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Holding Out for a Guitar Hero: The Uncertain Future of the Six-String

As rock fades from commercial relevance, will the guitar be able to endure at the center of popular music?

For the next week, SPIN will be venturing into the great unknown to attempt to answer some questions (or at least hazard some guesses) about the future of music. Join us as we look at what the world of music — the sound, the technology, the business models — may look like ten, 20, even 30 years down the road.

I played Guitar Hero Live for the first time as part of an advance preview, in a midtown Manhattan hotel. As a longtime fan of the franchise, I was looking forward to having more songs to play in the classic GH format, but assumed that any new developments would be mostly superficial. But as the reps for FreeStyle, the game’s developers, walked me through the game, I was surprised at how impressed I was with all of the game’s new attractions — the integration of real-life concert footage that makes users feel like they’re actually performing with the band as they’re playing; a Guitar Hero TV function that allows users to essentially flip interactive channels to find an almost limitless amount of new songs; even a revamped controller, restructured for easier play. It seemed, truly, like the rhythm video game of the future. Except for one detail: I was still holding a guitar in my hands.

Released this week, Guitar Hero Live is the first entry in the once enormously popular Guitar Hero franchise since 2010. The title is a bold foray back into the plastic-instrument genre that parent company Activision left for dead amidst dwindling sales at the decade’s beginning, and unlike the recent Rock Band 4 — which mostly attempts to relive old thrills for its old fans — Live attempts to expand its gameplay experience exponentially. But the game’s boldest gambit is probably its simplest: It’s returning to guitar-only. Where prior installations of the Guitar Hero franchise began to pile on additional instruments (plastic bass and drums, a microphone for vocals) to grow its reach and keep up with the immersive full-band experience of the rival Rock Band franchise, Guitar Hero Live removes all the further trappings to focus on its titular bread-and-butter.

It’s a risky move for the franchise. Not only have fans of the genre gotten used to the full-band setup — on my way to the demo, I was mostly looking forward to singing and drumming — but Live’s forward-thinking aspects stand in somewhat stark contrast to the increasingly retro-feeling guitar controller. Eliminating the other instruments means that to play this Guitar Hero, you have to really yearn to be a guitar hero. Was that something the video-game public still wanted in 2015?

“We did our research,” explains Jamie Jackson, creative director of FreeStyle games, the Activision subsidiary that developed Guitar Hero Live. “We looked at how people play. I’m not gonna lie, I was huge fan of the drums in Guitar Hero… but, you know, the reality is, not everybody [was]. Most people wanted to pick up the guitar and play.” Jackson goes on to explain how Live was refocused to capture the original rush that made the initial title such a runaway hit. “One of the important things about [the guitar] — it made you feel amazing. That was what Guitar Hero did in the first place. As soon as you put that guitar around your neck — for all the millions and millions of people that played it that weren’t guitarists — you know, you stood differently. That was our biggest drive.”

But the musical world is a different place in 2015 than it was in the mid-‘00s, when the first Guitar Hero emerged. Back then, guitar-based rock was still enormously popular in a number of different forms: Nu-metal bands like Linkin Park and Evanescence were going multi-platinum regularly, pop-punk and emo-leaning groups like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were dominating MTV, and even longtime indie favorites like Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie were scoring crossover hits and prime-time TV placements on The O.C. and Laguna Beach.

In 2015, old-school rock has hardly disappeared, but its mainstream impact has dulled. The only proper rock bands with top ten hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 this year are Walk the Moon and Maroon 5 — both of whom are more reliant on synths and high-budget production flourishes than roaring guitar riffs at this point in their careers — and Fall Out Boy, who along with their onetime protégés Panic! At the Disco, have successfully reinvented themselves more as rock/pop hybrid acts. In 2005, Green Day, the Killers, Coldplay, and My Chemical Romance all played the main show at MTV’s Video Music Awards, and Green Day took home Video of the Year for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” This year, the only rock acts who played the VMAs main show were Twenty-One Pilots (in a bizarre and overwrought collaboration with rapper A$AP Rocky) and the Flaming Lips (assisting pop star Miley Cyrus’ psychedelic reinvention), while the award for Best Rock Video was presented unceremoniously to Fall Out Boy in the pre-show. No rock videos were nominated for Video of the Year.

“In the early days of Guitar Hero, rock music was huge,” Jackson recalls. “But through that period [since], I feel what we’ve seen is a huge increase in hip-hop and rap music. It became huge. And you see so many collaborations of hip-hop artists with pop artists, and that music really took over… and at the same time, you started to see that early core of EDM, and that was massive.” Matt Shadows of arena-metal mainstays Avenged Sevenfold — one of the increasingly rare rock bands that has reliably topped the albums charts since their late-’00s peak, and one featured heavily in Guitar Hero Live — also acknowledges the shortage of shredding. “We’re kind of all witnessing a guitar decline right now, in terms of kids want to play music, but you don’t hear a lot of riff-based music anymore,” he says. “I know that during the era of Guitar Hero, there was a lot of people interested in solos and learning how to play their instrument and crafting cool songs like that. But, you know, generations change.”

For generations weaned on the supremacy of rock, it’s hard to imagine the possibility of a musical world in which the guitar is not featured front and center. But people may have once said the same about the accordion, one of the most popular instruments of the first half of the 20th century (the “golden age” of the instrument”) that was made all but obsolete by the rise of the guitar in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Even at a time when radio is ruled by pop and hip-hop, and the top touring attractions and festival headliners increasingly feature fist-pumping DJs and million-dollar light shows, it’s still difficult to picture the guitar following such a path. But it’s not impossible.

Michael Amkreutz, executive vice president of Guitar Center — which bills itself as “the world’s largest musical instruments retailer” — is unconcerned about the six-string continuing to thrive. “Yes, I actually believe that it will, and that it does [currently]. The guitar history is massive, it’s a very rich body of work. There is so much music out there that is written on the guitar, written for the guitar, played on the guitar. It is pretty indomitable at this point. It also is still the most popular instrument in the world.” Howie Statland, owner of Rivington Guitars (“NYC’s Best Little Guitar Store!”) agrees: “I think the guitar is such an ingrained part of American culture it will be a staple for a long, long time.”

Over 60 years into rock’n’roll’s history, though, some believe the instrument has stagnated. Yonatan Gat, a psychedelic improvisational artist and six-string (and 12-string) innovator voted by Village Voice as the Best Guitarist of 2013, is surprisingly unsentimental on the subject. When asked if he believes guitar-based rock will still be popular in ten years, he answers, “It probably will, but will it be interesting at all? I feel rock’n’roll is in an unusual place right now — it’s still very popular, but it’s almost like retro music at this point. I don’t care much about rock’n’roll or the guitar.” For his part, Shadows can’t name a guitarist that’s done something totally new with the instrument since the ‘90s. “I think there are really good guitar players out there, but the last guitarist who really got me excited was Dimebag [Darrell, late guitarist for Pantera].”

Those who are still trying to do something new with the guitar are being forced to think outside the realm of traditional rock’n’roll. Asked about which guitarists are exciting him now, acclaimed contemporary virtuoso Kurt Vile cites former collaborator Steve Gunn, who combines the fingerpicking stylings of Scottish folk legend Bert Jansch “with an American ballsiness.” Gat mentions a takamba singer/songwriter from Niger named Mdou Moctar, who he says “plays with the charisma of someone like Hendrix, but sounds like a combination of punk and Arabic and African music.” “Everyone’s trying to make their guitars sound like synths, while Eno and Fripp already did it so well 40 years ago,” laments Gat. “I’m more excited to hear guitarists who actually play the instrument in a way that’s relevant for right now. I feel like sound manipulation is the obvious direction. Running it through pedals for example. But these pedals are toys, they are not the point. It’s about what you do with the instrument.”

The technical possibilities of what guitarists can do with the instrument are also changing. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, manifesto-scribing frontman for the controversial metal band Liturgy, is one guitarist expanding those parameters, using his instrument more to activate music than to conventionally produce it. “Right now I use a MIDI guitar controller, so I can play live electric guitar through an amp and at the same time trigger chords and notes on virtual instruments through Ableton Live,” the 30-year-old explains, referring to the music-sequencing software that’s traditionally been the province of electronic DJs looking to mix and beatmatch their sets. Through this process, Hunt-Hendrix can recreate the orchestrations of Liturgy’s expansively disorienting sophomore album The Ark Work live on stage, with his guitar serving as conductor.

Like so many innovations in guitar history — Tony Iommi developing Black Sabbath’s downtuned sound partly as a result of a factory injury that made it difficult for his fingers to press and bend tighter strings, for instance — Hunt-Hendrix’s new style was borne largely out of necessity. “I arrived at it simply because the new record had lots of extended production on it and I wanted to be able to recreate it without bringing another person into the fold — not [because of] a particular sense of urgency about pushing guitar forward,” he explains. Nevertheless, he sees the core idea of what he’s now doing as being a potential path to the instrument’s future, ten years down the road. “I definitely think that by then the virtual and physical will be integrated enough that there won’t be a meaningful distinction between electronic and otherwise,” he says. “I do think MIDI guitar controllers are a way of bridging the gap.”

To a certain extent, this idea is ably demonstrated by Guitar Hero Live itself, since despite the franchise stripping back to its titular instrument, not all of the songs users play will be guitar-based. “Guitar Hero at its core is a music rhythm game,” Jackson explains. “If you just take away the fact that you’re controlling the guitar and just imagine the controller with buttons that you hit, you can actually mark up any song and make it fun.” The most obvious example of this that Jackson mentions is actually a musician that SPIN once named one of the greatest guitarists of all-time, despite not being known for any traditional Fender expertise: dubstep maestro Skrillex, whose “Bangarang” is playable in Live. “We’ve put Skrillex in the game, and everyone’s always like, ‘This is who?’ And it’s like, ‘Seriously, just play it. Just play it.’”

With Guitar Hero Live crossing the Rubicon with non-guitar-based music, it’s increasingly easy to picture a future for the game where rock is just one of the many genres on which players will be able to unleash their faux-shredding. “We want guitar to remain in the game,” says Jackson. “But if Drake drops a song, or Jay Z drops a song that’s got some sort of beat to it, or something that may be sung, and we can go through it and we can note-track it and make that fun but still connected to the music, and you can feel connected… then we’ll do it.” Rather than view the decentralization of rock as a compromise of the game’s central ethos, Jackson says that he’s interested in seeing what kind of new challenges the game could provide users outside of the conventional fret-racing. “I wouldn’t be surprised if our ‘Fire and Flames’” — referring to the popular Dragonforce power-metal song that was a benchmark test of gamer skill in the franchise’s earlier days — “is actually something completely different.”

Hunt-Hendrix sums up the convergence between the video game series’ expansion beyond guitar and Liturgy’s own trigger-axe methodology with one thought-provoking prediction: “I think there won’t be much of a difference between Guitar Hero and playing in a band in 2025.”

In the meantime, if the major guitar retailers of the U.S. remain unconcerned about the downturn in guitar-based rock, it might be because the instrument is doing just fine without such heroics. Michael Doyle, Senior Vice President at Guitar Center, reports that even though sales of electric guitars have been relatively slow to bounce back from the nationwide economic crash that caused an across-the-board numbers decline in 2008, sales of acoustic guitars, and of acoustic-electrics, have fared much better. “As it applies to the guitar generally, we had to shift from electric instruments being more dominant to acoustic instruments being more dominant,” Doyle says.

Of course, it also sways the balances when music’s biggest star is largely known for playing the acoustic. Taylor Swift may have backed away from the guitar a little with her retro synth-pop rebranding on last year’s 1989 — she still brings it out at live dates — but her effect on young people picking up the instrument has been unignorable. “There’s definitely some corollary truth to the growth in the acoustics and its relation to younger demographics, and our growth in electrics to an older demographic,” says Amkreutz. “Some of that probably ties to where the top 40 types of music is coming from: definitely the Taylor Swifts and John Mayers of the world, versus maybe some of the old rock legends.” You can throw Swift’s similarly unplugged duet partner Ed Sheeran in there, too: Between him and Taylor, two of the three best-selling artists of 2015 are spreading the gospel of the acoustic to the youth of America on a nightly basis.

Amkreutz isn’t giving up hope of the electric reaching a similar level of dominance again. “We are constantly working within the artist community to discover whomever is the latest Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “A change like that, where you could see hyper-growth or hyper-acceleration of a certain instrument category very often can be driven by a couple of great songs in a new artist. I think Taylor Swift proved that.” And Doyle is quick to point out that while electric sales have had a slower rebound for Guitar Center, he still considers the instrument to be an “extraordinarily popular” one. “It isn’t as prevalent as it was in — I don’t know — the hair-band era,” he says, laughing at his own archaic terminology. “I just don’t want you to think [we’re saying] ‘Woe is me’ or anything like that. It’s a massive business, very, very important.”

And to an extent, it might be up to Guitar Hero to do its part to revive interest in the ideal it represents, as it first did a decade ago. Jackson recounts articles he and the Freestyle team read while preparing Live about how companies like Guitar Center and Best Buy experienced a spike in guitar sales after the series initially launched. “You know, in the series’ heyday they actually saw a lot of people kind of drive on to learn guitar for real,” he says. “It certainly had an impact.” Could the new title recreate that influence? “I am absolutely keeping my thumbs and fingers crossed,” answers Amkreutz. “A lot of the songs that are available for gamers or players to interact with are a lot of the classics which have a heavy penetration of electric guitar. To predict whether or not we’ll have a sales boost might be a little bit speculative on my part, but it certainly has the opportunity to do that.”

If not, Gat believes it might be good for the instrument’s long-term health to be divorced from its most familiar genre. “Instruments have a life of their own,” he says. “The first violins were used in Central Asia deserts by horse-riding Mongols, but are now seen as the epitome of suit-and-tie Western classical music. How an instrument is used is always going to be unpredictable. I imagine the electric guitar can be used in many cool ways in the future, I think it’s a mistake to shackle the instrument to the style of music. You never know what’s gonna happen with either, and one might keep the other behind.”

Regardless of its usage, Jackson believes that the guitar’s status as a permanent fixture of popular music is secure. “It’s the thing that people pick up and start making a sound [with]. If you look at how so much music starts, it probably starts as somebody picking up an acoustic guitar and just putting down a rhythm.”

He goes on to tell a story that will give hope to anyone worried about the next generation of guitar savants: “This weekend, I had my nephew up [at my house] and he’s three, and we’ve got Guitar Hero Live at home at the moment. I was showing it to him and he was playing away, and then the next minute he found my ukulele in the corner of the room and he comes over and he’s like, ‘Uncle Jamie, teach me how to play.’ And within the space of an hour, he suddenly discovered what a guitar is, and now he’s trying to smash my ukulele at the door.”