In the arts, styles change. Since the advent of Modernism, change has been more purposeful and freighted with philosophical significance but even before that, painting and music, poetry and literature always evolved with the passage of time. The changes may have been more gradual, less sudden and jarring than in more recent times, but styles came and went nonetheless. No one would mistake a Schumann symphony for a Bach orchestral suite, and it’s easy to imagine harpsichord aficionados grousing about why no one plays their favorite instrument any more.
Last week, Fortune magazine reported that gradual shifts in musical tastes are making people less interested in playing guitar and that’s putting guitar companies in a tight spot. “As rap and hip-hop have become more main stream,” writer Chris Morris explains, “guitars have become less crucial to the country’s most popular songs.” Anyone who listened to a lot of pop radio 30 years ago and who tunes in to listen today likely will immediately notice that the guitar solo—which for decades was a funadmantal part of pop song architecture—is nowhere to be heard. Usually you can’t even hear a guitar backing track of any kind. They’re not there.
Such transformations of musical tastes are not without consequences. George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, a fixture of that city’s music scene since 1970, recently told the Los Angeles Times that because there aren’t individual guitar players who are captivating and inspiring new generations of players, and because the instrument quite obviously doesn’t have the place in contemporary music it used to have, people (and especially young people) are buying fewer guitars as a consequence.
Businesses are feeling the pinch. Guitar Center, the country’s largest instrument retailer, is facing $1 billion in debt even as this change is threatening its very business. Gibson, a company that began making guitars and mandolins in 1902, is facing similar woes as it watches its revenues drop precipitously. In the past, artists like Elvis Presley, B. B. King, and Eric Clapton were closely associated with Gibson guitars and they drew generations of rock and blues players into that world. No longer. Fender, another seminal guitar company that also pioneered the electric bass, has also seen its revenue plunge in recent years.
In 1916, auto maker Henry Ford said “history is more or less bunk”—not exactly one of my favorite historical quotations and not one I’m prone to quoting to my classes. But innovators can’t be blamed for harboring a certain ambivalence if not plain hostility toward the past inasmuch as they’re more than willing to disrupt it utterly. (This is why it’s difficult and not exactly accurate to think of business pioneers like Ford and Andrew Carnegie as unalloyed conservatives.)
Modernists and to some extent artists of all stripes are more interested in what they’re going to create tomorrow and how it will be different than that which is going on today. Today’s pop performers at some point might have said “the guitar is more or less bunk,” and while such a remark would still be as wrong on many levels as in Ford’s day, it’s easy to understand the compulsion behind saying it.
At the same time it’s a shame when things like pianos and guitars begin a slow retreat from the artistic centrality they once had, not least of all because of the effect that abandonment has on those who earn their livelihoods making and selling the things. A few years ago I wrote about declining piano sales and the slow disappearance of the piano from American homes. In the same way, the plunge in guitar sales also marks the continuing evaporation of participatory culture and the ability to play music as opposed to just listening to it.
Maybe in an earlier age I would have written a column lamenting the disappearance of the harpsichord. But then again I’m writing this one largely on my iPhone and not with a Underwood manual typewriter, and it’s never occurred to me to complain about that.