Guitar Trends of the 2010s: Electric Tales That Shaped the Decade

The 2010s saw its share of tribulations in the world of guitars. But for all the trouble and the talk of its demise, the guitar industry remained a dynamic force—with new innovations and fresh reverberations of age-old ideas.

Below, we trace the echoes—some fading, some growing yet—of 2010s guitar culture.

To read more about this decade's trends in music-making, check out Reverb's "The Most Influential Music Gear of the 2010s" next.

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In 2017, the Washington Post announced the "slow, secret death of the six-string electric." Not surprisingly, Geoff Edgers' piece had guitar-biz folk in something of a spin. Some felt he summed up a growing unease about the future of the instrument. Others found him wide of the mark.

Edgers went to NAMM and quoted dealer George Gruhn, who said that the increased number of guitar makers on show all around them was unsustainable in a market that was not growing. The reporter went on to point to problems at Gibson, Fender, PRS, and Guitar Center, noted that acoustic sales had overtaken electrics, and complained that it wasn't like it used to be, when rock gods inspired young players.

Fender told Edgers the solution was to keep new players playing, which the company intended to encourage with teaching apps (an idea that led to Fender Play, Fender Songs, and so on). Gibson told him that diversification was the way forward. PRS said that a great guitar will always sell, and Guitar Center refused to talk "financials or politics."

Among the many critics of the Post piece, Natalie Baker at She Shreds magazine saw two glaring omissions: sales of used or vintage guitars, and the boom in pedals. Statistics for sales here at Reverb back her up, showing that the vintage market continues to increase in value, despite the doomsday warnings.

Baker also complained that the Post focussed on older male players as the only potential inspiration for new players. She talked to Fender's marketing department and concluded their research suggested the future of the guitar industry was gender-diverse. Younger incomers were likely to want to play for fun rather than as a route to rock-god status, Fender said, and were likely to be less obsessed with specs. (You can read more about Fender's thoughts in Reverb's 2019 interview with Fender CEO Andy Mooney.)

This table originally appeared in Reverb's "Are Used Gear Prices Going Up?" Follow that link for more data on the used gear market.

Edgers closed his feature with a visit to a music academy in Arizona, where the owner, Phillip McKnight, told him about a change around 2012 in the mix of students coming to guitar lessons. Girls gradually outnumbered the boys. McKnight put it down to Taylor Swift, and named one of his YouTube videos "Is Taylor Swift the next Eddie Van Halen?" Edgers said McKnight wasn't talking about technique. "He was talking about inspiring younger players."

The Trouble with Rosewood

At the start of 2017, it took just five letters to upset almost anyone who bought or sold an electric guitar. CITES. This is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Perhaps, then, it ought to be CITESWFF. In fact, it soon prompted less polite groups of letters.

The job of CITES is to protect endangered species, and rosewood was shown to account for the highest percentage of illicit wildlife seizures by value in recent years. New requirements, effective January 2, 2017, concerned the international shipment of instruments containing rosewood. Brazilian rosewood was already protected by CITES, but the new legislation placed all the hundreds of remaining species of rosewood under similar regulation. CITES presumably decided this was the easiest and most efficient way of dealing with the problem.

Clearly, this was going to affect a lot of guitars. Every international shipment or movement of a guitar that used any rosewood required at least one CITES certificate. That included used and vintage guitars as well as new instruments.

Makers and other sellers soon met delays as they applied for their certificates, and many found the added costs and extra admin painful. Alternative woods were sought beyond traditional rosewood, but as Paul Reed Smith told Justin Beckner at Ultimate Guitar: "I care about if the guitar sounds good. If I thought there was a replacement that sounded better, I'd use it. But I haven't found anything better."

Instrument manufacturers and industry groups pulled together, arguing strongly and persuasively that guitars containing rosewood should not be restricted by CITES. The amount of rosewood used for making instruments was tiny compared to that used to make furniture, they said, and the system created unnecessary pressure for many people.

CITES listened and agreed to exempt finished musical instruments, parts, and accessories from the restrictions on all rosewood species (except Brazilian), effective November 26, 2019. Inevitably, it didn't all happen instantly, and there are still details that need to be worked through. But for many, this marked a sensible termination of an unwelcome and inappropriate set of rules.

Careful You Don't Over-Extend

"These go to 11." The immortal words of Nigel Tufnel were reinterpreted at a time when most metal blokes thought a seven-string guitar in dropped-A was about as far as things should go. Some thought otherwise, however, and declared: "These go to eight!"

Tosin Abasi explains some of his extended range technique.

The idea had taken root earlier among metalheads when Meshuggah persuaded Nevborn in Sweden to build them some eight-string monsters, but the notion achieved wider visibility when the band shifted allegiance to Ibanez. There followed the Meshuggah signature M8M, with its 29.4-inch scale, launched in 2012, and the FTM33, shaped something like a Destroyer-meets-Iceman, in 2017. Ibanez's TAM100 eight-string for the mighty Tosin Abasi appeared in 2013, with a cheaper TAM10 the following year. Some eight-string maniacs tune their beasts F-sharp-to-E or E-to-E, but there are personal variations to achieve grinding tonal oblivion.

Baritones were hip in some circles, too, and with their long scale lengths were something of a six-string iteration of the sevens and eights. They're often tuned B-to-B or A-to-A, and brands including Danelectro, ESP, Gretsch, Ibanez, Reverend, and Schecter offered us a new baritone or three.

Ibanez joined the multiscale club in 2015 with the RGIF8BKS eight-string alongside earlier offerings from Novax, Rondo, Ormsby, and others. Multiscale was often synonymous with fanned-fret, a scheme where the frets are angled outward from the centre of the fingerboard to improve intonation, accompanied by angled bridge, pickups, and nut, too. These instruments certainly look daunting from a conventional perspective, but many who play them report that they seem natural once you get going. "These go somewhere else!"

Is That One Hollow, Semi, or Chambered?

Electrics with less-than-solid bodies were everywhere. Quite how much less than solid was open to interpretation, but the leading buzzword was chambered. Usually, that meant solid wood routed out to create a partly hollowed interior, capped with a solid or laminated lid to complete the box.

2014 Gustavsson Fullerblaster S. Photo by Capital Guitars Online.

There were plenty of enticing examples. Frank Brothers had its natty Signature Model, with maple top and back laminated to an arched chambered mahogany core, while Johan Gustavsson's Fullerblaster S Custom was a chambered Tele-meets-335. For the "JJ" John Jorgensen model, Fret-King routed the body from the front, which left a minimal centre section, and added an alder top with painted f-hole, while Revelation's RJT60 TL was a sort of chambered two-humbucker Jazzmaster with a real f-hole.

Godin aimed a little left-field with its Montreal Premiere, which featured a spruce center block with three arches that the company called a "breathe-through" carved core. Meanwhile, Gretsch's Center Block models gathered kudos. They were launched in 2013 in the brand's regular lines and spread to the Electromatic and Streamliner ranges. A solid spruce block ran the entire length of the body, chambered at the lower bout to reduce weight.

Hollow electrics and their derivatives did not seem limited to particular types of players. When PRS promoted its Hollowbody model in 2010, it showed pictures of Mike Scott (Justin Timberlake) and Emil Westler (Death), claiming: "When a guitar can span these extremes, you know it has to be special."

In Search of the Lost Gold Foils

If one man set the gold-foil trend in motion, it's Ry Cooder. Ry has a Strat with a Teisco gold-foil at the neck, a pickup David Lindley gave him. And, without doubt, Ry is known as a sound hound. Where famous sound hounds lead, others follow.

There were two main sources of the original gold foil pickups. The first, in the '50s and '60s, was American: the DeArmond company, which supplied brands such as Harmony. The other source was Japanese, from companies such as Teisco and Guyatone.

Gold foil pickups. Photo by Blackrider Vintage Guitar.

The gold foil name comes from a thin gold-color mesh that many of the original pickups have under their jaunty metal covers—although quite a few were silver colored. So while "silver foil" might sometimes apply, "gold foil" had a better ring to it, even if a more accurate term might be "cheap old pickups." They were low-output, usually, and they could sound reasonably transparent, often with a decent helping of dirt. Construction was basic. Some had unusual rubberized magnets, others had alnicos.

Players with a weakness for the wonders of lo-fi began to seek out vintage gold foils, and it was something of a crapshoot, examples ranging from noisy and microphonic to tone heaven. Gradually, pickup makers noted the trend and tidied up matters with modern, more consistently reliable versions.

Lollar, Curtis Novak, Mojotone, Schuyler Dean, and Arcane were among the modern producers making retrofit models, while some of the new units also turned up on new guitars, for instance Jason Lollar's gold foils on instruments by Collings, Kauer, Nash, and others.

This trend for rediscovering the sonic virtues of overlooked old pickups led Danelectro in 2014 to claim it had found a "misplaced" batch of its revered lipsticks. Wow! Genuine '50s Dan'o pickups, with a welcome dose of cheap-but-great tone! Ah—not exactly. These were 15 years old, which apparently made 1999 pickups eligible for "New Old Stock" status. The vintage vibe gets nearer every day.

To Sign or Not to Sign

Guitar forums buzzed with outrage, abuse, and bemusement when PRS announced the Silver Sky in 2018, a model devised in collaboration with John Mayer. "It's a PRS Stratocaster" sums up the polite, printable version of the online outpourings. Those who got to actually play the thing were much more orderly and, in general, impressed.

Wylde Audio Barbarian Rawtop. Photo by American Musical Supply.

Mayer was used to social media nonsense, and said it wasn't really people saying they didn't like the guitar. "They're just reacting," he told Brad Tolinski at Guitar World. "I've seen the lifespan of people's negative reactions enough to understand what it means. What most people are really asking is: 'What is this? What are you trying to do?' You just need to get through the period [where] people register their confusion and dissent."

Mayer didn't need his name on the guitar, because he was happy to collaborate with PRS and create some instruments that, as he put it, represented his point of view. Other artists began to move away from the traditional system, too, abandoning the scheme where the guitarist puts a signature on the guitar maker's instrument. The Gibson Les Paul started all that, way back in the '50s. Now, the internet provided opportunities for artists and YouTube personalities to become the brand.

Maybe it was Earl Slick who began the trend, teaming up with GuitarFetish in 2014 to create Slick Guitars—although Eddie Van Halen had worked with Fender to create his own EVH brand back in 2007. More recently, Tosin Abasi took the new path with his Abasi Concepts, and Zakk Wylde went in a similar direction with Wylde Audio.

Two YouTubers who decided to start their own guitar brand were Ola Englund, who launched Solar Guitars in 2017, and Rob Chapman, who set up Chapman Guitars in 2009. Chapman had posted a video asking for comments on the sort of guitar his viewers wanted.

"I didn't really think anything of it," he told me, "but I'd tripped over and invented collaborative design in guitar. It became a huge deal online, and I did three voting polls of different kinds of specifications." This led to Chapman Guitars and its first instrument, the ML-1. Today, Chapman offers a line of collaboratively-designed models manufactured in Britain, Indonesia, and Korea, and the firm sells direct to its dealers, avoiding the overheads of a distribution operation. It could be the shape of signatures to come.

Guitar of the Decade

Did I mention there's a prize to be presented? It's completely undemocratic, which seems to reflect the 2010s pretty well. My prize is for the guitar of the decade, and I say it's the Fender Jazzmaster. It became one of the most influential designs of the era—which wasn't bad for a guitar that had failed to take off as Fender might have hoped when they first released it into the wild in the late '50s.

Along with other Fender also-rans like the Jaguar and the Mustang, the Jazzmaster was largely responsible for the trend of the offset body. Offset? Look at the guitar in the playing position. The waist on the upper/bass side has to be much further forward than that on the lower/treble side. That's offset. The idea derived from Fender's original intention to aim the clue's-in-the-name Jazzmaster at jazz players. The offset design, it said, promoted "ease and facility of playing with minimum discomfort to the guitarist." (Reverse spoiler: jazzers largely ignored it.)

Modern makers fell over themselves in their efforts to go lopsided. You didn't have to look far. There was Swope's pointy, alder-bod Geronimo, Rivolta's Mondata, whose chambered mahogany body sported a German carve and hints of Firebird, and Ibanez's reissue of their curvy '90s Talmans. There was James Trussart's Steelmaster, its chambered wood body topped with a steel plate, DiPinto's glorious four-pickup Galaxie 4 Deluxe, or Bilt's chambered f-holed S.S. Zaftig, rounded off with a Starcaster-like headstock. No prizes for adding more to the list: they're everywhere.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

There's no time like the present. And for some makers, there's no time like the past. There was a strong desire in the 2010s to look back to inform the present, a trend that everyone liked to call retro. It was clear from the start of the decade, when Eastwood ran a competition to win one of its Airline 59 Customs, a guitar modeled on Jack White's iconic red-and-white Airline from the mid-'60s. Almost all you had to do was play the "Seven Nation Army" lick, helpfully annotated on the ad: E E/g E D C B.

Much more followed. Danelectro's 64 came on like a Mosrite, while Probett's Rockets boasted that most fashionable of mashups, the Fender–Gibson hybrid. Revived brands rummaged through their own archives, resulting in guitars like Harmony's Juno. Established brands and players, too, dug around in old catalogues, as when Paul Gilbert came up with a sort of reversed '70s Ibanez Iceman, wittily naming the twisted retro result the Fireman. And Telecaster inspiration was rampant, from Feiten's Gemini Blues Pro Deluxe, with its top-loader bridge and twin humbuckers, to DeTemple's Spirit '52, with subtle sprinklings of titanium and ivory (don't panic: the ivory was roughly 30,000 years old).

Nostalgia crept ever nearer, as a new generation of players revived once-unfavorable vintages, not least the '70s, in the search for cool inspiration. It's a never-ending process. Along comes a new wave of guitarists: They define their own idea of retro, and meanwhile the established wave turns up its collective nose. Long may it continue!

One last trend was that nothing much changes, if that's what you want. Strats, Teles, 335s, Les Pauls, Ricky 12s, Gretsch 6120s—they just carry on, in all their updated or not-so-modern guises. But be wary. Just because things have gone a certain way for years, doesn't mean to say they always will.

Annie Clark designed a striking instrument in 2015 for her signature model, the Ernie Ball Music Man St. Vincent. Retro was evident in the sort of squashed Explorer-like body, but it was a brave, interesting guitar. In a video discussing the design, Clark put it into context. "You're honoring the past. You're taking the knowledge of the various people who've cultivated and passed it forward," she said. "But you're also going like, 'Ah, that's cool, we'll take that, but let's do something else—let's find out what's in the future.'"


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, Rock Hardware, and Fuzz & Feedback. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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