Where Are the Next Guitar Heroes

As I write this article, the guitar world is very conscious that our market is not growing one little bit – In fact if it wasn’t largely for the 40 year old plus market and dare I say ‘the grey haired’ customers owning more than one guitar, the guitar business would have been stagnate for years and later in decline

The trade stats that we get to see from time to time, do not measure the size of the market in terms of the value of each guitar sold, or indeed that the total value of guitars sold in the UK over a 12 month period is £XYZ million – Instead the stats simply show the number of new units sold – Granted, any set of stats can portray different information, but nevertheless, the unit sales of guitars has declined over the last 5 years – The big nominally that the stats do not show is the used market and as we all know, second hand guitar can be sold time and time again, through various channels, hence it is almost impossible for any stats to fully determine the size of this market – So with the info available we simply look at the new units sold – At this stage let me point out that we are looking at the guitar as an overview and as such this takes into account, all guitars – Electric, acoustic, classical, 12 string guitars etc – We do not differentiate styles and the type of music we play, or indeed any form, whatsoever, of the type of customer that plays guitar

Since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid late 50’s, the guitar has been part of our lives and for well over 60 years it has consistently been the best selling musical instrument – From pop, rock ‘n’ roll and rock through to soul, disco, Motown, punk or jazz, the guitar has been ever present and has certainly helped to change our social lives – Wanting to learn to play the guitar has been about fashion, sex, fun and passion, maybe sometimes even rebelling – How many of us have seen or heard our hero’s and then thought ‘hey I can do that’, or I want to be part of that ?

So what was, or what is the trigger point that made us want to pick up the guitar and learn to play it ? – For me, I have to go back to the early 70’s – I was just about to become a teenager and recall listening to Radio 1 and when you could get a good signal, Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline – Slade and T-Rex stood out for me, so when I finally got to see them on Top of the Pops, that was definitely my trigger point – Throw in a bit of Sweet and I was hooked – As time goes on, I became influenced by other musicians, bands, artists and styles, so whilst today Jeff Beck and Robben Ford are just two of my favourite players, they are not the initial reason why I wanted to learn to play the guitar – At the time of learning to play the guitar I had not got a clue as to who they were – Today they are the reason, or part of the reason, that I like guitar and I still yearn for just an ounce of the talent that they possess, but they were not my trigger point

Sometimes over the last 50 or 60 years we have seen immense trigger points that have been felt the world over and influenced thousands of potential budding guitar players – Notably the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the British invasion of pop from the early days of The Beatles and The Stones – Remember that youngsters had not heard anything like this before – It was cool and fashionable, parents hated it, kids loved it and to be part of it must have been very special – Both events caused massive increase in guitars sales, almost from nothing – I’m sure many will recall the first time they saw or heard Hank Marvin playing that fiesta red Strat and he still sells guitars today – I’ve heard customers talk about the first time they saw or heard Cliff Gallup with Gene Vincent or when Elvis sang Heart Break Hotel, Mystery Train or That’s alright mama – Throw in some Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, for good measure and for many, this late 50’s Rock ‘n’ roll period was their trigger point

So if you missed the boat with the American invasion, then The Beatles or The Rolling Stones were going to make sure that you sat up and took notice – And what a trigger point it was with guitar based bands dominating the charts for years to come – Learn a few simple chords and you could join in, playing to your favourite EP for hours – Sure Beck, Clapton and Page via the Yardbirds were attracting many followers, but in a way you had to be cool and in the know to be aware of these guys as it was more of an underground event – It was almost as though you saw George Harrison with his Gretsch and knew you had to buy your Lucky 7 and copy what you could – You discovered the Yardbirds or the American blues players afterwards

Bands like The Who and The Kinks helped to maintain the impetus during the 60’s pop boom, but the next big trigger point was Hendrix – Prior to this, you may well have been happy strumming along to some jingle, jangle pop based tunes and maybe learn a few tuneful licks or solos but prior to Hendrix you had never seen anyone play the guitar like this before – By now rock was taking over from pop for guitar players and Deep Purple, Led Zep, Cream, Pink Floyd, Free and Fleetwood Mac all helped to keep the guitar invasion flowing during the late 60’s and early 70’s – We had the birth of festivals, whilst concerts venues were now becoming larger, as the days of playing at the small local Palladium or town hall disappeared

By the early 70’s and mid 70’s the guitar could be seen in a diverse selection of musical environments – The charts might have been influenced by glam and disco, but the guitar was still centre stage for many – Look at the album sales achieved by Peter Frampton or Bad Company, Yes and Led Zep – Hardly Radio 1 commercial, but various influences ensured a steady keel until we reached the late 70’s when punk took over – Whilst it was not my scene, Punk had a massive impact on the next generation of young players hoping to start to learn to play the guitar – To play even a little bit like Hendrix, required immense natural talent and/or years of hard graft, but Punk was almost instant gratification – It had a massive social impact, but from a guitar sales point of view, the mid low end of the market immediately picked up and all music shops started to see a new breed of customer – Again, your mum and dad might not have liked it, but who cared – You are now a guitar player and with a few mates you could start a band – It was not just low or mid end guitars that sold – I recall one of the earliest performances by Paul Weller and The Jam on Top of the Pops and a few days later, our window display of Ricky’s and AC30’s was gone – As always the punk and new wave trigger point created a new influx of potential budding players and whilst many initially just wanted to play punk, as time went by, those who had not packed it in, started to learn new riffs, chords and licks to expand their horizon, but the trigger point was punk/new wave

The 80’s started of with the synth invasion and once again guitar sales started to decline – Thankfully, three big influences from the late 70’s ensured that the guitar was still prominent – U2,  The Police and Mark Knopfler – U2 and The Police were two of the biggest bands around at the time and whilst they effectively grew out of the punk and new wave scene, shall we say ‘they are more talented’ – They where respected guitar players, but commercial enough to be adored by chicks and the major airwaves – And who cannot forget the impact that Mark Knopfler had when we first heard The Sultan’s of Swing – We all wanted to play it, but let’s not forget Brothers in Arms a few years later

Moving onto the mid and late 80’s and Fender sales where okay, thanks to the Strat and Tele, but Les Paul sales certainly needed a boost, which came in the shape of Slash and Guns and Roses – Guitarist magazine recently reached their 25th anniversary issue in which they ran a Top 50 of influential events that had occurred over that period – Slash was number 1 – He was given credit for almost single handedly saving Gibson and the Les Paul, as well as revitalising the guitar business and of course rock – Again Metallica, Anthrax, Bon Jovi and Kiss all helped fly the flag for rock and guitar based music, but again Slash was a major trigger point

Guitar sales were now looking okay – Rock was selling and Van Halen gave birth to the super Strat market, but we only had to wait a few more years for another big trigger point – Oasis and What’s the story morning glory had an immediate impact, so much so that Epiphone almost went from nothing to the best selling guitar, overnight – Once again the guitar world was in good shape – The charts and radio stations played Brit Pop and Indie music by the shed loads – The next generation of players adored, Blur, The Smiths, REM, Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics, Baby Shambles, Muse, Supergrass, The Charlatans and many more

This takes us pretty much up to date and now the radio stations are almost devoid of guitar based bands – The album charts are crying out for guitar based bands/artist and music shops are waiting for the next sensation – Sure the guitar is selling and we all have our hero’s and players we admire, but the next generation of players are not suddenly going to start to play the guitar because they have heard of Robben Ford or Larry Carlton – In fact maybe you are like me, in that your non guitar playing friends ask you who is best guitar player in the world, or indeed who are your favourite guitarists – We can mention Robben Ford, Rory Gallagher, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Wes Montgomery, Brian Setzer, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck and Paul Kossoff, but most will respond with ‘never heard of them’ – These names, in the guitar world, are fairly mainstream, so we are not talking about Guthrie Govan, Dan Huff, Buddy Whittington or Michael Landau – But none are commercial or house hold known, so as to influence the next start up market – Once we have played the guitar for a few years we expand our horizons and find out more about these ultra talented players that we admire so much, but for now we need a trigger point – The next George Harrison or Hank Marvin is urgently required to influence a new generation of budding guitar players

Note that I’m not talking about who is the most talented player, or technically the most gifted, the fastest or indeed the best, as we all know that none of these criteria is measurable – I’m talking about the trigger point – Who influenced you to want to play the guitar – It is quite interesting that many players who initially influence us to want to pick up the guitar are in fact guitarists who have a more ‘simplistic’ playing ability – By that I mean we hear the Beatles and Hank play the intro to Day Tripper, or the start of Apache and we believe that we can do that

Before I get loads of complaints from Hank fans, or George fans, I don’t mean to say they play music that anyone can play – I merely state that we hear these songs and think we can have a go at that – The reverse side of that is how many have tried to learn Van Halen’s Eruption – You know full well that it is out of most guitar players technique, hence you don’t even go there – But Apache, you know you can give it a good go

One great advantage of wanting to learn to play the guitar is that you don’t need to be an ultra fit athlete, or indeed have movie star looks, you just hear that riff and know you want to learn it – Or see a band and just want to be part of the scene – In fact how many of our hero’s are geeky or weird looking characters, but that does not matter one bit – It is what they represent that counts and we think we can join in

But when will the next big guitar band explosion happen? – Who will be the next big hero? – At the moment I’m not sure – Currently, you don’t hear much in the way of guitar based bands on Radio 1, whilst Radio 2 mainly plays songs from yesteryear – No Top of the Pops or Old Grey Whistle test, so the influence of TV has long gone, certainly regarding the guitar – The influence of the press is diminishing, in fact some of them are so ‘underground’ you need a deep mine shaft to find them – We hear them tell us about bands that have split up, yet we’ve never heard of them – So maybe we are going to rely on computers and social media sites – Whilst the likes of Facebook and Youtube offer a world wide potential market, certainly compared to a gig at your local pub, you are very much left to your own devices to promote yourself – Type into Google ‘music charts’ and see how many different charts there are, so in many ways, trying to spot the next super group via any social media site reminds you of the needle and the haystack – A million hits on Youtube is excellent, but it ain’t going to get you even close to becoming a house hold name and as such to create the next trigger point

I’m not sure what the answer is – The record companies and powerful individuals, like Simon Cowell, make serious money from solo artists, whilst Radio 1 caters strongly for Dance, R’n’B and vocal groups, so at the moment the guitar is drifting – Maybe part of the problem, as far as the guitar goes, comes from the likes of X-Factor – Any fool can have a go and we all know, that many do, so maybe the aspiration today is Madonna, Cheryl Cole and Beyonce and via X-Factor they can give it a go – Madonna and Cheryl Cole might help to sell clothes and fashion, but their influence towards the guitar market is diddly squat – So until the next guitar band or hero appears, we carry on as a small niche market