Pete Townshend says guitar-driven rock 'n' roll is on the decline

(Image credit: Matt Kent/WireImage via Getty Images)

Guitar-driven rock music is on the wane. The possibilities of the guitar have been "literally exhausted" while the rock's role in challenging authority and speaking up for society's underdogs has been adopted by hip-hop artists.

That is the view of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend.

Townshend was speaking to Thor Christensen of The Dallas Morning News when he said that social media guitar virtuosos, operating in all kinds of styles, had "literally exhausted the possibilities of the guitar."

"If you spend an hour on Instagram or YouTube, you will quickly discover unknown people playing the guitar the way a great orchestral violinist like Yehudi Menuhin once might have played his instrument," he said. "These are virtuosos of the highest order. They can shred like Eddie Van Halen or play jazz like John McLaughlin." 

Townshend acknowledged in the interview that social media is disrupting popular culture but nonetheless remains a positive in his mind.

"I think I am connected today to about 20 or 30 young musicians and artists who I would not have found without Instagram, YouTube and BandCamp," said Townshend. "This is living in the moment for me."

But what of rock 'n' woll without the electric guitar? Can it exist? Townshend believes so.

"Hip-hop is rock to my ears: music for the neighborhood, the street, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the young, the ignored," he said. "That used to be what I focused on."

Townshend believes today's hip-hop will similarly undergo its own evolution into new forms. As Townshend and singer Roger Daltry carry The Who's legacy into the future, he sees their artistic aspirations lying in larger operatic arrangements, in live performances blurring boundaries between the concert and art installation. 

Is Townshend right about the guitar? He is not the first to sound the alarm. Eric Clapton has said as much. And yet guitar sales are rising. The appeal endures. When The Cure headlined Glastonbury this summer, there was an immediate spike in sales.

As to exhausting the limits of the instrument, being able to assemble an orchestral arrangement for guitar and perform it to webcam is one thing, but guitar-driven rock's appeal is not contingent on the pockets of individual genius that spring up on the internet. Rock 'n' roll has never been a solo enterprise and the electric guitar has always thrived in the context of a band. 

Once the possibilities of the instrument are exhausted there, maybe then we could talk about such a cultural shift.  

The Who's new album, WHO, is released on 22 November.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.

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