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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"The Guitar Man" and the sustaining of fame (or lack thereof)

Bread's hit celebrates the music maker while also reminding listeners that fame is so often temporary.

Songs that talk about music are very hit-or-miss. The lyrical tone can either feel quite forced, or it can be natural and almost conversational. Similarly, the instrumental correspondence with the lyrics can make or break the track.

Of all the songs that talk about musicians, one that particularly stands out to me (as well as my father) as a 'hit' in its approach of the subject is Bread's "The Guitar Man." The call and response between David Gates' lyrics and Larry Knechtel's lead guitar — with wah-wah pedal in tow — capture the relationship between the titular guitarist and their fans. Likely drawing on their own experiences to create a heartfelt narrative, Bread leave the listener in admiration of their musicianship like their subject does to their fans, while also understanding the fickle and temporary nature of the casual listener.

As I alluded to above, Gates occupies an interesting position as he sings "The Guitar Man." As an occasional guitarist himself, but more importantly as a successful musician in general, Gates occupies the Guitar Man character, while singing the particular lyrics of the song also paints him as a fan and listener as he describes the subject's abilities. This positional conflict is unique to the song, and it complicates the emotions behind each line as well as the overall lyrical flavor. I tend to hear more of the 'fan' side of Gates' perspective, simply because he sings in the second and third person the whole way through, as if he is talking to a less familiar listener about the Guitar Man's skills and the range of emotions he can capture.

Along with his ability to "make you love," "make you cry," "bring you down / Then get you high," there's a mystique to the Guitar Man that Gates captures in his ephemeral nature to the listener. One moment there's the thought that "you might / Like to take his place," and the next he's out of sight, out of mind; either the radio has moved onto another song, or the Guitar Man is looking for "another place to play." I hear this arc of the song's main character as a commentary on the fleeting success typical of the vast majority of artists. They may capture listeners' fancy for a short time, and give them something to think about ("You want to get the meaning out of each and every song" — sound familiar?), but soon enough that attention has moved on to someone else for one reason or another.

Ultimately, the Guitar Man responds to his new situation the only way he knows how: "He's just got to find another place to play." The allure of fame and success, especially once one has tasted it, is often just too powerful to overcome. "The Guitar Man" ends with an extended guitar solo from Knechtel amid cheers, but given how Gate's narrative goes I tend to imagine these cheers only being in the title player's head, as he dreams of basking in the glow of appreciation and success once more.

"The Guitar Man" is a tender song that both celebrates the musician after whom it is named and bemoans the inescapable desire to 'make it' in the entertainment world. It's a universal vision, and in only being achieved by a select few, its pull becomes even stronger. However, Bread also go further by then asking what happens after that initial success, and it's in taking this next step that their track becomes so powerful.


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