In each of his hands, Axe Music salesman Scott McCarthy holds guitars.
Grasped with his right hand is an American-made Fender ’52 Butterscotch Blonde, a $2,700 masterpiece often seen in the hands of Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards. With his left, McCarthy holds a Chinese-made Fender Squier Classic Vibe, ringing in at one-fifth of the price for $539.
“The Squier actually stacks up remarkably well to the Butterscotch,” McCarthy insists. “You can buy a Kia or a Ferrari, both of them will get you to work, but one of them will do it in some serious style.”
Guitar consumers have never been so spoiled. The over-saturated entry-level market for such an instrument dips below $200. By the $500 range, customers are buying instruments comparable to the ones being plugged into Rogers Place amplifiers by the night’s latest headliner.
“Its a healthy fight for the consumer,” McCarthy said. “Manufacturers are duking it out and increasing the quality of their instruments to win a bigger part of the market share.”
The problem, however, is local music stores are selling fewer guitars to fewer customers.
Rick Shermack, Axe Music’s general manager, lists the struggling economy and intensified competition for disposable income as reasons for a decline in guitar sales.
“Music stores that sit back are not going to make it, we have to find ways to reinvent ourselves,” he said.
The Times They Are A Changin’
Edmonton’s music stores are dealing with a major transformation in customer dynamics when it comes to selling guitars.
“The day of the guitar hero and the mid-’70s, seven-minute guitar solo — nobody really goes for that anymore,” McCarthy said.
For the second half of the 20th century, society celebrated the culture of the guitar-playing virtuosos and their sound as the source for popular music.
“That era was seminal in putting us where we are today, but they have had their day,” McCarthy said. “What we’re seeing (now) is people who are looking at the guitar as nothing more than a tool, plugging it into technology they have on their phone, laptops and tablets.”
The vast majority of today’s popular hits, including Canadian pop icon Justin Bieber’s current hit Despacito, have abandoned the sound of a strumming guitar.
“It used to be that you just needed a Les Paul and you could play everything on the radio,” said Tyler Stang, who owns a guitar shop on 76th Avenue. “But now, there are very few guitars plugged straight into the amplifier because people like to replicate pop music.”
Pedal to the metal
Instead of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on instruments in a tight economy, Stang said customers prefer to invest $200 or less into guitar pedals that distort, loop and manipulate sounds originating from their guitar.
“Pedals have exploded. The amount of brands you have to carry — it seems like there are 10 times the amount of pedal companies than when I first started in 2005,” Stang said.
Pedal effects have become the colours of paint that define a musician’s art and demonstrate their capabilities, with guitars more often being used like the paintbrush.
“There are infinite sounds and companies have really expanded their capabilities,” Stang said of the pedals. “It’s the next frontier, those sounds are what keep people inspired and interested.”
While interest in electric guitars might be shrinking, McCarthy does not believe the future of musicians is in trouble.
“As long as girls are still in love with musicians, they will continue to make noise,“ he joked.
“People are choosing to play keyboards, make weird sound effects and master audio generators for looping instead of choosing between guitar, bass and drums.”