It’s rare that the internal tribulations of one firm provoke hand-wringing about the health of an industry, but that was the case when Gibson, a guitar-maker, was revealed to be $375m in debt and struggling to meet its financial obligations. Gibson isn’t just any instrument maker, but the company behind some of rock’n’roll’s most famous guitars – the Les Paul, the 335, the SG, the Explorer, the Flying V – played by its most famous musicians, including Chuck Berry and Jimmy Page. With Fender, the other company that dominates the guitar market, also heavily in debt, this seems like a perilous moment for the electric guitar: these firms are so symbolic of the rock guitar and so much bigger than their rivals that it’s hard not to see their troubles as symptoms of a general decline.
Guitar music has been in retreat in recent years. Among the 100 best-selling albums in America in 2017, only 18 were made by artists whose music is guitar-led, and that includes Harry Styles, Ed Sheeran and all the country acts. Only three rock acts made new albums that featured in the top 100: Metallica, Linkin Park and Imagine Dragons. The decline was less drastic in the British charts, with 38 guitar-based albums in the year-end top 100. But many of those were either compilations or old albums that have been re-released. Hip-hop and R&B rule popular music, and the guitar seldom has a place in those genres.
As well as a general decline, other, more nuanced, changes in how guitars are played have also damaged Gibson. The company’s instruments are associated, above all, with guitar heroes like Slash, whose playing was as much about physicality as virtousity: all tight trousers, undone shirts, phallic symbolism, cocaine and groupies. But all that has become problematic, and guitar histrionics have passed out of fashion. More influential now are musicians who favoured sounds over solos: the myriad effects employed by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields; the clean, arpeggiated playing of Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Peter Buck of REM; the metallic wall of noise made by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. Anthony Macari, the 55-year-old co-owner of Macari’s Musical Instruments, a shop in central London that has been selling guitars to musicians for 60 years, says that young guitarists are less interested in the guitars played by particular stars than in the effects pedals that enable them to recreate the sound of particular songs.
That’s a problem for Gibson. According to Freddie Cowan of the Vaccines, a young British guitar band whose first three albums reached the top five, Gibsons are the wrong instruments for guitarists who want to use lots of effects. “The Gibson is far more difficult to manipulate,” he says. The pickups beneath Gibson guitar strings – which transforms the vibration of the strings into an electrical signal that is then amplified by the amplifier and converted into sound by the speaker – send out such a strong electrical message that attempts to modify it with effects pedals simply don’t sound good. “Once you start manipulating that signal,” Cowan says, “all the colours mix up, and you get a one-dimensional tone”. He plays a Fender Stratocaster because its more fragile electrical signal is easier to warp.
Cowan notes that two of the most lauded guitar players of recent years – Jack White and St Vincent – both emphasise “the looseness and expressiveness of the guitar”, but “they don’t represent the guitar hero in the traditional sense”. Both use the guitar to disrupt the song, to change the flow, rather than as a centrepiece. Take St Vincent’s “Birth in Reverse”, where the guitar playing is a series of angry flurries of notes, colouring and shading, rather than occupying the space of a solo. In White’s best-known song, “Seven Nation Army”, the lead guitar is used to augment a monstrous central riff, to peculiar, screechy effect.
As well as artistic differences between Gibson and musical fashion, the company also made a series of strategic moves that have irritated their customers. Firstly, Macari says, they started making terrible manufacturing decisions, like producing updates of classic models with auto-turning gizmos that look awful and disgust purists. Then they began to dictate to guitar shops how to handle their stock, which annoyed retailers who thought they knew their local markets better than the manufacturer did. Many dealers simply gave up on Gibson.
While guitar-makers might be struggling, guitarists are not. Even if Fender and Gibson are selling fewer instruments it does not mean fewer instruments are being bought: the market is saturated with secondhand guitars, so you can get a good instrument without paying for a new one. I emailed one of the old generation of guitar heroes, Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top, to ask him whether the guitar is on its way out. His response is brief, but filled with conviction. “As long as electricity remains available there will, most likely, be someone with an adventuresome spirit who will create something exciting behind the electric Spanish guitar. That’s a hero!”