Is guitar music dead? This seems to be a never-ending question for music critics and scholars alike. This exact question was asked when disco arrived on the scene, when house music took over, and when pop music reigned supreme at the turn of the century. The good news was that the answer was no with each of those three examples. However, I am now asking the same question again, this time in 2015, and at this point, to be quite frank I am not optimistic.
I will give my reasons as to why I think guitar music is in a precarious state right now, but just before you think I am an anti-rock type, I will declare my biases straight away. I love rock music, I love guitar music, I am a guitarist. In fact, there was a time in my teen years when I refused to listen to anything that didn’t have a guitar solo in it. Thankfully I have evolved and expanded my musical tastes since then, but I have always had a love for great guitar music. So why then do I think it is “endangered” so to speak?
Here are my reasons…
Well, firstly, I think guitar music has failed to evolve musically, and since grunge and alternative rock, it has continued to rely heavily on quite a one-dimensional template of distorted guitars, very simple drum patterns, and overall not leaving much room for experimentation or exploration musically. This is especially the case I find with American, Australian and New Zealand groups. The same thing could also be said about British indie rock, with bands in this style seemingly stuck within the Strokes/Libertines formula which was big twelve years ago. In comparison, at the same time, other genres seem to be evolving and moving forward more quickly than guitar-based forms, especially alternative, indie pop and electronica.
Secondly, I think more so than other genres, guitar music or rock seems to be tied more heavily to its past. Nostalgia is big with guitar music and you see it in the music press with Rolling Stone, Mojo Magazine and the like, and the booming popularity of the live nostalgia circuit, “dad rock” to use a favorite cliche. The rock nostalgia thing rakes in the cash every year with high profile reunions, sold out tours and re-issues. While at the same time most of the attention gets given to dinosaur bands which refuse to die such as the Rolling Stones and U2. With this, in turn, less attention is given to the new bands on the scene. Part of this also comes back to identity and how guitar music or rock is significantly linked with its past rather than trying to create a new and fresh identity for the 21st century. Now I know that music was great and will always be great, but surely it is time to move on?
Along with this, a valid question could also be asked that the best of guitar music is done. Guitar forms such as rock are quite simplistic musically and what started sixty years ago with rock and roll, what more can guitar bands do that hasn’t already been done before? And, at the same time, realistically speaking how can anyone top the music that was written and performed between 1968 and 1978 especially, and then again with revivals in the 1980s and 1990s. Is it just because this form of music is so simple musically that it automatically limits itself in terms of what can be done, hence why it is failing to match what is being done with others styles.
Thirdly, I don’t think you can underestimate the role of the music industry in the situation guitar music finds itself in. After championing rock for decades, for the past fifteen years, the industry and big label executives have neglected guitar music in favor of an obsession with churning out a lot of shit pop music and at times quite average R&B and hip-hop. With this, guitar music has been left floundering and has fallen off the charts and out of sight for a lot of people. So when the industry doesn’t even care about it, what hope is there for it.
Finally, probably the most simplistic reason for the average state guitar music is in is that every genre has its time in the sun. Rock and guitar music peaked years ago and now you could argue is the time for other genres such as alternative, indie pop, electronica, as well as funk and soul revivals to have their moment. The evidence for this is probably clear in how a lot of the best music from this year has come out of these genres. In line with this, you could argue it is up to guitar bands and musicians to lift their game and match what is happening with other styles. This could also involve maybe taking elements from other styles and using them to create more fusion-like guitar music, or hybrid genres, something which a lot of the best guitar music from the past did.
In conclusion, then, this opinion piece has painted a pretty bleak picture for guitar music in 2015. However, all is not lost and it is not entirely all doom and gloom. There are at least a few acts continuing to wave the flag for guitar music. Anything by Dan Auerbach is worth paying attention to, and his new collaborative project The Arcs have just released a very good album Yours, Dreamily. Meanwhile, acts such as Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark jr have made some terrific music with their soul and blues-infused style of rock, including a couple of very solid albums this year. So, these acts do offer some hope. But, alas, they are the exception rather than the general rule and it will take more than a small handful of artists to keep guitar music afloat. Unless more artists come out of the wood-works and offer something different to standard indie or alt-rock, then guitar music could go from endangered status to extinct very quickly, something guitar and rock fans the world over squirm at the prospect. Now of course you might think what I have just hypothesised is all bullshit and that’s fine too, but from my own perspective knowing how good guitar music and rock forms can be, I feel there is so much more that can be done to move these forms out of the 20th century and into a fresh new direction.