If the Guitar is Dead, Who Killed it?
“This machine kills fascists” written on an acoustic guitar. On Woody Guthrie’s guitar. There’s so many things about it that now seem so odd. Of course, there’s the always-inappropriate appropriation; the turning of manifesto into marketing slogan. You can buy a ‘this machine kills fascists’ bumper sticker (or, you could go with the old favourite: “my other bike is your mom”, also for sale). But stranger than that is the thought of the guitar as a machine; a tool to be wielded – a powerful tool at that, and one that finds its efficacy in the realm of the political. In a way, the sentiment – the political championing of the guitar – seems so anachronistic in this midst of this bleak musical epoch that it doesn’t even feel like history, more like mythology; a relic from an alternative world where to act musically was, by its very nature, to act politically.
One of the most insidious things about this nu-folk – or ‘West London folk movement’, or whatever horrible name you want to call it – is not just the overt celebration of privilege, though that does stick in the throat; as this casual reminiscence of august school days from Mumford and Sons demonstrates:
“All four of us came from slightly different angles, musically,” Mumford said. “Ben and I played in a jazz band together. At the end of school, I got really into country music. Ted was playing a lot of blues. He’s a blues guitarist, really, by trade, but had also picked up a double bass. And Winston had been teaching himself the banjo and got really into some bluegrass music.”
An environment where one can just ‘pick up’ a double bass, or teach yourself banjo, or ‘get really into bluegrass’; there’s just a lack of self-awareness in the tone here; an inability to perceive how this might sound to someone for whom these things are not a given. Anyway – this is a different point. The most insidious thing about this ‘folk’ movement is the deliberate eschewing of the political. Not necessarily (capital P) Politics, but the politics of the everyday, the social commentary, the narrative of what is happening. Even when purportedly clinging to the imagined utopia of “the 60s”, it is only ever as a superficial aesthetical goldmine from which to glean ‘great harmonies’ and ‘coolness’ (see this video of ‘The Staves’ explaining their musical/familial heritage).
So in this arena – where tweed waistcoats, wellington boots, floral dresses and braces are worn (admittedly not all at once) with a sort of loving, cozy fondness; not so much ironically as hereditarily, like they have been passed down by parents with the record collection – the guitar seems like one more aesthetic borrowing; mined for its aesthetic, it’s surface skimmed – but not the surface upon which Woody wrote his maxim.
It’s this that brings about the charge that the guitar is irrelevant; that it has ‘died’ (and I guess it’s a cyclical one; I seem to vaguely remember a similar charge being leveled before Grunge and Brit Pop). The machine is rusty and no longer fit for purpose.
Well, I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s because I have too much personally invested in the guitar. Maybe too much of my personality is invested in it? But, as a machine, as a contemporary instrument and as a communication device, the guitar still has some life left in it, I think. Here are some reasons why.
1. Meaning in Memory
So, starting with what the guitar has done, rather than what it may yet do may seem to be playing into the hands of this nu-folk revival of the past. Actually a number of the perennial sources paid homage to by these musicians are sources that I too love. The Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash, Bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, those luscious three-part country harmonies. They all mean something to me too. And the guitar. That means a lot to me.
I started playing guitar when I was about 13. Actually I first started playing bass. That Christmas was a real sea change in my life; I found something that I loved, but something through which I could begin to work out who I was. I know it may sound hokey, but I really do think that a lot of who I am is inextricably bound up in the guitar. That’s not necessarily anything to do with the innate power of the machine itself, but simply because many of my most pertinent memories from high school centre around playing guitar. Being in a band, rehearsing with the volume too loud, playing Smashing Pumpkins songs badly, the first time I sang in front of someone (I had to, because playing the bass was seen as self-evidently easier than playing the guitar, so I had concentration to spare. Just for the record, the first song I sang was ‘All Around the World’ by Oasis, sat cross legged on the floor, a copy of ‘it’s easy to play oasis’ open in front of me), and was told that I was ‘alright’. The first time I ever played a self-written song to someone. Playing gigs at dubious pubs and social clubs in Consett and the surrounding environ, our first gig in Newcastle – the big city(!). These memories make me who I am, and they are all based around the guitar, the power of the guitar to bring people together – to form bands. I know that the notion of ‘being in a band’ has come in for a lot of stick recently – and rightly so. Nothing seems more superficial and egotistical than wanting to ‘be in a band’ when it coincides with the avaricious pursuit of ‘making it’, but in that naive fervour of teenage, having that secret club, writing songs, sharing in the enjoyment of making noise – the minute rebellion. It was, without hyperbole, life-changing. The guitar changed who I am.
But this isn’t just about dewy-eyed nostalgia. Memory and the past are keen mediators of the present. As Paul Connerton writes “present factors tend to influence… our recollections of the past, but also… past factors tend to influence, or distort, our experience of the present”. So though the nu-folk ‘movement’ (movement sounds too radical, maybe ‘conglomeration’ is more apt) seem to superficially mine an imagined (and non-personal) past – the myth of the 60s as ‘cool’ (and, tellingly, not ‘radical’ or ‘volatile’), a 60s located in Carnaby Street or a romanticised folk club, rather than the Paris riots – throwing remembrance out with the bath water is no remedy. The past still has significance for the present, and to me, the guitar is a significant part of my past, and thus still a powerful symbol for the future. I hope I am not alone in thinking this.
2. Outside Indie/ Folk Discourse
But all this talk of the nu-folk and indie circles and their misuse of the guitar is too narrow a vista. Certainly these scenes damage the guitar’s reputation as a relevant and radical tool of social commentary and means for social and cultural communication, but they are not the only musics/ musicians that utilise the machine. There are other contexts in which it still thrives and lives.
I have written here about Porno Para Ricardo – a Cuban punk band – and their use (and their destruction) of guitars. Theirs is a situation in which the electric guitar still maintains a frisson of action and relevance. This is not to suggest that it is so innately; that the ‘non-Western’ context – and the context of political oppression – automatically makes the act of picking up a guitar a political and potent act. It does not. Indeed, as I note elsewhere, their destruction of both Cuban and Soviet guitars as part of their (now forbidden) live shows was aimed partly to precisely address that point; that the friki movement within Cuba must use the symbols of rebellion to act, and actually say something rebellious. Hence lead singer Gorki Águila’s assertion that:
at the time I started the group, I saw that a lot of bands would play the song on stage and then the next song, and there was no contact, and on top of that they would sing in English – allegedly – and also guttural [impersonation of heavy metal voice] and so I saw that there was no communication with that music. So I said ‘if I want to listen to the music I like, I will have to create my own band’
here there is a lot of ‘mimetismo’ [copying] a lot of copying of the fashion, of MTV or of what they see, and then, therefore because your mind doesn’t see beyond that horizon, you expect institutions to give you everything, because it is a totalitarian regime. The government controls everything, and it likes to think that you have to do everything with it and that everything is politics. That is; many intellectuals here also defend that, even friends of mine – that everything is politics – you cannot escape politics and I think so, even it’s utopian – I want to believe so. That it is my raft of salvation within this sea of chaos – of so much ideology and so many lies and so much demagoguery.
Porno Para Ricardo represent one local example outside the paradigm of the British/ American culture industry where the guitar, when backed up by an overt political message, represents a tool that can both augment and popularise a political message. There must surely be more examples globally. And maybe even a few within the UK.
3. Who is Operating the Machine?
This is something we need to remember in castigating the guitar as moribund. It is just an instrument. It cannot do any of the work itself. It is, at its best, a magnifying glass for the message of the song – of the singer. Perhaps we shouldn’t disregard the guitar, but question the guitarist.
It is no secret that popular music (in its broadest definition) has not only removed itself from the political realm, but seems too to have refused its responsibility to make any kind of social commentary, preferring instead a return to the introspection of the individual monologue. This is particularly worrisome in the wake of a Tory government, the summer riots, questions of (‘big’) society and vast cuts to community organisations. But this would be the case whether the instrument used was the guitar, the synthesiser, the computer, or indeed, the banjo or double bass.
Primarily, I think it is lyrics that need the most addressing, because I think the guitar will always have a certain approachability – an understandability, if you like – to it that can only benefit any political/ social message. The guitar is a vehicle. But who is behind the wheel?
4. Another Tool for the Same Job?
So if the guitar has lost its prowess as a political machine, if it is incapable of doing the job, where might we find a new machine for the contemporary job of popular social commentary? Maybe this is part of the problem. Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the guitar – its approachability, its un-daunting appeal – that makes it such an enticing machine. With that come some of the dangerous trappings of posturing and pretension, but at its best it is a populist machine, a popular machine, and its connection to the ‘everyday’ – its position within the (short) history of popular music, from the catalogue-purchase guitars of the skiffle/ early rock n roll movements, to the battered bodies and broken strings of punk, needs to be remembered as more than just aesthetics to be mined and worked into a post-modern bricolage. However trite it may sound, these things meant something; the guitar meant something. Its use was deliberate. The guitar was deliberately ubiquitous, and gained much of its cultural significance precisely from that ubiquity.
So where can we go to find a new equivalent instrument? Where might one find a new machine of the masses? A lot of faith is placed in new technologies, their abilities to make any and all sounds, to play the ethereal, to emulate the real. The laptop has become an Aleph, in Jorge Luis Borges use of the word; a glimmering sphere within which the entire space of sound can be encapsulated and grasped. New musics – unimaginable and impossible even 15 years ago – are now makeable by ‘anyone’, and the tools to do so are encroaching upon the ubiquity of the guitar. Maybe the laptop is set to become the new musical instrument of the masses.
Or is it? Around the time that I got my first electric guitar (a second-hand Squire from the less-than-salubrious ‘Smokey Joe’s’ on Pilgrim Street, and a £10 practice amp from the now sadly defunct Spenders guitars), I remember hearing somewhere that for the first time ever ‘decks’ had outsold guitars as the instrument of choice. I remember wondering if I should ‘get some decks’ (I wasn’t really sure what decks were, or what I would do with them). I never did. Now the thought of decks as a replacement for the guitar seems daft. Will the laptop be any different?
I think part of the problem is that from certain positions within the UK (and even then it is only certain positions), it might be tempting to see the laptop as a ubiquitous technology. Perhaps it should be. Perhaps one day it will be. But not for a long time yet. I think the championing of such technologies (even technologies such as the internet) fails to recognise that they are much less commonplace (nationally, let alone globally) than we would like them to be. It is not only price that is prohibitively expensive in making these technologies a potential replacement for the guitar. It’s the extraneous paraphernalia – software, patches, midi controllers, speakers, etc, that hamper its immediacy. Is it conceivable that four teenagers could get together and form something like a ‘laptop band’? Of course it is, but would that band be more likely to come from precisely the sorts of privileged environs that the nu-folk musicians seem to come from?
There is another problem that I see as pervasive in the hampering of such technologies as a communal and commentating machine, and that is precisely their proclivity for fostering individualism and isolation. The ability to produce any and all sounds over an (almost) infinite number of layers makes the external input of others somewhat moot. Why have four laptops in a ‘band’ when one is quite capable of producing all the sounds you could ever need? The advent of the near-professional capabilities of the ‘home studio’ has massive benefits for many musicians who wish to operate ‘outside the system’; one can write, record, and release musical material to a global network using the same machine, and that has the potential to reinvent at least the position at which the cultural gatekeepers of the music industry stand (if not abolish them entirely); it has certainly already started to make the record executive look like a hopeless anachronism, and the ‘record deal’ an unnecessary dream.
However, technology is not the deus ex machina in the tangled plot of contemporary music making. At its worst, the home studio encourages further atomisation of musicians. Collaboration on tracks may still take place, but often it takes place over a geographical distance; tracks sent back and forth electronically rendering real-time communication unnecessary. Not so much an ethos of ‘Do it Yourself’, then, as a mentality of ‘Do it All Yourself’. Thus more and more information is fed into the abyss of the internet, and the more physically tactile aspects of music-making are foregone. Thus the realm of the guitar – and the potential communality, and, dare I say it, potentially grassroots-political act of band formation is reserved to those ‘aspirational’ enough to deem themselves able to ‘make it’.
The guitar has two almost paradoxical benefits over such technological advancements. Firstly, its immediacy. Not in learning how to play it (though for me, bleeding fingers aside, it does seem to be more intuitive a process than operating Protools or Cubase – maybe that’s just me) but in the ability to pick up and play. An acoustic guitar can be taken anywhere, played anywhere (this is not always a good thing, as myriad guitarists-in-the-park, and the particularly egregious busker-who-only-seems-to-play-songs-from-Californication-on-Northumberland-Street, will attest) and thus it has a portability that affords it a chance to accompany a sociable and communitarian movement (emphasis on the move). It can move around, bring its message, with little mediation, anywhere. Of course, such a discourse leans towards romanticism, and that old rock aesthetic of ‘raw’, unmediated authenticity, but there is something to be said for at least the ability to move to the periphery, to speak from any location, and to reflect upon something with a level of immediacy.
But secondly, the guitar alone is often not enough. Alright, there’s the trope of the singer-songwriter (but even Bob Dylan had The Band); the lone guitarist is a prominent figure on the cultural horizon, and not often positively. But in many cases, the guitar loves company; it needs company, allows it, demands it. Whether through some innate design, or through repeated social convention, the guitar just seems ‘right’ for pop music groups. It has a language to it that feels familiar (again, probably through rote cultural repetition) and that can afford a space for communication. I have played guitar with many people I would have had a hard time speaking to (not just because of a language barrier), and it was the guitar itself which helped facilitate the musical communication.
If the Guitar is Dead, Can it be Revived?
Revival. Its often a terrible word when used in the context of popular music. Either it ignored the still-living parts of the thing ostensibly revived, or else it attempts to revive all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons (hence reviving the sound of the sixties because it ‘sounds cool’; hence the nu-folk revival singularly omitting the always-continuing folk movement in local bars and clubs around the country from its narrative).
Can the guitar be revived, and if so, should we bother doing it?
The guitar can’t die. It’s not alive. It’s just a machine, and even the most powerful of machines needs to be switched on and operated. Maybe we need to look more closely at the role of pop music, critically reassess what we mean when we mourn (or celebrate) the demise of one of its most recognisable symbols.
What do we want pop music to do? What do we need? It needs to be a commentary on the everyday. More than a ‘soundtrack to our lives’ – a sort of benign, every-playing ipod on shuffle, ‘randomly’ (with all the hatful inanity that that word has come to stand for) blaring sound to distract us – music is “the grammar and fodder for our troubles, pleasures joy and pain”. It becomes an alternative narrative, a personalisable yet still communal narrative, one that is constantly referencing the past, but doing so in, and crucially for the purpose of making sense of, the present. Pop music is an attempt to say what society is collectively and oftentimes unconsciously thinking, to capture, if only for three-minutes, a zeitgeist.
This is what is missing from music. The machine through which it is played is largely irrelevant. We don’t need to abandon the guitar, we just need a new type of guitarist.
 ‘How Societies Remember’ (1989:2)
 Friki – a Hispanic rendering of the English word ‘freaky’ is used, in Cuba, to mean any member of a loose collection of broadly alternative rock genres.
 Tara Brabazon, ‘From Revolution to Revelation’ (2005:67)