The Guitar is Dead
Words by Gunnar Jónsson
Photography by Golli
If you only read the headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the guitar is having a tough time recently. After all, electric guitar sales have been steadily declining for some time. Today, the guitar heroes of yore seem to have been replaced by laptop-wielding electronic producers and perennial mega pop stars. On May 1, 2018, the Gibson company, one of the most celebrated and well-known guitar manufacturers in the world, filed for bankruptcy protection, sending shockwaves through the music industry and sparking all kinds of speculation about the future of the six-stringed instrument. “I don’t know. Maybe the guitar is over,” Eric Clapton himself wondered in an interview.
The Icelandic music industry, like its counterparts in the rest of the world, is changing rapidly. Guitar-heavy bands and classic singer-songwriters seem to be dwindling in favour of rap artists, who are rarely seen onstage with anything more than a drink in hand and a DJ behind them.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the guitar is very much alive. Sure, the “golden years” of rock gods like Jimmy Page, Slash, and Jimi Hendrix might be behind us. But much like a relationship isn’t over after the initial rush of emotions subsides, so the guitar might be destined to live happily ever after.
I’ve come to a guitar workshop just outside Reykjavík’s city centre. Its owner Gunnar Örn Sigurðsson is one of maybe two or three guitar repairpersons in Iceland and the only one who produces his own guitars, under the name Orn Custom Guitars. Gunnar also teaches guitar making in his workshop. “The guitar making courses are getting more popular. I teach all kinds of different people: women, men, 15-year-olds, 70-year-olds. They all want to learn,” he says.
We are joined in the workshop by his long-time friend and one of Iceland’s most respected guitarists, Ómar Guðjónsson, who has played with almost every musician in the country. While the placid Gunnar enlightens me about the more practical, engineer-oriented aspects of guitar history, Ómar waxes philosophical about the nature of music and the possibilities of the guitar.
“The acoustic guitar came to Iceland sometime in the 19th century,” Gunnar tells me, “and back then it was a women’s instrument.” While men would plough the fields, women would take care of household duties and sometimes, especially in wealthier households, they’d play the guitar. This trend lasted well into the 20th century, they tell me. “My mom played the guitar when I was younger, at parties and such,” Ómar reveals. “She’s the reason there was a guitar in the household when I was younger.”
According to Gunnar, the guitar is fast becoming female-dominated again, or at least more unisex than it has been for a long time. This is echoed by Ómar, who also teaches guitar. “At the moment, I have six students, half of them are female.” Indeed, one could argue that it isn’t the guitar that is dead, but the macho cock rock that feels increasingly unpalatable to modern listeners.
But what is it about the guitar that is still so enticing? “The guitar is so approachable. Firstly, it’s the ultimate songwriting instrument,” Ómar enthuses. “I’m pretty sure 70% of songwriters still write their songs on guitar or keyboard, even if those instruments don’t end up on the record. The guitar also has this strong visual element that almost no other instrument has.”
“The guitar is, in many ways, a very primitive instrument,” Gunnar contributes. “You wrestle with it, but you can also do so many beautiful things with only six strings. It’s portable, and you can put it in different tunings and really play with it. And then we have things with the electric guitar, like feedback. Glorious!” He smiles.
I meet up with guitarist and composer Hafdís Bjarnadóttir at a coffee shop downtown to get her take on the past and future of the guitar. Like her former music school classmate Ómar, Hafdís teaches guitar, which has given her intimate insight into the mindset of young players. She agrees with Gunnar and Ómar that the cultural dominance of the guitar has waned as the computer has become a more ubiquitous instrument, but she doesn’t worry about the guitar at all.
But what are her students into? “They’re interested in the acoustic guitar, plucking techniques and such. They’re really into guitar players like Ed Sheeran these days, who plays the acoustic. So I’m very thankful for Ed Sheeran, since he’s making sure I have something to teach the children,” she says laughing.
But Hafdís also points out a hitherto unmentioned application for the guitar: meditation. “There’s nothing quite like getting into a groove with people. You sort of disappear for a while and later you wake up from this guitar trance. I feel like I’ve really accomplished something when my students get to know that feeling. I guess you could do something similar with a computer, but it’s less likely, I’d say.”
I posit that this might be one of the applications for the guitar in the future, and she agrees. “I’d like the focus in music schools to shift a little bit from exams and delve more into the mindfulness aspect of guitar playing,” Hafdís says. “It could be a new way to teach the guitar in the 21st century.”
After talking with all these passionate guitar aficionados, I feel positive that the guitar isn’t going anywhere. And remember that Gibson bankruptcy back in 2018? Well, during the last NAMM show, Gibson made a comeback, with a new CEO and a brand-new line of guitars and basses that by all accounts managed to impress. Besides, as Gunnar Örn points out back at his workshop, one guitar company won’t determine the future of the instrument. “The bigger companies might be selling fewer instruments, but the boutique market is expanding tremendously,” he says.
So, perhaps the guitar isn’t as dominant as it was in the latter part of the 20th century, but maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps a certain type of guitarist is becoming less common, only to allow another type of player to emerge from the shadows. Sure, there might be fewer guitar heroes, but maybe we don’t need any more heroes. Maybe we just need to pick up a guitar and start strumming.
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.