In this issue, country guitar star Marty Stuart drops a big ole’ bomb by bringing up a creepy and uncomfortable subject—that the quest for hits has led many producers to eviscerate the personality of the guitarist in order to document a uniform, radio-friendly tone and stylistic approach. Stuart was talking specifically about how session players are managed in Nashville, but I don’t think any guitarist in any musical genre is off the hook. Spin your radio dial or blitz through the iTunes Music Store, and you’ll be bombarded by copycats in all flavors of metal, rock, blues, jazz, and beyond.
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In fact, conformity has become so pervasive that it’s sometimes difficult finding truly exciting new artists to write about. After all, guitar publications are, to a large extent, mirrors of guitar culture. While each magazine has certainly discovered transcendent guitarists who were previously unknown, the publications must also serve their constituencies by detailing the tones, techniques, gear, and creative concepts of artists who have already reached a certain notoriety and cultural stature. As horrifying as it is to admit this, guitar magazines may therefore be partly responsible for promoting commercial smarts over innovation.

But, then again, how do you rate a blues player who is a marvelous technician, but who plays the same old licks with a tone that has been documented on gazillions of records? Do you cover the player because he is damn good at honoring the idiom, or do you pass, because, as brilliant as the player might be, he didn’t bring anything unique or surprising to the table? Isn’t it enough to attain a high level of skill and competence without having to be a stylistic visionary, musical iconoclast, or sonic alchemist, as well?

And even if you do have the juice to celebrate and refine your individuality, conformity has many weapons with which to murder your efforts. One example is the situation Mr. Stuart was decrying, where certain producers dictatorially craft tones for the guitarist, rather than documenting—and, hopefully, enhancing—the guitarist’s sound. Then, there’s the tragedy of artistic paranoia, where an artist abandons a unique approach and/or sound because he or she seems so alone. It’s the old “How can I be doing something right if no one else is doing it, too?” syndrome. And we haven’t even considered the pressures of career advancement, management demands, band member freakouts, and other innovation-killing measures.

Of this creative conundrum, the visionary poet William Blake might have said, “So many ways to fall from grace.” But one thing is certain. Just a few decades ago, we celebrated a guitar community chock full of diverse stylists. Today, we’re in danger of launching vast armadas of homogenized tone clones. What are we gonna do about it?