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Why Does The Electric Guitar Need A Hero?


This weekend, we asked you to hit us up on Twitter and let us know your favorite road trip songs. We'll get to those in a few minutes. But first, we want to bring you a couple of stories about some new trends in music. For decades, one of the more defining sounds of American music has been the electric guitar.


MARTIN: The legends who played them, from Chuck Berry to Eric Clapton, inspired generations of would-be rockers. But now, electric guitar sales are down. And guitar heroes these days are harder to find. NPR's Denise Guerra has this report.

DENISE GUERRA, BYLINE: For over a year, Geoff Edgers, arts reporter for The Washington Post, couldn't shake a statistic out of his head.

GEOFF EDGERS: About 10 years ago, there were about a million and a half electric guitars sold a year. And last year, it was down to about a little over a million. So, you know, 500,000 fewer new guitars being sold, that struck me as dramatic.

GUERRA: That fact inspired him to spend a better part of a year to find out, what's happened to the electric guitar? He's talked to the big players in the industry, from the guitar makers - Gibson and Fender - to some guitar-playing legends, sellers and even spent time at the "School of Rock." He's found several reasons for the decline - over-production and new technology that can make a guitar sound without a guitar. But the biggest factor, Edgers says, is the lack of a modern day guitar hero.


EDGERS: What I found is a dramatic shift in the sort of role that the electric guitar plays in popular culture, not only in sales but just in, like, life.

GUERRA: Everyone's definition of a guitar hero is different but only one really matters for retailers. Do they have the power to get people to go out and buy a guitar?


GUERRA: This is Jennifer Batten. She played lead guitar for Michael Jackson's world tours in the '80s and '90s. She says the guitar hero of that era was Eddie Van Halen.


JENNIFER BATTEN: He was the most innovative, had the most unique sound. He was the first one to have a really wacky paint job on his guitar and having one-piece overalls that were red and black and white. It was just so in your face and special.

GUERRA: The electric guitar was the coolest accessory any kid could have, and Van Halen wasn't without company. There was Jimi Hendrix...


GUERRA: ...Stevie Ray Vaughan...


GUERRA: ...Santana.


GUERRA: Nearly all guitar heroes of that era were men.


GUERRA: Jennifer Batten's own guitar hero was a dude - Jeff Beck. He inspired her so much, she enrolled in the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles.

BATTEN: I didn't realize till the class began that I was the only woman in the whole school. At that time, there was 60 students total - 59 guys and me.

GUERRA: That appears to be changing. Women could be the new hope for the electric guitar. That's according to Luis Peraza of Atomic Guitar in Maryland. He's been selling new and used guitars for 24 years. And about five years ago, he started noticing a trend.

LUIS PERAZA: There's a lot of young women playing guitar and a lot of parents that like taking their kids to, like, these rock schools and camps.

GUERRA: Down the aisle, I found Anna Lachtichinina and Nick Duque testing out some models. Both are in their early 20s. I asked them if they can name any guitar players today with Van Halen-like status.

ANNA LACHTICHININA: There's not really, like, prominent ones. You know what I mean?

NICK DUQUE: Super famous right now? I mean, I - oh, God. That's a really hard question.

GUERRA: Geoff Edgers, The Washington Post reporter, says this sort of response really scares the guitar industry.

EDGERS: You know, the electric guitar is not going to go away completely, but you have to ask where it's going to bottom out.

GUERRA: And that's why the industry is desperate for a hero. Denise Guerra, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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