Always say yes to an invitation to make the world a better place
At the NAMM show I received a fun email from Hal Leonard’s Brad Smith with a request to participate in a breakfast panel for Guitar Accessory Manufacturers Association (GAMA).
The agenda was to address ways to increase and stimulate interest in guitars and guitar education around the country. I immediately responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” because I am a huge fan of collective thinking.
We started with a diverse panel
The panel consisted of Mike Molenda of Guitar Player Magazine, Laura B. Whitmore of Mad Sun Marketing, Squiggy DiGiacomo of The Music Experience, and myself. The moderator fired off questions for an hour, and we all weighed in with what each of us believed to be our best answers.
Everyone absolutely agreed on one thing
The industry has changed drastically and we are well served to admit honestly that it is an extremely more different terrain than just a decade ago. The spirit of the debate came alive when we were asked to consider solutions to rekindle an interest and passion in guitars.
We all agreed on the importance and impact of guitar heroes in the music industry, but we differed on what the definition of who today’s heroes would be. By Steve Vai standards we need a new, flashy shredder, but a counterpoint to consider is the impact of an artist like Ed Sheeran. No, Ed is not a riffing guitarist by any stretch, but looping pedals are a staple in his approach, and the last time I checked, that is a guitar accessory. There is also no doubt that an artist like Sheeran has had a very positive effect on the sale of acoustic guitars. Tommy Emmanuel would be another example of a very positive influence, attracting new, young musicians into the world of guitar; and he is certainly a guitar hero, but again, he is an acoustic player.
For me, the real issue in the conversation emerged when the topic centered on the idea of needing a new guitar hero. I do think we are missing heroes on all the instruments, but not because they don’t exist. And I don’t think that’s the only problem because if you think about it, guitar virtuosity is at an all-time high. As a matter of fact, we are saturated with virtuosity. Could the problem be we can’t see the forest for the trees?
Yes, we need new blood in “guitar hero land,” we do need more players with high visibility like the John Mayer’s of the world. But Jeff Beck hasn’t gone away, and he and Prince and David Bowie and others like Steven Tyler all have something in common: the female bassist.
Tomorrow’s trend is here today
Since its inception three years ago, I have attended the Pilgrimage Festival in Franklin, Tennessee, and every year more and more female bassists are front and center. When Beck filled the role of his bass player with Tal Wilkenfeld, she stood on stage with Beck and Vinnie Colaiuta and held the chair of bassist masterfully. If you read her bio it is nothing but a list of marquee names of some of the best musicians in the world. I think that makes her a bass guitar hero. Rhonda Smith also works with Beck, and played bass for Prince. Her musicianship is Herculean. Truly, anyone who can claim to have worked for Prince and Beck automatically qualifies as a music hero. David Bowie was an early adapter. He gave the bass chair as well as the vocals on the song “Heroes” to Gail Ann Dorsey. Are you noticing a pattern yet ? Esperanza Spalding is commanding attention for her work. She sings just as well as she plays and, of course, she sings and plays all at the same time. You only need to Google her White House performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” to be shocked into the reality that our heroes are already here. And going back in time, certainly, we should always tip our hat to the career bass work of Carole Kaye.
If multiple heroes are here, then what’s the true problem, and how do we fix it?
I think it’s clear that what our industry needs to reconsider is that while we have many heroes in all categories, as an industry, we can’t seem to embrace a way to re-brand and stimulate interest for someone who wants to become a successful musician. We seem to compete instead of working together as an industry.
We are so busy myopically focusing on sales that we have forgotten how to market and sell the passion of music itself
Think about General Motors in the 1970s. We should be working together better in order to foster the success of younger players. The big record labels perished for a reason – they forgot to take care of their most important asset: the musicians. You can’t blame school education programs if you, yourself, are not in the conversation working to provide viable solutions. We have become takers, not givers, and that is an epic fail. We should look at the example of smart musicians like Michael League of Snarky Puppy. He is nothing short of a hero to our industry. He happens to be a bassist, guitarist, composer, producer, and entrepreneur.
When looking for solutions, Michael thinks inclusively, and that is one reason he is incredibly successful. The time has come to look at ourselves differently. If and when we do, our industry will, once again, thrive creatively.
Menzie Pittman is the owner and director of education at Contemporary Music Center in Virginia (CMC). Following a performance and teaching career spanning more than 32 years, he founded CMC in 1989 and continues to perform, teach, and oversee daily operations. He has 50 years of musical experience as a drummer and drum instructor. Menzie is a frequent speaker at NAMM’s Idea Center, and a freelance writer for MMR’s “Small Business Matters” column.