Is The Guitar Dead?

by | 10 May, 2023 | 2 comments

Back in 1938, Guitar’s Future In Doubt.

Back in 1938, it was proposed that in order for the humble guitar player to maintain their place in future music ensembles, including orchestras, musicians needed to better hone their chops, study music and challenge and persuade band leader’s decisions in their choice of instrumentation.

The following article is copied from a magazine called BMG (Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar) dated December 1938 by writer, musician and dance band leader. Thanks to Mick O’Neil for the magazine.

What Next Guitarists? by Harry Reser.

Will the guitar pass into oblivion and become as obsolete as its predecessor, the banjo?

There are many indications which prove this speculation to be a fact. In music publications; among our players; in the instrumentation of leading bands; in radio and stage presentations; etc., the interest in the guitar is beginning to wane and its gradual elimination as a necessary unit in the orchestra is becoming more probable every day. What is the cause of this and what can be done to prevent the same fate suffered by the banjo? I believe I can answer to these questions:

First, let us take a moment to analyse the reasons for the downfall of the banjo and why it was supplanted by the guitar. Was it the quality of the instruments? I would never agree with that theory. Was it the inherent weakness of the four strings? Well, now we might be getting somewhere near the real reason so let’s consider the tenor-banjo; its weak points and its good points.

Harry ReserAs a solo instrument for the puroose of executing a fast, one string technique, the tenor banjo, with its standard tuning in fifths, was ideal. As this particular instrument was really the first of the big money instruments (although the banjolin was the first of the banjo cycle) it was pounced upon by wide awake violinists and cellists who saw opportunity knocking at their doors. They immediately claimed it as a legitimate
double and merely felt that a new money making fad had been dumped right into their laps. But these wide awake converted violinists and cellists had no thought for the future of the tenor banjo.

Take lessons? Why should we? It’s tuned in fifths and all one has to do in order to go to work on fine paying jobs is to learn a few fancy strokes with the right hand. A few fancy strokes – with exactly the same results as playing a few fancy slides on the trombone.

However, in the rush of players to the tenor-banjo, which somewhat resembled the historic gold rush of ’41, very few had any love for the instrument for its own sake; very few considered it a legitimate instrument and treated it accordingly.

I have remarked that the fifth tuning was very pratical for solo work, but on the other hand it was very impractical for modern chord formation because of the constant duplication of notes that were two octaves apart. That made a very unbalanced open chord and in most cases, unless the player was the possessor of a very fine instrument, the listener heard only the two highest pitched notes of each chord. This limitation in chord compactness was the direct cause for desertion from the tenor-banjo tuning to the standard five-string banjo tuning. Having no use for the short thumb string used by the finger players, but still in. quest for more noise, the pick player eclipsed the 3-finger style banjoist, took his instrument minus the fifth string and called it the plectrum banjo.

However, even the discovery of the plectrum banjo tuning with its ability to give the player a closer, compact chord, did not save the instrument from its destiny. What then, was the answer to this overnight French leave of the banjo? After much consideration I have come to the conclusion that a change in the music cycle plus the low average of musicianship were the principal reasons for its exit. A change in the music cycle often takes a long time, and the3 transition is so gradual that it is almost imperceptible.

It was during one of these subtle changes in the music cycle that the banjo first came into prominence, namely, from the Rag-Time cycle to the Fox-Trot cycle. Its initial appearance was at the height of the One Step. The One Step was a fast dance which was in keeping with the unrest and activity that was current during the war years of 1914 to 1918 and, mind you, the banjo was almost indispensable immediately after its introduction. It had reached the enviable position of being the second most needed and popular instrument. The piano, due to its self-completeness was, and is, the .first.

All advertising and publicity carrying a life of the party, college gaiety motif, was sure to show one or more members of the group holding a banjo. Its popularity was tremendous. Then without warning of what complications would arise in the future, the Fox Trot was introduced, with its slower tempo. A new music style was in the making and dancing, due to this slower tempo, was also changing. Romance was taking possession of the dance floor. No more wild chasing around the parquet to the din of inspired drummers and banjoists. The demand was for smoother combinations and softer music. Gradually our paying public became more insistent for slow and even slower sweet fox trots. Now this demand could have been met by the banjoists, had they felt the trend of the public’s taste in music. but what were the boys doing still banging away with a few fancy strokes: on instruments that in the hands of good players at their best, are loud; limited in their chord construction; and whose tones were not in keeping with the now prevailing style of music. Slow sustained melodies were the order of the day and the banjo could not sustain a whole note in a moderate dance tempo unless by employing the tremolo which was considered completely out of date. Definitely, the banjo was on its way out and yet while the instrument still has legions of admirers throughout the world, it has, through many more causes than listed above, been removed from the high money brackets.

The decline of the banjo was inevitable. However, this decline might have been tapered down and prolonged for many years if the player’s ability had been equal to the demands made upon it, but the low average of musicianship prevented that. The average player did not know how to cope with the situation, so the banjo died a premature death. Is that what is going to happen to the guitar? The necessary requisite then, was, and now is competent teachers. Teachers with complete study material for the instrument. Teachers who can take either the beginner or the professional, and teach him to read music, to improvise, to make his guitar valuable to his employer. It is unbelievable that thousands of players today are merely content to read symbols and, during the course of a year’s professional playing, may never actually read one note of music. The change from banjo to guitar was so simple that most players missed the real lesson to be learned from this upheaval. Are conditions again changing?

Examine the personnel of some of the country’s most famous orchestras. You are right! They are not using guitar. Here is a rather disquieting
discovery that should make every thoughtful guitarist pause and search for a remedy. Again in my estimation, a change in the music cycle and a low average of player ability are responsible for the elimination of the guitar from some well-known combinations. What the public know as swing, the musicians know as a “rhythmic style of scoring ” in which a definite type of attack is employed in conjunction with accepted figurations. As it is almost a necessity to have at least four brass and four saxophones in arranging for and playing “scored ” swing , many leaders have decided to keep the reeds and brass intact, and dispense with the guitarist who may be pounding out a muffled rhythm that cannot be heard ten feet from the bandstand. Now granted that the leader of an orchestra certainly has the right to choose his own instrumentation, I still maintain that a guitarist who plays intelligently; reads music; has a basic understanding of harmony; can improvise attractive backgrounds for vocal solos; and, in general, “stand out” in the composite appeal picture of his unit, will make it very difficult for the said leader to employ a brass man in his place.

If you can only read symbols at present, the title of this article should cause you to do some serious thinking. Should the guitar through its limitations lose favour, then what next, Mr. Guitarist? Anything that takes the place of the guitar would certainly require more musicianship than the reading of symbols. Study your instrument now . And with a competent teacher. The experience gained through study of the guitar is money in your pocket, and will help further a higher standard of general musician- ship. We must prevent there being any inroads upon, or changes in the status of the guitar in the present dance bands, unless it be for the better.

Hary Reser is heralded as perhaps the greatest banjo player of his time.


  1. Wayne Thompson

    Not only the guitar but those new fangled wireless, automobiles, and telephones will all no doubt be redundant as people learn to once again live in small caring communicating communities.

  2. Eric Cloud

    How times have changed. Not only is the guitar a focus of most every band, but the banjo is just as prominent as ever in some music genres.Jazz, Bluegrass and Country come to mind.


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