Hitting The Right Note$

American by invention, the electric guitar is a twentieth century design phenomenon. A musical instrument first and foremost, she is also an iconic representation of western culture and symbolic of all we uphold and love: freedom, prosperity and self-expressionism. Animalistic and sexually provocative, the electric guitar is one hot babe with the attitude to match! Her popularity has never receded and sales continue to grow as new markets in Africa, Asia, China and South America open and develop.

Nobody is entirely sure how many electric guitars are built and sold each year. It has been estimated at around six million. What we do know is that the professional electric guitar industry is a global billion-dollar success story. According to recent US industry sales figures, over 1.1 million electric guitars were sold in the States last year; approximately 85-90% of those sales would have been Mainstream or Mainstream related for reasons explained in my article on human perception. Here in the UK, our love of the guitar is unremitting. In 2006, 470,000 electric guitars and basses were sold. That astonishing record-breaking figure yielded a turnover of just over 100 million. Guitar sales, not only in the UK but throughout the developed world, have endured a roller coaster ride in recent years as a consequence of the global financial crisis. However, they continue to show plenty of resolve and the instrument’s popularity remains steadfast. In a recent study carried out by the Music Industries Association (MIA), four million Brits are currently playing guitars and 28% of our population, or 16.7 million people, are playing an instrument of one kind or another. In another recent study, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), has found that today, the electric guitar, is as popular as the violin among school children and features in the top six most popular instruments they want to learn and play. If you thought that the electric guitar, as an instrument of choice, is in decline, think again. Your perception, in all probability, is based on the fact that guitar-based music is no longer played on mainstream radio and television and therefore, they are not being played anymore.

Keeping In Tune

Over the years, guitar trends have come and gone but one constant feature has been the colour and this parameter has always been important when it comes to choosing and, subsequently, purchasing an electric guitar. So much so, that in 2005, UltimateGuitar conducted a survey asking their readers to name their favourite colour of guitar. The poll results showed that way out in front with 48% was black. In second place with 28% was wood effect. In rock and roll mythology, black is a popular colour because it symbolises intellectual social rebellion. Hands up those of you who have never worn a black leather motorcycle jacket. Last year, PRS Guitars announced that Tobacco Sunburst was their most successful colour. It is a vintage wood effect, translucent burst finish. The second most popular PRS colour was black. On these two surveys alone, it would appear that black, wood effect and vintage burst finishes are the way to go. Incidentally, these colours are reflected in our T&A (The Little Rock ‘N’ Rollers) brand proposal!

T&A (The Little Rock ‘N’ Rollers)

Appropriately Coloured!

Over the past fifteen years or so, one type of guitar has come to the fore: the road worn Mainstream relic. Mainstream relics are all about emulation and nostalgia. What started out as a Rory Gallagher-Stratocaster replication cottage industry, has quickly expanded into something more industrial, wide-ranging and dynamic: from light aging to heavy; the choice is yours, chronographically and seductively speaking. If you are on the lookout for a road worn relic guitar, Fender Custom Shop, Bill Nash and Billy Rowe at Rock N’ Roll Relics are the guys to see. Many relic guitars contain contemporary specification updates that appeal to the modern player such as pickups and wiring configurations. Pickups, for example, are all about choice: vintage or hot! (There is of course a middle option based on different combinations of the two, but for the sake of clarity, pardon the pun, I will not muddy the waters!) The trend in recent years has been for vintage styled pickups. They have lower output and when driven hard retain warmth and articulation. There are many fine Mainstream vintage pickup builders located around the world but it is generally accepted that David Allen, DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, Lindy Fralin, Tom Jones and Jason Lollar are the guys who set the bar. If you want genuine 1950s vintage tone reproduction, Don Mare is the man for you. It should come as no surprise to those who study human perception and, the guitar industry in general, why road worn Mainstream guitars and vintage pickups are popular.

One other trend that is popular at the moment is for music critics to comment that guitar-based music and the electric guitar are loosing their appeal. As I have explained, nothing could be further from the truth. In today’s world of ubiquitous, dance friendly, electro-pop and rap music, guitar-based music is very much alive and kicking. The problem is, however, you have to make an effort to find and listen to it. Last year, Bon Jovi were the number one grossing live act with over two million ticket sales. AC/DC, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones and U2 have been equally successful in recent years. You may argue that all of these bands have trodden the boards before and nostalgia was the name of the game. That may be true because nostalgia is a highly marketable commodity especially when it is aimed at fans with disposable income. However, in defence, I believe that popularity and relevance in today’s music scene should be judged on concert tickets and sold out shows. Take The Stones for example. Over three consecutive Saturdays last summer, they played to approximately 225,000 people with gigs at the Glastonbury Festival and London’s Hyde Park.

It is not just time-honoured bands that are flying the flag for guitar-based music. New bands and artists such as The Black Keys, Benjamin Booker, Drowners, Jagwar Ma, Japandroids, Mitch Laddie, Radkey, Reignwolf, Speedy Ortiz, The Strypes, Ty Segall, Tame Impala, Virgil and the Accelerators, and Vampire Weekend, to name but a few, are creating remarkable Alternative, Blues, Indie and Rock influenced music. Okay, they may not be as popular as The Stones but they are the future and prosperity of rock and roll and need our support. Until we end our love affair with the guitar, rock and roll, in all its many forms, will still be heard. However, the problem facing music today is not the lack of new talent; that will always prevail, it is boredom and monotony. There has not been anything new or significant since the early 1990s when Grunge and the Seattle Sound came to prominence. We are all waiting in anticipation for the next big thing or cultural nirvana to come along. When it does, you can bet your bottom dollar, the electric guitar will play her part.

Strung To Perfection

The electric guitar, as we know it, hit the stage in the early 1950s. Next year, Leo Fender’s groundbreaking Esquire will celebrate her 65th birthday. Like all timeless iconic designs, her stature will never diminish. The Esquire, and her twin sister, the Telecaster, became two of the most popular electric guitars in history. I explained in my article on human perception why Mainstream guitars are commercially successful. However, before I sign off, there is one parameter I have not yet discussed: the electric guitar’s longevity. Why is she (as an instrument and not as a commercial commodity) so dominant within contemporary music? Technically, the answer lies in the name! The electric guitar, when played, is just an electrical signal that is fed directly into any number of outputs, analogue or digital. The choice is yours and infinite. Consequently, her tonal possibilities are unlimited. The electric guitar is also adaptable and malleable. She can be used on almost any musical style imaginable. These are the qualities that make her stand out from the crowd. Her continued prosperity is clear and bright. Her future is electric! As always, thank you for your time and support. SR


I have written a follow up article entitled; The Sound Of Silence. There has not been anything new or significant in rock and roll since the early 1990s when Grunge and the Seattle Sound hit the streets. What has gone wrong and can it reassert itself again as a major musical and cultural colossus? I believe it can. Take a look and tell me what you think. SR