Slash is 47, Tom Morello is 48, and Jack White is 37 (older than two college first-years  combined) – and they’re the young ones. It’s no secret that the virtuoso rock god is dying. Revising Page or Hendrix is now a rarefied activity attractive only to a niche audience. How did it happen? Walk through a music store. You’ll see fewer guitar wonks noodling Strats than kids playing with sequencers and mixing boards to reprocess sounds tapped on tablets. Today an act like Radiohead, which  boasts talented instrumentalists but  is mostly electronic, represents the anti-model of “band.”  Sure, there’s a small craft-guitar subculture. Bon Iver designed an old-timey acoustic as an advertising stunt with Bushmills. But it’s more decoration than music-making tool: a sign that people would rather hang a guitar on a wall than wail a solo. “

Guitar Center’s research shows that kids aren’t picking up physical instruments,” says Nic Harcourt, a tastemaking DJ who hosts an American TV show, DirecTV’s Guitar Center Sessions,  as well as online and terrestrial radio shows. “You can make music on a computer now, so why pick up a guitar?” Few are, which has left Fender fretting financially as budget cuts decimate school music programs. But there’s a bright B side. The structure of bands has evolved. Ukes, MacBooks, banjos and horns are playing together better, creating new layers of sound. “It’s an exciting time to be a young musician; it just may not be exciting to be a middle-aged music lover,” says Harcourt. “People ask,  ‘Where’s the next great rock band?’  Is anyone looking for it?” The real question is: Do your preferences grow, or do you stop exploring music as you get older? The truly open-minded listener is exposed to more musical styles online than ever before. You just have to want to hear them. So while Van Halen-esque shredders may not be breeding as they once did, new musical models are being tested. The guitar hero could well be laid to rest, but maybe we’re seeing the rise of a new musical paradigm that will make us feel the way we felt  when we first heard Hendrix.

by Adam Baer
illustration by Emily Cooper

Published in Playboy South Africa September 2013