Is a guitar still a valid gift? Should you inflict one on your sister’s child? Giving rebellious boys and ungovernable girls a guitar used to be a rite of passage. Safer than a motorbike, but still with all the cool. It’s no accident that some of the greatest rock songs command you to “get your motor running”. And yet, there is that something extra.
Anyone can drop a wheelie at a robot, but playing the guitar takes more: practice, skill, a deep dive into musical notation, and, very importantly, creative hair.
Yet it is simple enough to master with a little application. The reason goes back to the beginnings of popular music, particularly in the US in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the guitar migrated from being a side instrument to the centre of the band. The key was not, in fact, the guitar, but the amplifier. The pioneer of the modern electric guitar, Leo Fender, began his career making public-address systems.
Amplified, guitars gained a range of new facilities: volume, sustain, and drive. Instead of being a camp-fire instrument for solo performances, the guitar could now compete with the violin in carrying notes at length and with the trumpet for picking out a tune above the orchestra. Electric guitars began as occasional participants in the post-war, big-band sounds, often played Hawaiian-style, sitting down, with a slide.
Gradually though, they just took over. Guitars have other qualities: you can play (and sing) facing the audience. They are also flexible because they can be picked or strummed, or even tapped or strum-muted, picking up the beat. They are cost-effective too. A group of mop-heads with three guitars, three vocal microphones, and a set of drums could entrance a stadium of people.
There were other discoveries too. The most significant is the riff, a small set of notes played repeatedly and a dirty little secret of modern guitar music. They are ridiculously easy to learn and play. The repetition helps them worm their way into the audience’s ears and hearts. Add a thumping drum sequence and a few clichéd lyrics and Bob’s your uncle — you’re a band.
Guitar riffs are often just, dunk dun, dunkdunkdunk dadadadada — I can’t get no satisfaction. Grimace. Hair flick. Repeat. It’s very satisfying.
Another secret is the pentatonic scale. Western music adopted the 12-note scale long ago. Eight of the 12 notes are normally played in different sequences, defining major and minor scales. Guitar players most often stick with just five of the 12 notes, perhaps adding one or two others in passing. The ubiquity of the pentatonic scale gives modern popular music two of its most crucial qualities: instant likeability and instant forgettability, both key to commerciality.
Guitar riffs are often just, dunk dun, dunkdunkdunk dadadadada — I can’t get no satisfaction. grimace. hair flick. repeat. It’s very satisfying
People need to like the product to buy it, but not like it too long — so they get the urge to get another one.
All of this explains the rise of the guitar, but its slide?
Guitar sales around the world are in decline. In the US, sales are down about 30% to about a million guitars a year over the past decade. Gibson is in bankruptcy. Fender is also deep in debt, and PRS Guitars recently had to cut staff. The largest guitar-selling retail chain in the US, Guitar Centre, is about R1.6-billion in debt.
Yet, there are more guitar makes than ever on the market. Their beauty, originality, and variety are just extraordinary: flying Vs, lopsided Ss, the normal “bubble and points” shape. But here is the problem, and like everything in the modern world, it’s about digital disruption.
The Beatles’ iconic Sgt Pepper‘s album was recorded on a four-track tape system, and studio time was frighteningly expensive. Nowadays, Apple ships its recording software, GarageBand, free with its computers, and it can record 64 tracks simultaneously. The quasi-pro system Apple provides, Logic Pro X, costs R2,700, and with a plastic keyboard, you can make any sound you want. It has 256 tracks. The cheapest Fender Stratocaster you can buy costs about R8,000.
Digital recording has turned every bedroom into a recording studio. The guitar — its beauty, its workmanship — is just another “input device” now. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy one for Christmas, but eyes might glisten brighter if you splashed out on some software instead.
- Tim Cohen is the former editor of Business Day, a current senior editor at the paper, and a guitarist in a band (surprise, surprise).
- From the December edition of Wanted.