A year ago, the guitar was in dire straits. With songs like Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” and Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes” among the most consumed of 2019, programmed beats and horns were the sonic flavors of popular music. Sure, there were outliers — the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” Maroon 5’s “Memories” and Post Malone’s “Circles” among them — but as the rock and alternative genres embraced artists like Billie Eilish, whose innovative music made the traditional band approach feel outdated, the days of chords and solos seemed numbered if not headed towards irrelevance.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic and things changed. Forced to perform from home or in rooms not intended for live music during lockdown, many artists went back to basics and out came the trusty six-string. For iHeartRadio’s “Living Room Concert for America” in March, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl played an acoustic Guild on “My Hero”; Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day strummed to his band’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”; and even Eilish, with her collaborator brother Finneas, sang her hit “Bad Guy” accompanied by only a Fender acoustic. Other benefit livestreams like Global Citizen’s “One World Together At Home” event saw the Rolling Stones, Keith Urban and Shawn Mendes strip down their hit songs for unplugged versions. And in April, Miley Cyrus delivered an emotional cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on “Saturday Night Live” with Andrew Watt, himself a COVID survivor, on guitar.
At the same time, there was an electric guitar solo being heard on one of the most-played songs in the United States. Harry Styles’ “Adore You,” which has logged 1.1 million radio spins in 2020, according to Mediabase, and has been streamed more than 400 million times, per Alpha Data, features the playing of Kid Harpoon (real name: Tom Hull), Styles’ friend and producer, who handled the guitar parts for much of the Brit’s excellent “Fine Line” album, released in Dec. 2019. As it turns out, the melody of the solo, which also serves as the bridge to “Adore You,” was first hummed by Styles for Hull to emulate. “I did it with my mouth into a microphone,” Styles told Variety in October. “And then Tom sent me this video trying to get it to sound the same. He spent a couple of hours getting it.”
Why include a guitar solo when most pop songs would never dare? “I feel it’s kind of like ‘La La Land’ saving jazz — only for rock ‘n’ roll,” Styles cracked when posed with the question. But more seriously speaking, Variety‘s Hitmaker of the Year added: “I’m not a spearheader of the movement, like, ‘Let’s bring back guitars.’ There’s plenty of times when [a song] doesn’t sound better with a guitar, and you don’t use it. But a lot of the references I grew up with have guitars; and it’s the first instrument I played, so it makes sense that I would like the sound of them more. I don’t think the guitar is dying. Guitars are great and always have been.”
In fact, guitar sales in 2020 have been robust. Music retailer Sweetwater reports more than 50% year-over-year growth in guitar purchases, with even larger increases during the peak COVID months of April, May and June “when customers most likely hunkered down to practice and create music after watching all of the streaming video they could handle,” according to a rep for the Indiana-based company.
The spike extended to other string instruments as well, which saw growth of more than 70% year-over-year in the price range of $299 or lower. The metric indicates that “new players are joining the fold,” says Sweetwater, which has been in business for over four decades and operates online. (Competitor Guitar Center, with more than 250 physical locations in the U.S., did not fare as well, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month.)
Even in the virtual world, learning to play an instrument has taken off during lockdown. The platform Yousician, which provides interactive learning for guitar, bass, ukulele, piano and voice, currently reigns as the No. 1 app for music instruction while its sister product, GuitarTuna, is tops for guitar tuning.
Ask current writers and producers working in pop and hip-hop about their process and you soon learn that an acoustic guitar is often the beginning or the essence of a hit song. Among Variety‘s 2020 Hitmakers, the trio of Taz Taylor, Charlie Handsome and KC Supreme credited a guitar loop as the foundation for Trevor Daniel’s “Falling.” For Maren Morris’ “The Bones,” producer Greg Kurstin noted: “The first thing I noticed was Jimmy Robbins’ guitar hook; I wanted to keep the song rooted in that.”
“So many hit songs from 2020 started with a acoustic or electric guitar, whether it be a melody line or simple progression,” says songwriter and producer Jenna Andrews, whose recent credits include BTS’ “Dynamite” and Benee’s “Supalonely.”
And often, those guitar-based foundations remained through the finished product — for instance, 24KGoldn’s “Mood,” with its impossibly catchy sun-kissed guitar riff, and Powfu’s “death bed (coffee for your head).”
“I know it sounds kinda old school, but I love it when a well-recorded acoustic pops off on the radio,” says Sam Hollander, whose hits include the aforementioned “High Hopes” and Fitz and the Tantrums’ “HandClap.” “The bulk of my songs tend to be born on guitar. Without that foundation, the lyrics and melodies never really emote the heartbeat and emotion that I’m trying to dial in. There’s just a general warmth to it that’s hard to replicate. It’s like the warmest chocolate chip cookie.”
“I think the prevalence of guitar in 2020 has a lot to do with hip-hop producers using more emo and punk-rock influences,” offers Angie Pagano, whose AMP management company represents Tommy Brown (Ariana Grande, Blackpink) and Mr. Franks, among others. “Juice Wrld really helped bring this into the mainstream over the last few years. We’re seeing a great blend of emo and trap these days.”
Indeed, the year’s most-consumed hits leaned hip-hop — Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” landed at No. 1 on the Hitmakers list with Future and Drake, Jack Harlow and Megan Thee Stallion in the Top 10 — but even DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” the No. 3 song of the year, referenced a guitar in its chorus, albeit alongside mention of a Glock pistol. That visual may go against what Hollander calls “the Kumbaya vibe of the guitar,” but the song still features an acoustic strum at its core.
In the case of Styles’ 2020 successes, which also include the ubiquitous “Watermelon Sugar,” his producer further explained that, while aware of what was reacting on the charts at the time they were recording, Styles wasn’t about to chase the trends. Said Tom Hull: “We [thought], we can’t play the commercial game in terms of what’s happening right now. What we can do is make music that really resonates with us. There’s no blueprint. You just have faith. We love records from the ’70s and ’80s; weird prog rock music that might be a seven-minute instrumental; then you’re listening to Shania Twain, like, ‘This is awesome, too.’ The goal was to make something we will always love, and if it completely flops commercially, at least we know we love it. We have that.”