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Fall of Gibson: Where have all the guitar heroes gone?

a shift in thought

For more than 50 years, rock was synonymous with the electric guitar, and the electric guitar was synonymous with Gibson. When that iconic company filed for bankruptcy last week, it put a punctuation mark on just how much electronic dance music and hip-hop have transformed America's music scene.

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Blues music legend B.B. King performs on the Frampton's Guitar Circus 2013 Tour at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore. The maker of the Gibson guitar, omnipresent for decades on the American music stage, has filed for bankruptcy protection after wrestling for years with debt. Sales of electric guitars have dropped by about one-third over the past decade.

Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP/File

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Growing up off-the-grid in the rural West, Tim Montana still remembers that moment, at 6, when he received a nylon-string guitar as a gift. He learned to play it by candlelight. It led to the moment when ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons handed him a Gibson Les Paul guitar right off the Nashville, Tenn., factory line in 2013.

Mr. Montana, whose anthem "This Beard Came Here to Party" was adopted by the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 pennant run, was rocked like much of the music world last week when global luthier Gibson Brands, maker of the iconic Les Paul ax, filed for bankruptcy. The company is leaving flagging revenues and $100 million of debt as it seeks bankruptcy protection in order to keep the doors open.

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Popular music is more diverse and eclectic than ever, driven as much by synth musings and syncopation as power chords and soaring solos. And Gibson's fall is in part a global economics story about branding, innovation, conglomeration, and lifestyle. But for Montana and countless other musicians, the Gibson bankruptcy is a reckoning of sorts: The electric guitar has lost its shine. Not only has the actual guitar hero gone missing –  the creator of "Guitar Hero" went out of business.

"Just to see a giant company like [Gibson] file for bankruptcy, it makes you think about how many guys have worked there, how many lives it has changed, how much music has been made," says Montana, who commissioned a commemorative Gibson guitar for the late "American Sniper" Chris Kyle, which sold at a charity auction for $117,000. "Whatever the catalyst [for the bankruptcy], to be that big and not figure it out, OK, it's a bummer."

Undeniably rock and roll has come back from the brink of death many times, including when Nirvana took out "hair metal" (considered by many as a mercy killing) with the release of "Nevermind" in 1991. Just a year later, however, Neil Young prophesied in "Natural Beauty": "I have  heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound."

The current nadir cannot be denied: Americans just aren't as in love with the electric guitar as they once were. Sales have fallen by nearly a third since 2006, with rock fading in favor of electronic dance music, hip-hop, and computerized chords. The past two years have seen some of the biggest rock musicians – Prince, Tom Petty – pass away. Chuck Berry was laid to rest last year, his beloved cherry-red Gibson bolted to the coffin.

Dave Grohl, a member of Nirvana and frontman for The Foo Fighters, noted recently that the face of punk rock today is hip-hop artist Lil Pump, whose music features R-rated, misogynistic rhymes, but not guitar chords.

"Playing electric guitar is not half as cool as it was 10 years ago and electronic instruments, to be fair, provide a lot more creative opportunities than a guitar," says University of Alabama at Birmingham historian André Millard, editor of "The Electric Guitar." On the other hand, Gibson's current woes don't "necessarily reflect back on the guitar playing fraternity that much. It's still a rite of passage for many young people to play electric guitar."

From Mother Maybelle to Slash

It is all a faint echo from when Mother Maybelle Carter became the nation's first guitar hero. The country titan introduced the "Carter scratch" picking style in the 1930s, showcasing her Gibson L-5 archtop. The Gibson legends only piled up from there, from Elvis to U2's The Edge, from Neil Young to Slash of Guns 'n' Roses.

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"Gibson's guitars are found at ground zero for almost every modern genre of American music," says John Troutman, the curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "Even before the days of electric amplification, you could find guitars in practically every vernacular American genre, from jazz, to hillbilly, to blues, corridos, and polka. Musicians have always looked for the best tools to capture the sounds in their head, and for vernacular music throughout most of the 20th century, those sounds included guitars."

Founded in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1902 and later relocated to Nashville, Gibson led the way by creating high-end instruments at scale. But then innovation gave way to streamlining and cost-cutting. And when Gibson did innovate in the past few years with its auto-tuning "guitar robot," it seemed to epitomize a company with a "reverse Midas touch," says Nashville guitar historian George Gruhn. Outgoing CEO Henry Juszkiewicz wanted to turn the firm into a "music lifestyle" company, but costly acquisitions at high interest rates ultimately sank it. Going forward, the company vows to refocus on its core products: electric guitars made in Nashville and acoustics made in Bozeman, Mont.

Gibson's struggles are intertwined with those of Guitar Center, which is also in dire straits. Fender, too, is struggling, but has kept afloat by bending toward less-expensive guitars, and looking more aggressively at trends. Ukuleles are one current growth market.

Electrified guitar music is "absolutely not" dead, says Mr. Gruhn, co-author of "Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars." But "there are plenty of changes going on ... demographic changes, technological changes, a changing economy, and the baby boomers, who were some of the best customers the guitar industry has ever had, have aged upward and are no longer in the active acquisition phase of their life cycle. And a lot of the Millennials enjoy rap and hip-hop and electronic dance music that doesn't in any way incorporate guitars or even recognizable musical instruments."

Rebel yell, accompanied by strings

Yet string-driven music has been a backdrop from the beginning of America, the expression of a revolt against puritanism espoused by authority figures in general, whether the king or "the man."

When he stepped into a tavern, John Adams "would have heard white men fiddling Irish reels and black men pounding out driving African rhythms on hand drums, rattles, and wooden blocks ... a hybrid, flagrantly sexual sound that was the first American urban party music," as Thaddeus Russell writes in "A Renegade History of the United States."

The electric guitar, in many ways, became in the '50s and '60s – with its syncopated, buzz-heavy, feedback screeching, accompanist – the sound of uniquely American independence. The electric sound is so charged with rebellion and sexuality that "your clothes can catch fire," rocker-troubadour Bob Dylan told AARP magazine last year.

Jimi Hendrix wove it all into a screaming national anthem at Woodstock in 1968, and explained afterward: "I'm American, so I played it. We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see."

Channeling that unique American static has fallen to a different group of shredders, however.

Taylor Swift, guitar hero

Half of teenagers in a recent poll said their personal guitar hero is Taylor Swift, whose open chord stylings seem simplistic compared to, say, Jimmy Page's four-chord striations.

"Interestingly ... while you can still hear guitars everywhere, you certainly don't see them as much anymore, or associate them with the latest hits or cutting edge music," says Mr. Troutman, author of "Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian steel guitar changed the sound of modern music." Notable exceptions, he says, are female guitar players like Ms. Swift, Annie Clark (of St. Vincent) and Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes), who "have taken the lead role in promising electric guitars another day in the sun."

"Ultimately, design innovations seem less critical to the coming of that day than the musical vision of the artists who hold guitars in their hands."

Montana agrees. To him, the tactile nature of the Les Paul, its raw, soul-channeling power, remains his creative outlet.

"I love the Les Paul, love the way it sounds, I have to get my back adjusted all the time by the chiropractor," says Montana, the frontman for the Shrednecks. "It's a big piece of wood – you can crank it on that thing."