Guitar maestro and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy doesn’t think so, but how true is that?
The guitar seems to have always got quite a bad rap as far as musical instruments go. While it’s been integral to many of the musical movements of the past century, it seems there’s always something disparaging to say about the six-string.
There’s one infamous example of Dick Rowe, a senior A&R representative at Decca Records, who told The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein that “guitar groups are on their way out” in 1962 before rejecting the now moderately well-known band. Naturally, within one year he would likely have realised how much that statement made him live up to his first name.
Times haven’t really changed that much. Earlier this month (February 2018), Muse frontman and well-respected guitar wielder Matt Bellamy claimed in an interview with the BBC that “the guitar has become a textural instrument rather than a lead instrument… As a rock band you’re slightly one foot in the past, playing instruments like guitar, bass and drums.”
Modern music and the creative urge
But how right is Bellamy? Well, look at most of the charts for the past few years and you’ll likely agree with him. Of the handful of indie, alternative and rock acts that have broke the charts, few if any have really been driven by the guitar. Even in terms of the acts dropping non-charting but well-received singles and albums, few have put the guitar front-and-centre. Just look at The 1975 and Imagine Dragons, who have both featured guitars less and less with each new release.
There are of course a handful of exceptions; Liam Gallagher’s debut solo album in 2017 made guitars quite a prominent feature. But with many of these acts, the target demographic is not an emerging audience but rather ageing listeners that have remained loyal since the age of guitar domination.
So surely that’s enough proof, right? Surely Bellamy is right and the guitar has little relevance beyond adding texture in 2018. Well, not exactly.
As the quality of electronic instruments – both digital recreations of traditional instruments and instruments such as synthesisers and samplers – has increased, many artists are investing more time into discovering their capabilities. This desire for experimentalism, which should be innate to any creative, is what is driving many musicians to focus less on the tried-and-tested lead instruments of old. But that doesn’t mean guitar music has had its day.
Re-defining the guitar
While technology develops away from guitars, guitar effect technology is also advancing. Traditional effects like reverb, wah and distortion are only a handful of the sound manipulation that modern guitarists can experiment and create with. For example, guitar pedal manufacturer Electro-Harmonix has been pushing the boundaries of traditional guitar effects in recent years.
One of the company’s pedals, the Ravish Sitar pedal, effectively turns a standard electric guitar into a Sitar, the Indian instrument that was a staple of 60s psychedelia. Another, the Electro-Harmonix Superego, emulates the sound of a church organ with adjustable parameters. That’s without even touching on the company’s range of pedals that recreate synthesisers on a guitar.
This presents artists in 2018 with an interesting opportunity and challenge, in the form of redefining what guitar music actually is in the modern age. You can certainly craft songs on a guitar that, with effects, sound nothing like a guitar. But, in principle, this would still be guitar music.
Likewise, there’s always the possibility of a creative change in how bands feature guitar as a lead instrument. For an example of this, we don’t need to look much further than Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 hit AM. On the album, the band completely overhauled the way it put guitars front and centre by swapping out the indie-thrash ferocity of what came before for a cool, calculated focus on guitar grooves that won the hearts of many listeners. And with a new album in the works, it’s likely we’ll see the band do something similar to reimagine guitar’s role in the indie soundscape once more.
Effectively, guitar music is not dead, it’s simply the old ideas of what a guitar is used for and capable of that have died. In the modern age, there’s two clear ways bands can continue to make the guitar relevant: by changing the sound of the instrument to make it more versatile as a lead instrument, or by changing the way songs are structured to complement the new way guitar is used.
It’s only the lazy, uncreative, pig-headed or unaware that will have “one foot in the past” by using guitars – it’s unclear into which camp Matt Bellamy falls.