Legendary rockstar, AC/DC’s Angus Young, once insisted: “The guitar is my instrument. It’s what I know best.” It’s a simple yet powerful statement from one of Australia’s most celebrated musicians. With his guitar, Young was able to catapult a rock band from Sydney into music’s history books. But AC/DC aren’t the only artists to use the much loved string instrument.
Across the world, people of all backgrounds and musical styles have used some variation of the guitar to colour their music. The Australian indie scene is no stranger to the instrument. Artists have proudly strummed their guitars on the stages of music festivals to intimate shows in pubs and clubs. But what is it about the guitar that has allowed it to stand the test of time in a constantly evolving industry?
If it were to be summed up in word; it would be ‘versatility’. “The guitar, for me, is so incredibly versatile in everything that it can do. I love that you can put guitar against any other instrument and it will always fit in…” says Dylan Cattanach. Known by his stage name, Katanak, Cattanach is an indie pop soloist. Aaron D’Onofrio, frontman and one of several guitarists in the garage rock band, Planet Holiday, agrees with this sentiment. “The guitar is a versatile tool for writing songs, and much like the piano, it works very well with a singing voice when played together,” explains D’Onofrio.
There are countless varieties of instruments that all come from a similar (if not the same) source. As a string instrument, the guitar is no different; and the sheer number of models/designs caters to different tastes and sounds. Cattanach himself says that he has “several guitars that … [he] love[s] to play”, citing his 'Fender Mustang' as his favourite. Likewise, D’Onofrio’s “main electric guitar is a Gibson Les Standard (2012 model)” which he uses during shows and rehearsals. At the same time, “a Taylor acoustic guitar” also captured his heart and is the model that he uses to write his band’s music.
Interestingly, Cam Rust, guitarist of the Melbourne-based punk rock band, Clowns, uses a similar model to D’Onofrio with his Gibson Les Paul. “It’s versatile, reliable and plays/sounds incredible,” Rust says. His fellow bandmate, guitarist Jarrod Goon, considers his “Seger YG built by Dallas Seger (Maine, USA)” as the “main guitar … [he] use[s] in Clowns”. While Planet Holiday and Clowns work in genres that are closer together than Cattanach’s indie pop, it’s clear to see that the guitar itself holds a heavy presence within the art of all three parties.
“For a number of years I exclusively played Gibson SG's. The main inspiration for this came from some of the great SG players of heavy music - Tony Iommi and Angus Young. I found the SG to have a great balance between comfort, playability and tone for our style of music. From album to album, we have experimented in finding new sounds which has resulted in us trying out a bunch of different guitars,” Goon said when asked about which guitar he prefers to play.
It can be argued that a guitar’s versatility can be attributed to an artist’s creativity. However, the instrument’s design plays a significant role in the sound that embodies the aforementioned creativity. It’s something that Rust and Goon admire about their respective pieces. “In the neck [of my guitar] I have a Seymour Duncan Classic 59 humbucker that is insanely smooth and great for clear tones,” Rust says, referring to his guitar’s “device that converts the vibrations of … [its] strings into electrical signals”. For Goon, his Seger YG’s “body is a unique-double-cutaway shape … [with] two Seymour Duncan pickups with a push/pull 'series/parallel' switch on the bridge pickup”. With all these components working together to create a variety of sounds and tones, it’s no wonder that D’Onofrio sees the instrument’s potential.
“For myself, the way the guitar is designed just allows me to constantly create new song ideas. I guess it probably comes down to the huge range of tones you can achieve with modern guitar technology such as amplifiers and effects pedals – This richness in sound diversity isn’t really achieved in other stringed instruments,” explains D’Onofrio.
Studies have found that music elicits emotions within listeners. Pop can make us happy. Piano ballads can inspire us or make us feel sad. Likewise, heavy metal and rock can make us feel angry or totally energised. For years and across genres, guitarists have given us melodies and riffs that have shaped a song’s sound and overall mood. In this case, it’s impossible to ignore the connection between guitars and songcraft.
While artists all have their own ways of crafting songs, MasterClass cites using the guitar as “among the most established approaches” to songcraft. By simply using six strings, four of the “five major [songwriting] elements” can be created: the melody, chord progression, rhythmic pattern and structure. As a bonus, guitars can also be used “to craft the song’s arrangement” by providing instrumental layers for the song’s soundscape.
“When I write a song, I often hum a melody or make up some lyrics to go with the chords/riffs I’m creating,” says D’Onofrio.
From this, it can be argued that the guitar can serve as a foundational tool for producing music. Though Rust and D’Onofrio agree that the guitar may not appear to be as popular in music nowadays, all artists we spoke to agreed that the instrument’s impact can still be heard and felt within contemporary music. As Rust explains:
“In pop music … [the guitar] seems to be less popular; but for everything I listen to, and love, it's the only thing that stands out to me.”
It’s a notion that TikTok guitarist and OC Music & Dance alumni, Jasmine Star, somewhat agrees with. In an interview with Guitar World, Star claimed that the guitar is still prevalent despite it not being “in every single song”. She further states: “...it’s all about how the guitar fits into the hooks. So I think that's really where you see [the] guitar”. Goon shares Star’s optimism for the instrument’s place in music. In the Clowns’ guitarist’s opinion, music where the guitar is the main instrument has been gaining popularity amongst the masses.
“Guitar music has always been popular in one way or another ... however, there seems to be a resurgence in popularity of 80s music …” Goon said.
It appears that Goon has hit the head on the nail. In an article for the BBC, music journalist Steve Holden, writes that the sounds of the 80s have come back in music. Though Holden strictly refers to commercial music in his piece, he does quote “Dutch DJ Oliver Heldens” in saying “[g]ood music from the past will always be there in the future.” And in the guitar’s case, it appears that not even a pandemic could dampen people’s desire for it. According to the Australian Music Association, not only did guitars sell well in 2020, but their value also increased “by nearly 5% … [with an] average unit value up 6%.” At the same time, the sales of guitar accessories such as amps and strings increased by 11% and 16% respectively.
“The recent pandemic has inspired many people to learn an instrument during lockdown and my local guitar shop is as busy as ever. It’s pretty safe to say that guitars are here to stay,” Goon said.
All in all, the guitar has retained a large amount of respect from musicians of all ages and genres. While it appears that many would agree that commercial music has (somewhat) moved away from the string instrument in favour of more attention-grabbing, snappy sounds, indie music continues to retain its hold on it. For Rust, indie music’s reliance on guitars has to do with how the instrument “compliment[s] the song”.
“Guitars are able to speak to us in a way that no other instrument can because they can do so much and so little. Guitars can go from having insane amounts of distortion to being used for solo acoustic tracks; and that's what makes guitars so incredibly powerful, and in [i]ndie music in particular, guitars are what drives the songs forward a lot of the time,” says Cattanach.
A commonality amongst Cattanach, D’Onofrio, Rust and Goon is their view that a guitar’s sound allows it to connect with anyone. From listeners to performers, guitars are capable of speaking to others like no other instrument. As D’Onofrio says: a guitar’s “genuine tone or ‘voice’ … can’t be completely imitated or faked”. Once again, it appears to come down to the artist themselves.
Paste Magazine once said that Australia exists within an “era of alternative music”. From indie rock bands in the coastal cities to the acoustic acts in between, the guitar is a powerful instrument capable of forming bonds between artists, their songs and listeners. Goon summed up the role of the guitar within Australian indie music best: “Being such an accessible and versatile instrument, the possibilities [that the guitar provides] are endless”.