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Alternative Rock’s Relationship with the Guitar: A Little Shaky, If We’re Honest

In the early 80s, the prediction was that the guitar was dead. Synthesizers and all their related machinery was the future! And for a couple of years, things looked pretty dire for fans of guitar-based music as the world became awash in synths, sequencers and drum machines.

This was especially apparent in the alt-rock world. That scene was ruled by groups like Duran Duran, the Human League, Howard Jones, Eurythmics, and a million other acts that eschewed guitars and amps for MIDI-connected keyboards. There were a few outliers–U2, The Smiths, REM–but technopop was where alt was at.

That didn’t last, of course. Some synth rock got so hard and aggressive (NIN, Ministry, Front 242) that it became almost indistinguishable from guitar rock. Then came the rise of American indie rock (Pixies and their followers), followed by grunge in the North America, Manchester then Britpop in the UK. Guitars were back.

Synths and electronic music never went away, of course. Some of it mutated into techno and other forms of dance music while synths ingratiated themselves into pop and a few other genres. Electronics and guitars co-existed. Meanwhile, rap and hip-hop asserted its power relying heavily on samples and compositions within ProTools.

Then came the late 00’s. Alt-rock began to soften, slow down and move away from fuzzy guitars. Banjos, acoustic guitars, electronic keyboards and new devices like Ableton live began to take over. Guitar sales plummeted. New musicians, brought up on smartphones and iPads, seemed to be more interested in creating music with easy-to-use touch interfaces instead of spending hours in a bedroom learning to play the guitar. Lyrics became more introspective, more contemplative, and, well, whiney, moaning about being stressed out and how much easier things were when everyone was young. All the rage that had driven alt-rock from the late 80s to the middle 00s had been drained away.

Some of that anger has bounced back since the election of Donald Trump–you can’t have rock’n’roll anger and rebellion without loud guitars–but alt-rock has yet to return to the 90s when every amp was turned up to 11.

Billboard takes it from there:

For all the earworm bass thump and outsider nihilism, Portugal. The Man’s surprise hit has followed one festering industry trend: alternative rock’s splinter from its signature instrument. The “Feel It Still” hook is all bass in the table-setting opening verse, punctuated later by brassy horn toots. Guitar is barely audible, save for spidery little solos that connect one part of the chorus into the other. It’s a complete role reversal for the instrument’s traditional place in a rock song.

This is hardly an isolated incident. An exhaustive analysis of what’s dominated the Alternative Songs chart since its 1988 inception reveals a striking dip in electric guitar-driven songs across this decade. As Billboard‘s weekly account of American alternative stations, the chart has reflected numerous trends — from ’80s college rock to sugary late-‘90s post-grunge to early ‘00s nü-metal — but remained tethered to the electric guitar through its first two decades. Fifteen and even ten years ago — in 2002 and 2007’s year-end tallies, respectively — 38 of 40 tracks featured prominent electric guitar.

But five years ago, 2012’s year-end charts had that number down to 27, with Gotyeand Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and fun. and Janelle Monáe’s “We Are Young” claiming the top two spots. That same year, Muse began a record-setting 19-week run atop the chart, with what was essentially an electro-R&B song performed by a rock band. In this week’s tally, it’s down to 19 out of 40. Imagine Dragons’ pounding synthscapes and the Lumineers’ twee acoustic strumming currently define the format more than anything akin to a band Dave Grohl’s ever played in.

“What resonates with our listeners is just a well-crafted song with good lyrics,” says Jeff Regan, program director for SiriusXM’s tastemaking Alt Nation channel. “What’s behind it — whether it’s guitar, a pre-programmed EDM beat or a pop alt-y beat — is kind of secondary.”

Keep reading.

I’d postulate something a little different. Before grunge came along, alt-rock featured a multitude of textures, moods and sounds. Looking back at, say, 1987, an alt-rock station would sweep through everything from U2 to Depeche Mode to the Love and Rockets to Simply Red to 10,000 Maniacs to the Smiths all in the same hour. It was grunge and the Lollapalooza generation that turned alt-rock into a world filled drop-D lovin’ guitar bands. Today’s sound–balancing Queens of the Stone Age and the Foo Fighters and Death from Above with Sir Sly, Alice Merton and Lorde–is reminiscent of alt-rock radio c.1978-1990, the era before it was standardardized and corportized. You might say that after twenty-five years, alt-rock radio is back to the sonic equilibrium of its birth.

I’d love your comments on this, too.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38536 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “Alternative Rock’s Relationship with the Guitar: A Little Shaky, If We’re Honest

  • Do a better job at programming? People are eclectic, programming can be too.

  • I’m noticing the newer bands using a lot of different types of guitars than what you used to see back in the old rock days. Guitars that used to be just collector’s items, like Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars are now commonly seen. Fender Mustangs and Danelectros, and a whole lot of big hollow-bodied guitars that we didn’t use much back in the loud classic rock days, because they often fed back. It’s always changing, just like fashion.

    • Whenever I think of big hollow-bodied guitars I think of Billy Duffy and his Gretsches


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