Say the words ‘instrumental guitar’, and music fans of a certain age might think of Hank Marvin; your longtime guitar fan will probably throw out the names of OG shredders like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. But there’s a new world of instrumental guitarists out there tearing up the rulebook – and they’re all utterly distinct from each other.
This new generation of players has absorbed influences from the original instrumental guitar gods while pulling from the worlds of metal, post-hardcore and math-rock to create daring, invigorating guitar-led music that stands apart from anything that went before.
In fact, it seems almost unfair to group this material together; the only things these artists have in common are a love of the electric guitar and an unceasing desire to push the boundaries of the instrument.
Yet in the interests of broadening and blowing minds, group them we shall, with this beginner’s guide to the albums that have allowed the electric guitar to flourish into the 2020s. There are countless releases we could include in this list, but for our money, these are all albums that demonstrate the continuing rude health of the genre, which in turn inspires new players to take guitar-forward music to even greater heights.
Who am I to guide you through this brave new world? Well, I’ve just released an instrumental album of my own under the name Maebe - it’s called Rebirth. Relive. Repeat. and you can check it out on Spotify or at the end of the playlist below.
And while I most certainly would not consider it to be of the same calibre of the artists on this list, it is very much inspired by this new movement of instrumental guitar playing. Outside of my musical proclivities, I also spend my time steering the good ship Guitar World, so I’ve seen my fair share of incredible guitar playing.
Anyway, on with the list. This is in no particular order, but we’ll get the big guns out of the way first, starting with…
1. Polyphia - Remember That You Will Die (2022)
Boundary smashers. Trendsetters. The bad boys of shred. Tim Henson and Scott LePage rewrote the virtuoso rulebook with their landmark album New Levels New Devils, but Remember That You Will Die established Polyphia as the closest thing instrumental guitar has to a household name.
Adopting a hip-hop approach to hooks, production and guest stars, their latest release found the Texas four-piece almost single-handedly making nylon-string acoustic guitars cool again (Playing God), transforming a bonkers fusion lick into a J-pop smash (ABC) and dropping the gnarliest metal solo since Dimebag Darrell (Bloodbath). Oh yeah, and then there’s the small matter of bridging shred’s generational divide with that internet-breaking Steve Vai guest spot on Ego Death.
Polyphia’s no-fucks-given stance on genre (and many-fucks-given approach to production) has seen their audience expand beyond the typical instrumental guitar listener, and they now regularly sell out sizeable venues to diverse audiences around the globe.
2. Covet - Catharsis (2023)
If you have even a passing interest in modern guitar playing, you’re probably aware of Yvette Young - whether it’s down to her stunning two-hand tapping playing approach, passion for pedals or unbridled enthusiasm for the instrument.
Heavily influenced by math-rock and emo stylings, Young brought open tunings back into the virtuoso electric guitar sphere - so much so that her signature Ibanez model is tuned F-A-C-G-B-E straight from the factory.
The Covet leader is one of today’s most colorful electric guitar players, drawing on an expansive pedalboard to lend her intricate finger-tapped parts texture and shade, and often colour outside the lines entirely.
The whole album fizzes with creativity: Young may conjure cinematic soundscapes, but she’s more than capable of spitting fire with slower, gnarlier riffs, too. A champion of music as a healing force, she’s one of 21st century guitar playing’s leading lights.
3. Plini - Impulse Voices (2020)
Weaned on a diet of Dream Theater and Steve Vai, Plini taps into the era of ‘classic’ ’80s instrumental guitarists perhaps more than anyone else on this list. But his progressive rhythmic sensibilities ensure his heartfelt compositions are never less than thrilling.
Released in the midst of the pandemic, Impulse Voices felt like a warm embrace - a sensation few instrumental albums can evoke. You can put that down to Plini’s remarkable ear for melody; the wizard from Aus may unleash a blizzard of alternate picking that leaves you dizzy, but he’ll follow it up with the kind of bend that makes your heart soar and leaves your soul soothed. And that’s the case whether he’s exploring prog-pop (I’ll Tell You Someday) djent-fusion (Papelillo) or Zappa-esque syncopation (The Glass Bead Game). A true talent.
4. Jakub Zytecki - Nothing Lasts, Nothing’s Lost (2019)
The Polish prince of ambient shred took a more explicitly vocal-led turn on his latest album Remind Me, but his 2019 debut remains a landmark release in instrumental guitar. Zytecki’s approach to production is second to none, and like Polyphia, his disregard for genre boundaries is his greatest strength.
Nothing Lasts, Nothing’s Lost is built on the kind of atmospherics more associated with chillwave and synth players, but it’s used as a bedrock for some of the most beautiful virtuosic guitar playing ever committed to hard drive.
Zytecki’s breathtaking runs sound like cascading waterfalls, made all the more death-defying by his crystalline clean tone. At times, his playful hammer-ons, pull-offs and tapping techniques sound like a Japanese koto. Instrumental guitar simply doesn’t get more life-affirming.
5. Intervals - Circadian (2020)
While it’s rooted in prog-metal, Circadian is a record that traverses myriad moods and themes - brooding syncopated chugs one minute, bubbly pop-punk spirit the next, but it’s all tied together by Marshall’s supreme sense of melody. Killer hooks fly by in the blink of an eye, which makes the temptation to tap that repeat button all the more difficult to resist.
6. Animals as Leaders - Parrhesia (2022)
If 21st century virtuoso guitar playing were a university major - and we strongly urge higher education systems to explore the idea - the technical approaches of Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes would be required reading. Since their 2009 debut, the eight-string fret-melters have led the prog-metal charge, but never have their intricate high-gain tapestries been more complete than on Parrhesia.
Sure, jaw-dropping solo fireworks are firing off left, right and centre, but they’re made all the more uneasy by the kind of hypnotic rhythms you’d expect to find in a Philip Glass opus. This is instrumental metal at its most progressive and devastating.
7. Russian Circles - Gnosis (2022)
Owner of one of the most brutal guitar tones on the gigging circuit today, Mike Sullivan is a disciple of Eddie Van Halen, but through the Russian Circles filter, the tap-happy leads and taut rhythms of his mentor are translated into unbridled savagery.
Hetfieldian chugs, apocalyptic tremolo picking and swathes of distortion make Russian Circles darlings of the post-metal scene, and the Kurt Ballou-produced Gnosis is their heaviest album yet.
As a live entity, it’s made all the more impressive by Sullivan’s supreme looping abilities, which see him stack layer upon layer of world-endingly heavy tones atop each other, like some kind of doom-ridden Jenga tower.
8. Manuel Gardner Fernandes - Volume III (2022)
The German virtuoso has a wealth of releases to his name with his vocal-led prog-metal outfit Unprocessed, and a raft of his own instrumental material. But as an entry point to the percussive style that made him a viral Instagram sensation, Volume III is a worthy overview.
Gardner Fernandes has a tasty neo-soul edge to his playing, which he teams with a flamenco-inspired pick-hand approach so rapid that early commentators couldn’t believe it was legit. But as Gardner Fernandes continues to clock up the air miles on Unprocessed’s tour dates with the likes of Polyphia and Spiritbox, trust us when we say the hype is real.
9. Night Verses - Every Sound Has a Color in the Valley of Night: Part 1
Prior to 2017, Night Verses wouldn’t have qualified for this list. But following the departure of vocalist Douglas Robinson, the California prog-metallers have surged forward as an instrumental trio - surely one of the only bands to undertake such a bold career move.
But the switch has paid off, giving guitarist Nick DePirro room to flex his formidable technical abilities and inventive sonics - his expansive use of delays and DigiTech’s Whammy pedal give his playing a cinematic scope that sounds far larger than the sum of its parts, whether he’s deploying a six-string Music Man for liquid tapping or wrecking-ball chug via an eight-string Abasi model.
10. Standards - Fruit Town (2022)
The most upbeat math-rock duo you ever did hear, Standards are led by Marcos Mena, a technically gifted player so committed to the creative potential of two-handed techniques that he wrote an entire book on the subject.
One listen to Standards’ material shows you why guitar brands including Aristides and Ibanez have been clamoring to endorse the tap-happy open-tuning enthusiast. His fruity music has the kind of breezy syncopated grooves that you can’t help but shake your butt to - and the kind of chops that you can’t help but drop your jaw to.
Fruit Town is the ideal demonstration of Mena’s elevated melodic sensibilities; every guitar part is singable, which is reliably the mark of a good song, not just a good guitar song. Mena’s increasingly glassy tones also highlight his well-honed production chops - but, guess what? He wrote a book on that, too.