ANAHEIM, Calif. – There are no guitar heroes anymore. Current chart sensations Lizzo and Billie Ellish don’t stand on stage with guitars around their neck like Eric Clapton, Slash from Guns N’ Roses or Bruce Springsteen did (and still do.)  

So what are guitar makers to do to keep their factories humming? Turn to streaming, classic rock and YouTube to reach tomorrow’s guitar player. 

The NAMM show, a collection of music store operators, music professionals and tens of thousands of fans is concluding this weekend here, where guitars of every color and imaginable shape were on display. The goal for many guitar makers: to either get older folks to spring out more money to add even more guitars to the collection, or better yet, get tomorrow’s generation excited to start playing with new shapes. 

Fill this Bryan guitar with water and you’ll get a different sound and you can watch the water go up and down as you play. (Photo: Jefferson Graham)

At NAMM, which attracts some 150,000 people, we saw guitars that were filled with water (more on that in a minute) a model that resembled a mirror with strings, and a model with multiple holes in the back, for sound purposes. (See gallery of NAMM highlights.)  

Photos: NAMM 2020 – look at those cool guitars!

For the person who has everything, there’s a $530,000 gold-studded Fender Stratocaster for sale. Back down on earth, there were $300 starter guitars, or hand-made jazz guitars aimed at doctors and lawyers who don’t mind a starting price of $6,500. 

The challenge is to realize the baby boomer audience that has fueled the guitar industry for so many years only has a couple of decades left – in some cases only a few more years. They’re beginning to die off, and guitar makers have to reach new audiences.

The good news? “The consequences of streaming,” is that young music fans are re-discovering guitar heroes through services like Spotify and Apple Music, notes Andy Mooney, the CEO of Fender, the iconic company that popularized the electric guitar for rock and roll in the 1950s. (Think Buddy Holly and his Fender Stratocaster.)

Mooney sees a worldwide audience of 300 million people listening to streaming services now, and growing to 700 million in the next three years. “They’re listening to Coldplay, Guns N’ Roses,” bands with guitars front and center, and that’s good for him, Mooney says. 

Fender guitars on the wall at NAMM (Photo: Jefferson Graham)

Streaming sends people to see classic rock bands in concert, and when young people see guitar heroes on stage, they want to run out and start learning how to play, Mooney says. ‘”They look to the stage for cues about what kind of guitar to buy.”

And if not there, there’s always YouTube, where rock and roll never dies: Tom Petty is still standing on stage with his red Rickenbacker, Prince is making his guitar weep on his tan Fender Telecaster and Steely Dan still had Walter Becker playing his tasty riffs live on “Josie” and other hits. 

Beyond that, tons of guitarists (yours truly, included) like to go on YouTube and just play songs, either for the fun of it, or to teach others how to play. That in turn has fueled new guitar sales, says Tom Sumner, the president of Yamaha Corp. of America. 

“Everybody has a platform now,” he says. “They don’t have to wait for a gig. They can just start a YouTube channel, show their stuff on Instagram and Facebook. Even if you don’t play live, you can still record a video in your bedroom. People see that, and they get inspired and want to start playing.”

According to MusicTrades, an industry publication that tracks music store sales, some $2 billion worth of guitars were sold in 2019, up 5% from the prior year.

The market is flooded with cheap knockoff guitars, which helps stores like Walmart and Kmart sell inexpensive models. For the serious fan, many brands have moved to selling guitars endorsed by heroes, such as Ibanez’s new “Signature” model from Kiss frontman Paul Stanley. Price tag: just under $10,000.

For a relative bargain of just over $6,000, Benedetto Guitars of Savannah, Georgia will sell you a custom-made jazz guitar. The audience is doctors, lawyers, folks in their 50s, 60s and 70s, whose kids have grown up and are out of the house, who loved playing when they were younger and want a signature guitar to call their own. 

Howard Paul, the CEO of Benedetto Guitars of Savannah, Georgia (Photo: Jefferson Graham)

Howard Paul, the CEO of Benedetto, says he’s looking to music departments at schools for the next generation of players, “because if you’re going to get a great education, you need the right tools,” like a well-built guitar, he says. 

Meanwhile, the $500,000 Fender will sell, insists Mooney, because it’s unique. And those new water-filled guitars?

It seemed like a good idea to Brian Blair of Texas-based Bryan Guitars. He realized that different variations of how much water he poured into the guitar body would give him different sounds, so he made a prototype and brought it to NAMM, hoping to entice dealers – and to sell them for $500. 

There’s just one problem. Water is heavy. And based on our user tests, we are sad to report that these puppies are really, really heavy around the neck. 

They look great, though. 

In other tech news this week

Robocalls rang up a new high in 2019, and show no signs of getting better. 

Microsoft 7 ended its life this week, and the company put out a patch for Windows 10 to fix a major vulnerability that could expose users to breaches or surveillance. The National Security Agency alerted the software giant to the flaw in Windows 10, which is the most widely used operating system.

Attention dating fans: Dating apps like Tinder, OkCupid and Grindr are sharing users’ “highly personal” data like sexual preferences and location with advertising partners, according to a European data protection agency. The Norwegian Consumer Council released findings on Tuesday suggesting the information you enter on dating apps is being used to create comprehensive profiles, which are then sold and used for targeted advertising and other practices. 

This week’s Talking Tech podcasts

Why does Kerry Washington want to text with you?

PBS is on YouTube TV, but missing some shows

What’s your tech pain point?

All about music game Meloquest

Would you pay $4.99 to see The Tonight Show early?

Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter

Read or Share this story: