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A Brief Lesson On ||: Music History :||

July 3, 2017
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Last month the Washington Post published Why My Guitar Gently Weeps, an article by Goeff Edgers, subtitled “The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care.” I caught wind of it (possibly crying Mary) via The Fretboard Journal’s Facebook post. Edgers draws attention to declining sales of electric guitars and quotes George Gruhn, founder of Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee:

“There are more makers now than ever before in the history of the instrument, but the market is not growing. I’m not all doomsday, but this — this is not sustainable.”

The article stirred a bittersweet harmony of emotions. Fondness and disappointment traded the melody like Paul and John on A Day In the Life. “I read the news today, oh boy…“

EPSON MFP image

On stage with my son, summer 2014.

I first picked up the guitar around 1969 or ‘70. My son is now a player in his own right and playing beside him is one of the greatest joys of fatherhood. When I shared the article in an email he wrote back, “I’m glad you raised me to think that guitar is cool, because it is.”

 

So is the electric guitar on life support? If is it only mostly dead, is there a modern-day Miracle Max who can bring it back to life? Is the electric guitar our only hope of rescuing the Princess Bride (contemporary pop music) from the Prince HumperDMX drum machine and the six-fingered DJ Count Rugen? 

 

Or would we be more merciful to call in hospice and allow this “abomination” (according to Andre Segovia) to pass in peace?

Less than 24 hours after reading the Post article I was en route to Iowa to celebrate my 40th high school reunion. In preparation for the five-hour drive I had downloaded a couple dozen podcasts of Freakonomics Radio. Side note: people who refuse to listen to Freakonomics Radio are unfortunately doomed to be labeled as idiots. I’m not just saying. Trevor Noah just says so, too. But I digress…

The March 22 broadcast, How Safe Is Your Job, immediately caught my attention by shining a spotlight on what economists refer to as “creative destruction,” whereby new industries and jobs replace old ones. It opens with a story from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the piano ruled over home entertainment. This period of prosperity led to an increase in disposable income, and many Americans purchased new pianos. Hundreds of piano makers sprang up. At its peak in 1905, the industry produced 400,000 instruments. Having a piano in your living room, and a friend or family member who could play it, was a means of cultural status.

Around 1915 the phonograph started to catch on. Now you could have music in your living room at a fraction of the price of a piano (and besides, piano practice is hard!). “In 1914, piano sales totaled $56 million. That was more than double the sales of phonographs…. Five years later, sales of record players hit $158 million. Radio soon eclipsed that. By World War I, pianos were no longer an essential element of every living room.”

The Great Depression drove yet another nail into the piano’s coffin. (Freakonomics sidenote: following WWII, the Steinway piano company took to manufacturing caskets to shore up declining revenues. “Talk about a dying industry.” Ba-dum-tis.) Piano sales continued their decline in the decades that followed. In 2013 only about 32,000 pianos were manufactured.

Is the electric guitar doomed to follow in Steinway’s footsteps?

If so, would it be all that bad?

Linkin Park’s Brad Delson doesn’t think so, according to the Post article. “Music is music,” he says. “These guys are all musical heroes, whatever cool instrument they play. And today, they’re gravitating toward programming beats on an Ableton. I don’t think that’s any less creative than playing bass. I’m open to the evolution as it unfolds. Musical genius is musical genius. It just takes different forms.”

When George Gruhn opened his guitar store in the early 1970s, young players were inspired by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and Jimmy Page. As these icons step aside, Gruhn is concerned that there are no up-and-comers to fill the void.

“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says. “You don’t see a bunch of kids emulating John Mayer and listening to him and wanting to pick up a guitar because of him.”

I’m sure Mr. Gruhn knows what he’s talking about. But my guitar heroes weren’t the virtuosos. They were John Lennon, George Harrison, Keith Richards. Good players, but not gods. And they weren’t just electric players. Much of the Beatles’ and Stones’ music features the acoustic guitar quite prominently. John Denver was another early influencer, along with Glenn Frey and, of course, Elvis. They all made guitar look cool because, as my son said, it is.

However. Cool is in the eye of the beholder. Today’s youth do not need guitar heroes. Like Delson says, they need musical heroes. Fifty years ago, musical heroes just happened to play guitar. A hundred years ago, they were playing piano. Then technology disrupted the keyboard; now it is disrupting the fingerboard. Creative destruction strikes again. There is nothing new under the sun.

The heyday of the electric guitar may have come and gone, but it’s not dead yet. Neither is the piano. Rather than bemoan the decline, let’s take heart in humanity’s resilience. The radio and phonograph may have unseated the will to practice and perform on piano. But fifty years later, that same technology cultivated a whole new crop of creativity.

Who knows what’s next? Whatever it is, even if I cannot comprehend the harvest, I hope I can summon the strength to applaud.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2017 7:42 pm

    John! i just saw a picture of him. i don’t know if he said this but it read, “every song ends, but is that any reason not to enjoy the music?” great article. miss u guys.

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