Guitar Center, the nation’s leading musical-instrument retailer, is in trouble. Changing musical tastes are partly to blame.
Ratings agency S&P Global downgraded Westlake Village-based Guitar Center Holdings Inc. for the second time last week as the troubled instrument retailer seeks to refinance and restructure more than $1 billion of debt.
“Most of what’s really selling today is rap and hip hop,” said George Gruhn, owner of the Gruhn Guitars shop in Nashville. “That’s outpacing other forms of music and they don’t use a lot of recognizable musical instruments.”
The company’s challenges speak to shifting demographics, something Gruhn is well acquainted with.
Guitars don’t figure as heavily into chart-topping music as they once did, according to Gruhn.
He ought to know. Over the years, his customers have included everyone from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Eric Clapton to Neil Young, Vince Gill and Billy Gibbons.
Those artists have left indelible imprints on the music landscape, all the way from Clapton’s burning solo on “Crossroads” to Harrison’s signature guitar part on “Daytripper.”
But these days? Well, things aren’t as guitar-oriented.
“Baby boomers are the best customers I’ve ever had. They’ve driven a lot of the guitar trends, but they are aging and many of them are downsizing their guitar collections,” Gruhn added. “This doesn’t mean that guitar sales are dying, but instrument sales in general are under stress.”
No more guitar heroes
The instrument is also facing an identity crisis. Guitar heroes – who have inspired many a player and fueled strong instrument sales – are few and far between these days, according to Gruhn.
“I would be hard-pressed to name any new ones,” he said. “You’ve got Joe Bonamassa who is a great player. But he isn’t selling as many guitars as the other big time heroes. And Eric Clapton is arthritic. He’s having difficulty playing and is retiring from touring.”