Ongoing debate over the electric guitar’s impending “death” focuses heavily on the lack of contemporary guitar heroes inspiring kids to pick up six-strings. If you’re convinced that’s the problem—and the charts serve as some evidence for that surmise—Sunday’s Grammy Awards should provide at least a little hope.
Experts have reached mixed conclusions in recent years as to whether there’s reason to fret over the instrument’s future. In 2017, Geoff Edgers penned a viral Washington Post article that probed “the slow, secret death of the six-string electric.” He reported some persuasive figures:
In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt. And at Sweetwater.com, the online retailer, a brand-new, interest-free Fender can be had for as little as $8 a month.”
Nashville guitar dealer George Gruhn, Edgers wrote, was “concerned by the ‘why’ behind the sales decline.”
“When he opened his store 46 years ago, everyone wanted to be a guitar god, inspired by the men who roamed the concert stage, including [Eric] Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page,” explained Edgers. “Now those boomers are retiring, downsizing and adjusting to fixed incomes. They’re looking to shed, not add to, their collections, and the younger generation isn’t stepping in to replace them.”
“What we need is guitar heroes,” Gruhn insisted.
Not everyone agrees the situation is dire. But it’s true that today’s pop charts probably produce more aspiring rappers and DJs than wannabe Santanas. It’s also true that an electric guitar is never a surprising sight at the Grammys.
What seemed surprising this year was the sheer diversity of artists who strapped one on for their performances, including a teen heart throb, a host of separate female solo acts, and even a rapper. (None of whom, to be clear, are at all in the same league as icons like Santana or Clapton or Hendrix.) Post Malone, who currently holds slots two and nine on the Billboard Hot 100, jammed out alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Shawn Mendes grabbed a Telecaster for his duet with Miley Cyrus. Janelle Monae, H.E.R., and St. Vincent all used electric guitars during their time on stage as well.
Those three are of particular interest given that a Fender study released last October found “women account for 50 percent of all beginner and aspirational players.”
“[Y]oung women are still driving 50 percent of new guitar sales. So the phenomenon seems like it’s got legs, and it’s happening worldwide,” CEO Andy Mooney told Rolling Stone, arguing the trend is on pace to outlive the so-called “Taylor Swift factor.”
Given that acoustic sales now outnumber electric ones, it’s entirely possible that women, inspired by Swift’s earlier years in particular, are largely staying unplugged. But Monae, H.E.R., St. Vincent, and popular groups like Haim (seen playing some Peter Green here) can only help.
If your glass is half empty, all the electric guitars at this year’s Grammys may well amount to nothing more than a blip. If your glass is half full, they just might be an indication the guitar hero is slowly coming back into fashion with younger listeners.