In the face of current events, we’ve witnessed the steady and resilient progression of the guitar industry.
Despite the tough times we’ve been facing over the past few years, the guitar world has kept on ticking. By all visible measures, the industry has been doing well, both for sellers of musical gear and for content creators. There has also been a resurgence of live shows, and even with the ebb and flow of infectious disease, the marketplace for live concerts is gathering steam. So, what has changed in our journey to the “new” normal?
For musicians, live music is the component that many enjoy most, so its return is a welcome catharsis. This is good news not just for musicians, but for all the supporting cast members who make the performance ecosystem run. Guitar and drum techs, sound designers, lighting directors, and all the ancillary venue staff needed to stage and manage a night out for a few hundred (or thousand) music fans are the lifeblood of the whole musical experience machine. It takes a lot of grease to make the gravy, which is good for people in the industry who have been sidelined for so long.
It’s going to take a while for the past level of venues to rebuild, I suppose. In the meantime, other outlets that have blossomed in the past few years will continue, with more and more emphasis placed on quality content like streaming shows. True, the format is hardly new, but the production values have improved significantly. Five years ago, you could get away with a shaky cell phone video of your gig or lesson. Today, the bar has risen to make well-lit multi-camera productions the norm. Video editing has become more sophisticated, and a lot of what I see looks more like real broadcast quality. The same goes for shop tours and builder interviews. On the gear side of things, podcasts and more in-depth videos from builders have reached a new level as well.
It takes a lot of grease to make the gravy, which is good for people in the industry who have been sidelined for so long.
Some of this has resulted from the plethora of information about how audio and video production works, and the huge amount of affordable video gear. Previously, only well-funded outfits could afford to hire production companies to create video content. The cost of making a 30-minute piece of broadcast-quality video could be five, or even six figures. Compare that to today, where a few thousand dollars’ worth of gear can get you into the game—and you start to understand why new videos are much slicker.
That’s not to imply that slick production is what makes the difference. Great content is at the heart of any great endeavor. Take a look at the in-depth YouTube series Archtoppery, featuring master luthier Ken Parker. Not that the production value is anywhere near Hollywood levels, but Parker’s guidance through the mesmerizing journey into the minutiae of guitar making is a must-see. What sets it apart is his depth of experience and his ability to verbalize the mechanics of the craft in a way that anyone can understand. You need a little patience to watch a solid hour of how to improve a wood gouge, but that’s precisely what makes this series superlative. Even though Parker is adept at building guitars in a factory setting, his love of the handiwork that he employs on his current instruments humbles even the most experienced among us.
This all brings me to the future of guitar-building on the individual level. If the first few years of this century was a gold rush to launch small-batch guitar brands, the pandemic years brought oversaturation. As we move into the next phase, the reality of the home-built market is setting in. I’m certain that a lot of the basement builders will continue, just as the home beer-brewing hobby does. My best guess is that a lot of the people who attempted to take their hobby to the next level may tire of the struggle to get enough traction to survive. At the corporate level, the Anheuser-Busch and Heinekens of guitar sales will still carry the day.
Wherever you live and whatever the climate, don’t forget to keep your humidity levels in check. Your guitars will thank you!
For guitarists, things get a little crazy twice each year. I’m not talking about the NAMM convention—it’s bigger than that. Both summer and winter bring temperature and humidity extremes to bear on wooden instruments, and if you’re not prepared, things can get ugly. Dry air shrinks wood and splits guitar parts. Humid air swells tops and fretboards, wreaking havoc on setups and finishes. It’s important to know that damage caused by failure to anticipate this natural occurrence is not a defect in the instrument. Many times, trips to the repair shop can be avoided by simple climate control.
It’s a full-time job for guitar builders, but what we do to cope with nature’s swings has lessons for guitar owners as well. Modern indoor climate control means most people live and work in a fairly narrow range of temperatures, regardless of where they reside. We all know not to leave a guitar in the car trunk when temperatures soar or plummet, but inside of your home, the culprit is humidity.
The yearly average humidity in North America (and around the world) provides an incredibly wide range of numbers. Nevada’s 38.30 percent yearly average is a world apart from Alaska’s surprising 77.10 percent, and that’s just the average. But even these numbers don’t tell the whole story. When you factor in temperature, things can get better, or they can get much worse. What we’re interested in is relative humidity (RH), which is the percentage of water vapor in the air at a given temperature.
Different regions require different approaches. Both Arizona and Louisiana can be crazy hot in the summer, but their humidity levels couldn’t be more different. In the Southwest, air conditioning that’s working overtime to cool is also stripping moisture from the air. Whereas in New Orleans, getting things dried out is a constant battle. It’s safe to say that most places need both temperature and humidity control to avoid problems.
Many times, trips to the repair shop can be avoided by simple climate control.
Manufacturers can’t afford the damage that humidity (or lack of it) can bring. When RH drops too quickly, expensive stockpiles of tonewoods can crack, reducing them to firewood. At the very least, swings in humidity can make wooden parts hard to fit, especially when they’re machined to tight tolerances by CNC. In a guitarist’s home, low humidity can split tops and shrink bodies resulting in delamination of bindings or bridges. Fretboards not protected with finish are the first things to react to changing humidity, bowing or warping enough to render an instrument unplayable. High humidity expands the fretboard, forcing the neck into a backwards bow, whereas low humidity shrinkage creates an opposite, forward bow. Shrinking fretboards also reveal fret ends which can be uncomfortable at best. In some cases, expansion and shrinking may cause finish to flake off, especially at sharp corners or fretboard edges. Needless to say, this isn’t what you want happening to your collection.
The good news is that if you keep most of your instruments in a single room, it won’t be too hard to control the humidity. The first step is to get an accurate hygrometer to determine what the current RH is in your space. Most times, the problem is low humidity. In that case, calculate the room size and begin your search for a room humidifier to match your needs. If humidity is high, you’ll need a dehumidifier, and you can use the same method to determine the size. Keep the RH between 35 and 45 percent to be safe. Your room needs to be sealed off. Otherwise your efforts will literally go out the window. I like the type of unit that senses the humidity, and you can just set it and forget it—until it’s time to fill (or empty) the tank. The trick is not to have them both on at once. They’ll just get into a never-ending battle with each other. You’ll have to monitor things to know when to switch over as the seasons change.
At home or in a small studio, you can control your instrument’s environment for a relatively small outlay. A few hundred bucks is way more affordable than crack repairs. It also keeps things comfy, which is a nice bonus. Think of it as a large pedal whose effect is keeping your guitars playing right and protecting your investment.
Popular music and mainstream tastes may be more fractured than ever, but the guitar continues to thrive.
As we soft launch into the new year, I’m not waiting for the requisite guitar obituary in the news. It’s not going to happen again anytime soon. Why? Because as far as the mainstream media is concerned, our beloved instrument is not only dead, it's irrelevant to the point of not even being an afterthought. When the New York Times published their most recent albums of the year list, there was barely a guitar-based recording to be found. Still, there is not only hope, but also cause for jubilation.
The crush of Covid has been good to the guitar industry. As I’ve written before, manufacturers and retailers have reported brisk 6-string sales. And like other builders, I have sold everything I can make. So, beyond the hoarding factor, that means there’s a new crop of players bubbling up, which should make its way onto the recording and performance scene before too long. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there are hordes of rock clones blasting AC/DC- and Zeppelin-style riffs in suburban garages.
The guitar—acoustic or electric—is again a true ensemble instrument, and it’s easy to find evidence amongst the scores of releases from 2021.
What I’m seeing outside of blues, bro-country, and Americana circles is the guitar used in an orchestral way. The guitar—acoustic or electric—is again a true ensemble instrument, and it’s easy to find evidence amongst the scores of releases from 2021.
In African music, the guitar continues to be a driving force as a rhythm and single-note-phrase component in the tradition of Ali Farka Touré. The current incarnation, in electric form, is illustrated in Mdou Moctar’s “Afrique Victime,” where piercing Stratocaster figures punctuate and urge the music along. The title song’s upbeat crackle of single-coil spank dances in a joyful way that belies the dark message of the lyrics. It’s a sound that’s made its way into more than a few genres, including reggae and hip-hop.
Mdou Moctar - "Afrique Victime" (Edit) (Official Music Video)
An album finding its way into the year’s best-of lists is Sour by Olivia Rodrigo. This Disney-star-turned-teenage-misanthrope has earned a lot of attention. Her single “Brutal” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart with distorted guitar riffs and an angsty storyline. Unlike most pop offerings, the song’s intro begins with a full-on distorted power-chord riff reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.” The resulting combination of sweet and sarcastic has given the song a sort of anti-Taylor Swift status. The official video is like a mesmerizing Sukeban version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” where the cheerleaders are the band. I loved it but view at your own peril.
Olivia Rodrigo - brutal (Official Video)
Fans of angular riffs and funky rhythms might like to check out Black Midi’s second studio album, Cavalcade. They’ve been compared to off-center bands like Primus, but they’re capable of weaving dreamscapes as ethereal as Mazzy Star. Despite their math-rock leanings, the band is capable of genre-bending compositions that prominently feature textural guitars in an almost jazz-like manner. Geordie Greep’s flexible fretwork is an example of the 6-string used as a capable component as much as a solo instrument, never completely stealing the show.
black midi - Full Performance (Live on KEXP at Home)
In a more familiar format, singer/guitarist Tamara Lindeman fronts the Canadian folk band the Weather Station, whose long-established instrumentation of guitars, bass, and drums carries on the traditional guitar role as a rhythm and solo voice. There’s no mistaking that the spotlight is solidly on Lindeman, who handles the rhythm guitar duties on a vintage-style Kay hollowbody, yet there’s plenty of interplay with (ex-Constantines) guitarist Will Kidman. The band’s 2021 album, Ignorance, has made a lot of best-of lists with its airy, folk-based sound. It’s clear this format isn’t going away anytime soon.
The Weather Station - Robber (Official Video)
Another artist whose use of guitar illustrates the instrument as an important puzzle piece is Julien Baker, whose Little Oblivions was released last year. Most often seen with a black-guard Telecaster, Baker handles both electric and acoustic guitar duties on this self-produced album. Although I wouldn’t describe her as a shredder, the guitar plays an important role (alongside keyboards) in her music. Once again, I think that this is precisely the kind of format that is keeping the guitar relevant as an ingredient of popular music.
Julien Baker - "Hardline" (Official Music Video)
Continuing in a dystopian theme, Illuminati Hotties’ “Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism,” from the album Let Me Do One More, floats like a winsome butterfly and stings like a bulldozer. Supported with plodding chords and a dirge-like tempo, singer/songwriter/producer/engineer Sarah Tudzin lays out her vision of the American dream run amok with a catchy melody line and dark humor. Raised on Green Day and other pop-punk, it’s clear that Tudzin sees the guitar and bass as essential to her music.
illuminati hotties - Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism (Lyric Video)
Despite having been disappointed by the lack of guitar bands populating the year’s best-of lists, I’ve found some interesting and vibrant new music that uses the guitar as a sonic chameleon—which is one of the things I like best about its capabilities. I always remind myself that music is really all about the song, not the guitarist. If you’re not convinced, there’s always Americana, because even the worst country songs still have amazing guitar playing.