Arguably a testosterone-laden phallic symbol, since its invention during the 1930s and subsequent mass production, the electric guitar has occupied an important place in the popular music of Western culture. So have the players. The 1950s produced famous innovators, among them Buddy Holly, Les Paul, Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters and Duane Eddy. While a bevy of notable guitar legends emerged during the 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, David Gilmour and Jimmy Page, the 1970s gave rise to fretsters Mark Knopfler, Lowell George and Billy Gibbons, just to mention a few. Accolades in the 1980s shined on, with Stevie Ray Vaughn, James Hetfield, Slash, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and others. But after a series of player’s deaths, things began to change.
It seems the loss of Ozzy Osborne’s shredder, Randy Rhoads, in 1982, started the ball rolling. The death of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ picker Hillel Slovak in 1988, the fatal 1990 helicopter crash involving SRV, as well as Jerry Garcia’s 1995 passing, all had a collective impact. When former Beatle and slide guitar whiz George Harrison died in 2001, it was a saddening coup de grâce. Suddenly, as the ranks of influential six-string rockers thinned, the guitar began to lose some of its cachet. Besides, there was no arguing with the popularity of rap and hip hop. At the time, that was the real shape of things to come.
In many ways, the electric guitar is still revered. Even the mere shape of a Fender® Stratocaster is instantaneously recognizable. The Guitar Hero® video game is built around classic rock tracks. While acoustic boxes are often associated with folkies and solo acts, key music movements, such as the British invasion, blues, acid rock, punk and funk have all been fueled by memorable electric licks and their players. Meanwhile, songs on the radio and music videos are no longer driven by tasty guitar riffs as they once were. There is no denying tastes change.
What’s more, the crop of leading electric rockers has matured, if not dwindled. For one, Jack White has taken up the lead guitar gauntlet, but bearing in mind the 2009 documentary film, It Might Get Loud, that is not exactly news. Where have all the exciting axe players gone? They probably went metal. It seems groups like Meshuggah and artist Drew Creal, with their electric eight string models, are keeping guitar music alive and well. Jazz metal is another area where electric tuneage continues to reign supreme. Elsewhere, Dimebag Darrell is probably more popular now than he was alive. Perhaps, instead of being silenced, the golden age of the guitar’s volume has just been turned down a bit.
Photos: Randy Rhoads – Feb. 3, 1981/Ross Halfin/Creative Commons (CC); Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top performing in San Antonio, Texas, Jan. 1, 2015 – Ralph Arvesen/Flickr/CC; Jack White/Teresa Sedo/CC; usage of photos does not constitute endorsement by the authors/sources.
Video: Muddy Waters Featuring Johnny Winter – “Walkin’ Thru the Park”- Chicago 1981/GCRDBlues53/YouTube.