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.

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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.

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

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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

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