six-string, these are the conflicting messages presented to the world in some corners of the press. And now, the saga continues, with a New York Times piece proudly declaring “Guitars Are Back, Baby!” – prompting many (including us) to wonder: were they ever gone?

The article focuses on the buoyant guitar retail market of the last six months: “A half-year into a pandemic that has threatened to sink entire industries, people are turning to the guitar as a quarantine companion and psychological salve,” says the New York Times. Both US and UK stores reported increases as lockdown measures kicked in, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s an impulse-purchase with a lot of benefits – guitars last, and the positive mental health effects of learning and playing a musical instrument have been well-documented.

A surge in purchases has been reflected by a surge in demand for lessons, as the article points out: “Shortly after stay-at-home orders were announced in the spring, [guitar teacher, Jensen] Trani saw a surge of traffic for his videos, he said, and quickly tripled his number of private students taking lessons remotely. Popular instructional sites like JustinGuitar.com and GuitarTricks saw similar spikes during the spring.”

The article asserts that some had written the guitar off as a “boomer relic” and that “hip-hop and Beyoncé-style spectacle pop” now has a stranglehold on the hearts and wallets of those under 35. Now with time on their hands, those who always wanted to learn to play the guitar are reclaiming the instrument from ’70s classic rockers and rebelling against the status quo. So to speak.

It is, of course, a great thing that people are making use of their time at home to learn guitar. But the article seems to depict the guitar teetering on the precipice of cultural irrelevance, and some respondents have taken umbrage with this almost messianic portrayal of the instrument’s return. The official account for Reverb.com responded on twitter: “Welcome back, guitars. Low-key we had no idea you were gone, but still…welcome back.”

Another user wrote: “The entire premise this piece is based on (guitars were ‘over’) is dependent on having never gone to a show at any venue with a capacity of less than 1,200 in the last 10-15 years.”

Regardless of the influence of young, up-and-coming guitarists (50 of whom you can read about here), or its continued use in hundreds of alternative and heavier genres, it’s hard to ignore the guitar’s prevalence in popular music over the last decade. Take The 1975, for example, whose 2013 debut topped the charts upon its release. Or noted stadium-fillers Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. Or this year’s Mercury Prize nominees. Or last year’s. Or the year before that.

In 2017, a Washington Post article (which the New York Times piece in part responds to), declared the six-string electric to be experiencing a “slow, secret death,” citing the lack of traditionally styled guitar heroes inspiring the younger generation with blazing fretboard pyrotechnics. Some disagreed with the NYT’s conclusion rather than its assumptions, downplaying the skill of younger players. “You mean Taylor Swift strumming an acoustic guitar!! Seriously none of the music has any lead guitar. Most of the guitar players today can’t come close to being like Hendrix, Page, Clapton etc!”, wrote one user.

But there are more inspiring players out there than ever before – and accessing their music is far easier. The New York Times piece itself notes that: “Maybe the issue isn’t too few guitar heroes, but too many of them. As any 30-minute foray through cover-song videos on YouTube will attest, there are approximately 1,000,000,007 much-better-than-average guitarists out there, many of whom are in their teens or early 20s.”

But is that really such a worry?

Read the full piece here


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