I’m an instrumental guitarist. I admit it.
Is it embarrassing? I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but the fact remains that the field of instrumental guitar music isn’t given much esteem. There are really only two kinds of us that anyone talks about:
- The big guys
- The ones who play insanely fast all the time
The Big Three
Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson. Those are the Big Three.
Sure, there are some others that are synonymous with the genre and also got their start in the 1980s when it was cool, like Tony MacAlpine, Vinnie Moore, Marty Friedman (and Jason Becker), but let’s face it – the genre is largely known because of the Big Three, who gave it viability because – wait for it – they actually sold CDs of this stuff! Lots of them! Their songs were played on the radio, even MTV. And they still do tours, most notably the G3 tour, where Satch, Vai, and a guest perform three sets.
Everyone else? Not so much. Years ago Jason Becker admitted in an interview that, despite record label distribution, a high profile gig with David Lee Roth, and loads of magazine cover spots, plus charity functions for him after being diagnosed with ALS, his CDs simply don’t sell. I’ll be honest, I felt better hearing that, since mine don’t sell for squat either and I don’t have any of that!
If you showed up after the arrival of grunge (via Nirvana) in 1991, you were DOA. In fact, since then, you’re still kind of screwed, as the art of lead guitar hasn’t really recovered in the all years since. I remember when bands were bashing all lead guitar in general as a sign of conceit, shallowness, and artificiality, as if it’s not a valid form of musical expression. They were rejecting the pressure to practice and know fancy scales, but that was overdoing it, methinks.
Since then, who gets known?
The Fast Guys
Then there are the guys who play a million notes per second, their technical skill being the only real reason people talk about their playing, but not their music.
“Shredding” was once a derogatory term for guitarists whose solos sounded like masturbation. You know, playing too fast all the time, throwing in all sorts of exotic scales, and performing every virtuoso trick as often as possible, from tapping to sweep arpeggios, usually without the slightest bit of musical taste. Their technique had machine-like precision, which, for me, robbed it of expression.
Since then, “shredding” has become a term used without condemnation, used to describe anyone with speed.
Still, if you want to get known as an instrumental guitarist these days, you need to have a high NPS. That’s “note per second”. Yes, there are people who actually take the time to count this for different guys and makes lists. Go ahead and google “notes per second guitar” and see what comes up. That’s embarrassing.
There are guys releasing CDs that I personally think are just awful, the songs full of nothing but fast lead playing over mindless backing tracks, and yet people talk about them enough that they get endorsements, magazine coverage, and other stuff.
Who is causing that with their attention? Usually fellow guitarists. Is that who those CDs are for? Is that what the entire genre, except for the Big Three, has come to be? Insanely fast lead guitar all the time for other guitarists who care only for technical displays of virtuosity? When those people want to listen to something enjoyable, do they put on something else?
If you’re an instrumental guitarist and focus on songs, melody, and feel over shredding, you aren’t likely to get talked about. And the days of getting instrumental guitar (I’m talking rock here) heard by lots of people are probably long gone. It’s not “marketable” and hasn’t been for over twenty years. A brief window from Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien album in 1987 to 1991 has closed.
For my CDs, sometimes people praise them and then write something like, “he’s not the fastest guy in the world but I’m surprised how much I like these songs.” And I just laugh and want to cry. Not about not being the fastest, but at the subject even coming up and then the admission that the music is actually enjoyable, apparently defying expectation. That says a lot. And it says nothing good – for music, this genre, or me personally.
So is it the fan base that has lost touch with something, the guitarists, or both?
At times I’ve expressed my frustration to my wife, saying I should just put out a song like the NPS guys to get some attention I can’t otherwise get. And she replies, in effect, “Would that really make you feel better to appeal to people who care about that?” And the answer is no, so I don’t. Besides, I can’t practice that much without suffering a bout of narcolepsy.
In the end, you have to do what you believe in, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that if you give up doing something you love to do something you don’t, and you still don’t get the recognition or success you crave, now you’ve given it up for nothing.
I’m hoping for the best of both worlds soon – still doing my particular brand of instrumental guitar, and having a metal band (with vocals) called Z-Order that will hopefully release its debut album in 2013. Who knows? Maybe while doing something I love (Z-Order), I’ll inadvertently draw attention to something else I also love (instrumental guitar).
Official Site: http://www.randyellefson.com
Facebook (as guitarist): https://www.facebook.com/pages/Randy-Ellefson-Guitarist
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