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.