Best of 2019: By now, we’ve all heard the arguments and read the think-pieces that have popped up repeatedly over the past decade, declaring that guitar-based music, and maybe even - gasp! - the guitar itself, is on pop-culture life support. Someone must’ve forgotten to inform 2019 of this news, because judging by the past 12 months, the instrument is fully alive and doing quite well, thank you very much.
Don’t believe us? Just ask New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hit it out of the park this year with its massively successful Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll exhibition. Or Gibson, which dazzled as the music-industry (and maybe even 'industry' in general) comeback story of the year. Or David Gilmour, who raised more than $21 million by auctioning off a collection of his favorite guitars for charity.
As for the music itself, Tool and Slipknot topped the album charts, Queen and Kiss killed it on the road, and artists ranging from Dream Theater to Joe Bonamassa to John 5 had banner years.
And so: guitars and guitar music dead? We think not. And for anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, here are 20 arguments for its continued reign. By the way, while we at GW had a hand in selecting these events and stories, they were mostly chosen by you, our readers; GuitarWorld.com stories pertaining to all of these events sent our online numbers into the stratosphere in 2019.
1. 2019 into the black
Back in June, Pink Floyd legend David Gilmour put more than 120 guitars up for auction at Christie’s, with estimates ranging from $300 to $150,000. These numbers turned out to be… what’s the word?… low, with his legendary black 1969 Fender Strat fetching an astonishing $3,975,000 - a new world record for any guitar sold at auction.
What’s more, the entire David Gilmour Collection raked in more than $21 million, with all the proceeds going to charity.
“This just felt like a good moment to raise some good, hard cash for people who need it,” Gilmour told Guitar World in our cover story in the May issue.
As for no longer owning classics like the Black Strat, heard on The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, The Wall and more? “I don’t feel I won’t be able to achieve just as much on a different guitar,” Gilmour said. “So, yeah, I guess I’m not overly sentimental.”
2. Gibson goes big
Gibson came back in a big way this year, with new leadership, a refocused vision and a splashy reintroduction at the Winter NAMM Show. But the real story from the legacy company was the products - true '50s and '60s-spec Les Pauls and SGs; innovative, excessively playable modern guitars; and lots and lots of impressive Gibson and Epiphone artist models from the likes of Joe Perry, George Thorogood, Jared James Nichols, Vivian Campbell and more.
And while there were some bumps along the way (among them a YouTube video or two - and a perception, albeit a somewhat unfair one, from some corners that the company was too aggressive in protecting its copyright), the fact is that in 2019, the iconic brand unquestionably reclaimed its position among the top of the guitar heap. Here’s to seeing what 2020 brings.
3. The Met gets rocked
Was there any bigger gathering of rock’s most iconic tools this year - or any year, for that matter - than the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll exhibit?
Partially inspired by former GW editor-in-chief Brad Tolinski and GW scribe Alan di Perna’s 2016 book, Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound, Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar, the show brought together Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein, SRV’s 'Number One' Strat, Keith Richards’ 'Micawber' Tele, Jimmy Page’s EDS-1275 double-neck and so, so, so many more, for the greatest guitar party ever.
Equal parts astonishing, inspiring and educational, the exhibit was, in the words of Tolinski, “a triumphant validation of the importance of the instrument, and how it has touched the lives of millions.”
4. Tool time
After years and years… and years of rumors, vague progress reports and obsessive moaning by frustrated fans, Tool released a new album, Fear Inoculum, in August. As would be expected, the effort, their first in 13 years, was a big deal - it hit Number One on the Billboard charts, knocking out Taylor Swift’s latest and leading millions of confused Swifties to ask, “What the heck is Tool?”
For an answer, they could have read our October cover story with guitarist Adam Jones, who explained, “It’s a system and it’s a group effort.”
He continued, “It takes a lot of discipline to think about what the song needs at a given time and really dial it in. There are times when my part on its own might sound stupid or childish, but it can be what the song needs to drive everything else.”
5. 2019 cream of the crop
Guitar Center’s 2019 Crossroads Collection achieved a rare feat - bringing various big-name brands, in this case Fender, Gibson, PRS Guitars and Martin, together under one umbrella to create limited-edition instruments for a charitable cause.
And those instruments, which included a Martin 00-42JSC John Mayer acoustic and a PRS Private Stock Carlos Santana, were pretty spectacular.
But the standouts were two Eric Clapton models - Gibson’s recreation of his 1964 Gibson single-pickup Firebird I with reverse headstock and Fender’s Blind Faith Telecaster by Custom Shop Master Builder Todd Krause, which boasts a 'Brownie' style Strat neck on a Tele body - that truly stole the show. Now excuse us while we head down to the crossroads to pick up one of each.
6. Man with many guitars picks favorite
Joe Bonamassa, it goes without saying, owns a lot of gear. Not too long ago, the man himself estimated his collection at somewhere just south of 1,000 guitars and amps.
So when he named his ’51 Fender Nocaster his favorite six-string - “It is the most dynamic instrument I have ever played in my life,” JoBo wrote - the, um, guitar world stood up and took notice.
As did Bonamassa and Fender, apparently. Just a few months later, Bonamassa returned to Instagram to reveal that he had dropped his Nocaster off at the Fender Custom Shop for master builder Greg Fessler to create a replica signature model.
According to reports, the guitar will be available in a limited run of 100 and sold initially through Bonamassa’s official website.
7. Large online retailer builds world’s largest pedalboard
Sweetwater is recognized as the largest online musical instrument retailer in the U.S., and in August, with the help of YouTube guitarist Rob Scallon, they became the Guinness World Record holder for having built the World’s Largest Guitar Effect Pedalboard.
The 70-foot creation boasted 319 different stompboxes from 34 different manufacturers, mounted on 34 individual pedalboards and fueled by 34 power supplies. Scallon’s guitar sound traveled through more than 500 feet of cabling in a single circuit to reach its glorious end - a wall of Marshall stacks, natch.
As for how much the gargantuan board might retail for? Sweetwater estimated the number at a not insubstantial $90,000. Which is nothing compared to, say, David Gilmour’s Black Strat…
8. Chops shop
Guitar World readers are always interested in what John Petrucci has to say, and in 2019 he came back big with Dream Theater’s 14th studio album, Distance Over Time.
The record may have been tracked in a barn on a pastoral five-acre plot of land in upstate New York, but it also boasted some of the most metalized riffs and mind-boggling complex leads of Petrucci’s long career.
And while his playing is never less than, um, astonishing, he explained to writer Joe Bosso in our April cover story that there may have been a little extra oomph in his fingers, due to the fact that he had just come off the G3 tour prior to the recording sessions.
“I did two legs, so that was something like 80 shows,” Petrucci said. “We’re talking four months of guitar, guitar, guitar. My chops were totally together. There was no way I wouldn’t be in shape!”
9. Frampton’s life-changing diagnosis
Few classic rock-era artists have experienced as much of a late career renaissance as Peter Frampton. Which made it all the more shocking when, early in 2019, he announced that he would not only be embarking on a final tour, but that he had been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis (IBM), an inflammatory muscle disease that will eventually leave him unable to play guitar.
That said, Frampton had a ridiculously triumphant year in music, from his successful final tour to a stellar covers album, All Blues, with the Peter Frampton Band. And his guitar playing was, as ever, on point, as evidenced by a heart-racing guitar duet with Eric Clapton on the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the Crossroads Festival in September.
“This is life-changing, but it’s not life-ending,” Frampton remarked about his IBM diagnosis in a July Guitar World cover story. “This just happens to be what I’m dealing with, but I’m very positive about the future.”
KISS’s current end of the Road final world tour has been an unequivocal success, though it also hasn’t been without its bumps - and Guitar World admits we may have had more than a little to do with that.
In a March cover story to coincide with the tour’s kickoff, we asked Gene Simmons whether former original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss might make an appearance.
To which Gene replied, “Would we welcome Ace or Peter to jump up onstage for a song or two? Of course. Could we depend on either Ace or Peter to do a full set night after night? Not on your fucking life.”
Almost immediately, Ace was moved to shout his disapproval out loud on social media, calling Simmons a “sex addict” and even accusing him of once groping Frehley’s wife. How will this all play out? Who knows. But one thing’s for sure: the End of the Road tour rolls on, and Ace and Peter haven’t shown up - yet.
11. Practice amp power
When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, big-box, high-wattage amps tend to get all the glory. But 2019 saw a slew of smaller, lighter and super-portable practice amps get their moment in the spotlight.
Offerings like Line 6’s Spider V MkII series, Boss’s Katana MkII lineup and Yamaha’s THR-II range offered tube-amp tone, digital precision, modeling capabilities, tons of effects, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, tuners, metronomes, rechargeable batteries and just about anything else you could think of - heck, they’ll even clean your room and balance your checkbook… or so we’ve heard.
At the very least, these amps won’t break the bank: virtually all models sell for under a grand, with some clocking in at just a few hundred dollars.
12. John and Joe play Jimi
Back in September, John 5 celebrated his new album, Invasion, with a one-off show at the 1720 Club in LA with the Aristocrats, headed by fellow shred king Guthrie Govan.
And if the idea of two of modern music’s most insanely talented players gigging together wasn’t enough to make guitar heads explode, during his performance that night John 5 welcomed a guest to the stage - Joe Bonamassa, who joined him for a mini Jimi Hendrix set.
Together, John and Joe ran through two Jimi songs - Foxy Lady and Spanish Castle Magic - with John 5 on his trusty dual-humbucker Telecaster and JoBo wielding a Les Paul and handling lead vocals.
“Killer show on every level,” Bonamassa wrote on Instagram.
13. Van Halen... finished?
2018 wrapped with David Lee Roth hinting at big news to come - a possible 2019 Van Halen summer tour… with (maybe) bassist Michael Anthony back on board… with dates (maybe) in stadiums… and co-billed (maybe) with acts like Foo Fighters and Metallica.
None of that happened, unfortunately, and by the end of 2019 Roth was talking to a Detroit radio station and saying that Van Halen was, in fact, finished. “[The band] isn’t going to be coming back in the fashion that you know,” he said cryptically.
Not long after, rumors began swirling about Eddie Van Halen’s health - but if we know anything about VH, it’s to always expect the unexpected. In the meantime, we still have Roth in Vegas to look forward to, not to mention the awesome EVH ’79 Bumblebee tribute guitar released over the summer.
14. The smell of success
Slipknot came back in a big way this year with a new tour (the Knotfest Roadshow), new masks and members (Tortilla Man, anyone?) and, of course, a new album - the rather excellent We Are Not Your Kind.
Guitar World got the early scoop on the record straight from Mick Thomson and Jim Root, and the two went deep to give readers the inside story on the writing and recording process, plus the gear they used in the studio.
They also reminisced about their first-ever tour, 20 years earlier, as a second-stage act on Ozzfest.
“I remember the band and the crew all on the same bus, and our bus stinking really bad,” Root recalled. “We would stuff our masks and our coveralls into all the cupboards and drawers, and it just fucking reeked.” Ah, good times…
15. Lions and wolves and shredding, oh my!
Fender’s Game of Thrones-inspired Sigil collection of Custom Shop models - the ridiculously ornate House Stark Telecaster, House Lannister Jaguar and House Targaryen Stratocaster - may have been some of the most eye-popping (and, at an average price of 30-grand, expensive) guitars released in 2019.
But just as awesome was a companion video Fender released alongside the collection showing Nuno Bettencourt, Tom Morello, Brad Paisley and Scott Ian shredding the show’s theme song on said instruments.
Joked Morello in the clip, “For a minute it sounded like Guitar Center 1988.” Very well, Tom. Just remember: “No Stairway!”
16. Mötley new
For a band that (more or less) retired in 2015, Mötley Crüe had a very busy year. The release of the long-in-the-works biopic The Dirt, an adaptation of their infamous and insanely filthy 2001 autobiography, reminded everyone that, in the decade of decadence, Mötley truly had no equal.
At the same time, the film also served to reignite debates about what people love - and loathe - about this music and the associated lifestyle. To top it off, the Mötley men even got back together to record four songs for the movie’s soundtrack, including, to everyone’s surprise, a guitar-heavy cover of Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
The glam-rockers then topped off the year with a full-blown reunion and the announcement of a 2020 stadium tour with Def Leppard, Poison and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. So much for retirement.
17. Blues in Yngwie
Think of Yngwie Malmsteen and the first word that comes to mind is not necessarily blues. But the two were virtually inseparable in 2019 thanks to the Swedish shredder’s new album, Blue Lightning, which saw the self-professed “circus freak” guitarist, as he labeled himself to Guitar World, flexing his muscles on a set of originals and covers like Hendrix’s Purple Haze and ZZ Top’s Blue Jean Blues.
At the end of the day, the record was still full-on Yngwie. “You don’t have to play Muddy Waters and BB King to have it be a blues album,” Malmsteen warned us.
18. Queen are the champions
Queen smashed box office records last year with the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. In recognition of the movie’s incredible run, as well as the band’s continued success with current singer Adam Lambert, Brian May sat down with Guitar World for a rare in-depth interview about the band’s past, present and future for our June cover story.
In a discussion that weaved from influences like Django Reinhardt, James Burton, Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, to the making of classics like Stone Cold Crazy and Another One Bites the Dust, to the state of Queen in the 21st century, May covered it all. And this being Guitar World, he also, of course, took time to wax rhapsodic about his trusty Red Special.
“It’s really part of my body,” he said about the guitar that has been by his side every step of the way. “Everything about it is right for me.”
19. 2019 bringing down the hammer
David Gilmour may have shattered guitar auction records in June, but that was far from the end of big-ticket guitar sales in 2019. The very next month, a collection of 19 guitars belonging to Graham Nash went under the hammer, and one of the instruments - a 1961/1962 Gibson SG that had belonged to Duane Allman and is famous for being the instrument played on the At Fillmore East version of Statesboro Blues, pulled in an impressive $591,000.
Then in August, Allman’s 1957 Les Paul, which he used to record Layla with Eric Clapton, changed hands for a whopping $1.25 million.
Next up on the block? Kurt Cobain’s custom 1993 Fender Mustang, which he played on Nirvana’s In Utero tour and ended up fetching $340,000.
20. Whole lotta gear
There was no shortage of awesome artist replica guitars released in 2019 - see the Clapton models above - but Fender made a solid bid to rule the reissue roost with its Jimmy Page Mirror and Dragon Telecasters.
The models, available in both limited-edition Custom Shop and standard production-line iterations, recreated the legendary ’59 Tele that Page used to record Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut 50 years ago, and which he at various times adorned with the titular mirror and dragon.
And just to pile on the new product, Page this year also unveiled the Sundragon amp, a sonic reproduction of the Supro Coronado he used on that classic first album. Happy 50th anniversary to Led Zeppelin I - and, with this wealth of gear, to all of us, as well.