‘No guitars in sight’ at R&B-heavy Grammys

On top: Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars were nominated for the most awards (21 in total).

Is the era of the guitar finally over? For years, the Grammy Awards have been criticised for sidelining diverse artists in hip hop and rap music. Last night, however, the tables were turned.

It was 1959, year of the first ever Grammy Awards. The world was being rocked by rock’n’roll from stars like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. And the winner of the best album of the year? A film composer named Henry Mancini.

“Historically, the Grammys have often been been laughably out of touch,” critic Anthony DeCurtis told the LA Times last week. First rock was ignored, then punk, rap, and electronic dance music.

In recent years, they have been criticised for not honouring hip hop and R&B artists. Beyoncé’s last two albums, both widely praised by critics, lost out to Beck and Adele respectively. Her husband, Jay-Z, boycotted the awards for six years in the early 2000s.

But at last night’s ceremony, things had changed. Jay-Z had been nominated more than any other artist, followed by rapper Kendrick Lamar. R&B singer Bruno Mars won the most awards, including album and song of the year. In fact, there was “an almost total absence of rock music from the major categories,” noted The Guardian.

NPR went further: “Where are the guitars?” it asked. It was not just rock — “guitar-driven pop” and country were also missing.

The awards are “a true reflection of the culture and where music is today,” the Recordings Academy president Neil Portnow said in the run-up to the ceremony. So does that mean the age of the guitar is over?

The instrument has a 400-year history. But it was around the time of that first Grammy Awards that it came into its own and began to dominate the music industry.

Yet according to The Washington Post, in the last decade electric guitar sales have plummeted by a third in the USA. In an article published last June, it blamed the “slow, secret death” of guitars on the lack of “guitar heroes” of yesteryear, such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. According to one guitar teacher, the most recent star to inspire young people to learn is Taylor Swift — and even she has now abandoned her country sound.

Has a new, stringless era begun?

‘My guitar gently weeps’

Yes, say some — and it’s about time. Music has never been about just one instrument, and right now the most exciting sounds are coming from elsewhere. It is right that institutions like the Grammys reflect that and celebrate it. Mourning some “golden age” in music just means you miss the amazing things happening right in front of you.

Maybe that is true for music critics, argue others — but in the real world, the guitar is still king. The instruments are cheap and versatile. They instantly offer rhythm and melody. Best of all, they are quick to learn. As one fanzine put it in the 1970s: “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.” The idea that that is over is nonsense.

You Decide

  1. Are guitars still cool?
  2. Who deserved to win the award for the best album of the year?

Activities

  1. Create a timeline showing what you think are the most important developments in music since 1959.
  2. In groups, write a song using a guitar as back-up. (If you do not have a real one or are unsure how to play, try using the guitar simulator under Become An Expert.)

Some People Say...

“I'm sure if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be doing classic guitar solos on YouTube.”

Peter Capaldi

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Last night the 60th Grammy Awards took place in New York City, returning there after 14 years in Los Angeles. Some stars wore white roses as part of the #TimesUp protests against sexual harassment. Once the nominations have been made, the winners are chosen by voting members of the Recordings Academy, who are drawn from across the music industry.
What do we not know?
Whether guitar music is really “dying” — after all, the Grammy Awards are not necessarily the best marker of what music will be popular in the near future. Back in the mid-2000s, for example, some questioned whether rap music was on its way out because its artists received so few Grammy nominations.

Word Watch

Rock’n’roll
A style of music that emerged in the late-1940s and early-1950s, originally starting with multiple black artists (there is no real consensus on who was the “first” to invent the genre). Chuck Berry helped to define the sound, while Elvis Presley helped to popularise it.
Missing
One notable exclusion from the three main categories (record, song, and album of the year) was guitar-playing singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. However, he did win best pop vocal album and best pop solo performance.
400-year
Early guitars are thought to have originated in Spain in the 16th century.
A third
The newspaper says that annual guitar sales have dropped from 1.5 million per year to one million per year in a decade.
Eric Clapton
An English rock guitar player who began his career in the 1960s. He is the only person to be entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times, and has won 18 Grammys.
Jimi Hendrix
Described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music”. He played during the 1960s, but died in 1970 aged just 27.

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