Why is the guitar less prominent these days?
To most people, pop music these days means slick, polished production that appears near perfect, although the sound of pop and what exactly is pop music is something that has changed drastically throughout the decades. Pop music of the 1960s and 1970s was far less “perfect”, as this was an age of minimal editing of the band or artists performance once they had been recorded in the studio, as the performance was already committed on tape.
These days however, digital audio workstations (DAW’s) allow for endless editing meaning the performance that goes into the microphone, and the final result can be two very different things. This made for a slightly more raw sound to pop music in these earlier decades, due to more flaws being left in the final product making for an overall more human feel. The development of virtual studio technology (VST) in the ways of synthesisers and MIDI controllers have allowed musicians and producers to create sounds and entire compositions completely “in-the-box”, meaning all in the computer without having to record in a single real instrument (except of course vocals most of the time). This has contributed to the sound of modern pop music and even pop music of the 1980s being more synthesiser based over real instruments such as guitars and pianos.
There are of course many advantages to using these MIDI instruments, mostly the fact that there are infinite sounds in these types of instruments and plug-ins that operate within the users DAW, but also the editing flexibility giving the options to quantise performances in time, or completely changing the notes that have been played afterwards. Although these MIDI and VST-based instruments give a huge advantage to the user for reasons just mentioned, this has also meant that there has perhaps been slightly less “real” recorded instruments, especially guitars in the pop music of recent times.
Gone are the days when half of a song was taken up by a guitar solo, as was the case with The Eagles’ 1977 Billboard #1 song “Hotel California”. The song clocks in at six and a half minutes, which is unheard of for more recent times, and is heavily guitar driven with all the rhythm, electric and acoustic guitars, and of course that epic guitar solo! Although this was more common at the time, not only to have a six and a half minute song, but to have guitar solos at all, the parameters of modern popular music are much tighter these days.
Due to music debatably being much easier to record these days, with a laptop being a portable music studio rather than having to book out EMI Recording Studios in London or Electric Lady Studios in New York for months to record an album, there is such a higher volume of music being produced and thrust out into the ether, making things like radio play and Spotify playlisting much harder to obtain. This has made the prerequisites for music being much shorter, more attention grabbing, and perhaps more “perfect” (when talking about pop music in particular) to gain this traction. Since it is much easier and much more convenient to produce music completely in-the-box of the owners laptop or computer, music these days is much more sample and VST based over real recorded instruments, simply due to lower costs and portability.
Where do we hear the guitar in modern pop music?
This does not mean that the guitar is completely absent, however! The guitar has slowly been making its way back into pop music over the past decade or so, often being heard in many of the most played songs of recent times. It’s not quite in the way it was heard in the 1960s and 70s, but it is most definitely still present. When looking at the Spotify most streamed songs of all time, the guitar makes many different appearances, sometimes without even being noticed due to it being blended in with more electronic sounds. The guitar is often used in pop music by artists such as Justin Bieber, Post Malone, Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes and James Arthur, all being some of the most listened to artists of the past few years or longer. From song to song the guitar will be playing a slightly different role in the tune, sometimes more upfront and noticeable whereas other times more subtle in the background creating atmospheric textures.
What role does the guitar play in modern pop music?
Post Malone’s hit song “Sunflower” featuring Swae Lee peaked at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart in 2019, and has not seemed to have lost streaming traction since, making it one of the biggest songs of the past few years. The guitar does make an appearance in the song, although being more minimal. This tune is a good example of how the guitar can play a more subtle role that is less noticeable around the more electronic sounding instruments, but can give a nice organic texture to compliment these other sounds. The guitar is picking through the chords of the songs, becoming more prominent in the pre chorus when all the other instruments drop out to become essentially guitar and vocals. It then re-appears throughout the song, giving a breath of fresh air around the other electronic sounds.
One huge song of 2021 that has already raked up half a billion streams in its first three months of release (as of June 2021) is “Peaches” by Justin Bieber. The guitar makes a more upfront appearance in this tune, being the most prominent chordal instrument heard in the track, layered with different synths throughout to give different textures. This tune is a good example of how the guitar can be used to create simple sounding parts with a nice tone to serve the song perfectly. The guitar part is very consistent, not really changing very much at all throughout the song and only dropping out in a few places. This allows the other instruments and vocals to create the dynamics and excitement, particularly the drums when they drop in and out of different sections.
Shawn Mendes’ “Señorita” is currently sitting at the #9 position of Spotify’s most streamed songs of all time, and is another great example of a modern pop song that is guitar driven. The acoustic guitar is heard all the way through the tune, and is the main chordal instrument in the track providing the harmonic data that all the other production elements are based around. There are many other percussive elements that drop in and out, as well as various bass and synth sounds that create dynamics for the track around the consistent acoustic guitar progression, much like in Justin Bieber’s “Peaches”. Although the progression is simple and repetitive at the core, the modern production elements wrapped around the guitar make it exciting and sound very relevant in terms of modern pop music.
Currently sitting at #21 of Spotify’s most streamed is Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”, which Bieber shares writing credits with Ed Sheeran and Benjamin Joseph Levin on. This was a massive tune of the year 2015, currently clocking in one and a half billion streams on Spotify. This tune is very interesting in it’s production approach, being extremely stripped back to basically just guitar and vocals, giving it an overall singer-songwriter feel. The guitar playing style is also interesting, the verses of the tune using chord with just two notes, the root note and the 3rd up an octave. This gives
the progression a very minimalistic feeling and creates a lovely delicate texture. These types of chord shapes are very popular in pop music among singer-songwriter rooted artists, as this indie sound is very transferable into commercial pop. This guitar playing style can be heard in many other popular songs of the past decade, such as James Bay’s “Hold Back The River”, Matt Corby’s “Brother”, and Dean Lewis’ “Be Alright”. This minimalistic chord playing style dates back to the 1970’s when the singer-songwriter style was becoming more popular, and can be heard on Joni Mitchell’s 1971 hit song “A Case Of You”. This style of playing has made a big emergence in modern pop music over the past decade or so, since the root and third of the chord give us enough harmonic data to determine what the chord is and if it’s major or minor, while still leaving enough room for the vocals to sit and other production elements to compliment the rest of the song.
Sampling different instruments and audio excerpts is common practice in hip hop and rap music, dating back to the 1970s and 80s where early DJ’s and pioneers of the style such as Grandmaster Flash would splice together different snippets from various vinyl records to create a beat for rappers or singers to perform on top of. This art form has developed a lot since then and nowadays is achieved in-the-box (in a computer) through the use of DAW’s. One artist that took an existing famous song from Sting and put his own spin on it was Juice WRLD with his 2018 hit track “Lucid Dreams”, currently clocking in at 1.6 billion streams on Spotify. The main guitar sample heard throughout the track is a replayed and sampled version of the guitar heard in Sting’s 1993 song “Shape Of My Heart”, with a more modern sounding beat and production layered around it.
Another example of sampling heard in this style is XXXTENTACION’s 2017 song “Jocelyn Flores”, which doesn’t only sample guitar from an existing work, but samples an entire song. The song sampled is a tune called “i’m closing my eyes” by a producer named potsu, which bares many similarities to XXXTENTACION’s version. In XXXTENTACION’s version, it appears that the snare has a different timbre to it, possibly having another snare sample layered on top of the original beat by potsu, and of course XXXTENTACION’s rap enters at 42 seconds on his version which isn’t heard on potsu’s track. This song is interesting because not only has the guitar been sampled from an existing work, but we get to see how an artist puts their own twist on an already existing song by giving the track minimal tweaks to make it their own. This art of sampling existing sounds and beats is common practice in the world of rap and hip hop, and is unique in its way of putting a new modern twist to already existing sounds.
As we can now see, there are plenty of guitars to be heard in modern pop music. Sure it may not be the same as the 60s and 70s when the sound of the Rolling Stones and many other bands was wrapped around Keith Richards’ and Ronnie Wood’s weaving guitar licks, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the guitar is dead. Just like the rest of music and all elements that make up the songs that we hear on the radio, the guitar has simply adapted to the times to stay relevant and heard.
So is it relevant in modern pop music?
At a quick glance into the world of pop music with its slick production and instantaneous nature of composition, it may appear that no one cares about the guitar anymore, but when digging deeper we now know that this is not the case! The guitar plays so many different roles in the world of pop as we have just investigated, sometimes taking the spotlight while other times happy being in the background. This is specifically talking about the studio versions of popular songs as well. When artists do stripped-back or acoustic performances for radio or TV, more often than not this will be just their vocals with an acoustic guitar or piano.
Think about it – how many times have you seen an artist perform one of their songs live and it’s just them with an acoustic guitar? Some of the most relevant artists right now often perform and write their music this way, such as Justin Bieber and Post Malone. Some artists even base their whole live act around this acoustic format, just like Ed Sheeran selling out stadiums to play the gig just him and his acoustic guitar! The guitar certainly isn’t going away and is most definitely relevant. In fact if anything, it’s more relevant than ever.
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