A Stratocaster is no longer the stairway to teen heaven

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TWENTY-FIVE years after the death of the legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, the music industry is finding to its horror that children no longer want to be guitar heroes. They want to be the heroes of computer games instead.

"We're hurting. We're really hurting," said a salesman last week on the stand for Yamaha guitars at the Live 95 consumer electronics show in Earl's Court. "Computer games are killing us."

Sales of cheap acoustic guitars, which most would-be "axe heroes" buy to learn their craft, have been depressed for the past two years, after a brief boom in 1992. Sales have fallen from a peak of pounds 14m to less than pounds 10m, according to confidential data from the Music Industries Association. In the same period, sales of computer games have more than tripled, to pounds 700m.

"The problem is that musical instruments are competing with all the other leisure activities," says Jerry Uwins, a former marketing manager at Yamaha. "Unlike a computer game, an instrument doesn't offer instant gratification. You have to learn how to play it. Kids often start the guitar but then give up - whereas they can switch on the computer and get something which gives them fun right away."

But while guitar retailers have seen a drop in trade from the young, their business is being bolstered by the mature buyers aged between 35 and 44 whose hopes of being rock stars died - like most of their heroes - in their teens, but who still play guitar as a hobby. "They're buying the expensive guitars, the Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls, that they couldn't afford when they were young," says Uwins. "In the business, they're called the 'doctors and dentists' - the ones with big disposable incomes." Such guitars cost up to pounds 1,000.

In London's "Tin Pan Alley", around Denmark Street near Tottenham Court Road, the shops have noticed the change. The racks of guitars on the walls that used to resound to misplayed versions of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" are quieter than usual. "There are no guitar heroes anymore," says Alan Bantat, a sales assistant in the Rhodes Music Store. "Guitars don't seem dynamic to today's kids. There's no figurehead for them to look up to. Guys like Clapton are too old, really."

However, some feel that today's children are missing out on more than they realise by shunning six-strings. "Playing in a band is about a lot more than just playing an instrument," says Dave Burrluck, reviews editor of Guitar magazine. "It's about getting on with people too. I'm concerned that computers are taking over a lot of social interaction. But playing in a band was a way of learning social interaction and, let's face it, chatting up the girls. If you can get a computer game that does all that, lead me to it."

The music industry is trying to fight back, firstly by lowering the prices of guitars and secondly by tackling computer games on their own territory. At Live 95, Yamaha was selling a computer program which could teach the aspiring guitarist how to tune the guitar, how to strum, and how to play a few basic tunes.

However, the tunes are unlikely to inspire the youngster brought up on such anthems as Hendrix's "Purple Haze", Deep Purple's "Smoke on Water" or the modern favourite, Nirvana's four-chord wonder "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Instead it offers uncopyrighted tunes like "Amazing Grace". Even so, the stand has sold a few during the show - but not nearly enough to redress the balance against the might of Super Mario.