Shifting musical tastes spell doom

By Jeff Linville -
Jeff Linville -

“Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

That’s a piece of reportedly “fake news” from Charley Owens, Chicago Daily News, about baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1920. But it fits my reaction to a recent Washington Post article about the slow death of the electric guitar.

Surely it isn’t possible. The electric guitar took the world by storm in the 1950s and reached its zenith during the hair band days of the ’80s.

The music my parents loved growing up, the music I loved in high school and throughout my adult life has almost always featured a guitar. In fact, if someone asks me what kind of music I like, my typical answer is, “Most anything – as long as there is a guitar in it.”

Unfortunately, as I related in a previous column, I don’t care much for what is popular today. I don’t hear many songs that have musical creativity and instrumental expertise. And there just isn’t enough good, old-fashioned rock and roll to suit me.

Which is becoming a problem for the guitar industry.

According to the Washington Post, electric guitar sales have plummeted over the past decade, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just a bit more than 1 million. That’s almost a third less in one decade.

The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt.

Over the past three years, Gibson’s annual revenue has fallen from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion, according to data gathered by Music Trades magazine. The company’s 2014 purchase of Philips’s audio division for $135 million led to debt – how much, the company won’t say – and a Moody’s downgrading last year.

Fender at one time was planning to sell its stock on Wall Street, but decided to abandon a public offering in 2012. Its revenue has fallen from $675 million to $545 million. It has cut its debt in recent years, but it remains at $100 million.

And starting in 2010, the industry witnessed a milestone that would have been unthinkable during the hair-metal era: Acoustic models began to outsell electric.

In 1989, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic version of “Wanted Dead or Alive” at the MTV Video Music Awards, which was such a hit that the network launched MTV Unplugged on Nov. 26, 1989.

It was a novelty to hear hard rock bands play acoustic versions of their songs. Eric Clapton’s 1992 show was made into a CD that won album of the year, song of the year (his reworked version of “Layla”) and best male vocal performance.

What really has led to the return of the acoustic guitar, however, are two factors: one, the popularity of country music; and two, the influence of Taylor Swift on getting girls to try guitar.

Kids want to emulate their idols, whether that is some superhero in a movie or a soldier being honored by a large crowd. Gatorade ran the “Be Like Mike” campaign with Michael Jordan in 1992, and kids went racing outside to try to play like M.J.

When Taylor Swift exploded onto the music scene, girls all over the country saw a teenager with an instrument singing in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. They pushed their parents for a guitar and lessons.

Where is the equivalent rock star for the electric guitar?

I posed this question on my Facebook page a while back and stumped a lot of people. I’ll try it here.

I grew up in an era of guitar greats. I had so many choices, and they were all still actively playing live and recording new albums. The ones so famous you don’t even need first and last names: Clapton, Van Halen, Page, Beck, Stevie Ray, Satriani, Vai, Iommi, Hammett, Mustaine, Malmsteen, Angus, Slash, Gilmour, Santana, Knopfler. And that doesn’t even include the ones who had died, but their music lived on after them.

Most people could easily name 5-10 guitarists, even commoners who aren’t very knowledgeable about musicians because their fame was so great.

Now here is the question: Can you name me just three great guitar players under the age of 40? Can you name me one?

When I asked that question on Facebook, the most common response I got was John Mayer (someone who previously dated Taylor Swift, but hopefully that’s not why they remember him).

Well guess who turns 40 this year? Gonna have to come up with a new answer in a couple of months.

Anybody else?

Heck, I play guitar myself, and I’m not sure I could name three famous ones under the age of 40.

Rock music isn’t what radio stations are pushing. It isn’t what the majority of kids are hearing at an early age, so they aren’t inspired to enter that genre. It becomes a catch-22. Kids need rock idols to inspire their desire to play guitar, but without a desire to play guitar, who is going to grow up to be those rock idols?

Maybe we parents need to acknowledge our share of the blame. I grew up with my dad playing LPs of The Eagles, Creedence, Three Dog Night. My mom introduced me to the sock-hop songs of the ’60s. My cousin Tracy played me ’70s rock like Kiss and Ozzy.

These days we buy our children iPods and iPhones, let them load up whatever drivel they want to hear and let them rot their brains with bad pop music coming through horrible ear bud sound quality.

Well not in my house!

My kid has a very wide musical background with songs from the past 55 years – and is learning to play the bass. Think it’s a coincidence?

Jeff Linville Linville

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.