Guitars Are Back, Baby!
Painted by some as a boomer relic just years ago, the guitar is seeing a revival that may just extend past the stress-purchase quarantine bounce.
The British guitar player Eric Clapton on stage in Boston, Mass. in 1974.Credit…Fin Costello/Redferns, via Getty Images
By Alex Williams
Not so long ago, things didn’t look so great for the guitar, that global symbol of youthful freedom and rebellion for 70 years running.
With hip-hop and Beyoncé-style spectacle pop supposedly owning the hearts and wallets of millennials and Generation Z — and so many 20th-century guitar deities either dead (Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain) or soloing into their 70s (Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page) — electric guitar sales had skidded by about one-third in the decade since 2007, according to Music Trades, a research organization that tracks industry data.
Gibson guitars, whose celebrated Les Paul line had helped put the Led in Zeppelin, was sliding toward bankruptcy.
All of this was enough for The Washington Post to declare the “slow, secret death of the six-string electric” in 2017. That same year, even Mr. Clapton himself, known simply as “God” to devotees more than half a century ago, sounded ready to spread the ashes. “Maybe,” he mused at a 2017 news conference for the documentary “Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars,” “the guitar is over.”
Hold the obituaries.
A half-year into a pandemic that has threatened to sink entire industries, people are turning to the guitar as a quarantine companion and psychological salve, spurring a surge in sales for some of the most storied companies (Fender, Gibson, Martin, Taylor) that has shocked even industry veterans.
“I would never have predicted that we would be looking at having a record year,” said Andy Mooney, the chief executive of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, the Los Angeles-based guitar giant that has equipped Rock & Roll Hall of Famers since Buddy Holly strapped on a 1954 sunburst Fender Stratocaster back in the tail-fin 1950s.
“We’ve broken so many records,” Mr. Mooney said. “It will be the biggest year of sales volume in Fender history, record days of double-digit growth, e-commerce sales and beginner gear sales. I never would have thought we would be where we are today if you asked me back in March.”
It’s not just graying baby boomer men looking to live out one last Peter Frampton fantasy. Young adults and teenagers, many of them female, are helping to power this guitar revival, manufacturers and retailers said, putting their own generational stamp on the instrument that rocked their parents’ generation while also discovering the powers of six-string therapy.
Playing Away the Blues
It all started with a collective breaking point, according to Jensen Trani, a guitar instructor in Los Angeles whose thousands of instructional videos on YouTube, he estimated, have attracted some 75 million views over the past 14 years.
“There was this point with my students where I could tell that numbing out on Netflix and Instagram and Facebook was just not working anymore,” Mr. Trani, 38, said. “People could no longer go to their usual coping mechanisms. They were saying, ‘How do I want to spend my day?’”
For many, apparently, the answer was “strumming.”
Shortly after stay-at-home orders were announced in the spring, Mr. Trani saw a surge of traffic for his videos, he said, and quickly tripled his number of private students taking lessons remotely. Popular instructional sites like JustinGuitar.com and GuitarTricks saw similar spikes during the spring.
And most of the new students were not looking to rekindle memories of Foghat live in 1976. Most of them probably did not know who Foghat was, given that the majority of Mr. Trani’s new students were, as he put it, female-presenting people in their late 20s or early 30s.
The biggest names in the business of online guitar instruction were seeing a similar pattern. Fender said that its guitar-instruction app, Fender Play, which features Mr. Trani as an instructor, saw its user base shoot to 930,000 from 150,000 between late March and late June, with a considerable assist from a three-month promotional giveaway.
Nearly 20 percent of the newcomers were under 24, and 70 percent were under 45, the company reported. Female users accounted for 45 percent of the new wave, compared with 30 percent before the pandemic.
In a narrow sense, the surge made sense. Prospective players who had never quite found the time to take up an instrument suddenly had little excuse not to. As James Curleigh, the chief executive of Gibson Brands, put it: “In a world of digital acceleration, time is always your enemy. All of a sudden time became your friend.”
But there was more to it, Mr. Trani said. Many newcomers to the instrument seemed to be looking for an oasis of calm in a turbulent world. “There is,” he said, “this sense of learning how to sit with yourself.”
That was the case for one of his new students, Kayla Lucido, 31, of San Jose, Calif., who decided to make good on her longstanding ambitions to learn guitar in March, despite a frenzied schedule juggling remote work as a project coordination manager at a technology company and parenting duties for her 17-month-old son.
“It’s been quite healing for me, learning something new, and being able to drown everything else out,” said Ms. Lucido, who has been plucking out songs like “Beautiful Stranger” by Halsey or “Bluebird” by Miranda Lambert, even for 10 minutes each day.
“You just really have to focus on your hand placement, the chords you’re playing, then pairing that with the strumming,” she added. “If I’m working out, my mind still wanders, but when I’m playing guitar, I just get lost in it. It’s like meditation.”
No wonder. Learning guitar, or piano, or oboe or bassoon, benefits the brain on profound levels, according to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, musician and the author of the 2006 New York Times best seller “This Is Your Brain on Music.” (Many psychological studies have shown the therapeutic benefits of playing an instrument, as well.)
The process, Dr. Levitin wrote in an email, is “neuroprotective” in that it “requires that you grow new neural pathways — something you can do at literally any age.” He added that “using your brain for something that is challenging, but not impossible, tends to be rewarding, and hence comforting.”
Learning the guitar, he wrote, is also a forward-looking process, kindling hope and optimism, which helps regulate stable mood chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
And “there is a very real sense of mastery and accomplishment,” Dr. Levitin said. “I’m working on a Chopin piece on the piano right now — the Prelude in E minor — and I keep reminding myself I’m putting my fingers in the same configurations that Chopin did. For a few minutes, I can be Chopin.”
“The same,” he added, “holds true for Clapton when I play guitar.”
‘Every Day is Black Friday’
“I’ve been in the instrument retail business for 25-plus years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Brendan Murphy, a senior salesman at Sweetwater, an online retailer of guitars and other instruments, wrote in an email in July. “It feels like every day is black Friday.”
Other online retailers were reporting the same thing in the spring and into summer. Despite having to close 293 of its 296 giant retail showrooms in March and April because of the coronavirus, Guitar Center was soon seeing triple-digit sales growth for most top guitar brands on the website, according to Michael Doyle, the company’s senior vice president of guitar merchandising.
Guitars are hardly the only consumer item to experience a quarantine bounce, of course. Sales have spiked for many items since lockdowns began — bicycles, baking yeast, board games, yoga mats, beans and even Everclear, the 190-proof spirit.
But a guitar is not a bag of lentils. A new guitar usually requires an investment of several hundred dollars, if not several thousand, and new players and virtuosos alike often live with their trusty ax for years, bonding with it as a statement of personal taste and style.
It’s what economists would call a “discretionary” purchase, the sort of nonessential consumer item that is usually the last thing one might buy when the economy is plunging and unemployment is skyrocketing. Throw in monthslong factory closures for manufacturers and a virtual disappearance of brick-and-mortar retailers, and the situation seemed nearly apocalyptic.
“I figured that this is one of those business-falls-off a-cliff situations,” said Chris Martin, the chief executive of C.F. Martin & Co., the 187-year-old manufacturer of acoustic guitars that has supplied contemporary stars like John Mayer and Ed Sheeran, as well as legends like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and some guy named Elvis, over decades. “We’ll pick up the pieces and put the company back together whenever.”
But after a “terrible” March, with revenues 40 percent below normal, business roared back.
“It’s crazy,” said Mr. Martin, the sixth-generation Martin to run the company. “It’s unbelievable the demand there is right now for acoustic guitars. I’ve been through guitar booms before, but this one caught me completely by surprise.”
Taylor Guitars, which equips Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Ben Harper, among others, with guitars fashioned from fine tonewoods (including, in a recent eco-minded move, shamel ash trees salvaged from Los Angeles freeways), has seen a similar famine-to-feast rebound.
“We just had the biggest June, in terms of orders received, that we’ve ever had since we’ve been in business,” said Kurt Listug, who founded the company with Bob Taylor in 1974. June and July alone, he added, accounted for half the orders that the company had projected, pre-pandemic, for all of 2020.
“Guitars hit the stores now, they unbox them, and they’re gone,” Mr. Listug said.
Electric guitars may not have exactly the same plunk-through-a-few-Neil-Young-tunes-on-the-bed appeal, but sales have been strong on that front for the electric-guitar giants Fender and Gibson, too (both companies also make acoustic guitars).
The pandemic hit at a sensitive time for Gibson. The company had declared bankruptcy in 2018, after previous management had made an aggressive push to expand into home and commercial audio electronics, and attempted to jetpack this company founded in 1894 into the future with 21st-century reinterpretations of classic Gibson stadium shakers — some featuring built-in electronic “robot” tuners.
A new management team headed by Mr. Curleigh, the former president of Levi’s Brand, ditched the onboard robotics, rebooted the brand’s budget-priced Epiphone line and released new Original and Modern collections featuring fresh interpretations of classic Gibsons from the 1950s and 1960s that today fetch five- and six-figure prices on the vintage market.
The company was earning rave reviews for its new product lines and improved quality control before factories closed in April.
“When we had no production,” Mr. Curleigh said, “we had no sales, let’s face it.”
By late summer, however, “we literally couldn’t deliver enough,” he said. “Everything we were making, we could sell.”
To Mr. Curleigh, the guitar rebound was a signifier of deeper psychological currents circulating among a traumatized population. “It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” he said, citing a theory of human motivation proposed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. Maslow’s five-tier pyramid of needs proposed that people first must satisfy fundamental requirements like sustenance and personal security before they can scale toward the higher goals of creative fulfillment.
“That’s what the world went through,” Mr. Curleigh said. “First we were figuring out the basic essentials — where to buy toilet paper, making sure you were isolated in quarantine. Then the psychological reset hit. People said, ‘Well, I can still self-actualize, I can still self-fulfill.’”
Will It Last?
It may be easy to guess that a lot of those glossy new guitars may end up in the closet as soon as people once again whisk off their masks and pack into crowded restaurants, bars, ballparks and movie theaters. Indeed, interest in online tutorials has already cooled a bit from the peaks in the spring, according to several sites.
And the overall retail picture for the industry remains rather fuzzy in the short-term: Despite the sales bounce for marquee American companies, overall sales of all fretted instruments — including banjos, ukuleles and bass guitars — dipped 2.4 percent in the second quarter compared with last year, according to Music Trades.
That dip also reflects a precipitous drop in imports — nearly 23 percent for acoustics and 44 percent for electrics — over the same period, in large part because of factory closures, severed supply lines and bottlenecks in shipping ports, particularly in Asia, said Paul Majeski, the publisher of Music Trades.
Even so, electric guitar sales had rebounded to about 1.25 million instruments by the end of last year after bottoming out around one million in 2015. And in dollar terms, guitar sales have grown steadily since the Great Recession of 2009, Music Trades reports. Last year, they topped $8 billion.
And that’s not accounting for the market for secondhand guitars on eBay, Craigslist and Etsy, and vintage sellers like Reverb, which dwarfs retail sales at music shops, and indicates that “the public’s interest in fretted instruments has never been greater,” Mr. Majeski said. (It’s worth pointing out that sales of new guitars are inherently dampened by the very durability of the product. A quality electric guitar can last 50 years or more with minimal care, and the classics often improve with age, many players believe. Smartphones these aren’t.)
Sure, there’s still the issue of the idols. The calendar is not suddenly running in reverse for Jeff Beck or Pete Townshend.
Maybe the issue isn’t too few guitar heroes, but too many of them. As any 30-minute foray through cover-song videos on YouTube will attest, there are approximately 1,000,000,007 much-better-than-average guitarists out there, many of whom are in their teens or early 20s.
A great many of them are tearing through Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen or Jimmy Page licks. And a great many of them positively shred.
In other words, you could argue that the guitar god is dead. You could also argue that the guitar gods did their job.
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