“I've got this guitar and I've learned how to make it talk.”
Every time I hear Bruce Springsteen sing that famous line in “Thunder Road,” I think about the “guitar gods” from then and now – Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, David Gilmour, Carlos Santana, Jack White…
…and the list goes on and on. But these days, you might be hard-pressed to think of mainstream guitarists that matter – the ones where you can literally hear a lead and know who it is.
Last year wasn't just a tough year for the world – it was a very difficult slog for musical artists and groups. Their very livelihoods were stuck in the mud by the pandemic, unable to tour or grow their followings.
And the world of rock n' roll took its hits as well, hitting a sad crescendo in October when Eddie Van Halen passed away. For many rock fans, Eddie's death symbolized more than just the passing of an icon – it was another nail in rock's coffin.
But as we've learned from this pandemic, there is no shortage of tragedy, but we've also witnessed some very ironic unintended consequences.
Like guitar sales.
Fender CEO Andy Mooney admitted to Guitar World, “I never would have thought we would be where we are today if you asked me back in March.”
The company set a record in 2020, as sales volume surprisingly soared to new highs during the Year of COVID.
And instrument sellers that include Sweetwater, Guitar Center, and Reverb amassed huge online sales of guitars. In fact, Sweetwater hit the $1 billion mark in revenue for the first time in the company's four decades history.
While millions of consumers sharpened their skills during COVID – the baking phenomenon, learning a new language – many others picked up a guitar.
Perhaps Rolling Stone's Samantha Hissong put it best with this headline late last month:
And in a true understatement, she quoted Reverb CEO David Mandelbrot who declared, “The guitar is thriving.”
So, who's buying these “axes,” electric and acoustic?
Guitar Center CMO Jeannine Davis D'Addario tells Rolling Stone that sales among women and younger pickers were up – surely, a great sign.
In a blog post from last May – “Are You Skilling Up In Your Down Time” – I talked about Fender's bold plan to offer free online lessons for 90 days to aspiring players.
Among the other big name manufacturers, Gibson has hit some of the toughest financial potholes, declaring bankruptcy in 2018.
The brand is back, and recently published a solid new app, loaded with features to help aspiring players learn how to play. Rolling Stone reports the company had more than twice the number of enrollees than expected in its first week alone.
But it's not just the sales of instruments that should capture our attention. Fender's Mooney and Guitar Center's D'Addario echo what The New York Times' Alex Williams reported back in September in a story aptly titled, “Guitars Are Back, Baby.”
Beginner gear is selling especially well, and new demographic groups are picking up the guitar, and learning “how to make it talk.”
Aside from an amazing, unexpected comeback year for a beaten down industry – and instrument – what might this COVID trend mean to music, and of course, radio?
For those who have written rock off as “dead,” or declared Alternative to have given up the ghost, the resurgence of guitar sales, lessons, and the infusion of younger buyers and players could initiate that sea change so many hoped for these past couple of decades.
A true resurrection of rock n' roll in a world of Hip-Hop and K-Pop seemed impossible at this time last year.
But that was then. And this is now.
As KLOS content maven, Keith Cunningham, has reminded me for months, if you want to see the future, look no further than your TikTok app.
Earlier this week, we highlighted young protégé Jasmine Star in a blog post. But Keith has been trolling social media – especially TikTok – for months, looking for the next amazing Jeff Beck, Clapton, or Santana.
And they're there.
They're there in force, emulating their heroes, the Mt. Rushmore of guitar players, as you see Joshua Jones doing so brilliantly in the TikTok video above.
But the real magic isn't just in racking up “views” and “likes” for channeling Eddie, Duane, or Jimmy. It's in putting out original stuff we haven't heard before; music that inspires a new generation of young fans looking for something new.
So, maybe it takes something as tectonic and cataclysmic as a global crisis to spark true societal and cultural shifts. If a young, hungry segment of our market is skilled, motivated, and wants to change the world, picking up a guitar could be a great place to start.
And maybe, just maybe, in the radio industry, this phenomenon might also generate a revolution in the way the medium is sold and marketed, finally acknowledging the power and promise of Gen Z.
If you ask Fender, Gibson, Guitar Center, and Sweetwater, their CEOs will tell you those teen dollars spend just fine, thank you.
While an injection of new revenue from an emerging demographic would be nice, right about now, we'd take their creative energy and passion – something that's been missing for too long now.
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