It is possible to have recordings that sell in great enough number to be a
successful instrumentalist. It has been done by Duane Eddy, by the Ventures, and by Chet Atkins. In order to do so one must have that certain something in their playing,
they must have originality, and they must devote enough time to being an
instrumentalist to develop their solo playing to the point that they can deliver
music that the fans will love. Unfortunately very few guitarists realize what it
takes to become a popular recording artist.
Vocals have been the big sellers since Frank Sinatra in pop music, and Roy Acuff in
country music became popular around 1940. Big bands had been the big seller up to
that point in time.
It is possible for an instrumentalist to become so popular they are on the Billboard
charts along with the singers. Duane Eddy did this and so did the Ventures.
The rock and roll band the Ventures were super big for quite a number of years. The
Ventures had 17 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. The Ventures sold 40 million records
in Japan. The success of this instrumental group was nearly unbelievable.
Santo and Johnny with their steel guitar recording of "Sleep Walk" was on the
Billboard Hot 100. Santo and Johnny had one more chart song and they became incredibly popular in Europe. Santo and Johnny also recorded quite a number of albums.
The record companies are very reluctant to put their money into recording and
promoting Instrumental records since so few instrumental records have sold well.
However, Chet Atkins was recorded by RCA and Chet had many albums that sold quite well. I have read on the Internet that Chet Atkins has sold more recordings than any other instrumentalist.
Chet had a unique opportunity to promote his recordings. He was the head of RCA in
Nashville. RCA would pull all the stops out when promoting Chet's recordings. No
other instrumentalist I have ever known had this kind of clout in the recorded
Did RCA spending big bucks to record and promote Chet's music make him into the 'Star of Guitar' who sold recordings big time, more so than any other instrumentalist in
the history of music? Without the super promotion of RCA, Chet's recordings would
have done well, but I doubt that they would have done as well as they did without RCA
sparing nothing in promoting his recordings. But the promotion alone did not make
Chet popular. If Chet Atkins had not had the music people liked, his records would
never have sold, and in fact, RCA would never have put the big bucks into their
promotion. Chet did have the music people liked and he had all the promotion that
was needed to make his recordings popular, since he was the head of RCA Records in Nashville.
Why do records sell? They sell because the fans like the records. If the fans do not
like the records they won't sell under any conditions.
Why do so many steel guitarists and standard guitarists make recordings that do not
sell? I think it is for the most part because they are playing music to impress
other musicians instead of playing music the fans will love. I believe it is because
they have little originality, and they are playing music licks that have been played
by every other player so much the licks have been worn out for years - and in reality
no one wants to hear the worn out licks any more.
Listen to any steel guitar recording by an independent artist and what do you hear?
A lot of worn out steel guitar licks that are played by everyone and his brother - and
have been played for years. Of course you get much "show off music" also, and the
show off music is not that great as music, it just shows off their technique. Steel
guitar players often try to copy whoever has been successful, so they often have very
little originality. The steel guitar players seldom write originals to record. They
normally do some standard country songs that they like to play.
Standard guitar players who record most often try to play music to impress, "Show
off music" that is not that much as music, but it does show off their technique.
Show off music - copy cat music, is not music that impresses fans and makes them buy the recording. Good music that is most often original is what the fans will like if
it is performed well.
Yes, the successful big name steel players and standard guitar players do some really
technical music, and if it is part of the real music and not played strictly as show
off music, it goes over well when good players are performing. But quite often, non-showy music is by far the best, as music. And the problem is that most of the more accomplished guitar and steel guitar players do not realize this is true, so they
stick with "show off music" and that is one of the things that kills them when it
comes to record sales.
One of the big problems for both steel guitar players and standard guitar players is
that they have spent their life being backup musicians. As backup musicians they are
the best, but often when it comes to being a featured solo star, they cannot hack it,
for they can mostly play backup licks, and that is it.
The guitar players who have had popular recordings that sold were players who love
to play Instrumentals and were willing to be the featured musician as the singer is featured. They were not happy to spend their entire life playing second fiddle to a singer, not even if they made a huge part of their living backing up singers. The successful guitar players, in steel guitar or standard guitar, wanted to make their mark in music as an instrumentalist, not as a backup musician. So the guitarist worked on being a featured solo instrumentalist in addition to their backup work behind singers. They give importance to the guitar as a featured solo instrument.
Chet Atkins proved what could be done by an instrumentalist, on any instrument, if
the musician would take their instrument seriously as a featured solo instrument. Chet
failed as a singer in 1946, so he knew that if he achieved stardom it would have to
be as a featured solo instrumentalist.
The temptation to be a singer as well as a guitar player is great. It's much easier
to get a record contract as a singer than as a guitar player. However, only the
guitarist who devotes themselves totally to playing guitar can be at their best on
the instrument. If there is an exception to this it would have to be Jerry Reed, who
does sing quite well but he devoted enough time to the guitar that he is for certain
one of the best guitarists to be recorded. And Jerry Reed is, in reality, more famous
and more loved as a guitar player than as a singer long after his tremendous popularity in selling records ended.
Classical and jazz are both primarily forms of instrumental music. The singers do not rule in these two genres of music. However, there are very few featured instrumentalists recording in the genre of classical music. Yo Yo Ma, a cello player, has become super popular as a featured instrumentalist. Yo Yo Ma has received 15 Grammys and his record sales are very high. This proves that the genre of music does not matter when it comes to being a successful instrumentalist. Classical Music has a very small audience and the cello is not considered to be one of the best solo
Instruments, yet Yo Yo Ma has huge record sales, and is a very popular concert
artist. Why is this so? Because Yo Yo Ma has that certain something in his playing
of the cello that produces music that fans love. The example of Yo Yo Ma becoming
very popular as a cello player should prove to all musicians that it is possible to
record instrumental music that the fans will love.
Robert Lee Johnson started playing guitar at age 18, inspired by Chet Atkins. He plays fingerstyle, as well as a single string style using his thumb and fingers.
Johnon has been influenced by players in jazz, blues, country, classical and fingerstyle genres.
His song, "Texas" is being used in the soundtrack of a movie, entitled "Broken Triangle".
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