Is the day of the guitar band over, or at least on hiatus? It’s a good question. It is hard to think of a single contemporary musician who is considered a “guitar hero.”
Music is always moving, always changing. Perhaps not as noticeably in the mainstream, where it seems to be about the singer, the choreography, and “the show,” but in the tributaries, where the real work is being done, music is in a constant state of redefinition and evolution. As an avid listener, I try to keep an open mind. This has served me well. I can’t keep up with all the records I buy these days, both new and on cool re-issue.
That being the case, I don’t listen to nearly as much guitar-driven music as I did years ago. While the sound is still part of my life, I do find well over half of my listening to be on the instrumental and avant side of things, where often a guitar is not the predominant instrument, if it’s present at all. This trend in my listening is not due to a lack of great guitar bands or players. It is simply because I try to spread myself as thinly over the vast array of choices available as I can. It’s not as if there hasn’t always been a ton of music to be enjoyed, but since the 1980s I have made a concerted effort to expand the perimeter of my musical appreciation.
I think that oversaturation is a good place to start. I listen to a lot of music. As much as I can, actually. It has been my obsession since I was very young. In recent years, I have noticed the guitar often move to the back and to the side at a lot of live shows. However, that doesn’t mean guitar music has lost its appeal. I think there is just more eclecticism in independent music. Curious, innovative young artists are searching for other sounds and textures to work with. I am so thankful that they are doing so. It has made modern independent music completely exciting and compelling.
Thankfully, music doesn’t always have to be three chords and attitude to get it across. At this point, I can’t imagine listening to one kind of music besides good music.
The appeal of guitar music will never die. There, I have predicted the future, and it’s full of guitars. It is the most mass produced and sold instrument in the world and works just fine electric or acoustic. The guitar allows someone, with little effort, to bang out some rudimentary chords and express themselves. The portability and affordability of the guitar will always keep it in play. It is an instrument that is easily enjoyed alone to preserve one’s sanity. It’s one of humankind’s best inventions.
I have an analog mind that was raised on the likes of Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith. They were a small part of the FM radio I was listening to, which in those days was surprisingly diverse. But these were the bands I was seeing live, where I made a real connection with music. The power of an amplified guitar was a life changing experience for me.
It was punk rock that cemented my love for guitar music. Being able to be right at the front (or damn close) at Ramones, Cramps, 999, Gang of Four, Buzzcocks, Bad Brains, Clash, Damned, and Minor Threat shows, where I could actually feel the music, I mean really feel it, was huge for me. I have had the same connection at jazz shows, but for me, the volume and aggression that is present in a lot of guitar music is irresistible. I am growing older, but those sounds still move me. It could be at this point a Pavlovian response, but I don’t think so. I think the guitar is just a beautiful-sounding instrument that allows for incredible individuality, like the styles of Robert Fripp and John Fahey: two different worlds, one basic instrument, both amazing.
I bet you will be able to play songs like “Paranoid,” “Chinese Rocks,” “Raw Power,” “Marquee Moon,” and “Rocks Off” to a young person years from now and still get a positive reaction. I wonder what the impact will be when one listens to the pudenda-grinding music that is being sold via MP3. I think a great deal of this music and its perpetrators are disposable, and time will only diminish their appeal. On the other hand, Zeppelin II and Raw Power will be with us forever.
Besides the aforementioned personality-driven music, which is also pushing guitar bands to the side, rap and DJ events have taken a large part of the market over the years. These are huge factors in mainstream music trends. That’s fine. I would never begrudge anyone their music; it’s one of the only breaks you get in life, to be able to put on a record and dig it in your own way. For me, though, the guitar, as well as the saxophone, are eternal instruments. They produce sounds that are as human as a fingerprint. Hendrix and Coltrane are my favorite musicians. They tapped into something larger than themselves.
There are plenty of bands I see for whom it’s all about the guitar. Stooges shows with Ron Asheton or James Williamson were always worth it. I will see Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis play any time I can. Same for Marnie Stern or Vieux Farka Touré.
Some of my favorite recent albums were guitar-heavy: Marnie Stern, High On Fire, Fushitsusha, Basilica, 11 Paranoias, Thee Oh Sees, Steven R. Smith, and Fuzz all released excellent guitar heavy albums.
To think the guitar has lost its place in contemporary music just means you’re not getting out enough. There’s room for all at the table of music, so we need not divide ourselves over it. Everyone can head toward the sound that attracts them, we can argue about all the other stuff later.
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