Will Your Kids Play Guitar?

by Michael Ansaldo and Melissa Miller
(First appeared in BAM magazine, April 18, 1997)

This is rock 'n' roll at its most intimate. Shielded from his audience with only his guitar, pop wunderkind Jason Falkner is onstage at Bottom of the Hill doling out sparse renditions of his meticulously crafted songs like a modern-day troubadour. Suddenly, he backs away from the mic. Adopting a cocky, spread-leg stance, he windmills his arm around the face of his Stratocaster, ripping into the opening riff of Def Leppard's "Photograph." In a mass Pavlovian response, dozens of fists begin punching the air in mock adulation. But Falkner only gets a few bars into the song before the whole display of mock rock histrionics dissolves into a din of laughter. Falkner staggers back to the mic, grinning broadly, and exclaims, "I'm so fucking embarrassed I know how to play that song!"

Although the reference gets a shared laugh among the audience members, who, like Falkner, came of age musically during the early '80s, the real punchline is in the guitar-hero posturing: the bursts of distortion, the "dazzling" showmanship, the phallic undertones. That beast was exiled during the Reagan era, chased out by the subtle textures of song-oriented guitarists like R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and the Smiths' Johnny Marr. But the guitar itself survived through the no-nonsense fretwork of that pair and other like-minded six-stringers, an ethic that culminated in the post-Nirvana boom, and maintained the instrument's place as the key to rock 'n' roll Babylon.

But now trend-watchers maintain that guitar has worn out its welcome altogether. Last year saw new releases by sure-things like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam take a nose-dive, as well as major-label signings of two guitar-less power trios: Morphine and Ben Folds Five, who have their rave-ups with baritone sax and piano, respectively. The glut of formalized alterna-bands has music fans desperate for anything different. And to fan the flames even more, found-sound DJs and producers are being touted as pop music's new heroes.

"If I was 16 right now, I might want to be doing things with samplers," says Buck today. "You can make great records without even playing an instrument, and I don't have a problem with that. It's kind of like punk rock was 15 years ago when you could pick up a cheap instrument without knowing a lot. I know young people who do things with samples - it never really occured to them that you need to know how to play an instrument. You can learn to do this other thing, which is to manipulate sound, just as well."

The mere mention of Electronica is enough to start the most turbulent civil war since the secession of the South. Indeed, the music industry has been championing Electronica as the next big thing ever since MTV added the techno showcase Amp to its lineup last fall. Following suit, radio stations have begun toying with electronic-music formats, labels are racing to sign anyone with a sampler and rock rags are marketing the groove-heavy genre as the alternative to Alternative.

But rock purists rail against the hype with a vehemence that conjures up images of a dumpster full of disco records being blown to bits at Wrigley Field. "Techno and all its variations like trance - that stuff is not pop music," says Epitaph Records owner Brett Gurewitz. "That stuff is paraphernalia you might pick up at a head shop to enhance your drug experience. [Chemical Brothers and Prodigy] write pop songs. Those bands will probably produce a hit for Modern Rock radio. But I don't see it supplanting guitar rock."

But advocates of the newer non-guitar-driven acts just see this reaction as just another case of musical elitism. "It comes down to rock critics and writers who are holding on to their archaic notion of rock," says [Bay Area Radio's] Live 105 Program Director Aaron Axelsen. "They don't understand electronic music, so they try to belittle it. It frightens them to see music they don't understand. Plus, electronic music - like a DJ Shadow or a Tricky record - is starting to marry together all sorts of cultures and genres of music. [Guitar-based] rock is sorta pigeonholed to the white kid in suburbia. But if you go to a rave or a jungle show, you see Asians and blacks, hip-hop kids, techno kids and rock kids all coming together - that's a pretty amazing thing."

These arguments are wrapped up in a temporal spiral. During the last 20 years, with each new technological advance, with each move of the spotlight away from the guitarist, someone has been ready to proclaim the instrument's artistic extinction. At the height of the early '80s synth-pop movement, Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone that bands like the Human League would wipe out guitars. With this in mind, to even pose the "Is guitar dead?" question in 1997 is ludicrous.

"During the '70s, when you saw the rise of disco, you might have thought you were seeing the demise of guitar-based rock," says Geffen Records A&R Director Tony Berg. "Then you saw a resurgence of it. Then, just as you saw the corporate rock of the '80s and thought nothing would ever replace it, along came Kurt Cobain, who somehow made guitar interesting again. I'm encouraged by what's happening with drums and bass in England. There's a tremendous amount of invention going on sonically. Once those new textures and new sonic landscapes find themselves in the hands of a great songwriter, then it will really mean something."

The more apt concern might be how the guitar is being recontextualized as rock 'n' roll rebels against itself once again. "I think guitar is going to very naturally find a place in Electronica, and, in fact, has done so already," says Joe Gore, Senior Editor of Guitar Player magazine, hired axe and member of San Francisco bands Oranj Symphonette and Action Plus. "Beck and Nine Inch Nails are two obvious examples. Everything about guitar has been very retro lately, especially in the last seven years or so. The types of guitars people play and the way they use guitars in music has had a very looking-back quality to it, and that's been good and bad. People have rediscovered the simple things, but maybe they have done so at the expense of not pushing the envelope and being as creative as they have in the past. But I think now guitar is going to be entering the era where it can do both of those things. People will see guitar more as a sound source, a tool that you can use to put together these sonic landscapes; not the end-all of pop music. And I think that's great for guitar; it's very fun, exciting and creative."

As the technology becomes more "human," the gray area between conventional instruments and machines increases. And the relative low cost of the latest electronic gear promises that the DIY ethic will continue to flourish. Together with the lack of an artist strong enough to lead pop music into a new genre, the landscape is wide open. So with this broader palette of music-making choices and the blank canvas of a new millennium, what are the pop heroes of tomorrow going to be reaching for?

"I think there are a lot more kids that are starting to buy electronic instruments and decks and are starting to spin records," says Axelsen. "They want to become the young DJ, and that is an art form in itself."

For the most part, Astralwerks Records Co-director Andrew Goldstone agrees that there will be a necessary shift toward the new technology. "I find with the way technology is progressing, it's more important that you are studio literate than literate about one particular instrument," he says. "That may seem sacreligious, but if you know how to use your machines, you can do things that are as exciting and interesting as things you can do on guitar."

But if history has taught us anything, it's that the innovations will come not when the latest piece of equipment arrives on the scene, but when the old guard and the new sit down at the table together.

"The Cure and New Order were putting together guitar and sequencers 20 years ago," Gore says. "So, for every Prodigy that doesn't have a guitar, there is an Underworld or Sneaker Pimps that does. Anyone who says guitar is out and synths are in is probably pretty naive. I wouldn't say the ideas for guitar are exhausted because human ingenuity is limitless, but I don't think we are going to see a return to a pursuit of virtuosity for its own sake. In fact, I think guitar players are going to become more like DJs. Maybe what they will be doing is setting musical landscapes that you can pluck things out of, and less of that standing up in front of the stage like Eric Clapton, emoting on your instrument."

However, record execs are quick to debunk the sentimentality attatched to any instrument. In discussing rock 'n' roll as it moves ever closer to the half-century mark, fragmenting into smaller and smaller factions, one thing is clear: The song remains the game.

"Guitars are just tools," says Ben Lazar, A&R Manager for EMI. "Can guitars still be popular? Yes. That person should find whatever tools that person needs to express himself. You shouldn't be worried about the tools; you should be concerned about the content."

Capitol Records' Director of A&R Craig Aaronson agrees. "I do not think electronic music is taking over," he says. "Like anything else, it's going to have to produce great songs. A guy like Beck, who is using all these beats - he's a great example of what's fresh. I don't think he is as concerned with using guitar or not using guitar, but rather what's necessary for each individual song."

"The main thing I look for is quality songs," says Andy Factor, Virgin's Vice President of A&R. "All of the labels now are going crazy. They've got to have Daft Punk or Chemical Brothers. But you have to find a group with good songs, because after the hype dies down, your left with a band, and if their songs aren't good, they're not going to do well."

Most agree that the current maelstrom surrounding Electronica can only revitalize pop music. "[Alternative] quickly became soundalike and derivative," says Gore. "It's obvious that something had to break. And if the notion of Electronica coming in and driving guitar-rock out wakes people up and puts the fear of God into guitar players, that's great. That's only going to make guitar playing better."

"The trend for the media industry to go crazy over electronic bands can be one of the better things to happen to guitar-based bands," Lazar agrees. "All the people who are into styles, trends and fashion will go to the electronic music. And for people who are really interested in using the guitar as a mode of expression for themselves, that will be a more rebellious option. It can make guitars rebellious again."

1997 BAM Media

Falk Speaks