The Guitar Hero Has Left The Building

Hear My Train A Comin’

As I write this, a Jimi Hendrix documentary is playing in the background.  That got me thinking about the traditional guitar hero and realizing that we’re not going to see one again.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Hendrix as a player, for me there can be no argument  that you basically have electric guitar before Hendrix and electric guitar after Hendrix.  Just like you essentially have Flamenco guitar before and after Paco De Lucia or classical guitar before and after Segovia.  These are the players who pushed the envelope and ended up building a foundation that everyone built on in one way or another.

After that, you have guitar heros who became major influencers.  For example Page, Beck, Clapton, and Townsend in the 60’s.  Ritchie Blackmore, Steve Howe, Frank Zappa, Johnny Ramone and Steve Jones and Holdsworth  in the 70’s. Eddie Van Halen brought hod rod guitar to the forefront and Yngwie Malmsteen brought the whole Neo-Classical and technical guitar trend to the forefront.   Or household guitar names like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai.

But I don’t think you’re every going to see anyone like that again.

I don’t think you’re going to see a major guitar figure again for a number of reasons and I’ll do my best to document some of them here.

1.  The landscape for popular music is different (and the same).  I realized this when I played in a live hip hop band years ago.  In the rock clubs, people were REALLY into the idea that a guitar/bass/drum trio with rappers could create a lot of those sounds, but at the rap shows – that didn’t matter to anyone.  It didn’t matter whether a DJ was spinning a disc or whether that sound was coming from the floor, it was all about the flow over top of it.  To be sure, there are still some diehard fans of certain genres (like metal or jazz) where technical ability is really respected, but for the most part, casual listeners of music don’t particularly care much about what is making the sound they’re hearing and they’re more concerned with how what they’re hearing makes them feel.  In that respect, it’s the same as it ever was but I think that…

2.  The tools have taken away the appreciation of the skill set.  For a long time, the only way to make a guitar sound good was to play it well. But now it’s easy to edit a near infinite number of performances into a useable take that doesn’t sound bad on your laptop.  A trained ear will generally know a live take from one that’s all edited together but even casual listeners understand the ability to edit something and in the back of their head it creates a little suspicion of a skill.

But when you see someone get up and move a crowd with a performance, then you realize what a skill set really is.   It’s one thing to see a table on a showroom floor that’s been computer routed and bolted together – but when you see a master craftsman build a table by hand it’s a radically different thing.

4.  The relationship is different.  When I got the Fixx’ Reach The Beach album I wore it thin with playback.  When I was learning the Rainbow in The Dark solo from a Dio album I listened to that track over and over until I could play along with the solo.  At that time you couldn’t listen to anything at any time so you could only listen to what you had on hand or what was playing on the radio.  It forced you to listen to things in a different (and deeper way).  Musicians still do this.  They still listen to tracks over and over again to learn a song or a solo, but the casual listener doesn’t develop the same relationship with the artist or the material.

5.  The demographic aged out.  This is related to #4.  There’s a reason you still see Joe Satriani or Eddie Van Halen or Vernon Reid on guitar magazine covers – the median age of people who read them is probably 40 or 45.   It’s people who grew up on guitar based music in the 60s/70’s or 80s.   They’re also the ones who are more likely to want to read a magazine instead of a digital version and more likely than not they’re reading it for the gear ads to address their G.A.S.

6 and 7.  The traffic is different and the mechanisms to promote those artists is different.  I think these are  really big factors.  It was just easier to get press and get attention before mp3s.  Yngwie Malmsteen went from being in a Mike Varney Spotlight column to recording with Steeler and Alcatrazz and releasing his own (best selling) instrumental album within a year or so.  Now, anyone can release an album – but getting Guitar Player to write about it i(or getting anyone to pay attention to it) is a whole different thing.  The major labels did a lot of things bass ackwards but they certainly knew how to let people know when new releases were coming out and how to build a buzz.  It was also a limited means of distribution and so when unlimited distribution came about though the web. they really didn’t know what to do.  (and largely still don’t).

So what you get now is you tube artists as opposed to old school artists.

You get Rodrigo y Gabriella instead of Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia.
You get Joe Bonamossa instead of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
You get a stable of CandyRat guitarists instead of Michael Hedges.
You get a million people playing a million notes and none of them really grab you.

Having said all that, I don’t think the end of the singular guitar hero an entirely bad thing.

People forget that in the heyday of ’80’s guitar that there was a lot of crap with the cream.  There were a number of people who were basically trying to go as fast and as loud as they could to try to be the next big thing and it never came and it just broke so many of those people who were never heard from again.

So there will never be another Hendrix.  Big Deal.  We already had Hendrix and he was awesome.  And guitar after him has largely been a really great thing.  More people are making more music and doing things that were never dreamed of before.  Financially it’s a difficult road, but artistically – we are so lucky to be living, and playing and experiencing things right now.  I don’t know what the future holds – but we need to realize that playing really well is less about playing every note “perfectly” and more about making a real connection to fans.

Kurt Cobain wasn’t a great guitar player – but there’s a reason people still learn his guitar parts – they dig the tunes they’re in.

Now let’s get Miroslav Tadic – for my money the best guitarist on the planet right now – on the cover of all the guitar magazines – selling out all of his albums and making a bid to prove me wrong.