What The Electric Guitar’s Decline In Popularity Tells Us About The Current State Of Music

Seemingly without notice until recently, the music industry has been experiencing a seismic and possibly irreversible change throughout the last decade. Last year, the Washington Post published an article about the recent decline in international electric guitar sales. The numbers are pretty shocking. In just the past decade, electric guitar sales have dropped by a third, from 1.5 million to a new average of just over 1 million. As you can imagine, this trend has been hell on small music stores, but even large music retailers have been experiencing pain due to waning guitar sales.

If you own a music store, this is all pretty bleak news, but what does the electric guitar’s decline mean for the rest of the music industry?

The most obvious takeaway is that young songwriters are increasingly opting out of creating and performing music through traditional means. Electronic music used to be confined to a couple of genres and moods, but in 2018, the lines defining electronic and organic music are blurred and nearly indistinguishable in some cases. For decades, the electric guitar has been a staple within virtually every genre of music, but with such a rapid decline in popularity, electronic-driven instrumentation might soon takeover that role, and possibly that of other instruments.

Use Gig Finder to connect you to the best possible venues and clubs for you

An aging customer base and lack of new iconic guitarists have been blamed for the guitar’s recent decline, but a possible larger culprit behind it all is the fact that guitar-driven music isn’t nearly as relevant as it was previously. In 2018, simple reverb-drenched electric guitar lines are defining the instrument more than anything else. And while this sound perfectly suits genres like indie rock, it’s not inspiring a new generation of kids to go out and buy electric guitars in the same way it once did.

there’s almost a popular sense that musicians have taken guitar music as far as it can go while electronic composition provides limitless options.

Trends come and go in music, but popular artists’ increasing preference for electronic instrumentation is a significant one. And though it’s completely false, there’s almost a popular sense that musicians have taken guitar music as far as it can go while electronic composition provides limitless options.

This all might seem bad for retailers and songwriters who prefer creating music on the electric guitar, but it’s not all bad news. For as much technology has impacted music in recent years, it’s still not great at replicating the humanity and immediacy of an instrument like the electric guitar. Songwriting software programs can do some pretty incredible things, but their synthesized guitar instruments aren’t able to hold a candle to the real thing.

What’s popular and relevant in music can change seemingly overnight, but music fans will always long for some sort of honest human connection in the songs they listen to. And as long as songwriters are able to use the electric guitar to connect with listeners, the instrument will be a major part of the way artists create and perform music.

Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

JayWhat The Electric Guitar’s Decline In Popularity Tells Us About The Current State Of Music

39 comments

Join the conversation
  • Mark - February 6, 2018 reply

    This story seems to be spot on in my opinion. Being in a band and figuring out songs from the radio to learn, it’s almost impossible sometimes to pick out the guitar part only to find there wasn’t any guitar in the song. For that matter, with the music so loud and squashed, you can’t tell any instruments apart from one another. Take Mark Thayer. Co for instance, you can always hear all the separate instruments and especially a guitar.
    I do think though that human connection bound to win over in the long run and guitars will find a new nitch.

    Matt - June 19, 2020 reply

    “ And though it’s completely false, there’s almost a popular sense that musicians have taken guitar music as far as it can go while electronic composition provides limitless options.”

    Perhaps not so surprisingly, the blame for this lies almost solely on GUITARISTS. A big part of the problem with guitar-driven music is that it is lacking in innovation. Guitar-driven music just seems to be stuck in that whole rut of just cranking out variations of the same old hard rock/metal theme that has been going on for the last half century. And the truth is that, much as things have always been, young listeners want music that they can call their own. Although they may actually appreciate their father’s and grandfather’s music, it is just not the ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ thing to them. For guitar to regain the coolness and trendiness it once enjoyed, guitarists are going to have to be open to doing new and different things with guitars. Otherwise, guitar-driven music will simply go the way of jazz, big band/swing, or classical music.

  • DavidK - February 7, 2018 reply

    The popular genres in big label pop are certainly not guitar-oriented (this is me not being snarky about the sorry state of modern pop). Those genres that _are_ have smaller audiences. This sales decline for guitars is completely predictive. Whether there will be a sea change in popular music back to more human-driven styles I really can’t say. The last couple generations are not as music-focused in general; they’re video-oriented, with music being more “background-y.”

    That said, there remains a solid minority of folks who still consume (and play) guitar-driven music., Moreover, not all countries have wandered down the electro-pop, hip-hop path. Want great heavier guitar music? Look eastward, to Japan (as well as to the “holdouts” in Scandinavia and Germany). Some of today’s guitar heroes look a bit different from what we may be used to: Tomoko “Tomo-Zo” MIdorikawa of Doll$Boxx, Midori Tatematsu and Mi-ya Watanabe (Lovebites), Mitsuru (Bridear), Saki (Mary’s Blood) are all young Japanese women who flat-out shred.

    Carl - February 8, 2018 reply

    Indeed. I’ve met quite a few of the ‘next generation’ of millenials at my local rock pub. They all love the classics, from Led Zep through Motorhead, Metallica, Maiden etc. ‘Old sk00l’ is the new cool it seems! While this might be regarded as a niche, I think there is some hope. A lot of modern music seems derivative, and progress has stagnated, not least due to the inability to make money from new music, so there is a tendency for people to go back to the greats of yester-year for stimulation, and in that, perhaps the seeds are being sewn for a new musical revival.

  • Xan - February 7, 2018 reply

    I think that this article is pretty much spot on. Electronic music production is the watershed that electric guitars were when they first came out. However there is one thing overlooked: Sales are down because of all the guitars already in the world!

    Factories have been turning out masses of these instruments for decades and unlike a car, an electric guitar can be as good or better 50 years old than the day it was made. They last a long time (if not trashed on stage! lol). Apparently the secondhand market is very healthy and naturally a lot of this is “black market” so to speak, therefore it will never be recorded in stats.

    So what you have here is overproduction fuelled by typical corporate greed coming back on itself. And don’t forget the many small boutique makers that have sprung up supplying new instruments. Most of these will not make it into mainstream stat gathering either.

  • Larry E Knight - February 7, 2018 reply

    One fact cannot be ignored.Why invest in expensive gear when there are very few places that have live music at this point.Tampa Bay, Florida has an oversupply of musicians with very few live venues.The pay is no more than it was 40 years ago!!!

    Jack - February 22, 2018 reply

    Yes, the number of venues that have live music has dwindled and the clubs are still paying about the same for a band in 2018 as they were in 1980.

    The 20 to 30 year old person isn’t as interested in music as they were several decades ago. Hell, people settle for the cruddy sound of a mp3 over a CD or vinyl. People who listen to music, good quality music have to want to seek it out. People who play an instrument have to really WANT to play an instrument, it requires patience, practice, and dedication.

    In an age of instant gratification, CGI, and selfies it’s not surprising to see music and all the arts taking a backseat. What the world needs is a new Renaissance.

    Art - April 8, 2018 reply

    Good to know was thinking about moving down from Chicago. Think the live act music scene every where is tapering off.

    db summers - November 2, 2018 reply

    so true..the pay is the same or less than “forever ago”…the only gigging musicians in my area are in their 50s or older…and everybody under 35 only wants to see big acts like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, etc..and “new country” is basically pop/rock with a cowboy hat.

  • Robert Dunn - February 7, 2018 reply

    I think the future of the guitar is alive and well. You have to consider different parts of the world (ie Mexico is still crazy about acoustic just as East Europe is about electric) as well as tried and true genres where a guitar was essential starting with C&W, then classical, flamenco, jazz, blues, then folk, rock, and the amalgamated creations using 2 or more of those genres. I think the current infatuation is part economics (It’s cheaper for a club owner to pay 1 guy with electronics just like the DJ stations of old rather than a group of musicians) and accessibility (it’s more difficult to learn an instrument than work with software) and is just a temporary phase. Besides, the keyboard happy ‘new wave’ of the 80s had guitar manufacturers worried then grunge came along! Something else always comes along for the guitar. They’re easy to carry, convenient to store, romantic to listen to, and beautiful as thought designed by God Himself!

  • Deep wells - February 7, 2018 reply

    Well I think electronic instruments ( including guitar) sounds great now days and I’m from the days of the real thing and still hold true loyalty to
    Real instrument but electronic instruments are sounding more n more real and it helps a producer who wants a live instrument sound get work done without all the headaches of real
    People sometimes but even in that light my shows are always a live band

  • Kepha - February 8, 2018 reply

    Lack of guitar heroes=lack of guitar interested people…

  • Michael Moon - February 8, 2018 reply

    But interestingly, according to the same report cited in this article, acoustic guitar sales are up… Music is always going to be here just in different forms. Though I’m not that inclined to modern pop music there is a lot of great music happening in the world now and I think it’s great that music constantly goes through changes and evolves. Don’t forget at the end of the 50’s everyone was lamenting the death of rock n roll! Guitar sales probably went down then for a bit too lol.

  • Robert - February 8, 2018 reply

    The times they are a-changin’

  • Roy Patterson - February 8, 2018 reply

    The Washington Post’s article was somewhat shallow in its assessment, and the newspaper did not publish, at least to my knowledge, any rebuttals to their claim. Yes, sales of guitars are down, but only from an inflated and saturated market, courtesy of giant corporate box stores and marketing entities. Sales are returning to a manageable volume, the way is used to be.

  • Ger - February 9, 2018 reply

    the day the electric guitar is dead so will be rock music. It was bad enough to hear that music sales declined to the point you can’t make any real money from it anymore, now i have to hear this. Well, there has NEVER been a more exciting genre of music than Rock and Roll and if the new generation prefer something else that’s more “tame” in nature then i think the future would be rather dismal. We got gangsta rappers killing each other in the last 20 some years. you don’t see heavy metal community doing that shit. they’d rather settle it with fists like real men. anyway, i digress…this conversation is really about what musicians SHOULD be doing…playing real instruments and not shit that’s sampled. then you might as well give it to a 2 year old and market what that output is because that is what i hear on the radio sometimes from this trumped up songs that go in one ear and out the other. Long live rock and roll!

  • Kathy - February 10, 2018 reply

    well acoustic guitars are so popular with electronic pickups they are more versatile and sound amazing and full, ie. taylor….

  • Scotty McD - February 16, 2018 reply

    Does this article take into consideration they sales from craigslist or Facebook markets?
    Also, if you look outside of mainstream radio you’ll see how electric guitar is alive and well. Phish, My Morning Jacket, Lettuce, Moe, Umphreys McGee…etc. look to the jamband scene to find real musicians playing real music.
    Keep playing, keep listening

  • Diane - April 4, 2018 reply

    Take it from the side of an agent/production manager. Our company can no longer sign a band with org music anywhere in Tampabay and upper Manatee County. Same holds true in other markets. Venues aren’t interested in live bands. Most bars are pay to play; weddings and corporate events are “duo” at best (vocalist/guitarist over dubbed) We applaud the talent, we just can’t find you work. GC & SA, and any online store selling guitars and pro-gear could still survive, but the artist will soon be playing in the garage again.

    stzzla - May 30, 2020 reply

    I can only speak for the UK but it social engineering thats killing the live artist. Once some do gooder bans smoking from pubs and clubs then pubs and clubs become less popular as the case has turned out. Then there’s no reason to book live bands because the number of people going to pubs and clubs just doesn’t justify it and no atmosphere is going to be generated by those that do attend. More and more, social engineers are finding ways of keeping people at home, and $crewing them from there instead.

  • Art - April 8, 2018 reply

    Popular music has seen this sort of temporary demise with the guitar before, lookat the Techno rock of the 80’s and even Disco. But guitars come back especially when one or more players come to the forefront of music. Granted there may not be as many of us in the future. Part of that has to do with$$$$ for “decent” guitars and lessons. It’s getting to a point where not everyone can afford musical instruments or lessons.

    Stzz;a - May 30, 2020 reply

    Thats whats wrong with the modern human, They think they need lessons for guitar. Here’s a known fact, if you like guitar music from the 60’s (and I’m assuming you do) then I’m here to remind you that most of your heroes are self taught because they had the attitude to do something their way, not someone else’s way. And as for not being able to afford instruments, nobody can afford instruments to begin with. The rock genre is replete with stories full of “Guitar Legend X started out with an accoustic that had 1 string on it”. So if people are waiting around cos they dont have lessons and they dont have instruments, then just in mentality, that person doesn’t have what it takes to express THEMSELVES through guitar anyway and its probably not for them. Guitar, especially rock guitar is about jumping in with two feet, telling the music teacher to fuck off, and figuring it out for yourself. Thats the school of hard knocks and it’s the ONLY way to learn. I hope there aren’t any people out there shying away from the guitar just cos they’re waiting for a teacher to put it all on a plate for them.

  • Gr3g Maglion - July 29, 2018 reply

    I agree with most of your article. We part company towards the end of your article. The guitar was in many ways born with the baby boomer generation. It will also die with them. Prior to guitar it was the accordian. The boomers laughed at the accordian. Every generation has their thiing. Quite honestly, I am tired of hearing a guitar solo in every song. I use to say the only thing worse then a drum solo was a bass solo. The guitar will never go away nor will accordian. The question is, Will there be something that comes along and has the staying power that the guitar had. It was a great run.

    Justin - October 1, 2018 reply

    Ha ha. Your opinion is that of very few. The guitar has amazing lasting power, because it is amazing and will always be around. Sorry you don’t like the guitar solos. Looking at the best new rock and hard rock bands coming out, an increasing number of people disagree

  • r_ veil - September 20, 2018 reply

    Joe Perry and Brad Whitford are still playing — did 17 shows in summer 2017.

  • Glenn - September 30, 2018 reply

    Just a few tidbits of information here. At a certain time in the 60s, rock guitarist turned from being musicians to special effect guys. Wah Wah pedals, distortion pedals, etc and on and on. Look in any current guitar mag and you will often see 30 or more pedal board units. These sounds are temporarily interesting but are nothing more than a sonic fad. It is also completely unsatisfying for the musician themselves. This may sound odd, but the general public and guitarist themselves, do not trust rock guitarists. More and more people know that the technology can do a lot of the playing. This is why people like tommy emmanuel (acoustic fingerstyle). Win top awards as the best guitarist in the world. Somewhere in the back of people’s mind they know the work and effort required are simply not worth it. As a player for over 40 years, I now know very well how completely fake and insincere the electrical guitar can sound. All one has to do is pick up an acoustic guitar to hear it. So the electrical guitar is never in a vacuum by itself. It is tied to the effect pedal and sonic fads, neither of which the public particularly cares to hear anymore.

  • John D - October 4, 2018 reply

    Most electronic music takes no skill or musicianship. You don’t have to keep the rhythm going, or have to worry about playing a wrong note when it is a machine. Or better yet, if you are just slamming on pads, you really don’t have to know the note you are hitting. I think that is why it is becoming more popular. If you don’t have to be talented, and a machine can make it for you with the press of a button, then that is where most of it lives. I agree that the Guitar Sales are down. It used to be that playing guitar was something that a lot of people wanted to do. Especially the rock sound. It is a powerful feeling and an incredible instrument. I think that the electronic market is about saturated. Whenever I go out, the bands are playing songs from the 1990’s or the 2000’s. Some playing old Journey, Stevie Wonder, etc. That music holds up and people are payed well to play those songs. I think the music will circle back around. Country is very guitar heavy and it is the top selling genre. So I don’t see the guitar going away anytime soon. I never though I’d see it, but the Brad Paisley’s of the country music industry are now considered to be today’s top modern guitar players. But they do tear it up, so I totally give them the props. As far as electronic or hip hop, it is saturated big time. And with the lack of the 12 tone scale, starting to drone into a large single mass that sound the same. The guitar, the Piano, the “Real” instruments will prevail in the long run. This is only stretch.

  • PK - November 17, 2018 reply

    There will be a new iconic guitar superstar around the corner that would bring back the guitar interests to the millenialls in a different styles and ways. Its probably be RAP, HIP HOP , KRUNK go in to take on 6 string n doin it’s thang!

  • Alphatec - November 27, 2018 reply

    Very good information about electric guiter

  • jerome (Jerry) - March 17, 2019 reply

    As a boomer and a player I can see why the guitar is not selling at its former pace. I set up a “studio” in my spare room. Guitars, amps, keys, drums; all at the ready. When I added a sound generator module, the clerk wanted to know what kind of computer/software I was using. I’m not using a computer. His jaw almost hit the floor. He wanted to know how I could make music without a computer! Kids…Anyway; by the time I left the store he was off jabbering with his co-workers about how you can make music without a computer. Like it was news. But that’s the root of the issue. You don’t need to spend hours upon hours learning how to play anymore; so why would you? Just make a beat and add tones. For a few bucks you can get software, access free VST’s, and do multi track recording by the end of the day. Progress? Maybe. Music? The debate will continue…

  • Mayo - July 30, 2019 reply

    Perhaps electric guitar manufactures should start building solar powered instruments. With today’s emphasis on global warming (which is a scientific fact) I think a lot of people would be drawn to a solar powered electric guitar and amp. When Trump is finally out of our hair in 2020 we can once again reap the benefits of environmental protection and innovation that President Obama afforded us.

    John Angilletta - June 28, 2020 reply

    Solar powered guitars?
    Since you brought in politics,
    Trump Pence 2020

  • Bobby Kittleberger - September 13, 2019 reply

    Hey Patrick – good article. Would have liked to see you contend with the WashPo piece a little more though. I actually wrote a lengthy response piece to that article that got some decent traction. It would be relevant to this piece: https://www.guitarchalk.com/response-death-of-the-electric-guitar-washington-post/

    Basically, I’m arguing that the “death” of the electric guitar is significantly over-stated.

    Anyways, I hope you find it helpful. Thanks.

  • JD - September 15, 2019 reply

    Most people are simply bored with guitar. Grunge was the last gasp of highly successful guitar-centered music but after 20+ years of post-grunge sounding music, the masses are getting very bored (quite frankly sick and tired) with the sonic qualities guitar has to offer.

    Most people acknowledge the guitar probably reached its peak during the late 1960’s (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin/ Jimmy Page, Cream/Eric Clapton) through the early 1980’s (Halen, Journey, Def Leppard) and has been declining ever since. This began with the complete avoidance of guitar (for the most part) in popular rap/hip hop of the late 1980’s. Even in popular hard rock of the early 1990’s, Nirvana’s lack of guitar solos (for the most part) and the reduced emphasis on the guitar continued in pop/rock.

    The decline of the guitar is evident in successful modern pop/rock bands such as Imagine Dragons, Maroon 5, Fall Out Boy and Panic At The Disco; none of which have a heavy emphasis on guitar. Sadly, in most cases the guitar is hidden away (in shame) in the background behind the synth. I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years since I was a little kid and it kills me to say this but when you are face to face with reality sometimes it hurts. It was an amazing instrument but we are back in a world of keyboards/ synth based music. What is left of guitar-centered music (rock n’ roll) is the attitude and energy which lives on in the vocals and rhythms evident in today’s successful pop artists such as Post Malone, Taylor Swift and Halsey. There will always be a strong metal/ punk underground scene (i.e. Slipknot, Tool, Killswitch Engage) but we all may have to wait a long time before guitar makes its way back into popular music, if this ever happens. Another instrument which hasn’t even been invented yet may takes its place in the future.

    In the mean time it would make a lot of people happier if they did their best to open their minds to new music being made (of all genres) and try to not be stuck in the past forever.

    Tim R - October 1, 2019 reply

    So when someone asks the techno/ sample programmer (not musician) what they play….the answer is Nothing. But “I put together samples of other people’s hard work and actual musicianship and call it ‘art”. What a bunch of BS.

    The truth is in this instant gratification society no one has the attention span to learn a real instrument. Hard work and dedication seem to have been lost.

  • Scott Jorgensen - October 4, 2019 reply

    As Joe Walsh lamented about the tech/studio trend….”there’s no mojo”

  • Matt - October 5, 2019 reply

    “ And though it’s completely false, there’s almost a popular sense that musicians have taken guitar music as far as it can go while electronic composition provides limitless options.“

    Although this problem is completely artificial, THIS is the problem with electric guitar these days. Basically, in the last couple of decades, electric guitar has become completely typecast as an instrument for hard rock/metal. And, sorry to say folks, these genres have been done to death and are rather passé. Needless to say, they are no longer trendy, cutting edge forms of music. As long as electric guitar can ONLY be an instrument used in these forms of music (which are rather niche these days), it will die. Or at least be so limited to niche uses that it is reduced to the status to the flugelhorn.

    Of course, in past decades, electric guitar was used plenty in all kinds of genres from pop to soul to R&B. But for whatever reason, these uses of the instrument have gone the way of the dodo bird. When was the last time you heard a guitar used in a pop song? Not that this can’t happen again. And it’s not like we can’t make GREAT pop or R&B with guitar like we did back in the 70s (and even into the 80s to some degree). But there seems to be a general unwillingness the see this happen. And unless this happens, electric guitar will be reduced to nothing more than a niche instrument.

  • Stzzla - May 30, 2020 reply

    Music is like anything else in life. Trends go up, trends go down. One minute it’s “omg my bum looks big in this skirt” and then it’s “my ass doesn’t look big enough in this skirt”….attitudes come and go and so do music styles. If honest to god guitar music is declining now, it will come round again. I remember people saying the same shit in the mid 80’s and then guns n roses came along and then all of a sudden everyone seemed to be rock fans. In short, shit happens, so just let it (or as Mick Jagger might have put it once, Let It Bleed), and stop thinking too much. Human cravings are weird. When rock music came along everyone wanted it until it became boring to people. Then along came disco and new wave and punk and pop……and you know what? People got bored of that stuff as well. So along came techno and brit rock and club tunes…….and you know what? People got bored of that stuff, so………can you see where I’m going with this? These kids at some point will get bored of their electronic toys. And along will come a generation who wants something different. Keep your hand in at all times. But above all else, I mainly write music for me anyway, so I dont really give a toss if nobody else thinks it’s a popular thing to do. I like doing it, and thats a good enough reason for doing it. The only people who need to worry about trends are the soulless money chasers wanting to be famous. I dont share their worries.

  • Ian - June 11, 2020 reply

    Most pop music at the moment is written and created by people who couldn’t play a G major chord on a guitar. So when these computer nerds perform “live” they can’t tell the backing band (DJ) to play a chord sequence, because they haven’t a clue. So the nerd has to perform (sing) along with a backing track, to an audience. Good luck with that one, but don’t expect to sell any tickets, and when the DJ leaves for a better job, the nerd become unemployed.

    Whereas…

    Ask any practised, professional guitarist to play a blues with no practice and at a gig, it will probably sound wonderful. Yes, you might have heard similar before, but isn’t that because you respect their influences?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *