How TikTok is changing the face of guitar music

(Image credit: Phil Dent/Redferns / TikTok)

Whether you love it, hate it, or have simply gone out of your way to avoid it, there’s no getting around the fact that TikTok is a big deal.

In fact, it’s fair to say TikTok is the most influential platform in music right now, with the success of most of today’s mega-hits being attributed to trends on the app. 

Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, Doja Cat’s Say So and most recently Olivia Rodrigo’s Driver License, have all received hundreds of millions of streams on the back of TikTok trends. 

But it’s not just for new artists, as we saw with the resurgence of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, re-entering the charts more than forty years after its initial release thanks to a seemingly serendipitous video that tugs on those '90s nostalgia heart strings. 

So it’s no wonder TikTok has become the go to place for artists to promote their music, but what’s more curious is the fact that many producers and songwriters are composing music with the ultimate aim of breaking it on TikTok. Olivia Rodrigo herself admitted that she had TikTok in mind when she wrote Driver’s License

While there’s no hard and fast rule as to what’s going to translate on the app, you only need to look at some of the big hits or playlists showcasing the music of TikTok to see what’s important for success at the moment.

Smooth sounds, danceable beats, and emotional positivity are in abundance when it comes to the big hits of TikTok. What is also noticeable is the lack of guitar here.

While you can find guitar parts if you look for them – it’s usually an acoustic guitar, and it’s pretty low down in the mix. If it’s distinct, it’s usually the exception rather than rule. Riffs, overdriven or distorted tones, or even just prominent guitar sounds are, for the most part, missing from TikTok’s big hits.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with this type of production or songwriting, but with so many artists and industry folks taking their cues from what flies on this platform, does this mean guitars are going to be taking a backseat in popular music for the foreseeable future? 

Jasmine Star doesn’t think so, but she does think the role of guitar in popular music has changed as a direct result of the app’s influence. 

As a guitarist who has found a large audience through TikTok, as well as being a lifelong student of music, Star has an almost academic understanding of today’s musical climate. 

I think that riffs are probably going to become more melodic because of how songs are being written right now

Jasmine Star

“It's just the way music is written now. It’s less so in verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/guitar solo/chorus form,” she explains. 

“It's shrinking down into two minute songs that are written hook one/hook two/hook three, back to hook one with a variation hook, to hook three. So it's all about how the guitar fits into the hooks. So I think that that's really where you see guitar.” 

“A lot of people are making music intending to break it on TikTok, and labels – a big part of their marketing strategies is to break music on TikTok right now. Your average person on TikTok is going to have 15 seconds to make the video, right? So you want to have as much of the song in that 15 seconds as possible. I think things naturally have gotten shrunk down from there.”

The 17-year-old musical prodigy also believes a large part of where guitars sit in today’s music has to do with modern production trends. 

“Instruments are viewed even more so as where they lie on the frequencies spectrum, so I think that we'll see more riffs that are intentionally written to fill a certain gap in sound, and where it fits in the mix. 

“And I think that that will change how riffs are being written. I think that riffs are probably going to become more melodic because of how songs are being written right now.”

Jasmine Star

Jasmine Star (Image credit: Press)

At the same time, Star – a Guitar World 2020 Young Guitarist of the Year finalist – has also been able to build a large following on the app by just showing off her musical chops and playing sick riffs and licks. Ultimately, she believes there is still a lot of interest in guitar music, it’s just young people don’t care about genres.

“I think it's just in different places than it used to be. I think that guitar is as relevant as ever. And because guitar isn't in every single song right now, I think it makes it in a way it makes it that much more special and that much more interesting to kids my age, that that's not all they listen to,” she says.

“Music is a vibe more than ever right now. And what's really rad is I've noticed with kids my age they're so open minded to all kinds of music. I'm like that as well. I love all kinds of music. I'm not like, 'Oh, I can only listen to this, or I can only listen to this.' As long as it's a vibe, then it will work.”

Everyone is in a bubble and once they hear about somebody else’s bubble getting popped, everyone care

Isaac Pech

The Peach Tree Rascals, a five-piece from San Jose with first-hand experience of what it’s like to have a massive TikTok hit, have their own perspective on how TikTok is shaping modern music.

“Y’know the Akon, T-Pain era, or when Drake first started coming up a lot of the top 40 started sounding similar? That's definitely the case right now when it comes to TikTok songs,” Peach Tree Rascals vocalist Issac Pech explains.

“If you look at top 40 you're hearing songs that you can't really describe what genre it is, or it's an obvious genre. You hear the songs and it isn't like, [traditional] top 40 but then you're like, ‘Oh shit, TikTok!’ So it's literally a driving force in the music industry, which is why everyone in the industry is so obsessed with it.”

“Everyone is in a bubble and once they hear about somebody else’s bubble getting popped, everyone cares.”

Peach Tree Rascals

(Image credit: Cian Moore)

The Peach Tree Rascals are a prime example of how the industry rulebook has changed; their song Mariposa has been shared in over 1.2 million videos on the app, has more than 183 million Spotify streams at time of writing, and has been praised by the likes of Billboard – all without ever playing a gig. 

Instead, they spent a few years “writing hundreds of songs” and honing their craft to the point that “it wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb on New Music Friday” before eventually dropping their first release in 2018. 

While they started getting traction throughout 2018 and 19, it wasn’t until Mariposa was picked up on TikTok that things really blew up for them. 

Fellow vocalist Tarrek Abdel-Khaliq says by the very nature of being on social media it’s impossible to not notice trends and the influence they have, but ultimately warns against paying too much attention to them. Instead, he stresses the importance of making timeless music.

Literally, anything can pick up on TikTok, as long as it's a vibe – regardless of what the vibe is. And I think that's amazing

Jasmine Star

“We feel it a lot when we work with other producers and other writers. A lot of people have it more in their mind to TikTok influences or like other people's type of sounds, and they try to bring it up,” Abdel-Khaliq says.

“But we don't like to let things like that affect the way we work. We just try to like come up with good progressions and good melodies and like good music at the end of the day. And we think that'll break through no matter what.”

“The song that blew up on TikTok that I think everyone agrees is timeless was Dreams. A timeless, amazing melody. Amazing voice... just a great video that just complimented it to make the TikTok go viral; just the perfect combination of everything. Just great content all around.”

While they believe that TikTok very much favors songs with a ‘vibe’ – something that’s user friendly and could be used as a backing track for a gardening video or something that’s easy to dance to – they don’t think the door is closed on anything, even rock and metal. 

Asked if they could see something like Metallica getting a hit on TikTok, they wouldn’t rule it out. 

“We were watching the Metallica documentary [Some Kind of Monster] the other day and there’s that one song [Frantic] that goes ‘Tick Tick Tick Tock’. If there’s one song that’s gonna blow up on there for them, it’s that. It just needs someone to make a really cool video for it,” Abdel-Khaliq says.

Jasmine Star agrees. 

“Literally, anything can pick up on TikTok, as long as it's a vibe – regardless of what the vibe is. And I think that's amazing. So if someone happens to rediscover a song, no matter who the artist is, and people like that song, it will trend again. No one's really caring about when it was released. It's just... Do I like it? Is this a good song? Are these amazing artists? I think that's super-rad.”

  • The Peach Tree Rascals' debut EP, Camp Nowhere, is available now.
  • Jasmine Star's new shred-heavy single, The Cliff, is out now.

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Chris Schwarten

Chris is a contributor to Guitar World and MusicRadar with around 20 years of guitar playing experience – including writing for and recording various projects for around 15 of those. Outside of practical experience, he’s studied music throughout his life, with a particular focus on composition at university. He’s something of a 90s tragic and a sucker for anything with a groovy, metallic edge or psych and stoner vibes. Outside of music, he’s an avid cook, gardener, and rugby league lover.