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Is The Guitar Really Dead?

ryan compton

Could be just me but it feels like the party isn’t over. It is however changing. Big time. 

Interestingly, many of the major  early guitar designers such as Leo Fender and Ted McCarty were not even guitar players. And without having any guitar playing experience, they had no feel and preference for how a guitar should feel and play. This may have worked to their advantage. They had no other option but to consult with the great players of the time—with engineers, with other instrument builders. And when they’d established themselves, they enrolled their own customers to aid them in the further development of the instrument. 

Given the ubiquitousness, even today,  of their designs and basic construction methods, their success is inarguable.

Which leads me to wonder: As the guitar made its way to the center stage of American culture, and that next generation of players became guitar builders themselves, was something lost?  Compare the collaborative method that Leo Fender and Ted McCarty used to the more myopic, headstrong, and perhaps egotistic builders that followed in the next generations. Did that loss of that collaborative method actually gum up the continued evolution of the instrument? 

I don’t know. But what I do see, from a historical perspective, is that the legacy of those two giants—these two non-playing forefathers— cast a larger shadow over the core concept of the modern electric guitar than anyone who came after them. And I can’t help but wonder why that is. 

One of the major points of departure in terms of popular music is the waning of the rock ’n roll guitar hero. Music fandom is less consolidated now, and that sense of the spotlight being trained on a few amazing players has dimmed.  There are now a multitude of genres, each with their own passionate fanbase. 

Perhaps this fragmentation of music is a harbinger for the guitar world. Certainly the musicians who work in these new genres have preferred instrument brands and designs. And boutique-sized builders have emerged to service those genre-focused musical needs. Guitar biz watchers have to wonder what will happen if some of those smaller builders gain the advantage of scale and are able to price their wares competitively.  

In this scenario, the major guitar brands survive, but do not thrive. They shrink slowly as lean, smaller builders who are entrenched in specific genres grow, each expand their grasp in their laser-focused sub-markets. 

In other words the “something-for-everyone” approach of the big guitar brands is going flat. Awkward diversification, like Fender branded wine racks and bar stools, etc., are just one sign among many of that the big guys are filling their pockets with posey. 

So if you’re wondering if the guitar party is over, I’d say no. But it has most definitely moved out of the main hall… down a passageway that leads out to a network of many more smaller vibrant, loud, and growing lounge areas.   


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