What Ever Happened to the Guitar?

Electric Guitar

After watching the latest Superbowl halftime show starring Katy Perry and her dancing shark pals, a single question occurred to me: what ever happened to the guitar?

The instrument still exists. However, you’ll remember that there was no backing band at the halftime show, and therefore no guitarist. In popular music in general, the guitar seems to be an afterthought. And even the tracks that do use guitar lack that certain style of playing, that self-indulgent five minute solo in the middle of the song, that boundless vocabulary that seems able to touch on each and every emotion one can feel.

In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, the guitar was in its prime. Guys like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page were pioneering the sound that later guitarists would aspire to. These guys spoke through their instruments, weaving stories for the ear. There was Clapton’s voyage into unknown seas in “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” Hendrix’s trio of rousing solos in “All Along the Watchtower,” and Page’s ascension to the titular kingdom in “Stairway to Heaven.” When played by a master, there is no other instrument that can make the listener feel with such depth.

But what happened to all the masters?

Certainly, there are still guitar gods alive and well. Clapton and Page are still around, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett still plays a nasty axe, and there are numerous others beside. However, all of these artists made their names decades ago. Back then, they were the most popular acts. Nowadays, though still popular, their songs aren’t really top-chart hits.

The most popular artists of today are the Katy Perrys, the Lady Gagas, and the Adeles of the world. All are talented in their own ways, but they and the other top attractions of today are missing the guitar that so heavily influenced music in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

I’m not saying that rock music or music with guitar solos is a superior form of artistic expression. (Well, I kind of do think that, but I’m trying to be objective here.) I’m just pointing out the fact that around the turn of the century, the guitar seemed to vanish from popular music, in favor of pre-recorded beats and electronic synthesizers.

So where did the guitar go?

It’s hard to say. I think that the decline of the instrument is due in large part to the purpose of modern popular music. Of course, music’s pretty much always been made to dance to–but especially now, popular songs are written to be club anthems. The top hits are usually between two and four minutes, have a constant and repetitive beat, and feature lyrics about–you guessed it–partying.

Will we ever see the likes of Page, Clapton, and Hendrix again? Time will tell, I suppose. For now, I think I’ll stick with my vinyl and keep the radio off.

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