The Hitman (Benjamin Davis) at Gator by the Bay
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“Six. Four. Seven,” the man at the microphone shouts like a preacher. He holds a red raffle ticket up in the air. Proud Mary’s is a Kearny Mesa restaurant, and tonight it’s loud and packed and hot. “Six-four-seven is our winning number.” A blues music jam session is in progress, organized weekly by the hometown jazz radio station KSDS 88.3 FM. The raffle fills the time between band changes. Behind it all, just outside the reach of the stage lights, the Hitman quietly tunes his guitar.

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Shortly, the next pick-up band materializes: a drummer and a bassist and a slide guitar player. The drummer shuffles out a tight, slow, washtub beat, the slide guitar drones a chord pattern as old as dinosaur bones, and the collective motors into “Hoochie Coochie Man.” A bald man who was young when that song came out 65 years ago takes up the microphone and belts out the words.

Keona Lee: "The first thing I heard was my dad’s Motley Crue Greatest Hits cd.

The Hitman has the apple-red cheeks of a child, which he more or less is. In contrast to the much older guys in the band, the 15-year-old high school sophomore appears almost comical, until he plays his guitar. The teen’s fingers know to work the topmost reach of his guitar’s fretboard, up where the high notes are, where the emotion lives. There’s spark and force in his playing. Tonight’s audience of mostly middle-agers and blue-hairs clap and hoot their approval.

Keona Lee guitar collection. "Each one has a different tone and a different personality."

Hoary blues-rock from a lifetime ago is not the province of many high school students. Nor, according to sales trends, is the electric guitar. The Hitman plays as if he didn’t get that memo. He performs in the grand gestures of musicians from an era he can only have seen on YouTube. He postures like a true guitar hero, a race of musicians that went extinct years ago.

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Google the words ‘guitar’ and ‘hero’ and you get hit after hit about a video game of the same name. By way of defining the term, consider such guitar luminaries as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Angus Young. In their days — the 60s, 70s, and 80s — they packed arenas. They sold millions of records. But, as pointed out last year, it’s been many years since the likes of any of them have ruled the airwaves.

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“It’s all over. And it’s not coming back.” That’s Jeff Snider, describing the present state of the electric guitar. “What the guitar industry needs in order to survive,” Snider says, “is another guitar hero.”

Snider should know. When times were good, Snider, himself a pro level guitarist, owned Jeff’s Guitars, from 1992 to 2005, a Kearny Mesa shop where he built and repaired guitar amplifiers.

In 2017, the Washington Post reported that guitar manufacturing giant Gibson’s annual revenue slipped from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion and that rival guitar manufacturer Fender was likewise feeling the pinch. Fender’s revenue fell from $675 million to $545 million. The drop in sales likewise hit guitar retailers in their cash registers, including the country’s largest, Guitar Center, which has 269 stores throughout the U.S., including locations in San Marcos, La Mesa, and San Ysidro. In March 2018, Fortune Magazine blamed “a shift in music tastes” on the company’s $1 billion debt and labeled the outlook for recovery “poor.”

Guitar Center has since re-organized and is planning to remain in business. But a throng of smaller independent guitar shops in San Diego did not survive the changing times. Jeff Snider remembers them: “Guitar Trader, Buffalo Brothers, Blue Guitar, Super Sound Music, Ozzie’s Music, Valley Music, Guitar and Bass Land, Professional Sound and Music, and San Diego Sound.”

“Now, it’s more electronic music, and kids listen differently,” former Beatle Paul McCartney told the Chicago Tribune last year. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”

“The Hitman? Actually, that was [my guitar teacher’s] idea.”

When he’s not being the Hitman, he is Benjamin Davis. He goes by Benji. He attends University City High School. The Davis family lives in Kearny Mesa. “My dad got me my first guitar when I was eight. He taught me the chords to a couple of Jimmy Buffet beach kind of songs. He used to go through the playlist on his iPod through the computer and play music for me. One time, he played Stevie Ray [Vaughan.] I said, I want to sound like that.”

By the time he was 10 years old, Davis had learned two valuable lessons: one, that he could play guitar pretty well, and two, that he was relatively alone among his peers. “The biggest thing,” says Davis, “is that kids just aren’t drawn to an older type of music. They listen to rap. Pop. It’s hard to find kids my age to be motivated to be in a band.”

That said, as absent as electric guitars are from mainstream music, there is a small but significant population of youth guitar slingers throughout San Diego gigging and hoping that those glory days of old will defy trends and come back.

“Oh, you play guitar? You wanna be like Taylor Swift, right? That’s what people say when they find out I play,” says a 17-year-old guitar shredder named Keona Lee. She lives with her family in Escondido. Her band is called Kryptid. “We started in 2013 or 2014. The drummer is my age,” she says. “But our singer is 30, and our bassist is 29. There are musicians my age, yes, but it’s hard to find musicians to mesh with. Many kids my age can play, but not many of them are into heavy metal. They play jazz, or they play poppy stuff like you hear on the radio.”

Keona says she has been listening to hard rock for much of her childhood. “I think the first thing I heard was my dad’s Motley Crue Greatest Hits CD. Mick Mars (the Crue’s guitarist,) I wanted to be like that. My first guitar was a birthday present from my parents, a Fender Squier Stratocaster. It’s hanging up on my bedroom wall right now.”

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