Will Your Kids Play Guitar?
by Michael Ansaldo and Melissa Miller
(First appeared in BAM magazine, April 18, 1997)
This is rock 'n' roll at its most intimate.
Shielded from his audience with only his
guitar, pop wunderkind Jason Falkner is
onstage at Bottom of the Hill doling out
sparse renditions of his meticulously crafted
songs like a modern-day troubadour.
Suddenly, he backs away from the mic.
Adopting a cocky, spread-leg stance, he
windmills his arm around the face of his
Stratocaster, ripping into the opening riff of Def Leppard's
"Photograph." In a mass Pavlovian response, dozens of fists begin
punching the air in mock adulation. But Falkner only gets a few bars
into the song before the whole display of mock rock histrionics
dissolves into a din of laughter. Falkner staggers back to the mic,
grinning broadly, and exclaims, "I'm so fucking embarrassed I know
how to play that song!"
Although the reference gets a shared laugh among the audience
members, who, like Falkner, came of age musically during the early
'80s, the real punchline is in the guitar-hero posturing: the bursts of
distortion, the "dazzling" showmanship, the phallic undertones. That
beast was exiled during the Reagan era, chased out by the subtle
textures of song-oriented guitarists like R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and the
Smiths' Johnny Marr. But the guitar itself survived through the
no-nonsense fretwork of that pair and other like-minded six-stringers,
an ethic that culminated in the post-Nirvana boom, and maintained the
instrument's place as the key to rock 'n' roll Babylon.
But now trend-watchers maintain that guitar has worn out its welcome
altogether. Last year saw new releases by sure-things like R.E.M. and
Pearl Jam take a nose-dive, as well as major-label signings of two
guitar-less power trios: Morphine and Ben Folds Five, who have their
rave-ups with baritone sax and piano, respectively. The glut of
formalized alterna-bands has music fans desperate for anything
different. And to fan the flames even more, found-sound DJs and
producers are being touted as pop music's new heroes.
"If I was 16 right now, I might want to be doing things with samplers,"
says Buck today. "You can make great records without even playing an
instrument, and I don't have a problem with that. It's kind of like punk
rock was 15 years ago when you could pick up a cheap instrument
without knowing a lot. I know young people who do things with
samples - it never really occured to them that you need to know how to
play an instrument. You can learn to do this other thing, which is to
manipulate sound, just as well."
The mere mention of Electronica is enough to start the
most turbulent civil war since the secession of the South.
Indeed, the music industry has been championing
Electronica as the next big thing ever since MTV added
the techno showcase Amp to its lineup last fall. Following
suit, radio stations have begun toying with
electronic-music formats, labels are racing to sign anyone
with a sampler and rock rags are marketing the
groove-heavy genre as the alternative to Alternative.
But rock purists rail against the hype with a vehemence that conjures up
images of a dumpster full of disco records being blown to bits at
Wrigley Field. "Techno and all its variations like trance - that stuff is not
pop music," says Epitaph Records owner Brett Gurewitz. "That stuff is
paraphernalia you might pick up at a head shop to enhance your drug
experience. [Chemical Brothers and Prodigy] write pop songs. Those
bands will probably produce a hit for Modern Rock radio. But I don't
see it supplanting guitar rock."
But advocates of the newer non-guitar-driven acts just see this reaction
as just another case of musical elitism. "It comes down to rock critics
and writers who are holding on to their archaic notion of rock," says
[Bay Area Radio's] Live 105 Program Director Aaron Axelsen. "They
don't understand electronic music, so they try to belittle it. It frightens
them to see music they don't understand. Plus, electronic music - like a
DJ Shadow or a Tricky record - is starting to marry together all sorts of
cultures and genres of music. [Guitar-based] rock is sorta pigeonholed
to the white kid in suburbia. But if you go to a rave or a jungle show,
you see Asians and blacks, hip-hop kids, techno kids and rock kids all
coming together - that's a pretty amazing thing."
These arguments are wrapped up in a temporal spiral. During the last
20 years, with each new technological advance, with each move of the
spotlight away from the guitarist, someone has been ready to proclaim
the instrument's artistic extinction. At the height of the early '80s
synth-pop movement, Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone that bands
like the Human League would wipe out guitars. With this in mind, to
even pose the "Is guitar dead?" question in 1997 is ludicrous.
"During the '70s, when you saw the rise of disco, you might have
thought you were seeing the demise of guitar-based rock," says Geffen
Records A&R Director Tony Berg. "Then you saw a resurgence of it.
Then, just as you saw the corporate rock of the '80s and thought
nothing would ever replace it, along came Kurt Cobain, who somehow
made guitar interesting again. I'm encouraged by what's happening with
drums and bass in England. There's a tremendous amount of invention
going on sonically. Once those new textures and new sonic landscapes
find themselves in the hands of a great songwriter, then it will really
The more apt concern might be how the guitar is being recontextualized
as rock 'n' roll rebels against itself once again. "I think guitar is going to
very naturally find a place in Electronica, and, in fact, has done so
already," says Joe Gore, Senior Editor of Guitar Player magazine, hired
axe and member of San Francisco bands Oranj Symphonette and
Action Plus. "Beck and Nine Inch Nails are two obvious examples.
Everything about guitar has been very retro lately, especially in the last
seven years or so. The types of guitars people play and the way they
use guitars in music has had a very looking-back quality to it, and that's
been good and bad. People have rediscovered the simple things, but
maybe they have done so at the expense of not pushing the envelope
and being as creative as they have in the past. But I think now guitar is
going to be entering the era where it can do both of those things.
People will see guitar more as a sound source, a tool that you can use
to put together these sonic landscapes; not the end-all of pop music.
And I think that's great for guitar; it's very fun, exciting and creative."
As the technology becomes more "human," the gray
area between conventional instruments and machines
increases. And the relative low cost of the latest
electronic gear promises that the DIY ethic will
continue to flourish. Together with the lack of an artist
strong enough to lead pop music into a new genre, the
landscape is wide open. So with this broader palette of
music-making choices and the blank canvas of a new
millennium, what are the pop heroes of tomorrow
going to be reaching for?
"I think there are a lot more kids that are starting to
buy electronic instruments and decks and are starting
to spin records," says Axelsen. "They want to become
the young DJ, and that is an art form in itself."
For the most part, Astralwerks Records Co-director Andrew
Goldstone agrees that there will be a necessary shift toward the new
technology. "I find with the way technology is progressing, it's more
important that you are studio literate than literate about one particular
instrument," he says. "That may seem sacreligious, but if you know how
to use your machines, you can do things that are as exciting and
interesting as things you can do on guitar."
But if history has taught us anything, it's that the innovations will come
not when the latest piece of equipment arrives on the scene, but when
the old guard and the new sit down at the table together.
"The Cure and New Order were putting together guitar and sequencers
20 years ago," Gore says. "So, for every Prodigy that doesn't have a
guitar, there is an Underworld or Sneaker Pimps that does. Anyone
who says guitar is out and synths are in is probably pretty naive. I
wouldn't say the ideas for guitar are exhausted because human ingenuity
is limitless, but I don't think we are going to see a return to a pursuit of
virtuosity for its own sake. In fact, I think guitar players are going to
become more like DJs. Maybe what they will be doing is setting
musical landscapes that you can pluck things out of, and less of that
standing up in front of the stage like Eric Clapton, emoting on your
However, record execs are quick to debunk the sentimentality
attatched to any instrument. In discussing rock 'n' roll as it moves ever
closer to the half-century mark, fragmenting into smaller and smaller
factions, one thing is clear: The song remains the game.
"Guitars are just tools," says Ben Lazar, A&R Manager for EMI. "Can
guitars still be popular? Yes. That person should find whatever tools
that person needs to express himself. You shouldn't be worried about
the tools; you should be concerned about the content."
Capitol Records' Director of A&R Craig Aaronson agrees. "I do not
think electronic music is taking over," he says. "Like anything else, it's
going to have to produce great songs. A guy like Beck, who is using all
these beats - he's a great example of what's fresh. I don't think he is as
concerned with using guitar or not using guitar, but rather what's
necessary for each individual song."
"The main thing I look for is quality songs," says Andy Factor, Virgin's
Vice President of A&R. "All of the labels now are going crazy. They've
got to have Daft Punk or Chemical Brothers. But you have to find a
group with good songs, because after the hype dies down, your left
with a band, and if their songs aren't good, they're not going to do
Most agree that the current maelstrom surrounding Electronica can only
revitalize pop music. "[Alternative] quickly became soundalike and
derivative," says Gore. "It's obvious that something had to break. And if
the notion of Electronica coming in and driving guitar-rock out wakes
people up and puts the fear of God into guitar players, that's great.
That's only going to make guitar playing better."
"The trend for the media industry to go crazy over electronic bands can
be one of the better things to happen to guitar-based bands," Lazar
agrees. "All the people who are into styles, trends and fashion will go to
the electronic music. And for people who are really interested in using
the guitar as a mode of expression for themselves, that will be a more
rebellious option. It can make guitars rebellious again."
© 1997 BAM Media