Long-time electronic composer and general Downtown raconteur Tom Hamilton sends me an interesting fact in response to my perceptions of the guitar’s takeover of the composing world:
In 1995, an industry group called the Guitar and Accessories Marketing Association (GAMA), along with the NAMM and MENC, started a launched a program to train teachers to start guitar programs in middle and high schools. That group estimated that by 2001, over 200,000 students have learned guitar in school, and over 38,000 students bought their own guitar. They project a trend that by 2010, will have over 1.5 million students learning guitar in school programs, and over 300,000 students purchasing guitars. And that’s just through one school-based program! My observation is that most guitarists learn through woodshedding and private lessons without any institutional structure at all.
So no wonder young guitarists seem to be coming out of the woodwork: it was a calculated industry initiative! Tom also notes that when he was in school (and he and I are roughly the same antediluvian age, struggling together to figure out these youngsters), guitarists had to major in piano and take guitar lessons on the side. Bard, I might note, and to brag about my own institution for a moment, allegedly boasts the country’s oldest college guitar program, begun around 1968 by our cellist/guitarist Luis Garcia-Renart. Perhaps that’s why, to this day, a good half of my students are guitarists.
The deeper insights I get into the guitar, though, come from my son Bernard, who plays electric, acoustic, and (fretless) bass. When you practice the piano, as I did as a teenager, the piano sits in the living room, everyone in the house hears your painful learning process and your mistakes, and you drive your parents nuts playing scales up and down after school. (Thanks for the denials, Mom and Dad, but I know it was a drag sometimes.) When you’re a guitarist, you can go off in your room, turn the amp off, experiment to your heart’s delight, work out your technical issues in private, and emerge showing off your best work. I think that’s one reason, along with the macho Eric Clapton/John Lennon image, that the guitar and piano attract different personalities, and I suspect that’s partly what’s behind the guitar’s ascendancy: because young men today, it seems to me, have a harder time making their mistakes in public than young men used to. Not only due to its deafening volume and visual appearance as a kind of oversize, substitute phallus is the guitar a more macho instrument.
And speaking of laptops, Tom reiterates a question that my friends and I agonize over all the time: is it necessary for electronic composers to acquire keyboard or other conventional-instrument skills? Why?