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Old 10-19-2019, 01:26 PM
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Why is the guitar the primary instrument in rock music?


I've always wondered how it is such a huge amount of popular music is guitar driven. Why?

As Elton John demonstrates, rock music doesn't HAVE to be guitar driven, and modern pop music has spun off varieties of music, like hip hop, that don't much use guitars... but for decades guitars have been incredible central to rock. It didn't actually start this way. Early rock and roll was often piano driven.

Why guitars?
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Old 10-19-2019, 01:52 PM
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Because girls don't throw their panties onstage for tuba players.
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Old 10-19-2019, 02:11 PM
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Back in the day famous piano players had plenty of female admirers.

Guitars are portable. A cheap guitar can be bought by people without a ton of money, like the British kids who discovered rock and blues and re-made them into what rock is today. Electric guitars can go very loud--up to eleven, I'm told--and have cool effects. And you can move around on stage and have fun.

Also let's not forget the randomness of fashion and its snowball effect. Kids see a guitar oriented band, think it sounds cool, and try to emulate it.
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Old 10-19-2019, 02:25 PM
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I've always wondered how it is such a huge amount of popular music is guitar driven. Why?

As Elton John demonstrates, rock music doesn't HAVE to be guitar driven, and modern pop music has spun off varieties of music, like hip hop, that don't much use guitars... but for decades guitars have been incredible central to rock. It didn't actually start this way. Early rock and roll was often piano driven.

Why guitars?
Well Elton John is kind of a weeny. Not that he hasn't usually had a guitarist in his band. OTOH Jerry Lee Lewis did ok.
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Old 10-19-2019, 02:58 PM
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Well Elton John is kind of a weeny. Not that he hasn't usually had a guitarist in his band.
That would be Davey Johnstone.
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Old 10-19-2019, 03:47 PM
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It's easier than lugging around an orchestra.
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Old 10-19-2019, 03:55 PM
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Everyone knew guitar groups were going out of style in 1962.

Well, at least Decca Records did....
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Old 10-19-2019, 04:05 PM
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Jethro Tull has the flute.
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Old 10-19-2019, 04:08 PM
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Dulcimers don't rock.
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Old 10-19-2019, 04:16 PM
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Not just the guitar, but the electric guitar. Something about that distortion pissed people off, and kids love to love what irritates others.

Last edited by Personal; 10-19-2019 at 04:19 PM.
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Old 10-19-2019, 04:41 PM
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Not just the guitar, but the electric guitar. Something about that distortion pissed people off, and kids love to love what irritates others.
Do people seriously still believe that the reason kids got into rock was to piss off their parents? Why are the same kids still listening to rock now that they're in their 50s and 60s?

When I first heard rock and roll I immediately fell in love. I was just blown away by the sound and wanted to hear more. Annoying my parents was the last thing on my mind. I would have much preferred my parents to like or at least tolerate the music, so there wouldn't be an argument when I played it. I don't think this experience is much different from most other musicians and fans.

Last edited by Larry Borgia; 10-19-2019 at 04:43 PM.
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Old 10-19-2019, 04:42 PM
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Do people seriously still believe that the reason kids got into rock was to piss off their parents?
Kids did not get into rock to annoy their parents. Annoying their parents was a bonus.
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Old 10-19-2019, 05:32 PM
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More seriously, guitars were relative cheap instruments, especially if you started out with a low-end model (you can pick up one now at Wal-Mart for $40). They are also relatively easy to learn to play, even without formal lessons (violins, etc. are very difficult to learn). They allow you to sing and play at the same time (can't do that with a wind or brass instrument). You can take them with you (try that with a piano). You don't need a band.

Other instruments have some of these advantages, but few have all. Plus people found it more versatile than instruments like the banjo or ukulele.

So once you be proficient with an acoustic guitar, you then might move to electric. Nothing to relearn, plus the ability to play in front of larger groups.

Early groups were piano driven mostly because of amplification issues. Once guitars became electric, they took the lead.
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Old 10-19-2019, 06:36 PM
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Because girls don't throw their panties onstage for tuba players.
Then those other tuba players ain’t doin’ it right.
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Old 10-19-2019, 06:50 PM
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Early groups were piano driven mostly because of amplification issues. Once guitars became electric, they took the lead.
Hold on. I KNOW you know electric guitars have been knocking around since Charlie Christian banged his first amplifier together out of plywood, used bits, and coconuts (for all I know) down in his grandmother’s basement in Texas in the late 30s. And then got to New York somehow, blew Benny Goodman’s mind, and got hired as the first real jazz guitar soloist.

After ten years of experimentation, Les Paul started building solid-body electric guitars for Gibson in 1952. The Fender Telecaster went on sale the same year.

The R&B bands that were (along with C&W groups) the forerunners of rock and roll were like small jazz bands: as well and piano and electric guitar, they featured trumpet, trombone, and a couple of saxes. As the 50s moved on, brass instruments gradually dropped out. But early rock and roll kept at least one tenor sax honker in the personnel.
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Old 10-19-2019, 08:28 PM
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Sex sells.

Unlike pianos, guitars are phallic. So are bass guitars, but with guitars you can make screeching and moaning sounds. Its sounds range from whisper to thunder.

Also, there's much bigger degree of intimacy in experiencing live performance because guitar's interface - the fretboard - is often facing the audience. You can watch the magic of fingers knitting the music right in front of your eyes. Keyboards are usually lying flat on the table/stand so you are not able to see clearly what a musician is doing. (and strap-on synths - the "keytars" came in the 80s when guitar was already well established as a king of the stage, and they just looked awkward)

Even today, audiences prefer to see at least some gadget with knobs rather than a laptop and computer mouse.
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Old 10-19-2019, 09:25 PM
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Am wondering if there's a phallic component to it.
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Old 10-19-2019, 09:35 PM
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They are also relatively easy to learn to play, even without formal lessons (violins, etc. are very difficult to learn).
So you say, but Paganini said, "The violin is my mistress, but the guitar is my master."
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Old 10-19-2019, 10:33 PM
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Because girls don't throw their panties onstage for tuba players.
Interestingly, I just read a couple of days ago that the first documented panty throwing was at Little Richard. So pianos got some cred.
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Old 10-19-2019, 10:57 PM
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This goes back a long time. I asked a musicologist why symphony orchestras were built around stringed instruments rather than horns - since horns came first. She said, "because horns were made for outside, and strings were made for inside."

The progenitors of rock and roll, ie., country, bluegrass, and blues, were based around stringed instruments played by soloists or small (compared to an orchestra) groups.
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Old 10-20-2019, 12:45 AM
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Guitarists, I think.

Leo Fender intended his guitar to be for country musicians, Les Paul intended his to be for jazz players but they were overwhelming adopted by rock musicians.

And from Buddy Holly and Scotty Moore onward guitarists kept finding their own different sounds. Many of these proved really influential and dictated the course that rock music took rather than just being another instrument.

As Kent Clark points out, all the infrastructure associated with music influences the type of music played. David Byrne did a TED talk on How architecture helped music evolve.
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Old 10-20-2019, 03:07 AM
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Well being a guitar player, I feel I should answer this.
I'd say the one big thing about the guitar being the predominant rock and roll instrument was Elvis Presley.
Yes, the story of rock and roll did not begin with him, but he pretty much brought rock and roll to the mainstream. He made rock and roll the new, popular music and what instrument did he play? (It wasn't the glockenspiel!!)
Almost overnight, the guitar was the "hip" instrument to play. And yes, there were some early piano-playing "rockers" but guitar predominated since 1955.
Then I'd say with the Beatles' huge success, the guitar was etched firmly into place.
I don't know the source for this statistic but I once read that Elvis Presley and the Beatles were responsible for the sale of millions of guitars.
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Old 10-20-2019, 03:14 AM
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More seriously, guitars were relative cheap instruments, especially if you started out with a low-end model (you can pick up one now at Wal-Mart for $40). They are also relatively easy to learn to play, even without formal lessons (violins, etc. are very difficult to learn). They allow you to sing and play at the same time (can't do that with a wind or brass instrument). You can take them with you (try that with a piano). You don't need a band.
This, exactly. Guitars are easily portable, easy to learn, cheap to buy if you want them to be, and allow the lead to sing at the same time.

My ex took years of formal lessons on classical violin, and I took years of formal lessons on classical flute as well as piano. Both of us learned how to read music, and we were each able to read notes on a page like we were reading a book. But my buddy plays guitar beautifully, without any lessons, and without being able to read music. He's amazed that I can read music, and can play it on flute and piano; and I'm amazed that he can simply pick up a guitar and play what he hears.

It seems to me that guitar is much easier than violin or flute to pick up and play.
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Old 10-20-2019, 04:43 AM
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So you say, but Paganini said, "The violin is my mistress, but the guitar is my master."
Counterpoint : you can be shit at guitar and still have it sound kind of awesome - rock proverbially runs on four chords after all. And having a bad or dirty guitar sound isn't bad, it can even be a plus (see: Nirvana, early AC/DC, any punk band whatsoever...)

But if you're shit at violin, it'll always sound like you're violently raping cats with their claws on a blackboard.
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Old 10-20-2019, 11:38 AM
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Counterpoint : you can be shit at guitar and still have it sound kind of awesome - rock proverbially runs on four chords after all. And having a bad or dirty guitar sound isn't bad, it can even be a plus (see: Nirvana, early AC/DC, any punk band whatsoever...)

But if you're shit at violin, it'll always sound like you're violently raping cats with their claws on a blackboard.
Ha! I used to live next door to a kid learning violin. My cat would cower in fear. Your description is spot-on.

It's worth noting that guitar isn't just the instrument of choice for rock music, and that reason probably applies elsewhere, too. You may need 4 chords for rock, but like the fella says, country music is just 3 chords and the truth.
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Old 10-20-2019, 12:36 PM
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It can't be just the chords, though? Anyone can probably pick those same 3 chords out on a piano.

The piano is bulkier and more expensive than a guitar, as pointed out. And if someone is too cheap for music lessons and is going to rely on massive distortion/harmonics/fatness to cover up bad technique, electric guitars used to be cheaper than electric pianos. And if you're a wannabe, why not imitate what you have seen working? All that seems at least plausible. Sitting in front of a grand piano has always looked cool, though. Also cello.
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Old 10-20-2019, 12:39 PM
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I think a mention should also be made of the popularity of skiffle during the 1950's which put hand held instruments to the fore, quite a lot of UK artists from the '60's cut their teeth on skiffle and in the US skiffle was the voice of Woody Guthrie and the folk scene - so from that point of view home made sounds had a lot more authenticity, add this to the blues sound and it doesn't take much to add in a little bit of rhythm to get rock and roll.
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Old 10-20-2019, 01:00 PM
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I wanted to add, it may be easier to perform highly polyphonic music on a guitar than on a bowed instrument. That does not affect a piano, of course.
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Old 10-20-2019, 01:04 PM
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Some credit needs to be given to the vast array of sounds that an electric guitar can produce. Pianos have a huge range, but they always sound like a piano.
Guitars can make sounds that mimic other instruments, or sound like nothing else.
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Old 10-20-2019, 01:14 PM
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Prepared piano

Also note the list of extended piano technique. It's not like most of these were unknown during the heyday of rock and roll.
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Old 10-20-2019, 02:13 PM
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I'd say in addition the qualities of being cheap, portable, loud, and easy to get the skill necessary to do a decent accompaniment; the guitar allows you to be expressive in a way a lot of other instruments don't. Even before you start messing with the electronic portions of an electric guitar's sound, playing a stringed instrument, it just gives you more methods to make sounds. A piano can't make the sounds a guitar makes with bends, or when playing with a slide or a whammy bar.
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Old 10-20-2019, 02:23 PM
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Some credit needs to be given to the vast array of sounds that an electric guitar can produce. Pianos have a huge range, but they always sound like a piano.
Guitars can make sounds that mimic other instruments, or sound like nothing else.
Guitar also has the advantage over the piano in that you can add expressive qualities to the notes like bends, vibrato, harmonics, etc. Now, granted, a lot of that may not have been being used in early rock and roll, but certainly in blues music, those note articulations were especially important. Blues on the piano sounds fine (and I'm speaking as somebody whose primary instrument is the piano/keyboards), but you can't make a piano wail out those nice bent notes (especially the "blue" notes, which, while often described as a flatted third, a flatted fifth, and a flatted seventh, really don't lie quite exactly there. And that emotional wail you can get from bend to or from those notes aren't quite duplicated on the piano, and those sorts of figures from the blues were important in the sound of rock music.)
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Old 10-20-2019, 02:36 PM
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Oops: scabpicker basically ninjaed me there as I was thinking up my reply.
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Old 10-20-2019, 02:59 PM
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Because girls don't throw their panties onstage for tuba players.
Yeah, I can attest to the fact that tuba players don’t score high on the “panties thrown onstage” scale.

I learned to play piano by ear at an early age. My older sister was a gifted concert and jazz pianist, and I guess some of that rubbed off on me. I don’t play much any more, but I can still crank out some boogie woogie when asked.

I joined school band late, in middle school. I wanted to play a cool instrument like keyboards, or guitar (I got an electric guitar from the Sears catalog the year before and taught myself to play reasonably well), or even trumpet (Louie Armstrong was still a cool cat in the 60’s).

But, nooo, the school band teacher said he only had only one instrument left for me to play—the tuba!

Dagnabbit, I don’t want to play that frickin’ lame instrument!

But the teacher sweetened the deal and told me I could play electric bass in jazz band if I played sousaphone in marching band and tuba in concert band.

Well, ok, I’ll take the bad in order to get the good. I loved bass guitar. Not quite as awesome as lead guitar, but Sir Paul attracted plenty of girls playing bass, so, what the heck.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the tuba is a fine instrument. But, for a pubescent middle school twit hoping to up his ante in the chick-magnet sphere of things, “tuba” is about the last instrument you can choose to accomplish that goal. It scores below cow-bell and glockenspiel.

I hated marching band! Lugging around that sousaphone was a pain in the ass and I got no respect. Yeah, I got panties thrown at me—dude’s dirty tighty-whities along with other garbage thrown into the bell of my sousaphone by idiots while I marched (usually out of step) in the pre-game parades.

I endured concert band on the tuba, but it didn’t go well. First song of the first concert was Thus Spake Zarathustra. I had the opening bars playing solo and I started on the wrong note. I knew it was the wrong note, but I was too frozen by embarrassment to change it. The conductor/band leader’s face turned red with anger. That sucked.

But, at least I had jazz band playing electric bass to look forward to. Jazz band started in Spring. Except the band leader left in winter for a better gig and was replaced by a guy with horn-rimmed glasses and a crew cut. I knew that was trouble. And, sure enough, the new guy told me he didn’t want an electric bass in jazz band, I had to play upright bass!

Fuck me, another giant instrument with zero chic-magnet appeal!

I did get to play the Hammond B3 organ with Leslie speaker later in high school jazz band, so that was ok. I got some “cool” redemption playing Santana’s Black Magic Woman.

And I later played electric piano and synth in a college band for chump change. I even got to play electric bass in another group (I played a mean Come Together). Never got to play lead guitar, though. No panties were ever thrown my way.

As far as I can tell, the original long-hair “rock star” was Franz Liszt. Lisztomania was over a century before Beatlemania. I would not be surprised to learn ol’ Franz got a fair share of Victorian era pantaloons thrown on his stage to his mesmerizing cadenzas, octaves and "flying trapeze" style of piano playing.

Liszt was the ultimate cool cat, man! And, he never played lead guitar.
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Old 10-20-2019, 03:16 PM
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Since I mentioned Paganini, he also said, "Non sono bello, ma quando mi ascoltano, le donne cadono tutte ai miei piedi". Plus ça change....
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Old 10-20-2019, 10:24 PM
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Standard classic-tuned guitar (EAdgbe') is very easy to play badly and very hard to play well. After 55 years of practice, I'm sort-of okay as long as I avoid exotic chords. Basic guitar fingering carries over to 'ukuleles, banjitars, and guitar-like synths. Basic banjo fingering fits tenor guitars and mandolas (Gdae').

Banjitar: guitar neck on banjo body. During the late-1800's banjo craze, guitar and 'uke and mandolin necks were so attached, so players needn't learn a new instrument. And dulcimers do TOO rock! When electrified. But my dulcimer-banjo needs no power.

Guitars and their portable ancestors and variants have been popular for a LONG time. Such lutes CAN be cheap, and are easily restrung and/or retuned for easier (or harder) playing and cute effects. And my Martin Backpacker guitar doubles as a canoe paddle. But I digress. Guitars are IMHO the most protean of instruments, ranging from 0 to 100+ strings, zero to many necks, tiny to huge to virtual bodies, with any skill levels.

Why do git-fiddles (as Grandpa called them) abound in many musics? Along with reasons already given, because they're convenient and flexible. Even without Charlie Christian, Les Paul, and Elvis; even without electricity; they'd still be everywhere, as they are around the world.

But why rock? Electricity, for sure. Blame Lee DeForest.
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Old 10-21-2019, 12:23 AM
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Another reason for the popularity of guitar and piano is that you can play chords. How many times have you been at a family gathering or party and someone starts playing a guitar and piano - and everyone starts singing along. That would be very difficult to do with a violin or a trumpet. Chords allow the guitar or piano to have a full, rich kind of sound.

Getting back to the "electric guitar in rock music" topic, the electric guitar can be very expressive. I'm rather old but for those of you that might remember songs like "Gloria" (G-L-O-R-I-A) by the Shadows of Knight or "Hey Little Girl" by the Syndicate of Sound, those songs had a guitar that was adjusted to produce an incredible amount of treble. Certainly not the kind of sound you'd want for every song, but then you can easily turn a knob to adjust the guitar to have less treble and then you can have a guitar for a subtler song such as "Yesterday". (Again, can you produce that much of a tone change with a trumpet or violin?)
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Old 10-21-2019, 03:16 AM
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Another reason for the popularity of guitar and piano is that you can play chords.
Many chords are fairly easy on guitar, whether tuned standard, modal, or open. Piano is a bit tougher. Chords are also straightforward on mandola, tenor guitar and banjo, cuatro, bouzouki, cittern, tiple (TEE-play), Cümbüş 'oud, and other lutes.

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How many times have you been at a family gathering or party and someone starts playing a guitar and piano...
One side of my family would whip out guitar and fiddle; the other side, a harmonium and fat-belly mandolin. Neighbors produced cuatro and a small marimba. Various families, various traditions.

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Getting back to the "electric guitar in rock music" topic, the electric guitar can be very expressive.
As can most any electric instrument, given effects pedals. Most of the instruments I mentioned above have appeared on rock recordings, often to great effect.

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(Again, can you produce that much of a tone change with a trumpet or violin?)
If they're wired and processed, yes. I've heard unbelievable sounds from horns, reeds, bowed strings, and body percussion.
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Old 10-21-2019, 06:07 AM
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More seriously, guitars were relative cheap instruments, especially if you started out with a low-end model (you can pick up one now at Wal-Mart for $40). They are also relatively easy to learn to play, even without formal lessons (violins, etc. are very difficult to learn). They allow you to sing and play at the same time (can't do that with a wind or brass instrument). You can take them with you (try that with a piano). You don't need a band.
Lots of good answers, notably in this post. I can't stress the bolded part enough, though.

I've never played the violin but I tried my hand at the cello for about 5 years (close enough for the purpose of this thread) and I played the guitar for over 30 years.

Bowed instruments such as the former are incomparabily more difficult to play. Not only is bowhold really awkward and the "wave" motion necessary to produce sound very unnatural (watch a video analysing bowings and try to think of another everyday activity that requires such a weird move) but producing a note that's in tune reliably (keyword) takes years and years and years and years of daily practice. On the guitar, producing sound is very natural. And as far as intonation is concerned, just put your finger at the right spot and you're golden, provided your instrument is tuned, but that's a given for all string instruments. No contest really.

As for that Paganini quote, it's cute but I'm not even sure he was referring the relative difficulty of both instruments.
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Old 10-21-2019, 07:30 AM
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The guitar is the primary instrument of rock because it was the primary instrument of the kind of blues that early rock largely cribbed from, for reasons already given here but magnified in the situation of those blues musicians - cheap, portable, versatile.
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Old 10-21-2019, 09:25 AM
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Really an excellent thread of answers. Thanks.
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Old 10-21-2019, 02:32 PM
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With guitar you can play rhythm or melody or both at the same time.
I played the trombone for two years and never got to the point where it sounded good, I was serviceable on the guitar in two months.
The only other instrument that is as versatile is the piano and that requires sitting down and staying put, whereas a guitar player can roam the stage and look at his audience.
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Old 10-22-2019, 03:09 AM
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The only other instrument that is as versatile is the piano and that requires sitting down and staying put, whereas a guitar player can roam the stage and look at his audience.
You'd think the keytar would be more popular
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Old 10-22-2019, 01:40 PM
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Drums speak to the feet. Keyboards speak to the head. Guitars speak to the soul.

More or less.
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Old 10-22-2019, 02:43 PM
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It can't be just the chords, though? Anyone can probably pick those same 3 chords out on a piano.
I can, but it doesn't sound nearly as good. There is a lot more variation in sound available on a guitar, based on how you play it. You get bends, percussive hits, hammer ons, harmonics, etc. And that's before you add in distortion.

As a modern-style worship pianist for years, I often had to learn how to take a guitar driven song and make it sound good on keyboard. And it involved much more than just playing the chords.

I didn't want to sound like that SNL sketch where Will Ferrell plays the piano as a music teacher.
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Old 10-22-2019, 03:45 PM
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Do people seriously still believe that the reason kids got into rock was to piss off their parents? Why are the same kids still listening to rock now that they're in their 50s and 60s?
People pretty much always listen to the same music they liked when they were 12-13 years-old. that's a known thing. So if you liked pissing your parents off then, you love that shit for life. It's why I mostly still listen to golden age hip-hop and alternative rock, even though I have an open mind and eclectic tastes.
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Old 10-23-2019, 02:46 PM
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This, exactly. Guitars are easily portable, easy to learn, cheap to buy if you want them to be, and allow the lead to sing at the same time.

My ex took years of formal lessons on classical violin, and I took years of formal lessons on classical flute as well as piano. Both of us learned how to read music, and we were each able to read notes on a page like we were reading a book. But my buddy plays guitar beautifully, without any lessons, and without being able to read music. He's amazed that I can read music, and can play it on flute and piano; and I'm amazed that he can simply pick up a guitar and play what he hears.

It seems to me that guitar is much easier than violin or flute to pick up and play.
I think the most cogent answers have been addressed and Spoons reminded me of an old joke: How do you stop a guitarist from playing? Put music notation in front of them.
With the advent of tablature being widely available it's even more so unless you happen to have some time in front of a piano or keyboard.
Besides, during the heyday of arena rock the image of the lead singer leaning into the mic while ripping up power chords is iconic.
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Old 10-23-2019, 03:18 PM
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Dulcimers don't rock.
But they do get hammered.
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Old 10-23-2019, 03:33 PM
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Originally Posted by actualliberalnotoneofthose View Post
People pretty much always listen to the same music they liked when they were 12-13 years-old. that's a known thing. So if you liked pissing your parents off then, you love that shit for life. It's why I mostly still listen to golden age hip-hop and alternative rock, even though I have an open mind and eclectic tastes.
But I didn't like pissing off my parents. I liked the music. And I really doubt my experience was unique.

If I just wanted to piss off my parents, why stop at music? Why not record road work, with jackhammer, and play that at full volume?

Was pissing off your parents the only reason you got into hip-hop? Were you really thinking "I hate this awful music, but it annoys the folks so I'm gonna play it LOUD!" I don't think so. I'm gonna guess you liked the way it sounded.

Also, I don't buy that people's tastes are shaped at 12. (12?) At least not everyone. I'm in my fifties, and still learn about new artists. And even for people for whom music isn't important, I think they still get exposed to new stuff through their twenties.

Last edited by Larry Borgia; 10-23-2019 at 03:35 PM.
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Old 10-23-2019, 04:07 PM
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If I just wanted to piss off my parents, why stop at music? Why not record road work, with jackhammer, and play that at full volume?
What do you mean, "stop at music"? That is music, at least the kind of music grandpa is always listening to....
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