Was the Washington Post premature in calling the death of the electric guitar?

death of the electric guitar

The Washington Post recently published an article calling the death of the electric guitar. But is this premature?

You may have seen the recent article, by journalist Geoff Edgers, in the Washington Post titled “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps – The slow secret death of the six string electric and why you should care” .  In the article they discuss what is perceived by some as the slow death of the electric guitar.  Reading the article you get a sense of doom and gloom but we wondered if this was really a true picture of the electric guitar.

Is the electric guitar really on its way out?

Well if you look at the numbers quoted in the Washington Post article they would perhaps bear out this dire prediction.  In the last ten years the number of electric guitars sold has dropped from 1.5 million to 1 million.  Gibson and Fender, the two iconic names in guitars, are both in debt and have seen revenues drop.  Even PRS has had to cut production and staff to make ends meet.  On the face of it things aren’t looking too healthy for the electric guitar.  Perhaps the Washington Post are right in calling the death of the electric guitar!

What has brought about this decline in the electric guitar market?

For some the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the electric guitar is due to the lack of modern day guitar heroes.  For those of us who grew up in the 60s, 70s or 80s there were the “Guitar Gods”.  Names such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani to name but a few.  They were relatively “mainstream” guitarists who inspired us to pick up the guitar and play like our heroes.  We would put in the blood sweat and tears to try and emulate their skills.

However, coming back to the present, although there are some amazing guitarists, think Joe Bonamassa, Mark Tremonti and John Mayer, it is claimed that because their music is not mainstream enough it is not reaching the young fresh blood that the guitar manufacturers need to sustain their sales.  Put simply there is not enough guitar role models to inspire new guitarists and this is driving the premature death of the electric guitar.

Does this mean that the guitar is definitely on the decline?

Well perhaps it is a bit premature to call the death of the electric guitar!  Let’s look at some different figures which, although from 2015, do make for interesting reading.  If you want to see the full figures then read the full article – 19 Fascinating Guitar Sales Statistics.

The 2015 guitar sales statistics show that guitar sales did indeed take a dip, dropping by 0.7%, to a total of 2.47 million guitars sold.  However, the retail value actually increased by 7.0% to $1.07 billion compared with $1.00 billion the year before.  This is a reflection of an increase of sales of more expensive guitars.

The figures however, do show a drop in electric guitar sales of 4.6%, with the number of electric guitars sold down to 1.1 million.  But contrast this with acoustic guitar sales and you can see that, where the electric guitar has lost out, the acoustic guitar has gained.  Sales of acoustic guitars advanced by 2.7% to 1.36 million guitars, the 5th consecutive year of growth in acoustic guitar sales.  This strength in acoustic guitar sales has pushed their market share to 34.7% a full 10% higher than electric guitars.

It can therefore be argued that the guitar industry, as a whole, is in relatively good health albeit with electric guitars suffering.

But why the malaise in electric guitar sales and why in particular are the big two, Fender and Gibson, struggling?

There are many reasons why we think the electric guitar is suffering.

Perhaps it is more about how the tastes and the spending power of the key target demographic for the electric guitar, the under 30s, has changed.  As the figures show the industry has seen an increase in the sales of acoustic guitars, perhaps driven by the popularity of the likes of Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.  If you combine this with the fact that Ed Sheeran can gig at Glastonbury with a beat up acoustic guitar and a loop pedal and you can see a good reason why electric guitars have lost their mojo.

What about the impact of spending power?

These days not many under 30s can afford a new US Strat or Les Paul costing up to, and in some cases more than, £1000.  This is especially true when you can buy a very good copy for less than £300 or even buy secondhand for less than £300.  The secondhand guitar market is in rude health by the way and is not included in the industry statistics.

The troubles at Gibson and Fender may also be nothing to do with a drop in popularity of the electric guitar and more to do with fragmentation within the industry.  It has been quoted that Gibson’s revenues have dropped from $2.1 to $1.7 billion dollars.  Fender have also struggled.  It was forced to abandon its 2012 public offering and revenues have fallen from $675 to $545 million.

But again is this a sign of the death of the electric guitar?

Consider that there are a lot of guitar manufacturers out their and the numbers keep increasing.  A lot of these guitar manufacturers are innovating and creating highly desirable instruments which offer something different from a Strat, Tele, Les Paul or SG.  This highly fragmented industry can only put pressure on the revenues of the big two.

Could it also be that the likes of Gibson and Fender have taken their eye off the ball and made some bad decisions which have caused their financial problems.

Take for example Gibson’s 2014 purchase of the Philip’s Audio Division.  This was seen by some in the music industry as a surprising departure from the Gibson core business and has laden the company with a sizeable debt.  How sizeable Gibson won’t admit but it surely acts as a drain on the company.

Fender also relies on sales of things like amps but with millennials plugging into computers and tablets rather than big amps this has hit the companies revenues.

Factor in a burgeoning second hand market and you can see why new electric guitar sales have declined.

What are the big names doing to stop the death of the electric guitar?

If you remember at the start of the article I mentioned that PRS had cut production and staff.  However, this is only part of the picture.  Rather interestingly PRS have increased the production of cheaper guitars.  They have identified that it is critical to get people to take up the guitar and they are much more likely to do this if they can buy a good quality affordable electric guitar.  The PRS argument is that people are strongly brand loyal so if you get them hooked into your brand right at the start they will stick with you, trading up to a more expensive instrument as they progress.

However, the other big problem which has always faced the industry is that of retention of new guitarists.  For example many kids will pick up a guitar but give up within the year.

Why?  Well learning the guitar can be challenging and there are a lot of other distractions out their capturing the attention of potential guitarists.

To combat this there are a plethora of on-line tools and mobile apps to encourage an enjoyment of playing the guitar.  For example Fender recently launched Fender Play an online platform teaching new guitarists how to play.

Are any of these endeavors likely to bear fruit and reverse the decline in electric guitar sales.  Sadly only time will tell but we think that whether it is an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar it is still a guitar.  So, although there has been a decline in sales, we think it is a bit too early to call the death of the electric guitar.


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