After weathering many ups and downs as a driving force in popular music and a consumer product, the guitar lives on strong—even in these strange times.
Regular readers of my column know that I poke a lot of fun at the neurotic behavior of the guitar industry/hobby whenever I can. After all, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. The truth is that I love guitars and everything related to them, and when the pandemic hit, I seriously wondered what might happen to the guitar biz, live performance, and music in general. With everyone hunkered down in their bunker binge-watching Netflix, would COVID finally snuff out the 6-string—something that disco, synthesizers, boy bands, and EDM couldn't? Was this the end of the guitar as a cultural icon?
To my delight, the guitar has proven itself to be far from dead. People are using the healing properties of playing, buying, and sharing guitars and guitar music like an emotional salve. Companies and individual builders are reporting increased—and sometimes record—sales. Despite being shut down for months, outfits like Fender and Martin have experienced increased orders as shops are clamoring for inventory.
From where I stand, there seems to be more young players entering the fray and working to master the instrument. In addition, a lot of older players are coming back into the fold or just deciding to finally get that custom guitar they have always lusted for. Social media posts of incredible musicianship, as well as just plain increased interest in guitar, are seemingly nonstop. I've witnessed an uptick in the interest in my own work, which is both a blessing and a curse. There hasn't been a lot for me to do except obsess over guitars, and I expect that might be the case for consumers, too. Despite the fact that COVID has pretty much precluded having employees in my shop, I had my best year ever in 2020, and this year is off to a great start.
If I'm having a bad day, or just feel overwhelmed, 15 minutes of losing myself in the swirl of a simple chord progression can put me right.
With more time on everyone's hands, the pandemic has seemingly allowed deeper dives for music listeners, too. For some, it has replaced group events, or even the hallmark of all-American rugged individuality—team sports. It's been said that hard times can bring out an artist's best work, and if that's the case, it seems to be working. The physicality of pounding out strong emotions on a guitar has always been comforting to me. If I'm having a bad day, or just feel overwhelmed, 15 minutes of losing myself in the swirl of a simple chord progression can put me right. The same goes for building instruments. There's a psychic catharsis of immense proportions happening right now, and music is holding a lot of people together.
Where does this leave the industry? On the one hand, isolation seems to have fueled the desire to play more guitar (or at least buy them), but live music has been practically non-existent. On the other hand, we've all seen the huge outpouring of video collaborations by seasoned professionals as well as incredible newcomers that might never have been heard before. This has created a feedback loop of new gear reveals, purchasing, experimentation, collaboration, and output. Instead of giving up, musicians are giving back. And that just fuels more interest in joining the fray.Still, we might wonder if, as the vaccines roll out and the pandemic winds down, there will be continued interest in playing guitar? On a recent podcast, Martin Guitars' Fred Greene expressed hesitance to expect the bubble to continue. Like Greene, many of the builders I've spoken to are wary of the other shoe dropping, but I'm not quite as worried just the same. Sure, a lot of folks will go back to whatever they were doing before, but once music is in your blood, it never goes away completely. Guitar as a driving force in popular music and as a consumer product has weathered many ups and downs. As soon as it is declared dead and gone, the guitar universe defies the postmortem and springs back like a horde of 6-string zombies. A lot of us will still be here in the aftermath, making the world a better place.