We required means of self-connection in 2022: I’m grateful for the guitar.
Within a fortnight of one another, two of the music industry’s countless losses this year occurred. Both sparked outpourings of gratitude and nostalgia centered on an invention that will soon celebrate its 100th birthday: the electric guitar, that enduring representation of noise, enthusiasm, and the universal need to express oneself.
On November 21, Wilko Johnson, who was born John Wilkinson in 1947, passed away. When he passed away, he had already established himself as a sort of off-beat national treasure, been featured in two feature-length documentaries, and received a quiet role in the popular TV series Game of Thrones. His obituaries detailed both his early life on the Thames estuary’s Canvey Island and his latter years, which featured the resurrection-like experience of being given a late-stage cancer diagnosis in 2012, only to be miraculously cured. The two main contributions he had made to the prophetic rhythm and blues group Dr Feelgood in the 1970s, however, were what really mattered: songs that beautifully romanticized the place he was from (their debut album was titled Down By the Jetty), and a distinctive approach to playing his instrument.
Johnson frequently compared his guitar playing to biking, claiming that it was simple to do but nearly impossible to describe. His left finger played the licks and trills that filled the intervals in between while his entire right hand continuously moved back and forth across the strings to create the percussive rhythm that propelled the music along. One guitarist ended up sounding like two as a result. Better yet, Johnson invented a tremulous, relentless sound that resembled concentrated nervous energy, and this sound later entered the language of rock music.
Johnson was 10 years older than Keith Levene, who passed away on November 11th, and a considerably more avant-garde figure. While the older guy had established the foundation for punk, Levene rose to prominence in its wake after a brief stint with the Clash and a key position in Public Image Ltd (AKA PiL), the band John Lydon started after the Sex Pistols. Levene’s stated goal was to “use the guitar in various ways” and “make it do fascinating things,” frequently with the aid of electronics. One of the outcomes was what came to be known as PiL’s debut song, Public Image: “a guitar tone like ground-up diamonds, fired at you from a high-pressure hose,” as English musician Andy Bell recently put it. Levene, like Johnson, did what great guitarists do at particular junctures in history by revitalizing the guitar to the point where what he played sounded futuristic.
The electric guitar appears to have long since become an antiquated relic. The first commercially available electric guitar, a Hawaiian-style aluminum design known as “the frying-pan,” turned 90 years old this year. The Gibson Les Paul, the instrument that today reigns supreme among electric guitars, also celebrated its 70th birthday. The American jazz master Charlie Christian, who invented the electric guitar as a solo instrument, passed away on this year’s 80th anniversary. The Beatles’ first song, which launched the era of music that it now entirely dominates, was released on this year’s 60th anniversary. All of these events occurred in the distant past, and the popularity of the guitar has subsequently swelled and faded, yet it always seems to return.
The guitar was once again the topic of conversation four years ago. Lockdowns that occurred all around the world caused hundreds of people to purchase one and begin learning to play, but then something else happened. The Fender guitar firm offered 100,000 free sign-ups to their online tutoring service, Fender Play, in March 2020, and reached that goal on the first day of the promotion. By June, the number had increased to about a million; 20% of the new students were under the age of 24, 70% were under the age of 45, and female users made up 45% of the recruits, up from 30% prior to the pandemic. A sizable portion of the increase was due to acoustic guitar sales, but Fender also witnessed a spike in electric guitar sales. They declared a 17% rise in trade and the highest “sales volume” year in Fender history by November of that year. Similar improvements were reported by other manufacturers; in fact, an industry insider stated late last year that the company’s prospects were suddenly “brighter than during the post-Beatles era.”
I believe I understand why all of this occurred. It brings back memories of a Christmas forty years ago when my parents handed me a black imitation Les Paul guitar that my dad had bought for £30 as a concession to the inevitable. Playing it, I soon learned, was an exhilaratingly physical sensation, all tense strings and aching fingertips. It was a pleasingly accessible instrument because of the relationship between the learner’s ability and the sounds they are able to generate. It required many hours of practice to get to the point where you could feel your thoughts and emotions being expressed via the guitar. But without any conscious effort, the guitar’s rudiments appeared to latch onto my brain. It also had a terrific appearance: it was a 1950s invention that had magically avoided seeming out of date or kitsch.
That is still accurate. Even better, the electric guitar has shed its hitherto indelible ties to male rock heroes to become something much more universal that, in many ways, is used more creatively by women. Levene helped guide Viv Albertine of the punk band the Slits through common episodes of what they later referred to as “guitar depression”: “being frustrated with learning an instrument, [and] how you attempt to feed your personality via it.” Levene was a part of that progression. “Where you start doubting your own abilities,” she remarked, “can be a tough experience, but given the perfect circumstances, it does come out.”
In 2022, there has been no shortage of proof of how that kind of magic works. Wet Leg’s record, one of the year’s best, features distant echoes of the music created by Johnson, Levene, Albertine, and others in their clipped, urgent lyrics about the struggles and absurdities of contemporary twentysomething life. I also urge you to check out Big Joanie’s most recent album. This black, feminist trio from London creates music with punk influences that manages to be both comfortingly familiar and excitingly original. Stephanie Phillips, the group’s singer and guitarist, received her first guitar for her 16th birthday, thought formal instruction were “a little too rigid,” and started out on her own. Once more, we have the democratic magic of six strings, two hands, and an electric current—a means of self-expression that is flawless as ever.