I rather enjoyed a recent article by Dan Peeke posted on the beginnerguitarhq.com website entitled “100 Best Guitar Albums of All Time“. It’s a list of mostly progressive rock and metal albums, with some guitar-driven jazz and mainstream rock included, a lot of it not the sort of music you would have heard on the radio back in the day. I’ve heard most of the records on the list, but it occurred to me that I’ve heard so many of them because they came out before or during my younger, wilder days, before the start of the 21st century.
At 54 years old, I’m now squarely in middle age, and listen mostly to contemporary jazz and recent classical releases (my Master’s Degree concentrated on classical music as a humanities subject, and my novel “Extreme Music” takes place in a wacky version of the classical music world), but I still keep an ear out for new popular music that excites me.
There’s a fair amount of new rock and alternative music that appeals to me. Just last year, The Black Keys released a hook-filled album called “Let’s Rock” (and it did!) and Jack White thrilled as usual on The Raconteurs’ album “Help Us Stranger“. Gary Clark Jr.’s album “This Land” featured fierce playing and songwriting, and Derek Trucks continued to shred on Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Signs” (though I wish his playing were more up front in the mix). Sturgill Simpson’s album “Sound and Fury” was the loudest country album I’ve ever heard. There was also some shoegaze reminiscent of its 1990s peak in “Brickbat” by Piroshka (a band that features former members of Lush), and “This Is Not a Safe Place” by Ride (see my article on shoegaze here), and Britpop-that-isn’t-actually-Britpop in San Francisco-based band The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s excellent eponymously-titled 19th (!) album. There was also an album of janglepop (my personal favorite guitar sound!) released by Vetiver, called “Up On High“. And let’s not forget Tool’s bone-crushing, mind-bending (what time signature was THAT??!!) “Fear Inoculum“.
With the exception of the Tool album, and possibly Gary Clark Jr.’s album, however, there’s a good chance that readers aren’t aware of ANY of these recent releases. That’s because guitar-driven albums don’t get a lot of press these days. Why is that?
One thing I notice about the bands mentioned in the previous paragraph is that all of them started before the 2010s. Some of them go as far back as the 1990s. This makes me wonder whether young people are recording guitar music anymore. I know there are young bands out there. I’ve seen them.
Now I have to confess that I’m a bit out of the loop. I live in Japan (where there’s a thriving punk rock scene, by the way) and only learn about current bands through the media. I remember going through Billboard’s Top 40 songs list recently and noticing there were NO guitar-driven albums on it. Rick Beato makes a similar point, and demonstrates that these songs would sound much better with a guitar.
So why isn’t the guitar used in popular music anymore? There’s something about the volume and squalling noise that the electric guitar is capable of that can take you out of yourself and put you in a higher place (emotionally, spiritually and pharmaceutically).
At least, the guitar puts ME in a higher place. That might not be the case for young people today. They’re faced with the fact that people their parents’ age (MY age) LIKE the sound of the electric guitar. The louder the better! For us, and for the generation before mine, the electric guitar was the sound of revolution and change in general. It was also the sound of freedom. By the end of the 1960s, lead guitarists were playing lengthy solos in the middle of popular tunes, expanding basic 3-minute pop songs into album-length jams. By the time I was in college in the 1980s,
The Grateful Dead had become the model of this type of band. Jam bands re-emerged in the 1990s in the guise of Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, to name two of the most popular, but in between, in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, punk rock and its regional variations acted as a constant rebellion against what was seen as 1960s-1970s excess. Gone were the long solos, replaced by songs with tighter forms and sloppier presentation. Synthesized keyboards provided a new sound in the 1980s, but the guitar never went away, with R.E.M. and U2 emerging as the big college bands of the decade. Guitar heroes like Peter Buck, The Edge, and Johnny Marr had a SOUND or a STYLE more than a technique, and that’s what identified them.
From the 1960s to the 2010s is a long period of time, and I guess that after all that went before, the guitar can’t be heard as the sound of protest anymore. I mean, how can you clear a space for yourself when your parents like all of the music that YOU like?
It would seem that young people have turned to BEATS as their preferred musical form of expression. I don’t blame them. I certainly loved the hip hop beat samples used throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and since then hip hop producers come up with more and more innovative beats, which are now making their way into contemporary jazz.
I’m such a big fan of all kinds of music, that I never thought I’d hear music that put me off, but young people have indeed found a sound that offends me: the sound of AUTO-TUNE! When you sing out of tune, the device corrects the pitch, and in the process makes a computerized sound that makes singers sound like androids. Singers and rappers now will go off-pitch in order to get that sound. I get it, but ugh! I can’t stand the sound! You hear it everywhere, and not just in Western pop. It’s huge all over the Middle East, too.
I think modern pop music doesn’t use electric guitars simply so that it won’t sound like the music that parents like. While there are still all kinds of punk, thrash, metal, and myriad variations of guitar rock still being released, it has all gone underground, making it mysterious and hip again, I guess. The sound of an electric guitar feels so good in all of its manifestations, however, that it’s bound to make a comeback. It’s just going to take a bunch of kids getting together and forming a band somewhere, and making an effort to get beyond their scene.