At the end of last month Muse’s Matt Ballamy said in an interview that ‘the guitar was going out of fashion’, I agree with him, 100%. In the context of a music scene dominated by pop and hip-hop, the only guitarists who are dragging the guitar kicking and screaming into the 21st Century are Matt Bellamy and St Vincent, that Imagine Dragons guy – who use the guitar to punctuate predominantly electronic music, much like the saxophone before it.
Things are looking grim for the guitar from a sales point of view, too. A cheap laptop with Reaper and a bunch of free VST synths is simply a cheaper and more varied way to make music. I chose the guitar because it made it easy to express myself, but I find it so much easier to do so with my laptop now. I barely ever write on guitar anymore!
Recently, I’ve beem doing some research, especially as the guitar is such an important part of my identity – specifically my quest to do something innovative and new with it. If the guitar is dead, I’ve wasted my life!
The failure of Gibson and Guitar Center would seem like good indicators of ill-health in the guitar industry. However, you have Fender on course to clear their debt by the end of the year, Chapman guitars becoming a dominant force in the industry, and musicians like Tosin Abasi and Annie Clarke driving real change in both guitar design and the way it’s played.
Now that I’ve really taken a good look at the situation, it seems less like the guitar is in bad shape and more like dinosaurs are dying off, and deservedly so. You see baby boomers whinging that the boomers who buy their guitars are dying off or downsizing and these whippersnappers just don’t want to play the guitar; it couldn’t be more different! We just don’t want what you’re selling! We’re not going to be enticed into your store by posters of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nuno Fucking Bettencourt! Try putting up posters of Jared Dines, Ola Englund, and Devin Townsend and sell some multi-scale djent machines!
It’s also a lesson in good business practice. Let’s take another look at Gibson, Guitar Center, Fender, and Chapman. There’s a common thread that ties the winners and losers together: ill-advised acquisitions and generally reckless business practices in Gibson and Guitar Center’s corner, compared with Fender and Chapman’s decision to stick to what they’re good at and listen to the consumer – the latter of which being the driver behind Chapman’s success, with some of their guitars being designed in collaboration with the online guitar community. Today, if you are not willing to connect with your customers and have a finger on the pulse of consumer trends, you’re setting the A-Team up to fail – and that’s before you’ve bought out TEAC, for whatever reason. Who asked for the A Team van Les Paul? Anyone? Now, who asked for the Ed O’Brien Stratocaster? I know I did!
We need only look upon the ruins of Blockbuster and Kodak for a lesson in the kind of corporate hubris that’s killing Gibson and Guitar Center: adapt or die. It’s sad, but it’s true – and it’s always been true. We could even turn it around: adapt and thrive, like Fender! It’s easy to get wrapped up in the negative and miss the positive; it’s not all doom and gloom out there if you follow the light.
If Jack White is playing an EVH Wolfgang and St Vincent an EBMM, you know change is here.