The Electric Guitar.
The single sexiest instrument ever invented.
As soon as you put one round your neck, you stand differently. You feel cooler. More capable. You become something else. Taller, more handsome and (if you’re a bloke or in Spinal Tap) a much bigger dong. Well, OK, maybe not that last one, but we can all live in hope….
In Rock terms, Clapton, Page and Beck were the Holy Trinity for the Baby Boomers (and many others since) with Hendrix taking the instrument to a whole new level of flash and cool. The Guitar Hero was born.
In 1978 the world of the electric guitar changed forever again, when Eddie Van Halen dropped the jaw-droppingly innovative Eruption. This lead to the kids of Generation X picking up increasingly available and affordable guitars, amps and effects, and working on their chops.
The 80’s were a boom time for hot young guitar slingers and this lead to the birth of Shred. Satriani and Vai emerge taking the art form to new heights. Inevitably, once the widdle got too much, the bubble burst, paving the way for Grunge Alt. and Nu Metal. The 90’s were dark times for the more accomplished players and the Guitar Hero was no longer in vogue. The late, great Dimebag Darrel and Zakk Wylde kept the torch burning.
And then a new technology emerged which would briefly entice the new Millennial generation into slinging an axe around their necks. But this technology was not from the world of music, but from the world of gaming. The PlayStation 2 gave us Guitar Hero, complete with guitar shaped accessories and customisable avatars. The sound tracks were good too, spanning 70’s and 80’s classics right through to the modern era.
Guitar Hero (GH), released in 2005, quickly became the biggest game on the planet, but was canned by publisher Activision after only a couple of years. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the appeal of the instrument however. Activision cashed in quickly and aggressively with way too many sequels, too soon. The generation of kids who played it (and it was all of them) are now in their late teens and early 20’s.
Right now we’re in the Glee generation, where guitar music isn’t as popular as it was in the mid-2000s. It’s all about dancing and singing now. In the early days of GH, rock music was huge, but since then we’ve seen a huge increase in hip-hop, pop, collaborations of hip-hop artists with pop artists and the largely guitar free EDM. Top touring attractions and mainstream festival headliners increasingly feature fist-pumping DJs and million-dollar light shows.
Is there any hope for the Guitar Hero? Michael Amkreutz, executive vice president of Guitar Centre has said “The guitar history is massive, it’s a very rich body of work. There is so much music out there that is written on the guitar, written for the guitar, played on the guitar. It also is still the most popular instrument in the world.”
Not so many electrics though. Michael Doyle, Senior Vice President at Guitar Centre, reported that sales of acoustic guitars, and of acoustic-electrics, have fared much better. “As it applies to the guitar generally, we had to shift from electric instruments being more dominant to acoustic instruments being more dominant,” Doyle says.
The growth in acoustics is related to younger demographics, and sales in electrics to an older demographic. This is reflected in genre shifts too, with a move away from Rock to singer song writing strummers like Taylor Swift and John Mayer.
The idea of hero has changed a lot. At the time of Hendrix, Page, and May most people consumed music through limited channels. Fast forward to today when bedroom recording and the internet, along with accessible software to sound “good” are all within reach, legends seem less irrelevant.
Also, we’re in a time where technology has moved many musicians from being focused on the instrument, to being focused on composition. That results in fewer people making their name strictly on the basis of virtuoso guitar.
But what goes around, comes around. This is just a phase. Doyle also said, “We are constantly working within the artist community to discover whomever is the latest Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix”. He knows from history that hot new players can drive sales. Van Halen proved that in spades. “A change like that, where you could see hyper-growth or hyper-acceleration of a certain instrument category very often can be driven by a couple of great songs in a new artist.”
However, we might just be at the beginning of the next wave and Ramblin’ Man Fair might just be part of nudging it along. Who, then, are the contenders for Guitar Hero status?
On this year’s bill there’s a very compelling mix of old school favs, notably Billy Gibbons, Scott Gorham (70s), Fast Eddie Clark, Vinnie Moore, Paul Quinn and Kenny Wayne Shepherd (90s). Now check out the new talent. Scott Holliday of Rival Sons, Texas blues rocker Tyler Bryant and Joanne Shaw Taylor.
So is there a return of the guitar hero? Well, it seems to us the next generation is now arriving and that Guitar Hero generation that we were hoping for are actually already here: Quinn Sullivan is an 18 year old American singer and guitarist from Massachusetts. He began taking guitar lessons at age three. He’s appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Buddy Guy asked him to come on stage and play. He’s pretty damn good. On our side of the pond, Aaron Keylock – who will be performing at Ramblin’ Man this year – is 19 year old blues rock guitar sensation from Oxfordshire. He’s making big waves.
Away from our festival, but very much of interest to us as guitar music enthusiasts, there are 2 guitarists we’d like to mention who we feel are worthy of Guitar Hero status: Derek Trucks and Guthrie Govan. We’re sure you’re familiar with both. Derek Trucks effectively replaced Duane in the Allman brothers band. His musical style encompasses several genres and he has twice appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Guthrie Govan is a noted guitarist and guitar teacher who won the 1993 Guitarist magazine’s “Guitarist of the Year” competition and has been driving sales of guitar mags ever since. His range of technique and tone is astonishing, getting him the job as (Prog music’s torch bearer) Steven Wilson’s number 1 axe man.
Both these players are doing something special. They both have the chops and the ability shred but critically, they have a post shred awareness that less is often more, and that restraint and economy can be more effective. They also both play in a multiplicity of genres. Splicing, dicing and enticing.
Looking further afield, we see guys like Brad Paisley (American country superstar), Jason Hook (Five Finger Death Punch) and Kevin Breit (Jazz, folk, Americana) emerging, spread across wildly different styles. It would appear that the hero isn’t dead, or sleeping, but has matured enough to infiltrate a broader style base.
There’s also the emergence of a new wave of American guitarists who play a style of slow burn, acoustic, instrumental, wide screen Americana. We’re specifically talking about Tashi Dorji, Richard Bishop, Marisa Anderson, Glenn Jones, William Tyler and Firekid if you want a list.
We think it’s clear that the guitar’s status as a permanent fixture of rock and popular music is secure. It just might not look and sound exactly like it used to. With innovative new platers, the new Guitar Hero generation is now coming through and with RMF’s commitment to showcasing new guitar talent on the Rising Stage, we think that the future’s bright.
Here’s a Playlist that ticks all the boxes above and might open a few new doors for you. We’d love to hear what you think.