It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the musicians with the most nonconservative reputation are really a little fuddy duddy when it comes to their purchase choices. Other pastimes, like Hockey, Tennis and Golf continue to embrace new tools, new materials and performance enhancing equipment, whereas the world of the guitarist remains startlingly the same. It’s almost like time has stopped with guitarists.
The kid walking into the store may have a blue mohawk, a nose ring, tattoos, and a burning desire to rebel against “all the hypocritical conventions of our decaying society.” But, when it comes to buying his guitar, chances are he’ll come down on the side of the convention, play it safe, and pick one of the forty-plus-year-old designs that represent the mainstay of the guitar business. As popular musicians in every genre strive to lead the cutting edge, it’s more than a little ironic that they all seem to rely on guitars that predate the Lawrence Welk show. So much for the power of tradition.
As the accompanying chart illustrates, approximately 67% of new guitar sales are generated by three basic model types, the newest of which made its debut in 1955: the height of the accordion boom. In broad strokes, the three major guitar varieties, which are now produced by scores of manufacturers include: the dreadnought acoustic, first produced by Martin Guitar in 1916; the Les Paul type electric, characterized by two humbucking pickups and a set neck, and first introduced by Gibson in 1952; and the Strat type, which features a bolt-on neck and three single-coil pickups, first introduced by Fender in 1954.
The success of the these three mainstays has nothing to do with a lack of alternatives. Despite the market’s affinity for the tried and true, creative luthiers and designers continue to offer unique new instruments. Some gain visibility and commercial acceptance, like the completely original Steinberger headless bass. Unfortunately though, most are passed over by retailers and musicians alike. All of which calls to mind Winston Churchill’s observation about one of his political opponents. “He offers sound and original ideas. Unfortunately, the sound ideas aren’t original and the original ideas aren’t sound.”
The shockingly high failure rate of genuinely new guitar designs has done little to deter luthiers. On the following pages, we present a gallery of some of the more novel “sound and original” ideas that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and end with a rhethorical question: why is it that guitarists are so remarkably averse to change?