Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - HAVE WE REACHED "PEAK GUITAR"?

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Fake News: Reports of Electric Guitar's Death 

Greatly Exaggerated! 

My "vintage" 1982 Japanese Strat

 A "story" that is making the rounds in industry podcasts, blogs, videocasts is that "guitar is dying" or some variation therein.


 This can be traced to a story found in the Washington Post, that purports "The death of the electric guitar" (and guitar in general it would seem), based on a couple of anecdotes.

 From the outset I'd like the reader to know that for me, a person who has been teaching guitar 5 days a week for more than 30 years, last year and this year have been the best years I've had - ever.  From my viewpoint, playing guitar has transitioned into the activity that has supplanted the tradition of learning piano as a way of expanding a person's intellectual horizons.  We are now in the era where a considerable portion of parents may play guitar themselves, and see the benefit of their child learning, where previously the process revolved around piano.

 This is very relevant.  The WaPo article uses the position of guitar sales as a harbinger for the "death of electric guitar", which is completely misleading: the "story" is maybe - maybe - a bubble bursting in the sales of guitars.  Which is a wholly different thing.

1) Guitars don't evaporate!

 Ironically, the author had written another story previously wherein he described the process of discovering and liking an old guitar that an uncle had. 

 The WaPo article cites George Gruhn (of Gruhn Guitar's fame, vintage guitar dealer in Nashville) lamenting sales figures being down (while production being up).  The problem with this is ignoring a basic premise:

 Guitars are not a consumable.

 They don't go away.  The sales figures across a year doesn't tell you anything at all about how many guitar there are in circulation with the general public.

 The figure I want to see is, "what is the total amount of electric guitars that has been sold since 1957, versus the population?".   Because in reality, a lot of people today (and in the recent past) start out not on a new guitar, but a hand-me-down. Of which there is an ever increasing supply.

 2) Entry level guitars can now be "intermediate" guitars.

 In the past 5 years, the basic, beginner $150 guitar has risen in quality to a level that in all honesty, I could easily get by with at a gig.  Tuners work good, action/playability is good, craftsmanship is pretty good, sound is ok. 75% pro acceptable.

 That wasn't the case previously.  It probably wasn't until the late 80's that a $150 became "passable" as even being playable.  Bad frets, wood, machining, construction, tuners that didn't work.

 Japan got their act together, and basically blitzed the under $500 guitar market.  Fender and Gibson dropped the ball.  Their fault.

 Now we have "Fender" guitars made outside the country, hyper cheaply, and with good quality.

 The point to this is that starting with the Japanese era in the late 80's, a Large Proverbial Tonnage of Pretty Good Guitars was sold at a low cost.  As a point of fact, one of my personal favorite guitars is a "Fender Strat" made in the Fujigen Gakki factory in Japan in 1982. It was a $150 guitar back then, and I bought it from a student in the 90's for about the same.  It was made of the same, or equal quality as what Fender was making with their "American" guitars at the time, a great value.

 Quite Decent Cheap Guitars are now supplanting what was previously a period in the first year or so of a novice guitar player's life where there was a necessity to step up to a better instrument.   That is no longer the case in general in my experience.

3) Value added past a certain point is subjective.

 As mentioned previously, American manufacturers were slow to respond to Japanese imports.  By the time they tried to respond, they had also decided to try to create the illusion that their branding held a certain cachet beyond what they had traditionally made: the basic Fender Stratocaster, or the Gibson Les Paul.

 Both instruments were considered the "fine, professional choices" one made as a mature musician.

 The problem is that as Japan became more competitive, both Fender and Gibson reacted by raising their prices, relying on their traditional perception of the only "nice" or "valuable" instruments. The question should be raised that, do the parts on the $1,000 Stratocaster cost $850 more than the $150 Squier (budget line) Strat?  Is Gibson unable to make a Les Paul model for no less than $2,000 more than their budget line Epiphone $450 Les Paul guitar?  Both examples are effectively, mechanically and electrically, the same guitar.  Much more than just a doubling of price, meanwhile Japan/Ibanez makes guitars in the $500 price range every bit as well made as the premium Fender or Gibson instrument.  Where is the added price coming from?
 In some cases artisan crafting, in their Custom Shop models.  You can put a value on that as you wish, but it's a subjective thing.  You can wish everyone that grows tired of their $150 guitar is going to spend well past the $1,000 mark for their next guitar, but that's not reality.

 In effect, sales are down for the "traditional" models by the "traditional" brands.  As far as I know fine guitar builders like John Suhr and Tom Anderson still have waiting lists?  Maybe the world doesn't need a $5,000 Jeff Gordon model Les Paul, or an Uber Vintage Reliced Strat that looks like it was left in the woods for a few years, after being dragged behind an F-150, the proverbial pre-worn/torn/ jeans of guitar?  How many different Les Paul and Stratocaster models do we really need?

4) Guitar heroes are plentiful today.

 Gruhn laments that "nobody is playing guitar because of John Mayer".  As a guitar teacher I can say quite plaintively, "you're wrong, George". Furthermore there are plenty of "guitar heroes" that motivate people to play now, it's just that Gruhn may not know who they are, or as is the case I suspect - guys like Tosin Abasi don't play or care about vintage guitars and in turn are not on his radar.

 While at the same time, I'd also have Mr. Gruhn know that he's also missing the boat on the reality that for all intents and purposes, Classic Rock is still very popular and potent for even the youngest new guitar player.  Kids today are as likely to be into Queen as they are Justin Bieber.  The landscape has changed, it's flatter and the road goes both ways; the "old music" that was great still is great, and is recognized as such.

  That a person can't buy a real-deal Strat like Jimi had, or a Les Paul like the other Jimmy used without a spending a car down payment, runs counter to Fender/Gibson's own retail environment.  They're helping stagnate interest in their business in the middle of the process.   $1,000 for a Fender Champ amplifier, a model that home-brew DIY people make as one offs for less than $500?  So much for the Clapton fan getting that Layla sound.

 5) Brands have no clue how to market to women.

 Yes, Taylor Swift has sold a bazillion guitars, in spite of the industry ignoring the demographic buying them.  Lucky for the industry she is so popular, because they had ample chances before to take advantage of the popularity of acts like Jewel, Tracy Chapman, and even Joni Mitchell.

 My business is about 1/3rd female now, yet I don't see that reflected in magazine advertising or sales presentation.  I know somewhere there are Genuine Marketing Execs with Pieces of Expensive Paper in a Frame to prove they know what they're doing. who would say otherwise, but .... nope, you're doing it wrong.

In conclusion...

 We may have reached Peak Guitar output.  The convenience of buying a new, quality instrument cheaply isn't going to go away, but it's the manufacturer's own fault to have pushed vintage guitars as being such a viable thing. A guitar from the 70's and 80's, even the 90's is now an "old" guitar, but most likely just as playable as any "vintage" instrument. Unlike classic cars, they're easy to maintain and store, and cheap.

 The guitar retail bubble may be bursting, but not because of electric guitar popularity. If I'm not mistaken _Guitar Hero_ (the bain of my existence for a while...) was a very big seller not too long ago.  It didn't rely on "new music", despite drones of stats showing the "death of rock music".  It didn't rely on a turntable interface, either.  By most accounts, it shouldn't have been popular at all.

 Or how about the popularity of the Beatles, does anyone doubt their present iconic status?  They don't sound like EDM or whatever is touted as the Biggest Selling Music according to download stats or some other arbitrary notion.  Yet somehow, they're still there, and I'm still asked to show people how to play their music 50 years later.

 Fake news comes in many forms.


  1. I beg to differ.. My guitar did evaporate after countless doodly woodlys and shred pickers, but it soon returned (along with a hand cramp). Seriously mentioned in your book about the time to upgrade and the $500 guitar being a compromise. What's the line in the sand between my decent (but not Setzer worthy) Squire and the next step up?

  2. Hello John... too much to go into here, hit me up in email.