Where Did All the Guitarists Go?
Emergence of sampling, 'sonic simplicity' and studio hierarchy has killed the rockin' riffs
Hip-hop, sonic simplicity, computers and studio hierarchy have left little room in modern pop music for the most renowned musical instrument in history — after the harpsichord, of course.
Ask 100 musicians, producers or critics why the guitar has disappeared from the pop charts in the past 10 years, you’ll get 100 different answers. Bands from the 1980s believe alternative music, with its gloomy lyrics and lack of solos, made the instrument uncool and started a downward trend.
Those alternative musicians would say the studios have long wanted it this way, where the musician was as dispensable as possible — thus, no guitars or guitarists.
There isn’t one reason why the guitar has faded from pop music, replaced by electronic dance music, or EDM.
On its face, popular music has become more youth oriented over the past 20 years, but that’s not reason enough for such a substantial shift.
The move away from six strings has affected former guitar-heavy bands such as Muse and Coldplay. Muse began moving away from the guitar in short steps, album by album, while Coldplay’s latest electronic-heavy record has been referred to as “bad disco” by one disgruntled fan who spoke to LifeZette.
Nevertheless, it’s left a void. The disappearance of the guitar has removed the human element from modern music.
It started in the late ’80s, when the instrument was at its peak. Rap was making waves underground since the late ’70s and early ’80s. Early hip-hop artists relied on turntables, and this led to many producers using chunks of other people’s music in their own — a practice known as sampling.
For years, the dominant samples were mostly from rock bands and riffs that were easily recognizable. Early rap records featured hundreds of samples — from speeches, TV shows or anything recognizable and catchy.
The rock band WAR was sampled so frequently that their label released an album “Hip Hop Goes To WAR” that featured the most prominent rap songs with WAR samples. Other songs regularly featured classic rock bands, metal bands and hair metal bands. One sampling by Run DMC led to the group collaborating with Aerosmith on a remake of “Walk This Way” and became an important part of modern music history.
But musicians weren’t getting paid for the prolific use of their own creative property, and began filing lawsuits, claiming sampling was violating copyright. The original artists won, and producers were forced to pay.
The cost of samples suddenly hampered creative freedom, as expenses had to be taken into account. Major hip-hop artists began using one or two samples rather than dozens, and eventually computer-generated beats enabled these producers to create their own beats without paying extra.
Case in point: Two early singles from Puff Daddy were built around rock riffs – and even lyrics – by The Police and Led Zeppelin. On later albums, there was no guitar to be found after the computer took over for gig.
While these trends hurt guitar-oriented music on the pop singles chart, two modern practices inflicted the worst damage.
Programs were developed to analyze popular songs for hooks and riffs to determine what made a single a “hit.” This interfered greatly with the human element of songwriting and production. Whereas artists once used their intuition and connection to the human spirit to develop tunes that pierced the soul, studios decided it was more efficient to use an algorithm to achieve the same result.
The second trend was simplification. If studios could determine what hooks and melodies made a hit song, they could beat listeners over the head with one — no matter how unoriginal the notes or key — and use another hook for another single. If the studio were given a batch of songs (let’s say “Brain Damage” by Pink Floyd), they would strip each hook and melody and make it into a separate, shorter song, using just a verse and chorus.
This led to what audiologists called less sonic diversification. If you hear today’s music and think it stinks, you aren’t just old. There’s science to back your audible senses. Since the 1960s, timbral variety has shrunk steadily until the 2000s, when it fell off a cliff.
Scientific American explains: “The pitch content of music has shriveled somewhat. The basic pitch vocabulary has remained unchanged — the same notes and chords that were popular in decades past are popular today — but the syntax has become more restricted. Musicians today seem to be less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, instead following the paths well-trod by their predecessors and contemporaries.”
Studios today don’t rely on guitarists — or humans, for that matter — to create hit songs. Rather, producers use computers to generate scientifically sound beats that appeal to the masses. The same principle can be applied to vocals.
Lip-syncing, which was a musical crime 25 years ago, is accepted during live shows. Between lip-sync and the prevalence of auto tune, it’s hard to determine if a singer can actually sing.
Besides, talent is often secondary to style or other marketable traits. The days of the garage band gaining notice after 10,000 hours of practice in bowling alleys and nightclubs are over, as are singers working their way up the music chain in hotel lobbies and the like.
Instead, aspiring musicians spend their days building a social media following or in line hoping to be accepted in a reality singing contest — time that would be better spent writing songs and practicing playing in front of people.
It’s a long way from the days of Chuck Berry or Little Richard, strumming away as loudly and proudly as they could. But music’s only constant has been change.
With bands like The Foo Fighters and others determined to bring the human element back to music, the next trend could be the return of human influence on music production. And with it, the most human instrument of all — the guitar.