The COVID pandemic’s effects on the music industry have dominated this column for over a year. Now that most of North America is essentially acting as if COVID is in our collective rearview mirror, it might seem to be time to swivel to another topic. But is there an interesting corner of the music business untouched by the events of the last 18 months? From what we buy and how we buy it, to where we can play or listen to others playing, not to mention how we learn to play, every stage in the music-making process has been affected by COVID. It’s not just that something has changed. It’s more like everything has changed.
It may be a little early for long-range forecasts, but it appears that after grim statistics are merely hand-wringing history and masks just curious artifacts, we’ll probably still be waiting far longer for new instruments compared to 2019. And while guitar manufacturers can’t keep up with demand, at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area, lots more guitars are coming back on the market. Unlike after the financial meltdown a dozen years ago, it doesn’t seem that people are shedding guitars because of financial need, or because their vintage guitars are no longer appreciating in value. More people want guitars, and often want them ASAP, but at the same time more people are selling at least some of their guitars, so what gives?
The answer is that COVID’s turmoil hasn’t just changed how we shop for instruments we want to play. It has changed how we think about the guitars we already own, but aren’t using. Months of lockdown may have led to a lot more guitar playing, but such a prolonged period when we were never far from our guitars was also an extended moment of reckoning. As one customer put it as he plopped a prized vintage Gibson from the ’60s on the counter, “If being locked at home with this rig for the last six months hasn’t made me play it again, nothing will, so I might as well get rid of it.” One easy summary is that COVID robbed us of the excuses we’d long been using, especially when talking to ourselves, about why we hadn’t been playing some instruments as much as we used to or wanted to.
COVID’s turmoil hasn’t just changed how we shop for instruments we want to play. It has changed how we think about the guitars we already own, but aren’t using.
Lots of people adopted pets during the pandemic. Now that they can socialize again and have to go back to work, many of those animals are, sadly, being put up for adoption. While that COVID-inspired 7-string or terz guitar isn’t as demanding as a puppy and won’t suffer when it changes owners, how long will people keep an instrument they no longer have time to practice playing in hopes of mastering its quirks? Those who restricted their experiments to new tunings and playing styles may be the post-pandemic winners as all they’ll have in excess are a few unusual picks and some weird sets of strings. But if lots of the stay-at-home–inspired instrument purchases become little more than excess baggage that’s “oh so COVID,” there may be another wave of instruments returning to the market.
Trends in guitar collecting are fascinating and often change in identifiable phases. When guitar collecting was picking up steam decades ago, many people gathered guitars that reflected the wide range of styles offered as the instrument’s popularity skyrocketed in the middle of the last century. Guitars dominated popular music at the time and collections often mirrored the wide variety of guitar sounds the collectors had heard, especially when they were young. No collection was complete without an orange Gretsch archtop, a Martin dreadnought, and maybe a Guild 12-string. Often included was a metal-bodied National, a Dobro, plus at least one classical guitar. But in recent years, such broad-view collecting has fallen out of favor and, instead, many collectors are micro-focused. One person wants a complete set of all the Gibson flattop models shown in the company’s catalogs in the late 1930s and early ’40s, for instance, while another wants only Martins with the rare “dark top” (sunburst) option.
COVID has inspired a lot of people to purchase lots of instruments, and as players stretch out, often from boredom as much as curiosity, the quest for variety seems to have returned. A few years from now, will we look at a list of fretted instruments including an open-back banjo, a mandola, and several different types of guitars, and think “That looks like a COVID collection?” Only time will tell.