The Covid crush has done the guitar industry some good. As I’ve written before, manufacturers and retailers have reported strong 6-string sales. And like other builders, I sold everything I could make. So beyond the hoarding factor, that means there’s a new generation of players bubbling up that should make their way onto the recording and performance scene before too long. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there are hordes of rock clones blasting AC/DC and Zeppelin-style riffs in suburban garages.
The guitar – acoustic or electric – is once again a true ensemble instrument, and evidence of this is easy to find among the sheet music for 2021 releases.
What I see outside of blues, bro-country and Americana circles is the guitar being used orchestrally. The guitar – acoustic or electric – is once again a true ensemble instrument, and evidence of this is easy to find among the sheet music for 2021 releases.
In African music, the guitar continues to be a driving force as a rhythmic and monotonous component in the tradition of Ali Farka Touré. The current incarnation, in electric form, is exemplified in Mdou Moctar’s ‘Afrique Victime’, where piercing Stratocaster figures punctuate and drive the music. The upbeat crackle of the title track’s single-coil spanking dances in a joyful way that belies the somber message of the lyrics. It’s a sound that has made its way into more than a few genres, including reggae and hip-hop.
Mdou Moctar – “Africa Victim” (Edit) (Official clip)
An album that ends up in the lists of the best of the year is Sour by Olivia Rodrigo. This Disney star turned teenage misanthrope has garnered a lot of attention. Her single “Brutal” reached No. 1 on BillboardThe Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart-topper with distorted guitar riffs and an agonizing storyline. Unlike most pop offerings, the song’s intro begins with a distorted power chord riff reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.” The resulting sweet and sarcastic combination gave the song a kind of anti-Taylor Swift status. The official video is like Sukeban’s riveting version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” where the cheerleaders are the band. Loved it but view at your own risk.
Olivia Rodrigo – brutal (official video)
Fans of edgy riffs and funky beats might want to check out Black Midi’s second studio album, Cavalcade. They’ve been compared to off-center bands like Primus, but they’re able to weave dreamscapes as ethereal as Mazzy Star. Despite their math-rock leanings, the band is able to compose genres that highlight textured guitars in an almost jazzy way. Geordie Greep’s flexible fretwork is an example of the 6-string being used as a capable component as much as a solo instrument, never completely stealing the show.
black midi – Full Performance (Live on KEXP at home)
In a more familiar format, vocalist/guitarist Tamara Lindeman fronts Canadian folk band The Weather Station, whose long-established instrumentation of guitars, bass and drums take up the guitar’s traditional role as rhythmic and solo voice. There’s no doubt that the spotlight is firmly on Lindeman, who handles rhythm guitar duties on a vintage-style Kay hollowbody, but there’s plenty of interaction with (ex-Constantines) guitarist Will Kidman. The band’s 2021 album, Ignoring, made numerous best-of lists with its airy, folksy sound. It is clear that this format is not going away anytime soon.
The Weather Station – Robber (Official Video)
Another artist whose use of the guitar exemplifies the instrument as an important puzzle piece is Julien Baker, whose Small omissions came out last year. Most often seen with a black-guard Telecaster, Baker handles both electric and acoustic guitar duties on this self-produced album. Although I wouldn’t describe her as a shredder, the guitar plays an important role (alongside the keyboards) in her music. Again, I think this is precisely the kind of format that keeps the guitar relevant as an ingredient in popular music.
Julien Baker – “Hardline” (official music video)
Continuing in a dystopian theme, “Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism” by the Illuminati Hotties, taken from the album let me make one more, flutters like a seductive butterfly and stings like a bulldozer. Underpinned by heavy chords and a dirge-like tempo, singer/songwriter/producer/engineer Sarah Tudzin lays out her vision of the American dream gone mad with a catchy melodic line and dark humor. Raised on Green Day and other pop-punk, it’s clear that Tudzin considers guitar and bass to be essential to her music.
illuminati hotties – Threatening the Other Re: Capitalism (Lyric Video)
Although I was disappointed in the lack of some of the best guitar bands of the year, I found interesting and dynamic new music that uses the guitar as a sonic chameleon, which is one of the things which I like the most in his abilities. I always remember that music is really about the song, not the guitarist. If you’re not convinced, there’s always Americana, because even the worst country songs still have incredible guitar playing.