Is the guitar dead?
Well, no, don’t be stupid, the guitar is so alive that on Friday world-revered guitarist Joe Satriani and his band will perform in the Palms’ big Pearl theater. Virtuosity still sells tickets.
And yet Satriani tells me the same tech revolution that changed what you do with your eyes and hands all day and night must also alter the current guitar radically at some point.
“It has to,” Satriani says. “We’re still really working on (instruments) that were put together in the late ’40s and early ’50s by Leo Fender, and Les Paul, and the guys at Gibson. They really invented the stuff we’re just tweaking.”
Satriani puts it this way. Beethoven left behind Mozart’s clavichord by popularizing the piano instead. Beethoven even reshaped the piano by demanding piano makers invent softer and louder sounds so he could write more dynamic songs.
“He was known for destroying keyboards at the time, because of the way he played,” Satriani says.
That’s right, Beethoven was a punk in the early 1800s, freaking people out the way Jerry Lee Lewis did a century and a half later, to the point that Beethoven lost his hearing.
The piano hasn’t really changed since Beethoven, but it got lucky and it’s still a staple of popular music.
By contrast, the violin used to be as popular as the guitar is now, but it didn’t change for centuries, so when was the last time you heard a violin solo in a twenty one pilots hit?
Ergo: What fate shall befall the guitar? Will it blossom once more or fade into a lute?
Satriani, 59, thinks one thing is for sure.
“What we’re working on right now is going to be left in the dust, pretty much the way of the guitars of 1900 were left in the dust once the Strat, the Telly and the Les Paul came along.
“You can imagine my great-grandchildren will be looking at the old guitar going, ‘Look at old Grandpa Joe with that thing. What is that?’”
Satriani himself has been trying to help change his instrument from his adopted hometown of San Francisco.
“I’m deeply involved in guitar design” with various companies, he says. “We’re down here on the ground trying to get things to sound better, stay in tune, use woods that are not becoming endangered, and trying to make things less toxic.”
But despite their best advice to guitar manufacturers, it’s not likely a guitarist will change the instrument. Here’s why.
“I’m too busy trying to tune my guitar and find the best amp distortion,” Satriani says. “That’s the problem with innovation. The practitioners of instruments are very often so consumed with getting good on it — because it’s really hard to be good, it really is.”
Satriani says you might as well ask Adele to invent a better microphone: probably not gonna happen.
Satriani says it’s outsiders who have innovated much of what we know about contemporary guitars. Consider the wah-wah pedal.
“The wah-wah pedal was created by an organ player, trying to help a trombone player come up with a tone circuit, to get rid of the physical mute that trombonists hold in front of the trombone,” he says. “They had no idea that somebody called Jimi Hendrix was going to use it for a song called ‘Voodoo Child.’”
Don’t get the idea that the guitar hasn’t changed since Hendrix, Van Halen, Prince and Jack White.
Companies have made plenty of guitars with computer chips that keep them digitally tuned during live performances. That’s a potentially big deal, because many musicians take dozens of guitars on tour, and even change guitars song to song, as strings bend out of tune minute to minute.
But Satriani says there’s a problem with digital tuning:
“It sounds horrible.”
Meanwhile, a much more impressive feat recently happened. A guy named Cosmos Lyles, working with engineer Paul Down and other innovators, came up with EverTune, a company that produces a mechanical bridge (a thing on string instruments) that keeps strings in tune constantly, without the use of computer chips and high tech.
This always-in-tune mechanical device is a spring-and-lever system that maintains a guitar’s strings’ state by applying opposite tension to slackening strings.
Satriani says EverTune is amazing and just got expanded to electric basses.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played anything as freaky as that on the guitar,” Satriani says. “It’s in its early stages. I’m sure he’ll make it smaller and more friendly as time goes on. But just the fact that somebody decided to do that blows my mind, while everyone else was going digital.”
Which returns us to the thought experiment at hand. What next, guitar?
“This could be the end of the road” for guitar evolution, Satriani says.
On the other hand, it could be like the piano post-Beethoven — that is, the guitar could be in “the beginning of a golden period, where it just stays here,” Satriani says.
Either way, Satriani is doing his part, to keep his great-grandkids from making fun of him, by trying to think up cool new guitar inventions.
“If I figure it out, I won’t tell anybody, and I’ll make sure I get a patent on it,” he says.