The death knell of the guitar rang long, long ago, but no one seems to know the time of death. Truthfully, "guitar music"—the most unimaginative and least helpful attempt at a genre since "post-whatever"—is as popular as ever.
Bands with guitars continually grace our streaming playlists. NPR profiles and late-night talk shows are lousy with six-strings. Guitar players still fill theaters and coffee shops alike. But, anecdotally, I always find myself having to speak in the guitar's defense. It's considered by some to be outdated or even obsolete, and with modern music continuing to give rise to the sample-and-synth-based golden age, there is still plenty of room for growth for an instrument that, once worshipped to totemic extremes, is now enjoying a humble moment in the strange trip that is music history.
Maybe it sounds like I'm setting up a straw man argument here. You're sitting there wondering why something so ubiquitous requires my defense—and you might be right. For the most part, the attempts at panic-inducing thinkpiece headlines in great histrionic tones such as one published last year by VICE ("Rock is Dead, Thank God") tend to draw the conclusion that, well, no. People still like watching people play guitars, preferably when players are shredding them, but what these articles tend to say is that the era of the guitar icons is over in terms of market share. And that part's true.
But artists can still benefit within the mid-tier market, your club gigs and theater shows. With the continuing garage rock explosion that vaulted acts like Ty Segall and Black Lips into effective, profitable careers and the resurgence of dream pop bands like Beach House or Cherry Glazerr, there is still money to be made by axe slingers. They just aren't going to be taking the stage at the Grammys any time soon (now there's a thank-God statement).
I finally watched that Lil Nas X video everybody's been talking about, "Old Town Road" with Billy Ray Cyrus. As of writing this, it's still the current number-one song on Billboard's Top 100, and at first I thought maybe I heard a guitar in it. It's a sample, though, and that's fine—I'm not a Luddite. The song itself is pretty good and I get why people like it. But in the video, Cyrus takes the stage in some clinically sterile honky-tonk with a beautiful, white hollow body guitar. He even sings about the guitar. He even strums at the guitar. There is NO GUITAR PLAYING in that part of the song. It almost makes me wish the guitar were dead.
But that's just what's going on at the top of the charts, which is its own strange and unremarkable beast. Here in Santa Fe, even in the midst of market
dominance by house music and techno, we still value guitars. Country pickers and folkies, shoegazers, jazz cats, post-rockers, fuzz-worshipping psychonauts and metalheads—we've got them all. And while I still find myself locked in conversations about the silliness of "the guitar"—at least when viewing it as some monolith of rock and roll's ongoing open-casket memorial service—there is always someone to have my back when I say that synths and DJs have their place alongside the instrument.
What makes the guitar so compelling even still is partly its utility in so many genres. Even in electronic music, where a live artist's entire accompaniment might be synthesized, with live guitar and vocals suddenly there is an element of improvisation, a way to organically link the artist and audience to right now. You are watching someone play something they might never play just quite the same way ever again in the history of everything. That's reason enough to go see a show.
It doesn't have to be ripping solos, though we've likely all seen a few that are unforgettable. It can even just be the intonation used; the way someone plays a simple chord progression; musical moments that become intimate even from the sometimes impersonal disconnect of audience and stage.
Because you were there connecting with other people and the music in a perfect now-ness, only ever to be imitated in similar moments for other people, but never quite the same.