Many species of life are threatened nowadays and in danger of extinction. Some reasons for this sad state include lack of habitat, diminishing food sources, trophy hunting, loss of compatible mates, and loss of relevance.
One species not yet critically endangered, but nonetheless threatened, is the Lead Guitarist. As recently as 30 years ago this species was abundant and flourishing across the planet in amazingly diverse environments. Previously strictly nocturnal, they are now sighted congregating in the warmth of the early afternoon around another endangered resource – music instrument shops. If spotted, I’ve been advised that it’s best not to feed them, as this discourages them from seeking their natural food – other lead guitarists, rhythm guitarists, singers, horn players, and piano accordionists.
So what happened? What caused the demise of this once proud and prolific species? I think there are several reasons, but the accusing finger should be pointed first at the species itself.
In the 60s and 70s, Blues/Rock was the major sound of guitar solos. Even if the genre of music was far removed from Blues/Rock, the guitar solo had to be Blues/Rock (the template here was set by Clapton and Hendrix). The thing with Blues/Rock is, although it is very emotive, it is not technically difficult to replicate. After a year or two of practice, many guitarists can play a Blues/Rock solo; and the theory is not too difficult to understand either. To invoke an emotive response was the requirement.
But then the 80s came along. Almost overnight, lead guitarists were expected to be virtuosos. ‘Speed’ became the buzz-word: crazy scales, SPEED, arpeggios, SPEED, sweep picking, SPEED! A side-effect was that virtuosity was also demanded from the other players in the band. And like lions in the wild, Lead Guitarists loath competition and will kill their progeny.
The movement started in the late 70s – early 80s and was called, at the time, ‘Punk’. No virtuosity needed, and no guitar solos allowed. Lead Guitarists were no longer the gods of Popular Music and found themselves grazing within the newly-marginalised sanctuaries of Classic Rock, Blues, Heavy Metal, and the cruellest of them all – Progressive Rock. Lead Guitarists migrated from gods to nerds.
The basic tenet of evolution theory is survival of the fittest. Those who are best able to reproduce and survive, prosper. The problem with Lead Guitarists is that they evolved in one direction, while Popular Music evolved in another. The result is that we now have a population of guitarists with astounding technical skills, but music genres that no longer need or require these talents.
One of the sure signs that a species is in decline is when you notice that there is no offspring. Where are our young Lead Guitarists? And where are the guitar solos? Through our own arrogance (as Lead Guitarists) we have become victims of hubris. Through our own arrogance we allowed our way of life as Lead Guitarists to become a competitive sport, rather than an artistic expression or emotion. And our competition was each other. As we were ‘shooting it out’ on stage with no thought whatsoever to song context, we became less and less relevant to pop music. When was the last time you heard a guitar solo on a new pop tune?
Of course there are solutions to this problem. The obvious one is, if you are a guitar teacher, teach improvisation and composition. I like to play a hypothetical game with my students: if we are looking at some current pop tune with no solo, after learning the chords/rhythm I say, ‘Ok, you’re onstage playing this song with the band. Taylor or Justin’s mic stops working. Everyone in the band looks at you and shouts ‘Quick! Do a guitar solo!’ What would you do?’
Another solution for guitar teachers is to teach melodies, as well as solos. I was watching a pub band recently and their entire third set was Surf and Rock instrumentals from the 50s and 60s. I’d forgotten how melodic some of those tunes were, and how huge those hits were at the time. I think the last true guitar instrumental hit I can remember was Joe Satriani’s melodic tune Always With You, Always Without You back in the 80s.
Who decided that instrumental music had no place in mainstream media? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the timing for this was around the same time that guitar solos became a display of speed rather than melodic invention. It is far easier to be the fastest lead guitarist on the planet than it is to compose a nice melody that works.
I hope in 10 years time somewhere in a lonely nightclub in the wilds of central Soho, there’ll be at least one Lead Guitarist performing Apache (The Shadows)!