If the talent roster for this weekend's gala Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas reads like a guitar-lover's dream lineup, it's because the guitar lover who dreamed it up is the same one topping the bill, Eric Clapton.
The three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee assembled the three-day event celebrating the instrument that's been at the center of his world, and at the center of popular music, for nearly 50 years.
"I used to enjoy going to festivals as a kid. Then as a young musician I played a lot of festivals, something I don't do so much anymore," the 59-year-old 16-time Grammy winner says. "I always had a fantasy of the perfect festival, and for me it would be all guitar players."
That it is, as Carlos Santana, B.B. King, ZZ Top, Jeff Beck, Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray's big brother), Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Joe Walsh and other guitar-slingers join Clapton for an all-star marathon concert Sunday at the Cotton Bowl that caps the event. The concert, expected to draw about 50,000 fans and which kicks off Clapton's summer tour, benefits the Crossroads Centre for drug and alcohol treatment in Antigua, which Clapton founded in 1997.
Yet looking at the diminishing role the guitar plays on Top 40 radio today, it's tempting to wonder whether Clapton's gathering might not be something of a swan song for the instrument that embodies the sound and look of rock.
Today, keyboards, synthesizers, computer-generated sounds and effects are often center stage in the hip-hop, R&B, pop and dance music most teens want to hear. The guitar solo, once the rule in rock music, is now the exception on pop radio.
"It sure seems like it's fading," says blues guitarist Eric Johnson, one of the Crossroads fest performers. "It isn't as popular, especially as the kind of focal point it had even 10 years ago, that's pretty obvious."
"You've got to ask yourself why that would happen, and the answer is maybe because we've rehashed the same thing for 40 years. If you want it to go forward and put it in the forefront, you'd better have something refreshing and interesting to hear."
Clapton himself isn't thrilled about the guitar's role in today's pop music, but he doesn't worry about it much either.
"To me it's all gone belly up anyway," he says. "The music scene now reminds me of what it was like in the early '50s, with Doris Day and people like that, just before rock 'n' roll came along....
"But you've only got to show up at this festival to see that guitar players are still everywhere. We love to listen to each other and play. I don't really listen to radio and TV for that. It depresses me how formatted everything is -- you just get 16 dancers, as few clothes as possible .... It's just crazy. I don't really feel I have any connection with that anymore, and it doesn't bother me as a result."
The perception that a new generation of musicians is turning its back on the instrument that made Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and others musical heroes may be skewed.
Although the electric guitar often plays a subservient role in hip-hop, R&B and teen pop, it's still front and center in alternative rock, hard rock, punk, pop-punk, country and blues.
The International Music Products Assn., the world's largest musical equipment trade group, reports that as of 2002, the latest full year for which data are available, guitars still constitute the clear majority of overall musical instrument sales.
"Despite the rise of hip-hop and techno music styles, the guitar remains at the center of current popular music," according to the organization's latest industry survey. "A cursory scan of the Billboard Hot 100 charts reveals that at least 80% of the bestselling CDs prominently feature the guitar."
Of the total instrument sales for that year, guitars constituted $1.1 billion, more than any other instrument family, while portable keyboards, synthesizers and computer music products combined for $308.2 million in sales. Further, guitar sales were up 15% in 2002 from the previous year, compared with an increase of 8% for keyboards and synthesizers.
"The [guitar] numbers are a little lower than they were in the '70s and even into the '80s, when there was a lot more of the garage-band atmosphere and the hair metal bands and good old rock 'n' roll," says Dan Del Fiorentino, curator of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, an arm of the Music Products Assn.
"For the electric guitar, we've definitely seen interest go up and down," Del Fiorentino says, "but it's still very strong, and very much the lead instrument in many of the markets."
One group in which it appears to be growing dramatically is young women. Musician Tish Ciravolo started Daisy Rock Guitars in 2000 to create instruments better suited to female musicians. The company has doubled its sales every year since and crossed the $1-million revenue mark last year, says Rich Lackowski, Daisy Rock's director of public relations and marketing.