Why is there no guitar in Top 40 music?

If you listen to the radio these days, especially the charts, you’re not very likely to come across a song which has a guitar prominently featured. You have to actively go looking for it most of the time. That’s not to say it’s entirely absent from popular music. You do hear it. But not nearly as often as you used to. It used to be in every song that was released. This was before the popularisation of synthesisers and before production became a more all ecompassing job than it was previously. Producers nowadays often double as songwriters themselves.

Electric guitars do also feature in pop music still, but they are usually buried quite deeply in the mix, to the point of being almost inaudible. Which I think is a mistake. Guitars have a lot of mid range frequencies which can really add a punch to the song. Pop music in a lot of cases is very bass oriented, there’s a lot of information in those frequencies. Add to that the change in musical tastes, with the popularity of dance and EDM music, drum and bass etc, and the use of guitars in music has understandably declined.

You could argue that artists like Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes keep guitars in use and that is true to an extent. But even some of their songs have almost no guitar in them at all. Sheeran’s collaboration with Justin Beiber, I Don’t Care, had no guitars in it at all. And there is plenty of space in the track for a guitar part. Most songs benefit from having a guitar in the mix, it just adds some energy to the track. This was demonstrated to me at least in a YouTube video by a record producer called Rick Beato. He took songs in the top 10 of them American charts and played along with them, adding a guitar part to each one. And each one really benefitted from having a guitar part in there. None of them were solos, they just complemented the track, filled it out and added some more energy to them. One argument that Rick put forward was that the producers don’t think to put guitars on tracks because they don’t play the guitar, since producers are so involved with songwriting these days. They tend to stick to what they know and play MIDI notes instead.

Something I’ve noticed in EDM is that a guitar will play the main hook in the build-up before the programmed notes take over for the main section. The guitar then either drops out entirely or is very low in the mix. This usually works quite well, because these parts tend to translate well to guitar. An acoustic will often show up at the start of a song with some strummed chords to establish the mood of the song. That is where the expressiveness of an instrument comes to the fore. When it’s wood and metal strings vibrating, rather than a triggered sample, the energy transmitted is better received by the listener than if the track is purely electronic.

When these artists tour, they will still have a guitarist on tour with them. Whether they are then mixed high enought to be properly heard is another matter, but they will be there, just to fill out the songs in a live environment. You can’t replicate studio conditions on tour so songs will come across differently and adding an instrument that wasn’t on the studio recording can make a live show feel unique and worth the money paid to go and see them. It will also help define certain parts that might get lost in a live setting.

Of course, there are bands that still play the guitar’s main forte, rock and roll. But the ones who are household names tend to be the mega bands from a bygone era. Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, The Who, they can still sell out arenas and even stadiums, but their time as chart acts has gone. Old fashioned rock bands are just that to the average music listener, old fashioned, but still fun to explore and discover. It’s just fun to go and see an rock n’ roll show, with the pyrotechnics, lasers etc and the classic songs that we all know and love.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that traditional instruments are absent from modern chart music. They just aren’t. You can hear a lot of piano, brass instruments are often featured and guitar is still dotted around. It tends to be in the singer-songwriter mold, where the focus is more emphasising the melody and mood of the song, rather than showing off virtuoso skills. And perphaps that is where guitars are right now. As a useful tool for songwriting in the early stages and a supporting act in the song, rather than something that comes to the fore and takes over for a minute or two. After all, solos are not de riguer anymore, so it makes sense for the guitar to move into the background. That doesn’t mean we don’t love to see a guy shred for a bit.

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