Fretboard Geek

The Guitars’ Role in Modern Pop Music

Guitar in modern Pop

Modern Pop music seems to have discarded the guitar. The center of attention in a pop record today is rarely a guitar riff and solos are becoming more rare. 

While that’s partially true, as a session musician, I can assure you that there’s still guitar playing in Pop, yet its role has changed. In this article, I want to guide you through the guitar’s role in modern Pop music.

How has the guitar changed after the 90s?

The usage of guitars in Pop is directly connected to how the making of records has changed.

You might at this point think that the boring 4 chords, same sounds, 808 drum machine, and heavy autotune being used today have nothing to do with guitars. I can agree with you on this and also say that modern music is sometimes recorded so cheaply that even though the songs make millions, there is no money to hire a guitar player. The producer of the song is the only one involved in making tunes, so if they don’t play guitar, you won’t have any guitar in them.

To prove that guitars still fit even in synth based tracks and that it’s not an artistic choice, check this Rick Beato video.

Leaving top 10 songs, rap and hip hop behind, country pop and pop rock have plenty of guitar work. The difference between today and the 90s, where Grunge was in the mainstream, is that production is very oriented towards vocals and not the guitar.

You will think most pop rock songs, for example Nickelback ones, have the acoustic guitar backing and distorted guitar chorus. That is true, yet the guitar’s not the focus as it’s only backing the vocal and playing straight chords Other Pop artists like John Mayer, still keep a fine line between intricate music and pop vocals. His songs still feature interesting guitar parts, yet on half the track of his new album the guitar is barely audible. 

Guitar solos and riff intros or drops are becoming rare as musical richness is being sacrificed for catchy hooks and length. The guitar now is mostly an instrument to add context and color, not the leading instrument. 

How to play guitar on Pop Records?

In the limited space guitar has in today’s pop world you have to be very smart and use it at best. Some tips and lessons I learned from working on many records are the following.

  • Roll off the low-end entirely

Modern songs are filled with synths, pads, subs and electronic drum kits that take up the entire sonic space of the song. What is left is the higher mids and high end, where your guitar should be. Not only roll the low-end off, but try to play on a higher register when you can to cut through the mix.

Bright sounding guitars like Teles and Strats are more prefered to bottom heavy Les Pauls for this reason.  This is also why playing triads and inversions work more than playing full chords.

  • Play with the rhythm more than the melody

Considering the harmonic content of most pop music is not very rich, you will be required to play very few notes to keep it short and catchy.

Muted 8th notes pattern and short simple funky pattern are very common. A good way to make those stand out if you’re playing in a pop tune is to not play along the downbeat but try to create a polyrhythms.  An easy way to do it is to just think in another time signature or displace the beat. Most likely the song you will be on 4/4 time. Try and think of your pattern as in 3/4 time or other signature. If you don’t think in theory then just experiment to not play on the 1 until you found something that just fits the songs and is not predictable.

  • Play more fills than solos

You don’t want to be playing solos just for the sake of playing one. Most likely the solo will be either cut off entirely or removed in the radio version. It’s not that the public doesn’t react to a solo, it’s just modern production choices. 

What you want to do is place more fills in between phrases and serve the vocal in a call and response fashion. It will both suit the track better and leave no choice to the production but to keep some of them! Sometimes you just have to force your guitar in a song today by making it as good as you can.

  • Use it as an Atmospheric/FX Instrument 

Intricate pedal boards are a reality in today’s world. You need many pedals yet you might use them only once for the whole set.
The best on modern effect based guitar playing is The Edge from U2. Learn his style and shape your playing according to the effect. Every producer loves that and your guitar will have a main role in the song. This way you take the role of the guitar as a Context Instrument to another level.

Open tunings and slides also do wonders in modern pop, even though not many realize how powerful those are.

Final thoughts the guitars role in Modern Pop Music

The bright side is that no matter how electronic and computer based music becomes, nothing can replace the stage presence of a guitar player rocking out. The best fresh example is the latest Grammy awards. Every song had guitar solos and fantastic ‘modern’ players like Mateus Assato and session greats were hired by pop stars of the level of Bruno Mars.

Continuous practice and fretboard mastery are still the requirements needed today to make it in the Pop world. Our Free App and cheat sheets can help you with those.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *