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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: New guitar day

by Philip Martin | October 12, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

T here was an electric guitar sitting on my neighbor's porch the other day.

I could tell because I know the sort of boxes guitars are shipped in; because "Squier by Fender" was printed in four-inch spaghetti font on the side. (And though acoustic guitars have occasionally been marketed under the Squier name before, right now the brand is exclusively electric.) Because I know my neighbor's teenage daughter plays. It made me smile. New guitar day is always a good day.

It wasn't so long ago that things looked bleak for the manufacturers and retailers of guitars--especially electric guitars-- because people like my neighbor's teenage daughter weren't playing them. There weren't enough new guitar days to sustain the industry.

In 2017, Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post wrote a provocative story headlined "Why my guitar gently weeps," subheaded "The slow, secret death of the six-string electric," in which he highlights some of the economic and social factors contributing to the decline of the instrument's primacy.

Edgers wrote about how leading manufacturers like Gibson and Fender and retailers like Guitar Center were all in significant financial trouble. He wrote about how the popularity of hip-hop and electronically voiced pop--coupled with the rise of digital tools for music production--had marginalized the instrument, while major guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were either dead or old. He wrote about how electric guitar sales had plummeted since the mid-2000s, falling off more than 30 percent in the previous decade.

While his argument is narrow--Edgers is quick to note the continued relevance (thanks in part to artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran) of the acoustic guitar, which surpassed electric guitars in sales in 2010, which seemed unimaginable from the 1960s through the early 2000s--it produced some lamentations as well as some "oh yeah" pushback from folks who listen exclusively to classic rock stations and collect concert T-shirts.

At the time, the only point of contention I had with Edgers' story was the word "secret" in the headline. It seemed obvious that electric guitars were not as cool as they once were, that the instrument no longer occupied the totemic place in the culture it once had. Even Clapton mused aloud that the era of the electric guitar was probably over.

This seemed just another way in which the world was changing--for my cohort, the baby boom generation, guitars are more than instruments, even if we don't play them. Like cars, they're part of the iconography of our times, things with which we imagined relationships.

But our kids are not ourselves. It's difficult to fathom teenagers who are not excited about getting their driver's licenses and who express their creativity by dragging and dropping in Ableton Live. Things change, old dude, go yell at some clouds.

Then March 2020 hit.

We all locked down, scoured the shelves for toilet paper, and waited. Around the beginning of the summer of 2020 we started to figure out that we had some spare time. We could plant a garden, or learn French, or write a novel. Or we could learn to play guitar. We could order one online. We could watch instructional videos on YouTube.

Guitar sales increased by 15 percent from 2019 to 2020, with online retailers like Amazon, Sweetwater and Guitar Center (and its sister company, Musician's Friend) reaping the most benefit. And while acoustic guitar sales led the way, electric guitars were coming back too.

For a beginner, an electric guitar makes a lot of sense. They're easier to fret and generally cheaper than acoustic instruments of similar quality. You can pick up a reasonable electric guitar for less than $200. They've got cheap (sometimes free) software now that models expensive amplifiers. (So you don't have to do what we did as amp-less kids -- plug a Fender Mustang into the auxiliary jack of a stereo.) With a digital audio workstation like Apple's GarageBand and a pair of headphones, you can pretty much make the same sounds as the pros.

The trick is to order those sounds into something artful.

But that comes, with time and practice. Maybe we all ought to occasionally do things we're not really good at, if only to increase our appreciation of excellence.

I've denigrated my abilities over the years, but the truth is that while I'm a long way from a virtuoso, I'm OK with how I play. I use the guitar as a tool to write songs, I have about 40 chords at my disposal, I know a few movable box shapes I can employ to fake my way through pentatonic soloing. I can pretty much do what I want on my instrument. I'm a decent, if somewhat idiosyncratic, rhythm guitarist.

But I can get better; a few years ago I took lessons with a jazz-oriented teacher who forbade me from playing open strings. He opened up my thinking about the fretboard, and while I still play pretty much the same way I've played for the past 50 years, I have become more intentional and precise. I think more about what I'm doing.

Neuroscientists say that learning to play an instrument is "neuroprotective," which means it requires your brain to grow new neural pathways, something that, surprisingly enough, can be done at any age. While the cognitive benefits of early musical training are well-known, some studies have shown that people who begin to learn an instrument later in life can attain the same sort of enhanced function as lifelong musicians, provided they continue their practice. (Lifelong musicians, on the other hand, seem to have banked these benefits.)

Maybe the trick is to approach intellectual training the same way you might physical exercise: You want to push yourself, to tackle something that's difficult but not impossible. You want an activity that allows you to make progress, something about which you can be optimistic and hopeful.

Getting better at doing something hard is good for us. Maybe it builds character; scientists know it produces feel-good humors like serotonin and dopamine.

I play every day; usually for a couple of hours. One of the small blessings of the pandemic is that I can keep a guitar beside my desk. When I get stuck I can pick it up and strum it for a moment, until the world levels itself again and I can make my way forward. It's like having a friend who won't lie to you, who tells you exactly where you are, how far you've come and how very far there is to go.

Happy new guitar day.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.

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