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We Are The 50%: The Truth Behind the Supposed Decline of the Guitar

September 19, 2017
Written by
Natalie Baker
Special graphics by
Eileen Tjan (@eileentjan / @_otherstudio)

This article appears in the thirteenth issue of She Shreds, published in September 2017. Subscribe here and receive a copy of She Shreds Issue 13 as your first issue. This has been edited for digital purposes from it’s original story published in print.

Beginning in June 2017, buzz about the supposed death of the electric guitar started popping up on our radar. The Washington Post, echoed by PBS and NPR, published hand-wringing proclamations that electric guitar sales had declined in the past decade from 1.5 million annual sales to about 1 million, and cited—for some reason—a vintage guitar salesman in his 70s who proposed an answer as to what had caused this alleged problem that he saw as alarming and newsworthy in its own right: American guitar heroes were no more.

Two flagrant issues with these analyses were immediately clear. The first was a conflation of guitar sales with guitar playing. The Washington Post’s way of measuring things would suggest that neither I nor many of the guitar players I know who play used guitars (or guitars we bought new a long time ago) count in the consideration of whether electric guitar culture is dying. The booming business of effects pedals (16% increase in unit sales in the past ten years according to Music Trades) challenges this. The second issue was a sad lack of self-awareness about mourning the hierarchical and hyper-masculine performative decades-gone culture of guitar heroes like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and assuming that such a culture is the only way to sell guitars or get people to play them. In fact, maybe it’s the leftover dregs of that very culture that are holding us back.

In the five years since the first issue of She Shreds was published, public conversations on inclusivity and respect for women in popular culture have been getting louder and louder. And the resulting milestonesboth in the dethroning of prominent misogynistic practices and elevation of feminist epicnesshave been increasing in kind. Within the guitar industry, we’ve covered some of the biggest of these evolutions: Ernie Ball’s first-ever mass-produced guitar designed by a woman (St. Vincent, no less), Guitar World trashing its tacky tradition of showcasing gear in the hands of bikini-clad models in its annual gear guide, and Guitar Player Magazine celebrating its 50th anniversary with a list of 50 favorite women guitarists (and the singular Sister Rosetta Tharpe on the cover).

These moments didn’t happen without reasonbut first, let’s start with why they matter. For those of us guitar and bass players who identify as women, femme, or gender-conforming, the dearth of acknowledgment for the talent amongst us has been just as glaring as the intensely bro-centric representations of guitar culture that do permeate our society, from testosterone-soaked music festivals to glossy, misogynistic magazines. Some of the worst perpetrators have been guitar brands, with archaic marketing strategies ranging from companies like Gibson hiring booth babes to lure people who fall for that kind of thing at the annual National Association of Music Merchants conference to Dean Guitars posting a photo on social media of a naked model licking a new guitar.

While these tactics have been used for ages, only recently has the pushback been significant enough to stop some of this absurdity. Until now, the public hasn’t tended to see, let alone challenge, the crimes of marketing as being as toxic as other mainstream media forms. Because, frankly, who amongst us really wants to care about advertisements? Why seek change in what we don’t want to see in the first place? And when we do finally call for change, it’s often against flagrantly problematic representations of women rather than in support of positive, realistic representations of all of us who play guitar.

But the messages that these marketers disseminate matter. Just like any other attitudes rooted in stereotypes rather than truth, the ideas forwarded by ads (and other more chameleon forms of marketing) across the public landscape trespass into our everyday experiences, irritating those of us with our guard up but, more importantly, influencing the unsuspecting among us with the implication that maybe this is really the way the world is or, worse, that it’s okay. Each billboard, Hulu ad, movie poster, product placement, and website banner is just a drop in the bucket of our daily lives, but the collective message we’re fed by them about gender and society is an ocean. And mainstream guitar culture has been drowning in the likes of Gibson ads with “Watch for flying panties” splashed across them, and a Vox Amps advertisement asking you, “Like what she’s wearing? Not the bikini, dude.”

As the idea of marketing guitars solely to straight, masculine men goes from passé to unprofitable, companies have been scrambling to appeal to the very people they’ve ignored for decades. It’s a lesson also recently learned by another industry in which women have long been ignored: cars. In 2012, a study revealed that more women in the United States have drivers’ licenses than men. By the next year, Porsche had joined the legions of carmakers trying to capitalize on this apparent revelation by designing a sleek luxury crossover SUV with young urban women in mind. Unlike faux-feminist gimmicks like Cosmopolitan’s SEAT Mii that drew a combination of wrath and head-scratching for being marketed like accessories rather than means of travel, the car was generally heralded as a new classic. Only two years later, in 2015, the company made headlines with its best financial year in company history, with less than 32% of its revenue coming from its traditional sports cars.

Now, the guitar industry may be experiencing the very same wake-up call. In 2015, Fender hired Evan Jones as its Chief Marketing Officer with the goal of driving a new era of growth for the legendary guitar manufacturer. Fresh out the gate, Jones spearheaded a national survey of U.S. guitar buyers under age 45 to see just who their untapped audiences might be. What did that survey reveal?

“Fifty percent of all buyers of new guitars in the last five years have been female,” Jones tells She Shreds. That’s right: According to Fender’s research, the future of the guitar industry is gender-diverse, playing the instrument for fun rather than in pursuit of guitar herodom, and is less obsessed with specs.

Since then, Jones reports that Fender has been undergoing widespread change, including its newly rebuilt marketing staff, product lines, and publicity. Last year, it rolled out a freshly modified take on their classic Offset Series, providing affordable, lightweight, and tone-varying options of the Duo-Sonic and Mustang bodies (favored by alt-rock musicians like Liz Phair and Kurt Cobain). Fender also included Warpaint and Bully as two of the four bands featured in the new line’s promotional campaign.

“As the idea of marketing guitars solely to straight, masculine men goes from passé to unprofitable, companies have been scrambling to appeal to the very people they’ve ignored for decades.”

Jones explains that the results of these marketing campaigns were as instantaneous as they were diverse. “There was an orange Duo-Sonic guitar that we featured with Bully,” Jones says. “That was our fastest-selling guitar of all the Offset guitars we launched. I remember walking into guitar shops in New York City that had [sold out] cards on the wall, where older players had come in and wanted to buy it because they saw the advertising.” Jones’ point is an important one: Fender had found commercial success, not with one target group of a particular demographic but with loyalists and newcomers alike, by genuinely including popular bands with women guitarists to promote a product that resonated with players of varied backgrounds. “I think if you were to ask a 16 to 24-year-old today how they see gender… they don’t see it the same way that people did 20, 30, 40 years ago,” says Jones. “I think the biggest compliment that we could pay any artist is to look at them with the same level of investment, the same level of perspective and support, whether they’re male or female.”

We suspect that if Fender continues evolving with a broader, more complex audience in mind, it could find itself with Porsche-esque results. But changes in product lines and marketing strategies aren’t the only things uniting the two brands; their reasons for adapting to their newfound reality have something in common, too. Women aren’t just an opportunity for these companies and their respective industriesthey are lifelines.

The revelation that women drove cars just as much as men hit the automotive industry just as they were recovering from the crisis of 2008-2010, in which car sales had slumped 40% from ten years prior. Look at guitar sales in the United States during the same time period and you’ll see another industry’s revenue pummeled by the recession: Music Trades data shows revenue from guitar sales dropped 30% from 2005 to 2009, and the total number of guitars sold declined from 3.3 million in 2005 to 2.4 million in 2010. Even the most iconic of brands suffered. In 2012, Fender withdrew from an attempt to go public when investors balked, citing the company’s debt and the guitar industry’s poor outlook. Things have improved since then, but the need to ensure that no potential guitar buyer is being left out remains. Fender’s strategy of being inclusive rather than tokenizing is a cornerstone of that. “We do not ever intend to offer a ‘women’s guitar.’ There’s no need,” explained Jones in a recent interview with Music Trades. “There’s a very real need, however, to offer electric and acoustic guitars that acknowledge that guitarists—male and female—come in all shapes and sizes physically.”

Jones made a similar point in his interview with She Shreds, stating that the company is expanding the base of artists it works with to reflect a holistic picture of today’s guitar players, rather than pigeonhole people into stereotypes. “Our ambition is that we will, over the next five years, be able to look back and say that not only did we, yes, grow the brand, but we helped introduce a whole new generation of players to the guitar, and we helped elevate the profile of an incredibly diverse body of guitar players across multiple genres, regardless of their gender,” he says. “That’s really key for us.”

With some companies like Fender stepping up to the call of the 21st century rather than staying stuck in the past, there may be hope yet for the guitar industry. But the work is far from over. Fender’s willingness to dedicate its own resources to finding accurate data on how diverse guitar players truly are came out of a lack of such information existing in the first place. Even Music Trades, the closest thing to an authority on music industry data, is starved in this department; the best they have procured so far is a questionnaire answered between 2011 and 2014 by 1,117 people who were found through their warranty registration for a new guitar worth $900 or more and made by one of “two prominent guitar manufacturers.”

One finding of this stunningly flawed research was that seven percent of guitar buyers are women. How is an industry steeped in stereotypes supposed to change when its source of thought leadership is suggesting that less than 10% of guitarists are women? Improvements in the representations of not just gender but race, age, size, disability, sexuality, and every other aspect of our socio-political identities have a long way to go, but the road to that—at least for profit-driven entities who invest their time, energy, and resources where they expect to make money back—is paved first by documentation that they, that we, exist. It’s time for the hibernating heavyweights of this industry to wake up. Let’s make sure they do.

UPDATE: We asked Fender if, since the shift in marketing, there had been a significant increase in numbers, including an increase in consumer diversity, profit, or socials.

A member of their PR team answered saying that “across the board in social, web traffic and PR the numbers are significantly higher.”

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