If playing guitar is a personal pursuit with no grand plans of performing, is a big jumbo or dread necessary?
Fender recently enlisted the help of a research consultancy to learn more about who buys guitars and why. The survey of guitarists in the U.S. and U.K. revealed that the motivation to play guitar is often more complex than most of us in retail guitar sales probably consider. When walking into a typical guitar-oriented music store or picking up a guitar magazine like this one, you get a rather lopsided view of who answers the call of the guitar and why. So, just who are these hidden guitar players?
The survey revealed that roughly 50 percent of all beginner and aspirational players are female, which would suggest that the usual boys’ club atmosphere of most guitar shops is long overdue for an overhaul. Think about it: How many times have you walked into a guitar shop where women or girls represent even a quarter of the customers?
The revelations don’t stop there. Most of us in music retail assume that those who take up guitar at least harbor aspirations to perform for an audience, whether it’s to share their own songs or to emulate the musical artists who inspired them. Sure, they practice alone, but they have more lofty goals, right? Not necessarily. Results from the survey challenge that assumption. In the U.K., 50 percent of the guitar players questioned stated they “prefer playing privately,” with about a third of U.S. players giving a similar response. Even more telling is that almost 75 percent of those questioned stated they picked up guitar “to gain a life skill or as a means of self-betterment,” which suggests that standing drenched in stage lights while bowing to deafening applause is not necessarily what motivates most people to buy their first guitar. Since less than half of the survey respondents stated they wanted to play guitar to make music with others, even dreams of garage-band rehearsals or leading sing-alongs are likely less critical than most of us assume.
What does this tell us about the guitar market? These more introverted, or at least introspective, guitar players have always been with us, but for many years they were denied the comfort of an acoustic one could easily play sitting cross-legged on the bed. In the early 1980s, the patriarch of U.S. acoustic manufacturers, C.F. Martin, was essentially a big-guitars-only company.
The 00-size koa models they introduced in 1980 sold so poorly that many were still unsold two years later. Martin did add some variety to its sea of dreadnought variants with new M and J models, but those aren’t small guitars at all. What were then called “folk guitar” models, Martin’s 0-16NY and 00-21, were relegated to special-order status,
along with the larger OM.
Guild was also primarily a dreadnoughts and jumbos company, but newer guitar makers seemed to recognize the need for at least slightly smaller guitars. Taylor offered its first Grand Concert model in 1984 and pitched it to fingerstyle players, but the company still had limited distribution. For most of the 1980s, America was still big guitar country. No matter why you wanted one, most people who preferred smaller guitars had to buy used examples from the past, when they had been more popular. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the guitar came out of a several-year slump in popularity, that new smaller guitars began to show up again—usually pitched as being made for fingerstyle players.
While it’s true that some players prefer playing an electric with the pickup signal delivered through headphones, most guitarists from the quieter side of guitardom play acoustics. If the acoustic guitar is seen as a convenient vehicle for these more introspective pursuits, it may explain why we’ve seen such an increase in the sales of small, intimate guitars. Of course, many guitarists who are happy to play solo do so with dreadnoughts and jumbos, but when you don’t need to prevent being drowned out by bandmates or jam-session competitors, how much guitar do you really need?
Today, small “parlor” models are one of the fastest-growing acoustic-guitar styles. Many of the recently introduced, very small acoustic models deliver a surprisingly rich tone. And the shorter string-scale and drastically smaller body—some are barely over 12 inches across the lower bout—results in guitars that deliver a subtle but physically connected experience for the player. Many of these small guitars are advertised as ideal for travel, yet many of them primarily only travel around the house. Of course, those who prefer playing privately may instead crank their Les Pauls up to 11, or perfect windmill strumming on a jumbo. Much of the guitar’s charm, after all, is that there’s a model for every mood.