Strumming a swan song: an obituary for the guitar

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Graphic by Madeline McInnis

 

Over the past hundred years, learning to play the guitar has been an important, often defining component in the lives of many adolescents in the Western world.

Fragile teenagers across the continent have found buried parts of themselves in the poetry of lyricism and the shifting, emotional, varied tones — both crunchy and smooth — of the guitar.

There are a great many reasons for that deep connection, but a lot of those reasons play into what the instrument represents and what it inspires: within the context of modern art, through a few metal strings strapped onto a piece of a wood, a person has been able to find a multitude of meanings as well the means for expression.

“You can beat it,” Roger Schmidt, co-owner of Kitchener’s Brickhouse Guitars and a player for several decades, said.

“You can play it softly, you can do beautiful harmonics, you can make your fingers hurt, all that stuff. It’s very tactile, very analog.”

“You feel it, you hold it, you caress it, you feel it vibrating against your heart … there’s this connection. My analogy is get a nice guitar and make it your dance partner,” he continued.

“Everything you do is so personal that I think that experience lends itself to songwriting because you can express yourself, your voice, your words and your instrument very uniquely.”

Rick Francis, a guitarist for over fifty years who until recently ran a studio out of Stratford, Ontario, expressed the same romance about that kind of visceral instrumentality.

“Music — when it was just starting to come out of the blues forest and maybe jazz and start to evolve into rock and roll — like, the guitar in the big band scene. They didn’t even have amplifiers at one point so they just had to pound the living crap out of the guitars and drive them like crazy and a different chord on every note,” he said.

“So much music was guitar driven. Like, it was really, truly guitar driven, and you hear that chunk chunk chunk — it’s all guitar.”

“It was a real standout thing and I felt at that point that, frankly, that was just the coolest instrument ever invented.”

Because of how ingrained it is into the workings of modern music — even popular music, to an extent — it’s easy to forget how short-lived the guitar’s heyday has actually been: while the instrument has been around in some form since the Renaissance, guitar playing as we understand it today has only really existed since the early 20th century.

But that life — despite its relative brevity — has been beautiful and artistically blessed, feeding into the once-fresh sounds of the blues and rock and roll and fuelling the spirits of singer-songwriter types. For a time, that energy and spirit was so on the nose of how the culture saw itself that it was even … profitable.

But like anything else in the world that can be sold, a transformation began to take place, streamlining what the guitar does to make it more efficient and more profitable:

“I used to get great gigs,” Francis said. “And I used to get paid really well doing TV sports music for CBC. And then one day I got replaced by software.”

“Because the samples are so exquisite now, they’re so nuanced. If a programmer person or keyboard player knows how to cut that stuff, then they can play rings around me as a guitarist,” he said.

“And so I got replaced, I lost all that work. There’s no hard feelings, it’s just the way that stuff evolves, with ProTools and the plugins you can get and everything.”

Schmidt also reflected on the digital takeover of music:

“Sadly, the industry decided that musicianship would be a problem, because then you can’t control it. That sounds like conspiracy theories but — and I don’t think that anybody ever sat in a room and came up with a conspiracy but…”

“In the end, technology, the lights went on and these producers go, wait a minute, we can bypass a lot of the musicianship here. Find a common denominator that everybody can relate to that we can manipulate, control, reproduce with ease.”

“It’s so controlled and calculated. I think we’re in an Amazon world now.”

Between clavichords and woodwinds, harps and pianos, the decades and the centuries that preceded the guitar’s heyday each had their own crescendos and decrescendos in popularity.

Some of this led to the virtual retirement of instruments while others just rendered them a little more culturally piano, an Italian term in music theory meaning ‘softly’ — as in to reduce the prominence of the instrument within the piece.

This is most interesting because of the different perspectives I was able to find in trying to explore the guitar’s prominence, and whether or not that was beginning to fade in more recent years.

“Craft breweries, bars, cafes, family parties, house concerts. Those are the main venues that I play, and I’d say they’re looking for musicians — and often it’s guitarists and singer-songwriters.”

While Francis and Schmidt both attributed at least part of their initial interest in the guitar to its being ‘cool’, singer-songwriter and guitar teacher Luke Michielsen — who picked up the instrument in the mid 1990s — did not romanticize the guitarist or his instrument in the same way:

“I didn’t really think of it as cool. I don’t remember thinking that, not really. I never idealized electric shredders, or like Slash [for example], I never really thought that was cool.”

“Once I started playing guitar and I got into music more, I just thought music was cool. I didn’t think the guitar as an instrument was cool but cool people were using guitars — so I guess it was cool by association.”

In a large way, that’s due to the culture and the influence. Each of the decades in which Schmidt and Francis grew up had their own significant figures — and how those figures utilized the instrument informed how it was seen and understood.

“When I grew up it was Jimmy Page, it was Van Halen, it was Steve Howe,” Schmidt said. “It was … one day, I’m going to play like them.”

“Those days are gone… in the mainstream there are no more guitar gods.”

The future of the guitar is as uncertain as anything else; there are valid reasons to believe that people will still be making passionate, creative material through those metal strings a century from now, just as there are valid reasons to believe that the instrument will recede even further away from the cultural limelight and be mostly forgotten.

But one thing that’s undeniable in the cultural shift — especially with the automated, digital changes that are constantly occurring — is that change the industrial, profitable side of that art.

“I was playing six nights a week,” Francis said. “That was back when you could get gigs. Like, all through the 80s, all through the 70s, I enjoyed gigs where sometimes even two weeks of six nighters [sic] in a row at the same place.”

“[Now] you’re lucky if you find a place that’ll get you in every Monday night in Toronto. And you’ve got to be pretty damn good to do that.”

“It’s dying, man … the unfortunately sad reality is that the music business is dying.”

But on the other end of the spectrum — from a younger voice — I heard a significantly different perspective:

“Craft breweries, bars, cafes, family parties, house concerts,” Michielsen said. “Those are the main venues that I play, and I’d say they’re looking for musicians — and often it’s guitarists and singer-songwriters.”

“I see there’s more and more restaurants and breweries opening up that are like, ‘we want live music.’ I feel like I could be booked every weekend for like 2-3 hour gigs.”

Maybe that’s because there are enormous changes in how the guitar is viewed and understood, and there are enormous changes in how it’s valued at a cultural level, and a lot of that has changed in how the guitar can be used as a way to actually make a living.

“I guess it’s where you find your success,” Michielsen said. “I think my success is if I can write songs that I like and even if I’m playing to a room of an average of thirty or forty people, to me that’s success. being able to connect with even a percentage of a thirty-person audience and have people know the words to my songs and say, hey, nifty guitar work.”

Coming from a different generation — and also coming from the experience of a full-package singer/songwriter/player/performer, rather than just being a guitar player — Michielsen’s success and expectations as a player are of course weighted out on a different contextual scale, based more on reciprocal passion from his audience for his art rather than profit. This is also of course based more in his art than merely in his technical playing ability.

To supplement his craft, Michielsen works at Brickhouse Guitars. He also teaches lessons to enthusiastic students, which is a testament to the current vitality of the guitar: even to this day, more and more prospective players are coming and learning from him — though he admits that the age of that student base now tends to be older than it used to be.

Maybe it’s the art that keeps the thing alive rather than the financial dependency on it. Sure, it’s possible that in a hundred years the guitar will be buried in the back of a museum somewhere with the theremin and the keytar.

Or perhaps, with its slim, wooden body and its heavy, steel strings — provoked by the very real, very tactile, individual structure of — especially — the acoustic instrument that is so fundamentally untethered from technology — there will still be one in nearly every home, stimulating creativity and creating action and art with its deep, booming tones.

“I kind of compare it to digital art, which has all kinds of creativity,” Schmidt said. “Someone who’s using Adobe and creating all kinds of graphics and surreal images, whatever they’re doing, that’s art basically on the same level as a traditional painter but there’s always going to be a world for the traditional painter who gets paint on themselves, smudges the paint in and scrapes it off and gets upset and punches a hole through it. That’s that human side of the expression of art, and I think guitar allows that more than almost any other instrument.”

He went on to detail the changes to how the guitar is viewed and even how it’s played.

All good things must come to an end. After the reign of the guitar gods, following Brit-rock invasions and indie-folk revivals, someday — even if it is long away, in the distant future — the guitar will no longer be used or understood the way it has been over this past century.

“Contemporary finger style is exploding right now. Virtuoso level, but very individual, creative sort of advanced guitar playing with all sorts of new techniques and percussive input and tapping and pull-offs and multiple strings, adding strings to the guitar…”

“There’s a rebirth, I think, of high-level guitar playing. And it’s maybe to the chagrin of the classical guitar world. I think the classical guitar world probably is shrinking. We don’t get any demand in here for classical guitars … I sell three or four nylon string guitars a year.”

On the future state of guitars, Francis also detailed how the industry and the idea of the guitar has evolved and changed; that tends to be a necessity in any industry. Some newer instruments have even been equipped with strings that play synthetic sounds, more like a keyboard.

“So 25 or 50 years from now the guitar is still going to be this enigmatic instrument sound in the midst of everything in a song,” Francis said. “But is it going to be real? I can’t answer that.”

“There are too many random nuances with a guitar for it to be brought to extinction. It’s like saying that there’s not going to be violin in twenty-five or fifty years, there won’t be cellos. I mean, they’re gorgeous sounding instruments, they have their own identity. They’ve got their own reason to be.”

“I really take a lot of pride in playing guitar because it’s a gift as far as I’m concerned.”

All good things must come to an end. After the reign of the guitar gods, following Brit-rock invasions and indie-folk revivals, someday — even if it is long away, in the distant future — the guitar will no longer be used or understood the way it has been over this past century.

But the passion and the heart that drives that kind of music has promised one thing: when the light on the axial guitar age eventually dies and the ultimate player walks off that lighted stage, their final, vibrant note will ring quietly into the infinite future.

The guitar will not go out quietly.

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