Who Will Save the Guitar?

February 15, 2017
It doesn't take a genius or a cultural prognosticator to note that today’s young people have myriad options for education, entertainment, engagement, and just plain fun. When it comes to our favorite love jones—the guitar—it’s also obvious that teens and Millennials don’t hold the instrument in nearly as much obsessive awe, wonder, and inspiration as more mature players, who, back in their early days, often wanted to be Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or any number of the transcendent guitarists blasting out of radios and television sets in the 1960s and ’70s.
 
The intense pull of that rock-star dream was probably no different than our fervent desires to be astronauts, fighter pilots, or super heroes in our pre-teen years, but acquiring the skills to play guitar was infinitely more achievable than developing x-ray vision or indestructibility. So we got our hands on typically horrendously bad guitars and often suffered our way to competence—and, hopefully, a path to technical and creative excellence. And most of us have stayed dedicated to the guitar throughout the decades, and we will likely continue this devotion until our hands can no longer manage a ragged version of “Hey Joe.”
 
But this is a story of an age gone by.
 
While society—and history—can be cyclical, there is no current globally seductive force such as “The Beatles,” “Jimi-Jimmy-Jeff-and-Eric,” “The Sex Pistols,” “Stevie Ray Vaughan,” “Nirvana,” “Unplugged,” or “Green Day” to drive an explosion of young people starting bands or solo acts and buying epic numbers of guitars and guitar gear. In fact, even if there were a 2017 version of “The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964,” would it be compelling enough to inspire Millennials to launch a million bands?
 
When it comes to guitar playing—and, more importantly, the desire to continue playing guitar for the rest of one’s life—the divide between teens and Millenials, and those 45 years old and above, appears to be significant. (One personal aside: I sometimes tell younger players that when I listened to records in the ’60s and early ’70s, all I did was listen to the records. I didn’t do homework, clean my room, talk on the phone, or anything else. I sat in front of my record player like a zombie, utterly transfixed by every sound. They usually think I was a nut case.) In a recent audience-research survey by The Brainyard, approximately twice as many Millennials as 45+ individuals are technology “wizards” (tech is life—existing without the Internet or gadgets is unimaginable), stream entertainment, enjoy taking risks, feel advertising is a waste of time, and like to try new things that no one else may be aware of yet. While the survey also found a fair amount of similarities between the two groups, the categories mentioned above may have some effect on guitar culture, both positive and negative.
 
So, why write a story like this one?
 
The big guitar and guitar-gear companies are hardly fading into extinction—though many have struggled in the current popular-culture climate that is not as conducive to guitar-product sales as other periods in the past when the guitar was more on top of the world, so to speak. Obviously, Guitar Player—and all of the other guitar magazines and websites across the planet—still have a ton of guitar players and guitar gear to report on. And cool new players are always popping up in varied stylistic genres, and they’re finding audiences the old-fashioned way with record contracts, or via YouTube channels, Instagram posts, or other DIY initiatives.
 
However, the guitar’s relative health as it stands today is not what drove the idea of this cover story. We’re certainly aware that some manufacturers are concerned about the dearth of young people staying true to the guitar, and a few companies are troubled enough to actually develop products and other initiatives to keep youthful players playing. To this end, we are starting out our coverage of the situation by talking to a few music-industry experts who are also monitoring the current state of guitar obsession.
 
Obviously, we couldn’t get to everyone in this initial article, but as the year unfolds, we will talk to others who are either concerned about the alleged ebb in committed young guitar players, as well, or who feel such worries are a bit dramatic and unwarranted. We don’t want to miss anybody—a manufacturer, a teacher, a media outlet, or anyone else who might shed light on the current guitar culture and its future. Please feel free to send your thoughts on this subject to mmolenda@nbmedia.com.
 
As GP celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, we are taking the opportunity to not just celebrate the guitar and its history, but to take incisive peeks at its future. Guitar Player has had a fantastic run serving the guitar community since the magazine's inception in 1967, and we’d love to continue that service to all of you for the next 50 years and beyond.
 
This is the reason we are putting the “patient” on an examination table. If it turns out we’re swinging around a big sack of angst with little evidence of a problem, then we’ve only asked your indulgence for a few pages. (Chalk it up to the whim of a magazine that just hit a monumental anniversary.) But if it’s more than that—and we truly need to seriously identify the fact that young, potential players are giving up on us—then we must look at developing strategies as a community to reverse that trend. Tomorrow is never assured—in life, or even in the continued popularity of that plank we adore.
 
THE ARTICLE THAT KICKED 
OFF THE CALL TO ACTION
 

In an article filed at bloomberg.com on November 21, 2006, writer Kim Bhasin reported that, according to data from the research organization IBISWorld, the $6 billion United States retail market for musical instruments has been “stagnant” for five years. Even more troubling for the guitar, specifically, is data from Fender—as revealed by its CEO, Andy Mooney, in the article—showing that 90 percent of the people who start playing forsake the instrument within their first year of getting to know it.
 
“A pretty big milestone for someone adopting any form of instrument is getting them through the first song,” Mooney told bloomberg.com. “The industry’s challenge—or opportunity—is getting people to commit for life.”
 
For Fender, which believes that approximately half the people buying its guitars are first-timers, cracking that code to player commitment is key. The current strategy is to offer apps and other digital products that keep players engaged and interested in the guitar.
 
“The guitar is a very intimidating instrument,” says Ethan Kaplan, Fender Digital’s Chief Product Officer and General Manager. “The way it’s sold is intimidating, and the way it’s appreciated is intimidating. So we needed to make playing more accessible. For example, when we developed the Fender Tune app, we looked at tuners in the App Store, and they all assumed a level of knowledge most beginning players simply don’t have. We’d give tuners to beginners, and ask them to tune up a guitar, and they didn’t know what sharp and flat meant—or even the order of the strings from top to bottom—and they tended to break the high E string. So this was critical—we needed to give them a tool to help them want to keep picking up the guitar, and that was a tuner app that could reduce frustration, and educate them without making them feel stupid. We believe that if a beginner can get that first chord sounding great, they’ll come back and pick up the guitar again.”
 
Another industry veteran who has sounded the alarm is Rusty Shaffer of Optek Music Systems, whose Fretlight guitar—with its “lights on the fretboard” learning system—was developed years ago to offer a more nurturing educational environment for young and beginning players.
 
“The guitar industry has been on the decline for decades now, and, unfortunately, guitar manufacturers haven’t addressed the problem,” says Shaffer. “The guitar industry is basically a ski resort with no bunny slope. Think about that. The industry doesn’t embrace the beginner. It’s ‘good luck and come back when you can play.’ Imagine being a 16-year-old today faced with the prospect of learning guitar. Everything else they touch—a gaming system or their smartphone—allows them to engage instantly. So when a youngster thinks about playing guitar, and he or she sees these antiquated lesson methods that haven’t changed in almost 50 years combined with the prospect of results, the return on their time investment is just not there. It’s not even close.”
 
Shaffer’s Fretlight system seeks to offer a more immediate return on that time investment, but worries that the community as a whole continues to look down on instant gratification when it comes to the guitar.
 
“One of the things that Fretlight does is embrace people who just want play a riff,” he says. “If somebody wants to play ‘Smoke on the Water,’ they just follow the lights on the fretboard. Now, it’s possible that this person is not using the correct fingers to perform the riff. Does that really matter? But let’s say the response from industry people is, ‘No. You’re not really playing guitar. You need to learn the notes on the fretboard. You need to learn scales. You need to learn the Circle of Fifths.’ I completely disagree. If Fretlight can get someone playing a riff in ten minutes, I believe we’ve created a new customer for the industry. We helped that person achieve their guitar-playing dreams. Why criticize them? Our industry should embrace all interested parties, because it’s foolish to think that we don’t need to make a lot more players. No one wants to talk about the drop off the cliff that’s coming when players my age stop purchasing custom-shop guitars and other high-end instruments.”
 
CAN EDUCATION & ENTERTAINMENT SAVE US?

 
The time-honored way to reach new players has been through education. The publishing industry is always a big part of that endeavor, and tech-oriented manufacturers such as BOSS, Fishman, Line 6, and others have long supported their artists and product managers getting out in the field and explaining how to make sounds with their gear. Many times, of course, these seminars correspond to a particular product, but, at times, also share general information on tone creation along with power-user tips. Line 6, for example, offers its Tone Made Pro seminars around its Helix multi-effects processor for guitar, but details the building blocks of some classic tones during the discussion. The nuts-and-bolts details of tone construction by guitar heroes such as The Edge, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and others can certainly be transferred to digital processors by other manufacturers, and even accomplished in the analog realm if a player has the time and budget to col- lect a bunch of actual amps and pedals and physically recreate the signal paths learned in the seminar.
 
“For 20 years, we have analyzed every nuance of the guitar amps, cabs, and effects used to create the most recognizable tones ever,” said Marcus Ryle, Line 6’s co-founder and President. “Now, we can use this expertise to help guitarists expand their knowledge and create the next generation of legendary tones.”
 
Another route to seduce engagement is to inspire young players to share their music. Again, music publications often run contests where guitar stars and/or editors rate audio files or YouTube videos from solo artists and bands. The idea here is to provide a thrilling “end use” for a guitarist’s creative toil and trouble, and hopefully inspire them to continue working their way towards popular acclaim. (GP recently relaunched its Guitar Player Records imprint in order to provide players a professional venue to distribute their instrumental-guitar music.)
 
In a similar vein, Ernie Ball has produced its Battle of the Bands program for a few years now, inviting unsigned acts to vie for the opportunity to perform on big stages at major music events. Other companies also have competitions from time to time where bands can win gear, perform with their heroes, or get booked on killer tours—all for simply having the ambition to create some music and share it with either the public and/or their contest judges.
 
On the face of it, these initiatives are directed at people who already have some facility with their instruments, rather than beginners. But a beginner could be energized by seeing a friend’s band win a contest, or intrigued by having someone enthusiastically relate what they had learned at a seminar. The trick here would be the next step: How do we transform that interest into action, and get the novice to risk picking up a guitar and trying it out for themselves?
 
WOMEN TO THE RESCUE
 
Look at most magazine content and gear advertising throughout the guitar industry’s past five decades, and it’s no surprise that the vast majority of it is tailored towards men. For years, the guitar community has been perceived as a “Boy’s Club,” and we’ve certainly published stories where female guitarists have commented on the hardships they’ve endured in their careers due to the situation. But according to recent figures from Brainyard in its “Guitar Searcher Audience Profiles,” the past dominance of men and guitars may be changing fast.
 
Using Experian AudienceView as a source, Brainyard determined that, among Millennials, women were responsible for 49 percent of the web searches regarding information on guitar playing and gear, as compared to 51 percent for men. In the general population (all ages), these figures improved to 53 percent for women, and 47 percent for men.
 
These are rather earthshaking statistics, as they point out that women are, for the most part, equally active in seeking guitar data as are men. If the trend continues, the industry may need to adjust its perception of men as the movers and shakers and gear drivers, and look to women players as a viable and equivalent market for guitar products, guitar information, guitar marketing, and, well, pretty much all things guitar.
 
Furthermore, women may already be responsible for a significant increase in guitar sales. Last October, GP’s web editor Christopher Scapelliti posted “Is Taylor Swift the New Eddie Van Halen?” Based around on a YouTube report by Phillip McKnight of McKnight Music Academy, the article detailed how his female students have expanded from four percent in 2006, to approximately 60 percent last year.
 
“We started asking the students, and eight out of ten of them cite Taylor Swift as the reason why they’re playing music,” stated McKnight. “She’s doing the same thing Eddie Van Halen did in the early ’80s—causing young players to want to take up the guitar and play.”
 
While McKnight’s is not a scientific or comprehensive survey, some manufacturers will affirm that guitar sales to women—especially acoustic guitars—are very strong. Online searches will also confirm that scores of female guitarists are actively promoting themselves on YouTube, Instagram, and other media these days. Where it used to be somewhat difficult to seek out and find awesome female players, this certainly isn’t the case any more, and that’s brilliant and timely and wonderful.
 
IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH
 THE GUITAR MEDIA?

 
It’s a tough question to ask when you’re the editor of a guitar magazine, but is the media somewhat guilty of ignoring beginners? The challenge of keeping mature core readers happy with our content, while simultaneously appealing to the next generation of players is a never-ending discussion at Guitar Player.
 
From the feedback we receive, some long-time readers enjoy learning new things from younger artists. There are also those readers who feel that many younger bands can’t really play, sound like crap, and don’t put in the educational sweat—even some of the new metal guitarists who wield absolutely crazy technique, and obviously practice like demons. At times, just a young player’s look will cause a reader to disregard them. This is actually kind of funny,
given how shocking most rockers back in the ’60s and early ’70s were to our parents and “The Man,” and many of these “freaks of their time” are the very same players that readers continue to admire and respect today. But I digress...
 
For the most part, print magazines are favored by the 45+ crowd—and thank goodness for that—which is why the world’s guitar publications tend to primarily cover Hendrix-Beck-Page-and-Any-Player-Who- Rose-to-Prominence-in-the-1960s-1970s-and-1980s. And, let’s face it, the websites and social networks of these same guitar publications offer similar content—even though online media is where the next gen-eration of players is looking for guitar information. So if you’re, say, a teenager who was just mesmerized by a female guitarist who was playing some mad loops on YouTube, would the major guitar media offer that teenager entry into easy and unintimidating information on that particular application of the guitar? Would we even cover that looping guitarist at all?
 
“In guitar magazines, it’s still a lot of dudes, and it’s a lot of older dudes,” says Kaplan. “The audience that is going to be the next generation of players is more diverse in a lot of ways, and they’re pushing away from the thought that guitars are just for making rock and pop music. To them, the guitar doesn’t have a demographic, and it doesn’t have a gender. It’s a tool for making samples, loops, and backing tracks if you’re a hip-hop artist—or it’s a way to just make noise. There are tons of artists out there using the guitar in ways that were never seen as things to learn. For example, I doubt many guitar classes teach Sigur Ros or My Bloody Valentine, but that’s the type of music that turns some kids on to the guitar. Many guitar magazines only cover a certain level of artistic achievement that has nothing to do with the way a lot of young people use the guitar to create.”
 
Shaffer feels that some form of egotism from those who should be open-minded, nurturing, and supportive is partly to blame for keeping beginners at arm’s length.
 
“Sometimes, I think that everyone in the entire chain of players, manufacturers, retailers, and magazine editors feels that they all struggled to learn guitar,” he
says, “and there’s no way they are going to let anybody in the club who takes what they perceive as any kind of a shortcut.”
 
NEXT STEPS
 
When guitarists talk about getting significantly more beginners into the ranks, there’s always that fear that successfully appealing to a mass audience will mean “dumbing down” guitarcraft. I’m not sure that this is necessarily true. There will always be young guitarists who will aspire to scary technique, and we should provide them the tools to take that difficult (and rewarding) quest. But perhaps, as a community, we have focused on those who aspire to that level of accomplishment more than those who simply wish to utilize the guitar as a sound source. The great sonic, textural, and compositional players should be just as respected for their creativity, as those similarly excellent players who are influenced by Yngwie Malmsteen or Jeff Beck. It would be a wonderful reality indeed if both types of players could co-exist within the larger guitar community.
 
“Some of this work is already being done by some of the artists themselves,” says Kaplan. “They are effectively demystifying what it means to be an artist. They are showing that the guitar is not necessarily an intimidating instrument for virtuosos—it’s a means of expressing yourself. Someone who knows just three chords can create just as much as someone who knows intervals and Mixolydian modes. The guitar may not be the easiest tool for expression—certainly not as easy as pushing buttons on an iPhone—but once you get past the initial learning curve, it is just as relevant a means of expression as any- thing out there.”
 
If one keeps an open mind, there are obviously many ways that the guitar can be deployed as a musical and compositional tool. A beginning player might choose a creative option that you or I might find, um, “not to our taste.” But if we can still find it within ourselves to support and respect those choices, then perhaps we can help make the guitar less intimidating and imperious, and actually stop some potential players from shoving the instrument under their beds to collect dust. I guess it’s our move. What will we do? 
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