Amid The Storms, A Tempest In A Tea Cup

(The title refers to this post about musings on things ephemeral, like taste in music, the viability of a particular commodity in the market, and individual people, even as we experience social and environmental upheaval all around us. Maybe this is my version of fiddling as Rome burns.)

I first picked up a guitar in 1967, having been a trumpet player of sorts up until that point. It was a Harmony acoustic and I had to look twice to figure out that my left hand was supposed to be the fretting hand. I’ve been a little crazy in love with music as far back as I can remember and grew up in a family where all of us were involved recreationally with music, and there was often music being played on the hi-fi when someone wasn’t blowing on something or another.

I went right over the edge listening to a plethora of fine guitarists in the time where we lived within easy walking distance of the Fillmore Auditorium and a short bus ride from the Avalon Ballroom, and guitars ruled the sonic world as the rock, blues and jazz idioms got stretched. I’ve never gotten over it, having lived through several iterations of the blues rising from the dead, of rock reinventing itself, of the integration of the many musics of the world, and all the crossovers that defy classification bursting forth. I even fell in love with some of the twang of Nashville, as well as classical music and bits of just about everything, but I keep close to some of that bluesy-rocky guitar-drenched sonic assault that first bowled me over as a teen, to the point where I actually laid out money for instruments and took to playing.

I abandoned any thought of seriously seeking performance options about the time that I started to learn more than a few chords and some melody lines. I had a ’61 Strat that I bought out of a used shop in Stockton on a visit to a friend at UOP in 1969. Poverty forced the sale of it a year or so later. It was candy apple red and a lovely instrument, as attested by the new owner’s refusal, flat out, to sell it back to me a year or so down the temporal road.

Duane Allmän and Dickey Betts were big favourites so it wasn’t a total surprise that I bought my Gold Top about the time Brothers and Sisters was released. I still have it, and still play it, though with little of the fire and flare displayed by Betts and friends (Les Dudek also played one at a show the ABB played at the Coliseum that year). That was also about the time that Robin Trower surfaced as a solo artist, highlighting the next phase of the Hendrix legacy. The list of players got longer and longer, and continues even today with players like Eric Gales, Gary Clark and the like.

So this one aggregator to which I subscribe, Next Draft, had this reference to the demise of the six-string electric, occasion for some reflection. The trigger seems to be a somewhat steep fall-off in the sales of electric guitars, and the sentiment on the part of the author that there just aren’t the Guitar Gods that studded the musical firmament during the years between 1950 and 1990, say. It’s true that few achieve that stand-out status attached to the playing of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and the Eric Johnson/Joe Satriani, EVH crowd, but part of that is that there are elementary school students who can make a lot of the older folk sit up and take notice, at least in terms of navigating the fretboard with dexterity and speed. Then there is the so what factor, the been there, done that saturation of some forms of music with old-time guitar solos, riffs and fills, along with the yearning for something different. Some people will never appreciate the virtuosity of John McLaughlin because he strays so far from the simple-mindedness of pop hooks. His music requires attentive listening and associations with other phenomena than dating, so it’s just irrelevant to a lot of folks.


Sales might also be flagging because of market forces, such as the possibility that the market is just saturated. It doesn’t take too many years of selling a million and a half guitars to hit just about everyone who is going to persist at playing, and the antics of Jeff Beck in Blow-Up,

Jimi Hendrix at Monterey,

or some Pete Townsend stunts

are rare enough that most of these instruments persist out there in Nature, being bought and sold at a discount or a premium depending on name and provenance, in an eternal spiral of possession and relinquishment. The instruments after which six-string cognoscenti lust most have also become fodder for speculation with many of the most prized instruments ending up in display cases, never to be played again, while others might be subject to sales into collections where they will be played, but many of these collections are large enough that it’s unlikely that any but the most go-to instruments will see more than the occasional glimpse of daylight (stage spot?). There is a bit of a parallel with fancy cars of a sporting nature which really are meant for young folks, particularly the roosters on the way up saying something about their suitability for reproduction: those that can afford that luxury are generally old enough that they should be beyond trolling, just as many guitar collectors have become unsuitable candidates for seriously engaging with their instruments.

Last question (for now): does it matter? Music is based on change and we’re all witness to levels of change perhaps unprecedented in human history. Even at the small scale that popular music represents in the totality of human culture, itself an infinitesimally minor part of the universe we inhabit, this might signal nothing other than the passing of a generation into oblivion and its replacement with something else. I know I still love much of the music in question here, and that I have never taken to some of the succession of genres that have come along since it was new, ground breaking and fresh, but I wouldn’t ask anyone else to go down with the Guitar God Ship.


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