It’s been a really difficult decade for the electric guitar. It’s been declared dead multiple times as rock has fallen almost completely from mainstream radio and pop has edged closer and closer towards hip-hop and dance. Even consumption of the electric guitar have declined with sales dropping from 1.5 million annually to just over a million, leaving the giants like Fender and Gibson in debt (via The Washington Post). Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, one of the biggest champions of guitar music in the last two decades, reckons that rock is manifesting itself in other ways through artists with a “punk” attitude like Billie Eilish and Lil Pump but neither are heavy on the guitar.
Against all odds though, guitars are making their way back into pop and diversifying the genre as we see dance and electronic music loosen its grip. While the charts may tell a different story right now, dominated by hip/hop and dance/pop, there are signs we’re in the midst of a guitar revival.
The Last Time Guitars Were In Vogue
In 2008, Katy Perry broke through with Kissed A Girl featuring a guitar howling through the chorus. That same year Kings Of Leon clocked their biggest hit ever with Sex On Fire, P!NK threw a middle finger with the guitar-driven So What! and Miley Cyrus broke away from Hannah Montana with See You Again featuring a rock-ready chorus.
We largely have Max Martin to blame for that. He made the electric guitar-driven, power chorus the pop blueprint for almost a decade. Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone kicked it all off and was followed by The Veronicas’ 4 Ever, Avril Lavigne’s The Best Damn Thing and almost the entirety of P!NK’s Funhouse record. In 2010, he stripped guitars from Katy Perry’s huge Teenage Dream record, kickstarted Kesha’s career with an EDM aesthetic and later convinced Taylor Swift to put down the guitar, shifting her from country to pop.
The good news is, pop/rock is not back. We’re unlikely to hear a chorus like Since U Been Gone anytime soon but it’s finding its way into the genre in other ways.
The Guitars Have Already Begun Their Uprising
Last year, the highest selling single in Australia was 5 Seconds Of Summer’s Youngblood, a song that effortlessly blended pop and rock, stitching dance-inspired beats with an arena-ready chorus. Still, it was an anomaly. There was not one other song in the top 20 highest selling singles that prominently featured an electric guitar, although acoustic guitars were incredibly popular.
Since Youngblood, there have been a few changes in the charts in favour of the guitar. Last year, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper dropped their globe-conquering song Shallow from A Star Is Born which sounds unlike anything else on the radio. Interestingly, Gaga tried to bring the guitars back on Joanne but it didn’t quite work out. The only hit from that record was Million Reasons which was predominantly an acoustic affair. Given Shallow‘s success, it looks like she may have been a few years early.
As EDM and electronic music’s prominence fade in the mainstream, producers are continuing to flirt with organic instrumentation. The most unlikely name doing that right now is dance enigma Marshmello. 2017’s Wolves with Selena Gomez kicked it off and he followed it up with Bastille on last year’s Happier. Now he’s tapped into early ’00s Avril Lavigne territory with CHVRCHES on Here With Me.
It all seems to have rolled out the perfect red carpet for ’00s pop/rock purveyors the Jonas Brothers. They have returned with a global number one Sucker. It’s groovy, goofy and most importantly features two of the brothers wielding a guitar.
We wouldn’t wish this on anyone but we also predict that Post Malone will move further and further into guitar music. While his biggest hits are all hip-hop-influenced, Better Now and I Fall Apart plus a team-up with Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Grammys this year suggest he’s ready to move further into rap/rock. Revived early on by Lil Peep and Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD is leading the charge right now with the first few seconds of current single Fast sounding like it could be a Killers song.
RnB/pop is also leaning into guitar too. Frank Ocean played guitar for the majority of 2016’s Blonde but it’s only just making a dent on the genre now from a commercial perspective. H.E.R. performed her Grammys performance of Hard Part with a guitar slung around her. It was a powerful image and one that helped it to become one of the most talked about performances of the night. Khalid’s freshly released Free Spirit also features guitars heavily on a number of songs including runaway favourite Outta My Head which features John Mayer. Almost every song on the record interpolates guitars in some way.
We Finally Have Big Bands On Top Again
When you look at festivals right now, most of the bands occupying the top spots are veterans. There’s Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys, Muse and The Killers, to name a few doing the rounds recently. Very few ‘rock’ bands have been able to breakthrough since guitar music took a backseat with even Coldplay looking to EDM for inspiration at one point. That’s changing now thanks to two bands rising to the top – Tame Impala and The 1975.
Tame Impala’s fuzzy, hypnotic guitars have grabbed the attention of everyone from Mark Ronson to Travis Scott. Frontman Kevin Parker has become a sought-after producer in the past two years, particularly in the hip-hop world, working for Kanye West, Scott and A$AP Rocky in the past 12 months. Tame Impala will return to the stage as the headliners of Coachella this weekend, bringing their pop-infused, psychedelia to the masses.
The 1975, meanwhile, finally nabbed a critical darling with their most guitar-driven project yet A Brief Inquiry Into Online Comments. They’re playing arenas right now, sharing the dizzying guitars of Give Yourself A Try and the groove-injected guitars of It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You). The hysteria surrounding them suggests they seem like the pop band most likely to deliver mainstream hits and takeover on a Kings Of Leon scale.
We could also mention Greta Van Fleet right here but we’re trying to stay positive about this guitar revival.
The New Crop Love To Shred
While plenty of the current mainstream guitar preachers are looking to grunge or emo for inspiration, there’s a new crop of upcoming popstars looking to ’90s fuzz and dream pop for inspo. Charli XCX has put together a girl group that’s putting guitars at the forefront of their music. Their excellent debut single Win recalls everything from Garbage to Hole. It’s hard to imagine anything that sounds like Hole topping the charts these days but it did two decades ago and it could again.
Brooklyn band Charly Bliss are channelling a similar era with their lo-fi yet richly melodic new music. They’re set to release a new album Young Enough in May and the singles from it so far show are dripping in fuzzy, all-encompassing guitars. It’s Veruca Salt with a pinch of Sixpence None The Richer and it’s sweet enough to find legs on radio.
Thanks, in part, to triple j‘s undying support of it, guitar music has never really died in Australia but now it’s finding its way into pop. Most of Australia’s best pop-makers right now are making it with guitars.
Alex Lahey is making that sort of sharp pop/rock that we’ve been missing since Natalie Imbruglia’s early days and her new singles Am I Doing It Right? and Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself have doubled down on that style.
Hatchie came out with a glorious pop moment last week Stay With me which effortlessly blends retro synths and guitars. It’s part of a debut album coming out in June that is shaping up to be one of the key Australian releases of the year. She cites everyone from Mazzy Star to Natalie Imbruglia as her influences, something we’re going to see a lot as more and more ’90s kids rise to prominence.
Last year, Jack River made similar magic with guitars and synths of her ’90s-leaning debut Sugar Mountain. These artists are all part of a very promising DIY pop scene in Australia that’s going global at the moment.
What Should We Expect From Here On In
On the R&B/pop side of things, Khalid’s unwavering popularity will make him a big inspiration. It’s laid-back and mixes the organic with the synthetic, taking us back to ’90s RnB songs like Lauryn Hill’s Ex Factor. On the rap side, there’s no stopping the move further towards emo and punk. After all, rap stars are the new rockstars.
It’s unlikely that there’s going to be a shift towards the pop/rock of the mid-’00s as the guitars will be slicker and groovier without being used for roof-shattering choruses. Portugal The Man’s Feel It Still is likely to be a blueprint for many over the next year, particularly off the back of Jonas Brothers’ Sucker.
If we’re bringing an era back into pop, it’s the late ’90s. It’s likely that Charli XCX is onto something with Nasty Cherry and there is going to be plenty of grungy, fuzzy pop doing the rounds in the underground and potentially even popping it’s head into the mainstream. Nasty Cherry’s Win has enough bite to grab radio play and if it does their influence could dirty up the charts.
We understand this all sounds very scary but let it happen. The next No Doubt may be just around the corner.