The Decline of the Guitar God
Updated: Oct 17, 2018
After the market crashed in 2008 my teaching load fell about 40% over the course of the following year. Which, by the way, was about the same percentage that my retirement accounts declined due to the crash (ouch!).
For more than 25 years before that time, my teaching load was never affected by the seasons, economical ups and downs, which political party was in power or societal upheavals like 9/11.
My reputation and experience as a player and a teacher, word-of-mouth and referrals from whatever store I was teaching at kept my schedule full and a waiting list going without me giving a single thought to advertising, marketing or promotion.
Fortunately those 25-plus years happened at the most fortuitous time for me; with the teaching and gigging I had going my wife and I were able, via my guitar, to raise 5 kids. By the time my load dropped my kids were growing up and leaving home, my overhead was decreasing, and I was debt-free. Since I had been living below my means for quite a while my day-to-day lifestyle or ability to pay my bills wasn't really affected. My retirement investing was the main thing that was damaged.
After it became apparent that my load wasn't going to bounce back like I assumed it would, I began experimenting with advertising, marketing and promotion. I tried everything I could think of; I dropped thousands of dollars on commercial radio ad campaigns, print ads and internet radio ads. The short story is nothing worked - and I mean nothing. As far as I could tell, I didn't obtain a single student from any of it. I got a few from posting flyers on bulletin boards at several music stores that had no studio space for teaching. A couple of website referral services as well as Craigslist have resulted in a new student here and there; but nothing came anywhere close to making up for the precipitous drop that happened post-2008. My load has held steady since then at about 50 students a week.
"Why is this happening?" I asked myself.
The answer I came up with was that there were multiple factors and the crash in 2008 was a very minor aspect - it was just the last little straw that broke the camel's back.
Things had been trending negatively for quite a while but I was somewhat insulated from it due to my massive teaching load which in and of itself generated referrals (by the late eighties I had 97 students a week and 3 dozen on a waiting list), plus the store from which I was renting studio space all through the nineties and early 2000's. I had gotten in on the ground floor about 6 months after it opened as a little shop that rented band instruments. Over the space of about 5 years it grew into the biggest guitar store in town (thanks to Roy DeWitt for providing the stability for me to be able, as a musician, to raise my family).
So what happened?
Starting in the fifties pop music became more and more guitar-centric. By the early eighties there was a formula in place; the charismatic frontman/singer paired with a lead guitarist who had at least the image of virtuosity if not the reality. There were exceptions to this formula of course (Hendrix and Clapton come to mind) but the examples are legion. Just off the top of my head:
Freddie Mercury & Brian May (Queen), Robert Plant & Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Mick Jagger & Keith Richards (Rolling Stones), Steven Tyler & Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Axl Rose & Slash (Guns-N-Roses), Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), David Lee Roth & Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen), Vince Neil & Mick Mars (Motley Crue), Steve Perry & Neil Schon (Journey), Brett Michaels & C.C. DeVille (Poison), Sebastian Bach & Dave Sabo (Skid Row).
These bands and others like them were multi-platinum-selling Rock bands (i.e. Pop) and inspired countless teenage boys to pick up a guitar and take some lessons.
It is my opinion that this was THE number one thing that drove the demand for guitar lessons from the late seventies and all through eighties.
Furthermore, there was one delivery medium - radio. When the latest guitar god hit the radio, he was exposed to everyone at once. It was not unusual for 70 students out of 90 to bring me the same song within 2 or 3 weeks of each other. That has not happened since the early nineties.
The first nail in the coffin was Nirvana in 1991. Nirvana was huge and was a paradigm shift in Pop/Rock music. The pendulum swung - and swung hard. Grunge was in, 80's Rock, with it's strutting, flashy guitar solos, was out. There were little to no guitar solos and no virtuoso lead guitarists in Grunge - at least none who flaunted it.
In my experience, Nirvana was the last great pop music phenomenon that caused a noticeable upsurge in guitar lesson sign-ups - but in retrospect was the beginning of the end.
"How do they get that sound?" was the most common request upon signing up. It took about 2 minutes to explain the Drop-D tuning and then maybe another 10 minutes of running through a few Nirvana tunes where all that is required is a single finger moving around the guitar fretboard. Done.
Then the evolution of the internet started cutting into the teaching with more and more "guitar lessons" being given via YouTube etc. It has now gotten to the point that many kids today think watching a YouTube video is a real guitar lesson - they don't know any different.
The rise of Rap, Hip Hop and other forms of computerized electronic music and their influence on the Pop music of the 2000's further marginalized the guitar. Today, Pop music is about 10% human, if that.
All these things cumulatively contributed to the decline of the guitar god in popular music and thus the demand for guitar lessons.
Are there rock guitar gods today?
Yes, but they are generally niche artists. People like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson are known primarily as instrumentalists - and instrumental music is rarely popular. Some have tried; Joe Satriani teamed up with singer/guitarist/frontman Sammy Hagar in Chickenfoot. Joe Bonamassa (who also sings) teamed up with singer/bassist/frontman Glenn Hughes in Black Country Communion. Both these attempts were modeled on the 70's-80's-era musical formula. I found both to be refreshing in a nostalgic kind of way (especially Black Country Communion) but neither went far beyond their niche. As a matter of fact, the frontman/singer in both these bands had a history of playing in some of the biggest-selling 80's bands so in a sense it was same-old-same-old.
A guitar god in the 80's sense of the term (massive, million-selling pop success) does not now exist; furthermore it would be almost impossible for a new one to arise because of:
The fragmentation of the delivery medium. There is no one medium that everyone uses (like radio up through the 80's). So an artist cannot be massively exposed to everyone at the same time anymore. Streaming, downloading, file-sharing, YouTube, FaceBook and such have inhibited the ability of a guitar god to hit the Pop jackpot. Joe Bonamassa's people run massive "sponsored" campaigns on social media - it seems like he's everywhere and yet has not had a Pop hit. Even though he's massively exposed, he's still in the Blues niche.
The nature of Pop music today is a computer-driven, lip-synced, choreographed spectacle. The guitar has been marginalized. A guitar god who actually plays his instrument onstage would have to crossover and break through all that - and all the force of at least a couple of decades of "the way things are done" would be against him.
Most rock guitar gods today are strictly instrumental. They would need to team up with a hot young frontman/singer. Santana has done just that every few years and gets a hit out of it (remember Santana with Rob Thomas and "Smooth"?). As noted above, despite a few exceptions, these attempts don't successfully transcend the niche from which they spring.
Today's Pop stars (Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars etc) don't need a flashy guitar god - it would just distract the attention from them. In the 80's-era formula the frontman needed the musical dimension of the guitar god. Many times the guitar god was the creative force behind the band. The guitar god needed the frontman to achieve commercial success and stardom. Much of the time it was a fairly dysfunctional, codependent relationship with a lot of drama. And in today's Pop paradigm, completely unnecessary. No guitar god needed.
One of the exceptions that I can think of would be John Mayer; he has had pop success. He is self-contained; a frontman, singer/songwriter and celebrity who passes as a guitar god.
When Ray Charles died, one of my favorite jazz guitarists (a niche if ever there was one!), John Scofield, put out an album of his arrangements of Ray Charles tunes and used various vocalists to cover the vocal parts. John Mayer sang on Scofield's version of "I Don't Need No Doctor." Here's their appearance on the Tonight Show. I'm sure that most people watching that night had no idea who John Scofield is. John Mayer is the "name" - the pop star - yet Scofield is center-stage. I take it that Mayer, as a guitarist, is indicating his respect for Scofield. Scofield has been very adventurous in placing himself in all kinds of different musical environments - that's one of the things I like about him. The brief hook-up with John Mayer is the closest that Scofield has come, as far as I know, to commercial pop success. He's still a niche. I've heard him say that if he sells 12,000 copies of his latest release that's a success. John Mayer sells millions and has continued to perform Scofield's arrangement of "I Don't Need No Doctor"...without Scofield.
The old gods who are still active are surviving on past glory (Santana, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, Slash, Yngwie Malmsteem, Brian May etc.). Most of the 80's hair-metal guys have faded away. The younger gods are ensconced in their instrumental niche, known mainly to their respective cult followings.
But would it be possible for a new guitar god to achieve massive pop success?
I'm pessimistic about the possibility - but you never know when some young genius is going to appear out of left field and blow up the status quo.
I'm not a genius, and I'm not young - but these are my thoughts on the matter.
It seems to me that a throwback to the old formula isn't going to work - Chickenfoot and Black Country Communion being cases-in-point.
It's not going to happen within the framework of the current computer-driven, choreographed, singer/dancer-centric Pop paradigm.
I think what needs to happen is some kind of hybrid between the current Rap/Hip-Hop niche and an innovative guitar god. Rap and Hip-Hop have been shameless about sampling from other styles so there's a template there.
Hey! Remember Aerosmith and Run DMC? The symbolism in that video is exactly what I'm talking about - breaking down the wall. It's been a mystery to me why no Rap group has covered Jimi Hendrix's Crosstown Traffic. There have been multiple Dubstep-style remixes but none that I know of with Jimi's Rap-style lyrics.
Remember Eddie Van Halen's solo on Michael Jackson's Beat it? Remember Stevie Ray Vaughn playing on David Bowie's Let's Dance album? There are precedents.
An "almost" would be The Roots. They are currently the house band for Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show and therefore are distracted by that obligation from shooting for some kind of Pop breakthrough, but they have a long history. They are a real band that plays live without computer generated tracks. They are primarily Hip-Hop which is a genre that's very heavy in the computer generated tracks department. I like them because of their non-reliance on tracks, as well as other reasons.
Several years ago, Yngwie Malmsteen sat in with The Roots on the Tonight Show. I thought, "Ok! Here's an iconic rock guitar god playing with a Hip-Hop group! This has potential!"
I was very disappointed - The Roots adapted to Yngwie's style and there was no hybrid. Yngwie was merely plugging his latest album. Yngwie is not the guy - my guess is that because he's from the 80's school (i.e. he's old), he can't or won't adapt. He didn't work with The Roots, he dominated them. It will have to be a young guy. The Roots (or something like them) should do what they do best, and some young guitar god incorporates that into his/her style.
I see another possibility and you may think I'm crazy but hear me out.
In recent years there's been a cross-fertilization of country music and rap, sometimes referred to as "Hick-Hop." It has gotten a bad rap. I confess to disrespecting it on occasion. There have been numerous collaborations. Here are a few;
Jason Aldean and Ludacris, Meghan Linsey and Bubba Sparxxx, Taylor Swift and T Pain, Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, Tim McGraw and Nelly, Florida-Georgia Line and Nelly.
These have all been vocal-centric collaborations.
But what if...we had a rapper collaborate with a killer country guitarist like, say, Brad Paisley?
Not Brad Paisley the country star vocalist/songwriter, but Brad Paisley the telecaster master guitarist, and not on a country song, but on a rap or a hip-hop song? Paisley would have to adapt his considerable chops to a genre that is, as far as I know, outside his history. That could get very interesting - AND - it would have massive Pop success potential. The Rap/Hip-Hop niche and the Bro-Country niche are two of the biggest niches going.
On the other hand, the probability of a self-contained star like Brad Paisley doing something so completely disjunct from his established brand/image is pretty remote. It would have to be some young unknown but unique country guitar player.
Earlier I said I obtained no students from the radio ad campaigns. I did get a couple of things out of it though, one of which has a bearing on this discussion. That will be the next blog. Stay tuned for:
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