Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Whither the "guitar god"?

My friend's two boys both play guitar -- the older one, a university student, plays when the mood strikes, but the younger one, still in high school, is a devotee and remarkably proficient.

For my friend and his still-at-home son there are sports, and sports-related road trips. During one of these trips Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" came on the (satellite) radio. My friend told his boy of the first time he'd heard the song. It was the late-'70s, my friend was roughly the boy's age, accompanying his mother to the grocery store and staying in the car to listen to the radio while the woman shopped. There were three, maybe four stations, all playing the same stuff. Then this song came on.

It wasn't anything like any of the other songs. A little like Eric Clapton, a little like Bob Dylan, neither of whom was getting much airplay in '78. It was such a pleasing, deeply-infectious song that for the rest of the summer my friend took every opportunity to turn on the radio in hopes of tracking it down.

Back home, some days after the sport-trip was over, my friend heard the boy playing "Sultans" in the bedroom.

Warms the old heart just a touch, doncha think?
"Where have all the guitar gods gone?"
My favourite Sunday morning DJ DarkoV directed me to Why my guitar gently weeps: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care. by Geoff Edgers, over at WaPo. I read it, thought about my friend and dismissed the piece out of hand. Then it kept popping up in all my info-aggregates. I had to go back.

The stats indicate sales for electric guitars are precipitously low and continue to decline, particularly for the two US giants, Fender and Gibson. Industry types seem to share the same POV on this matter: it's the kids these days -- the racket they call "music" doesn't have enough guitar in it. Perhaps if there was a new generation of "guitar god" the stats might change. Currently the best they've got is Taylor Swift.

The argument strikes me as just a bit precious (not the Taylor Swift part, mind you -- I'm totally on board with that). In both of my daughters' classes there were three or four "shredders" apiece who could be depended upon to provide colour at various school functions. My high school class of '83 had exactly one. And while he was permitted use of a practice booth in the school band room, it would be a very cold day in Hell before he was ever invited onto the public stage to demonstrate his chops to the assembled parents.

Edgers has a follow-up piece to this -- How much did this guitar story cost me? $2,376.99 -- which I think sheds a clearer light on a problem Gibson and Fender have pretty much created for themselves: they've flooded the market with garbage.

Consider this page from Edgers' cherished Supro catalogue:
These were the "entry-level" guitars of (I'm guessing) 1969. Adjusted for inflation, the Supro on the far right would cost today's kid $663.51 USD. Currently, a brand new, entry-level Fender Bullet Strat sells for $150. In '67 a brand new Strat cost $231 -- or $1,693 in today's currency.

If you head to the store and pick up a $1,700 Strat, you will have a very fine instrument. Similarly, if you spend $500 on a clone for your kid -- provided it doesn't have Fender or Gibson's name on it -- the instrument you take home (this one, say) will be solid, dependably wired and eminently playable (no high/ragged frets, fussy pots or toggles, dodgy Indonesian pickups, etc). Fewer trips to the back of the shop for adjustments, repairs and replacements translates to more time practicing and performing. Which translates to less time brooding over disappointing product. Which translates to a fighting chance of acquiring some truly impressive chops before trading in the cringe-worthy clone for an instrument that peers respect.

(An aside: I'm cogitating on those Supros (my uncle had one as well, actually). They definitely look Fender-ish, yet they are also aesthetically distinct from the company they ape. I suspect this very much adds to their current nostalgia value. Now consider today's entry-level Strats & LPs -- indistinct, at first glance, from the higher value pro models they're based on. What is there to feel nostalgia for, once you've traded in the cheap rubbish model for one that actually works, and sounds good?)

Anyway, I am all for on-line lessons and encouragement. But if you don't give the kids unique, dependable instruments they'll actually enjoy playing, good luck keeping them hooked.

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