Which was the best decade for guitars and guitar music?
Often, over a pint or two down the pub, serious life affirming questions get debated and that is exactly what happened with this one. A rather random question about guitars turned into a long, and at times rather heated, debate as to which was the best decade for guitars and guitar music. We all will have a particular opinion and sometimes that opinion can be swayed by other people’s comments and experiences. I thought it would therefore be an interesting exercise to throw it out there to the wider audience to see if there was a consensus. But before we open it up to wider discussion it is perhaps worth reviewing some of the milestones in guitar development and music. Before I get a load of complaints and comments this is not an exhaustive list but is perhaps a snap shot, from my point of view, of how guitar music has changed. You can perhaps see my particular musical preferences from the key areas discussed.
So here goes…
The decade of innovation – The 1950s
The 1950s seemed as good a place as any to start in our brief rundown of the key highlights for the guitar. We could have gone further back and started in the 30s with the release of the first electric guitar. But in my opinion the 50s was really when the electric guitar came forwards and took its rightful place at the front of the band. What made this possible? Arguably it was the launch of the Fender Broadcaster, later to become the Telecaster, in the autumn of 1950 that brought the solid body electric guitar to the masses. But with Gibson launching the Les Paul in 1952 and Fender launching the Stratocaster in 1954 the world of guitar music changed forever. Rock and Roll, which had been evolving since the late 1940s, suddenly got an instrument that was affordable, reliable and could make a lot of noise. No longer would the guitar sit at the back of the band and provide accompaniment. With advances in amplification the guitar moved to the front and became the focal point of the song. This change combined with the energy that was derived from the guitar altered the sound of Rock and Roll and made it the music of the younger generation Think of any of the bands and artists of the Rock and Roll era and the electric guitar is closely associated with their music.
The decade of revolution – The 1960s
By the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s Rock and Roll was in decline to be replaced by myriad forms of rock, think surf, blues, garage and folk rock. But arguably it was the British rock scene with bands such as The Beatles, Cream, The Rolling Stones and The Who which defined the decade in terms of guitar driven music. Many of the young bands in the UK evolved from the 50s Rock and Roll scene but wanted to challenge what their parents were listening to by adding their own unique character. Therefore the developments that defined the decade were not in the guitars that the bands were playing but the way they were amplified and the effects employed. Bands and record producers were innovating with sound trying to challenge what could be done with an electric guitar. In the 50s there was Fender and Gibson, perhaps the 60s is therefore best represented by Marshall Amps. Amplification prior to Marshall was restrained. With the development of the Marshall stack the guitar was properly unleashed. It was Jim Marshall who responded to complaints, from the likes of Pete Townsend, that the existing amps didn’t have the right sound and weren’t loud enough that led to the development of the “Marshall Stack”. The
amplifiers of the time had the speakers connected to the amp limiting the volume. By disconnecting the amp from the speaker cabinet Marshall was able to put in bigger speakers with greater volume output. This combined with some changes to the construction of the amp led to the unique Marshall sound.
The Forgotten Decade – The 1970s
Some of you may disagree with the statement I am about to make but often the 70s seems to be the decade that gets forgotten in musical terms. Certainly with respect to the guitar it perhaps gets overshadowed by the 60s but is that a fair assessment? In terms of the continuing development of music rock evolved throughout the 70s giving rise to various forms of rock from glam, progressive and art to hard rock and ultimately heavy metal. But sadly for the guitar the big musical genre of the 70s was disco. However, there were some good disco tunes that featured a guitar, so it wasn’t all bad! By the end of the decade rock had perhaps become a little bloated and self-satisfied with glam rock becoming perhaps too glam for some and big rock bands heading out on the road on progressively bigger and more extreme tours. As with most decades the established bands no longer represented the younger generation and that is often the point when new genres break through into the mainstream. In the 70s the breakthrough genre was Punk. With any movement Punk started small with bands such as the New York Dolls, The Ramones and Black Flag in the US. They experimented with a minimalist guitar driven sound and short punchy songs which for many was a breath of fresh air after the pomposity of some rock bands. From the mid-70s Punk started to gain momentum in the UK with bands such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols.
In terms of guitars the 70s represented a battle against the increasing popularity of digital music and the progress of digital synthesisers. More and more bands were experimenting and innovating with sound and digital synthesisers presented a unique opportunity to do just that. For nearly 3 decades the guitar had been the instrument of choice for kids in their bedrooms but now thanks to digital technology the synthesiser was taking hold. This was greatly accelerated by so called new wave bands which started to take over from Punk in the late 1970s. However, perhaps the guitar development of the 70s was the development of the Floyd Rose locking tremolo in 1977. This innovation was arguably one of the key landmarks in guitar history. But the full impact of the Floyd Rose was perhaps not felt in the 70s which brings us nicely to the 1980s.
The decade of the Super Strat and speed – The 1980s
Undoubtedly the major guitar development of the 70s had its biggest impact in the 80s. The release of the Floyd Rose locking tremolo in 1977 fuelled the rise of the super strat which was perhaps the guitar of choice for many of us in the 1980s. If you were into your heavy metal then it was likely that you played a super strat at some stage during that decade. The super strat is, as the name implies, a guitar which resembles a Fender Stratocaster but has been adapted. The adaptations varied but generally involved a more aggressive looking body and headstock, humbuckers instead of the traditional three single coil pickup configuration adaptations and of course the Floyd Rose locking tremolo. It wasn’t long before every major guitar manufacturer had a super strat. From about 1983 Kramer, Jackson, Charvel, Yamaha, Aria, Ibanez and Hamer were all mass producing super strats to satisfy the growing demand. One additional development derived from the super strat movement was the changes in guitar neck design. Fuelled by guitarists, especially the speed metal fraternity, who wanted to play faster neck profiles became thinner with ultra-low actions enabling quick fluid burst of notes to be played.
Guitar solos, often the focus point of many a heavy metal song, became more extreme as guitarist broke away from traditional blues based scales and experimented with more exotic scales and modes. Guitar players could almost be described as gun-slingers fighting it out to see who could be the fastest and most technically proficient. Sadly by the end of the 80s many rock and metal bands were becoming parodies of themselves and a new sound would break out of Seattle which would challenge their dominance and change the course of the guitar.
In the next instalment of which decade was the best for guitars we look at the 90s and beyond.