Only Two Kinds of Instrumental Guitarists Get Known

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:

  1. The big guys
  2. The ones who play insanely fast all the time

The Big Three

Musician Joe Satriani

Musician Joe Satriani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

English: Steve Vai in London in 2001

Steve Vai in London in 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

Everybody 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?


"Keeping Pace" video

My video for “Keeping Pace” from NOW WEAPONIZED!

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).

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9 thoughts on “Only Two Kinds of Instrumental Guitarists Get Known

  1. Hugo

    Your band sounds awesome dude. keep it up. as soon as she gets attention,so does your guitar music.

  2. Pingback: Interviews - Interview: Rafael Medina - Kittysneezes

  3. moverdrive

    Dug your rendition of ‘Dee’. I grew up playing/studying Randy, Eddie, Alex Lifeson and a lot of the guitarists who had staying power from that generation. I would say instrumental guitar always has a place, and with the right placement, you can earn a living with licensing for tv, film, multimedia, broadcast, etc. I’ve made a bit of money this way, and while I’m more of a traditional rock/pop composer, I play so much that I amass a fair amount of instrumental tunes over time. After awhile, it makes sense to collect them all and put them all on one disc, which I’ll probably do (again) in a couple years.

    Having seen the first G3 tour, I whole-heartedly agree about the ‘big 3’. Huge fans of all of them (though EJ had the best tone of the night, IMO). I would add names like Paul Gilbert, Greg Howe and perhaps Blues Saraceno as worthy players in this genre.

    Great stuff! Love your blog and all the best…


  4. Denis Taaffe

    sadly this is about the state of guitar,name a new well known instrumental guitarist in the last twenty years even, sadly after joe satriani eric johnson and steve vai, that was it, door closed to anyone else,.Sadly they arent exactly in the mood to help other guitarists,I have been asking for years to open for all three….anyway,kenny wayne shepard for a little while, but then nothing, if your lucky like guthry goven you might get a bet you cant play this instrumental column 1 time in guitar world,joe bonnamassa did everything he could to get notice and it was painful, renting his own halls,etc…I put out 191 instrumental albums so far and never even once got a mention in a guitar magazine, rather articles on led zeppelin jeff beck, joe satriani,steve vai and ertc johnson (who I really like)etc….so you could tour ,but plan on booking your own shows..maybe,,The thing to do is not to give up if you really like your music and believe in what your doing, then all that crap doesnt matter much….

    1. randyellefson Post author

      Hi Denis. Thanks for commenting! I thought 191 was a typo until I checked your site. Any recommended tracks? I wouldn’t know what to check out.

      I’ve noticed that the big three don’t seem to do anything like recommending new guys to their fans. They don’t really support the genre, that I can tell, since I don’t consider releasing their own CDs to be supporting it.

  5. Denis Taaffe


    Sad but true, I agree, I like the big 3,I do so not trying to dog but I tried for years to open for eric johnson and vai;s label etc.Satriani and management especially are really harsh and do not do anything for anybody but themselves..guess cant blame them..But there are also some really great great players who just need a would think that the big 3 would help out some new guys.well if I ever get known ,I will do all I can to help out the new guys.Its sad as the big 3 were also the new guys at one time…..I mean seriously if you were one of the big 3 ,how much would it hurt to have a new guy open some shows for you…etc….

  6. John T

    This is interesting, I love guitar related music but I can’t stand the new wave of “guitar players” who only go up-n-down scales and do “djent”, god! I hate that, why does everybody has to be fast to be “good”?

    I’ve been YouTube surfing and I’ve found cool music, with awesome solos and most comments were like “this sucks, does it djent?” whataf!!! really?

    There are guys out there who doesn’t have the money like the new wave of dudes to buy their place in the “scene of guitar”. They deserve a shot, they have cool music and awesome melodies, it’s worth a try. People these days are so easy to impress.

    I go to a show for the music, yes, playing is important, but first, is the music.

    Does anybody know some cool guitar instrumental blogs to find cool music?

    Anyway, it’s nice to know I’m not the only who sees it that way.

    1. randyellefson Post author

      Hi John. Thanks for the comment. I’ve never heard of djent and had to look it up; guess I’m clueless.

      I think a lot of modern guys sound far too practiced and the result is poor feel. I can’t get into them. Even the guys playing lead for major metal bands like Megadeth just bore me.


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