Will Country Music Save the Electric Guitar?

If you’re a person of a certain age — let’s say over 35 — your definition of rock music is probably very different than somebody who is currently in high school or college. For the first forty years of rock music, the primary driving force was the electric guitar. From Scotty Moore backing up Elvis in the 50’s to Kurt Kobain in the 90’s the electric guitar was inseparable from the music.

But as rap, hip hop, house music and the generic category of dance pop came to dominate what was left of Top 40 radio, electric guitar and the guitarist started to fade into the background. In the realm of pop music, how easily can you name current popular figures that are known for playing guitar? Unless you are into really hard rock, metal, or ply the pages of Guitar Player it’s not easy to come up with many names. John Mayer perhaps, Dave Grolsch (sort of) but in general it’s a short list. Now of course you might do better if we include College Radio or Adult Contemporary, but in the world of Pop it’s pretty slim pickings.

Go back to any decade, and rock on the radio just oozed guitar. You name it: Chuck Berry, Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Doobie Brothers, Def Leppard, Pearl Jam, Van Halen….you name it. I’m not even touching on the whole Hair Metal era which essentially revolved around pointy guitars and spandex.

Not all of this was great music, but it all featured guitar, and kids who listened to this music wanted to play guitar. What do they want to play today? Their Laptop? When a lot of today’s music can be sampled, programmed, or mashed, creating music may not involve playing an instrument at all.

For certain, I’m sounding like an old man right now, but this can’t really be good for guitar companies. If the music young people are listening to doesn’t inspire them to play guitar — or they don’t even hear a guitar — guitar sales are going to suffer. It’s not news that companies like Fender and Gibson are struggling, and while some of this is obviously related to the economy, popular music is less guitar driven than it used to be.

Which brings us to the potential savior of the Electric Guitar: Country Music. Go ahead and laugh, but if you want to hear a half-decent electric guitar player on pop radio these days, chances are it’s going to be in a country band. Country music has largely taken the place of rock music on Pop radio, and as it evolves it becomes increasingly less country and more like just like rock. Take away the vapid lyrics about dirt roads, beer and cut-off jeans and bands like Rascal Flats and Jason Aldean are churning out arena rock just like the old days. If you go back a decade or so, producer Mutt Lang (AC/DC’s, Def Leppard) practically created the genre of arena country with his then-wife Shania Twain and her blockbuster album Come on Over.

Country music even has its own guitar heroes. Guys like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban manage to be both really hot players and popular music figures. And in general, some of the most talented bands in popular music are the country bands. Say what you will about the actual star performer, but the bands backing these singers are sharp as a tack. And if you check out their gear you’ll see some interesting stuff: PRS, Mesa, Victoria, Marshall, and of course Brad and his Dr. Z’s. It’s a far cry from the Tele’s and Tweed that defined country music for years.

So if Country Music is the current curator and preserver of electric guitar, should we be concerned? If actual people are playing real guitars in real bands with other instruments but it also happens to be country music, do we look down in scorn? If you feel that way, take some Brent Mason, Vince Gill or Albert Lee and call me in the morning. Talent runs very deep in country music; it’s just that like most forms of music it gets processed and homogenized for popular consumption, often ending up like musical equivalent of Twinkies.

There are quite a few things that bug me about country music, such as the beer-and-wings lyrics, lack of tempo change, and such glossy production that any real energy is often sucked out of the song. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and what you have these days is a winning formula, with dozens of also-rans capitalizing on a trend. That’s not so different from any phase, whether it’s the British Invasion or Disco. There are always the creators and imitators. So while much of what is on country radio these days sounds totally packaged and phoned-in, that been true since to dawn of pop music.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to become a country music fan, and it’s certainly not my favorite format. But within any category of music there is true talent, and our job as music lovers is to look past what the “industry” is trying to sell us, and dig deeper to find the people that are truly making music. Country music is a big tent that runs from the traditional to essentially today’s version of pop-rock. In many ways it’s keeping the electric guitar in mainstream music, and if only for that, we rockers need to at least give it a deeper listen.