When I started playing bass guitar at age 13, it seemed like everyone around me had started playing instruments as well.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had the opportunity to play with a variety of groups, exposing me to a lot of different styles and skill levels. Seeing the level of skill of musicians have today, I often wonder how their skills compare to that of people in the past, be that the 20th century, or the great composers of the classical period. How has technology and amount of reference material changed the way people learn instruments and progress as musicians? Are people today generally more skilled than musical minds of the past? That may seem like a big statement to call to question, but it is one worth thinking about.

With CF Martin & Co. making some of the first mass produced acoustic guitars beginning in the 1800s, and Fender mass producing solid-body electric guitars starting in the 1940s, having musical instruments in the home became more and more common over time. No longer were instruments just for people in big bands or orchestras; they were something that people could start having in their homes and learning at their leisure. Beginning in the late 1930s, with the availability of instruments and music in homes, the abundance of music in daily life was already so much greater than even 50 years before.

As time has gone on, through the 1950s, and up through the 1970s, music has become a staple of art and entertainment, seeing some of the most groundbreaking musicians come from these decades. Styles and culture shifted so much in just a few decades; the world saw things such as the birth of Rock and Roll, the Beatlemania craze and the legendary Woodstock festival. Some musicians pushed the boundaries in skill, creativity, and art in a way that many thought impossible, and have continued to influence musicians decades after their deaths.

Jimi Hendrix, for example, was an enigma; no one had ever played the guitar like him before, and no one has ever been able to recreate the same magic that he did. His influence is still everywhere in modern music. Just about every guitarist has been inspired by him in some way. That very same kind of inspiration is what has made many people so talented in today’s music world. The influence of past icons and musicians have shaped the way that people learn and play instruments today. This is one of the factors that leads to musicians today being generally more talented than musicians of past generations.

Of course, it is hard for someone to be more influential than Jimi Hendrix or a band like The Beatles. That being said, it wouldn’t take you very long to find a musician today who is much more talented in a technical sense. If you were to go down the YouTube rabbit hole of guitar videos, you would find thousands upon thousands of videos of people playing instruments in a way that would have never been thought possible 50 years ago. The sheer amount of reference material that people have to draw from today is largely responsible for the skill levels that people have been able to reach. With hundreds of years of music to draw inspiration from, the level of skill at which people are able to play instruments is most definitely linked.  

Technology plays a large part in learning music today. If someone is new to guitar, they can find thousands of free video lessons online, giving them instruction on techniques, tips, and things that could help them start out. When I first started out, I remember watching videos about how to play the songs I wanted to learn. You can find tablature and sheet music online for nearly any song you want, for free.

You have to wonder where music would be today if the internet had existed back in the early 1900s. How would the birth of Rock and Roll been different if people like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly had access to thousands of online resources? How would Jimi Hendrix have been received if there had been thousands of other people playing like him, with their videos on YouTube?

Music, and the way it is received, is very dependent on the culture surrounding it. Technology, and the abundance of reference material have greatly shaped the way that musicians today play. While it is an enormous statement to say that musicians today are generally more talented than musicians have been, it is not an unfounded thing to say. One can only guess where musicians of the future will go with their abilities, but it is safe to say that people will keep evolving with the changing times around them.