The End Of The Age Of The Guitar?

This is a thing that’s been touted in the music press (and apocalyptically amongst music gear manufacturers) for years but it really does feel like we’re at the end of the age when guitars are the dominant icon of popular music. It’s not that people aren’t still playing them, and making both brilliant and utterly tedious music with them, just that they no longer play the totemic role in the visual semiotics of what ‘rock n roll’ looks like any more.

Three tales from Glastonbury to make the point – 0n Friday night, Stormzy headlined (BBC iPlayer link if you’re in the UK). His set was alternately a classic MC+DJ Grime set and a MASSIVE theatrical soul/gospel/grime/funk extravaganza with live band, dancers, dudes on mountain bikes, and an irony-free appearance by Chris Martin with a real Fender Rhodes. The music was heavy, complex, beautiful, and more rhythmically advanced than ANY guitar band that have ever headlined the festival. Grime is a music form developed in bedrooms, clubs and pirate radio stations. To transfer it to a festival headline slot took some monster skills and vision. The first Grime star to cross over like that was Dizzy Rascal, but he took on the predominantly white festival audience by working with shred-guitar-genius Guthrie Govan. He met them half way. Stormzy gave no quarter. It was an astonishing show, but there was no pandering to the expectations of a white rock-loving crowd.

Two – The Comet Is Coming, (iPlayer link) a sax, drums, keys trio featuring the great Shabaka Hutchings. Heavy riffage, ecstatic posturing, drum solos, hypnotic grooves. Not a computer gig at all but not a guitar-shaped instrument to be seen.

Three – Kate Tempest: performance poet and rapper, on stage with just a keyboard player/DJ, controlling all the beats and playing the most sublimely responsive minimalist keyboard parts. Utterly compelling, engaging, enthralling, and HEAVY in the broadest sense, but with nothing of the visual semiotics of a rock gig at all. Just talking/rapping and mellow keys. Brilliant and brave.

I’ve just finished teaching the first year of a creative performance technology course at BIMM here in Birmingham, in which students get to explore a wide range of ways to enhance their performance with technology (or completely upend their preconceived ideas about what performance even is). In amongst the final pieces we only had one ‘band’ performance, and two that used guitar as part of an otherwise electronically/digitally mediated performance, making use of the Ableton Push 2 controller. Gone are the days when ‘tech’ meant either decks or a DAT, with software and hardware options existing to create interactive performance tools for creative artists, and allow for as much improv and spontaneity as you could have with a ‘normal’ band.

My own performing set up is built entirely for improv, around choices, differing vocabularies and a variability that means I can choose from a suitably wide and nuanced range of places to start, and nothing can ever happen the same way twice. Despite bass still being my beloved instrument, the role of the bass is now as a component within a larger instrument, comprised of all my tech. It’s not the iconic emblem of rock in this context (I sit down to play, FFS! 🙂 ) It’s transformed and manipulated, and those vestiges of expectation become a useful foil for surprise and intrigue for an audience hopefully encountering sounds and ideas that are both entertaining and stimulating…

It’s weird, in a field (literally, at Glastonbury) that they used to OWN, bands with just four white dudes playing guitar, bass, drums and singing often feel almost hopelessly anachronistic if they don’t have something else to set them apart, and just standing there holding a Les Paul no longer seems to carry the same social or cultural cache it once did…

The value proposition has changed, and the range of possible start points for music making presented to young people who want to make pop music have expanded immeasurably. Arguably, it’s been that way to some degree since the advent of turntablism and sampling in the 80s, but guitars were still the orthodoxy, still the icon, the emblem, the badge, the logo.

Not any more? Not in my world. And I’m glad for the change. Western culture has moved on, we just need to make sure all of music education and retail keeps up!

(That said, I’m still REALLY looking forward to The Cure on Sunday night 🙂 ) 

One Reply to “The End Of The Age Of The Guitar?”

  1. A really thought provoking discussion starter. The main point being it’s an ongoing dialogue.

    Ironically I find myself going in the direction of simplicity. Perhaps I have walked through the door of “decluttering” in life and realise there is more value in taking things back to their bare bones and reflecting on the core foundations of which they are constructed. Having shed a few basses I have been pairing back my musical focuses more to a trio over the last year or so – where strangely enough geeetar doesn’t figure (drums, bass & keys).

    As we look forwards I wonder if the direction of travel may actually be “future to the back” ?

    – in 20 years time our automotive industry is supposed to kicking out fossil fuels. It is ill-prepared for this ( structurally and financially); the men that control the money still have their heads twisted in making tin boxes; and, Detroit Electric’s first metamorphasis made their last battery car in 1939 – when travelling 6 mph & helping ladies drive with out using a crank to start a car was a good plan.
    – Sting is never far from his battered and bruised P bass whilst developing his craft on period instruments and touring with Shaggy in a parallel universe

    Penny for your crystal ball ……

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