Molly Miller (left), Tom Bukovac and Guthrie Trapp (right)

Can instrumental music tell stories? This was a hotly debated question in the 19th century, during the War of the Romantics, when notable composers and critics duked it out in the pages of music journals, but its cultural currency has receded with the ascendance of lyric-based songs.

We’ve never lost sight of the fact that instrumental music can enhance stories, hence our celebration of such film-music geniuses as Michael Giacchino, Howard Shore, and John Williams. But instrumentalists who record and release original music often do not attempt to convey even a sense of story, instead merely showcasing technical virtuosity—the Hollywood equivalent of endless action sequences with little in the form of a coherent plot. Fortunately, though, the genre is experiencing a bit of a renaissance of late. A handful of musicians are harnessing the technical means of their craft toward worthwhile aesthetic ends, recapturing the art of truly great instrumental storytelling (the means of which I discuss here).

Indeed, “bringing back the instrumental” is a sort of motto for Molly Miller, chair of guitar studies at the Los Angeles College of Music.1 The Ballad of Hotspur is her trio’s latest release, and it marks a high point in the instrumental renaissance.

Cine” sets the Western scene where much of the album unfolds. The off-kilter rhythm of Miller’s gravelly guitar conveys something like walking with a rock in one’s shoe or the slow clap of hooves. The sparse instrumentation means there’s more room in the mix for each of the select few elements. This and the liberal use of reverb, like echoes in a canyon, make each player sound massive, contributing to the sense of a looming, belligerent sun overhead. There’s a slight reprieve, like a break under a shade tree, before Miller launches back into the bright blaze with her first solo on the album, digging in and drawing out the feeling of persistence in the face of harsh terrain and vigilante justice.

We get a set change with the gorgeous, breathy sounding cymbals and modulated guitar of “Blues to Greens,” which draw us to the water’s edge, and then in. Miller’s lighter touch smooths away the harder edges of her tone, and her lead work on this track manages a balance between mellow and happy, the sonic equivalent of a nimble dolphin leaping for the fun of it.

This upbeat spirit carries through to the album’s funkiest track, “Saddles Back,” where warbly bass, played by Jennifer Condos, trades center stage with Miller’s tremolo guitar, and drummer Jay Bellerose finds endlessly interesting ways to fill time between them.

Even if most popular music today was not built on the homogenized foundation of stock drum loops, Bellerose would still stand out as a uniquely expressive rhythmic “voice.” Known for playing with shakers strapped to his ankles, he is constantly inventing new sounds with vintage vibe, a talent that T Bone Burnett tapped into while producing Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Grammy-winning album Raising Sand. His parts here on “66 West” are arguably his coolest and most creative on an album shot through with his outstanding work. Dust clouds of reverb seem to emanate from huge toms while faint cymbal taps and rimshots evoke boot spurs, the perfect musical bed for leathery bass along with guitar melodies that float between sounding like barbed wire and the shimmering heat of a mirage.

The Ballad of Hotspur conjures an entire world from sound alone, a quality that longtime session guitarist Tom Bukovac often talks about as characteristic of truly great music. Unsurprisingly, it’s something that his latest release also achieves. On In Stereo, he and fellow guitarist Guthrie Trapp lead a cadre of other legendary Nashville studio musicians on eleven tracks that likewise marry technical skill with instrumental songcraft.

Seneca is credited with saying that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” and “The Window” brings to mind the drive of a person who can see distractions for what they are and stay focused on achieving a distant and difficult goal. It builds, patiently, toward the fireworks of dual guitar solos, a fitting start to an album by two players who’ve long put off original releases, building their skills over decades of playing on other people’s records.

“Black Cloud” is a fitting title for the scene the song paints, like watching raindrops rolling down a window and wondering how to get one’s life back on track. It builds to an anthemic, falling melodic line with giant sounding drum fills, then morphs into a statement of perseverance through life’s hard knocks with an edgy, rhythmic refrain. Bukovac closes it out with a poignant solo that sounds like delicate morning rays, warming the dew and giving off steam. The cloud has passed.

And it remains out of view for several tracks thereafter, including “Cascade Park,” which combines atmospheric synths, acoustic guitars, and driving drums in what must be the album’s sunniest tune. Watch out, though. Trapp’s fast-weaving acoustic guitar solo might just make you want to drive too fast or catch that massive wave you’ve been daydreaming about.

Although the duo’s musical influences shine through much of the album, they generally don’t detract from it, with the possible exception of “On the Spectrum.” With its syncopated guitar lines and chorus effects, the song would be perfectly at home on a Police record—so much so that one can’t stifle the expectation to hear Sting singing over it. There is also “Transition Logo Blues,” which Bukovac acknowledges breaks the record’s thematic continuity. It’s a “barn-burning” hot-licks country guitar track amid of an otherwise cinematic experience, which Bukovac likens to a palette cleanser.

Nonetheless, it’s all authentic. Bukovac learned the hard way the value of being true to oneself and one’s artistic vision. As a session player in his twenties and early thirties, he badly wanted his artist-clients to be happy, so much so that he became a rabid people pleaser, biting his tongue if he didn’t like something and gauging the worth of his work by how others reacted to it. But he did a 180 in his late thirties, coming to see that

If you make something from the heart, that’s real . . . good shit happens. The people who struggle are the ones who are making shit for everybody else. I’ve been around so many artists that make records for other people. . . . It’s pitiful. It’s a mess, because then if it doesn’t commercially do well, it’s a double fail—not only did it not commercially do well, you didn’t even make a record you liked. My advice is . . . even if it’s a total failure, make the record you want to make. Make a record that you’ll like twenty years from now.2

Molly Miller says much the same: “The more you don’t pay attention to [the market] and you’re just true to yourself, the more lasting your art is, the more interesting your art is, the more true your art is. So, by trying to please other people, you’re just going to create crap.”3

That strong independent streak helps explain why these tremendous artists have been so successful in “bringing back the instrumental”—and reminding us that yes, indeed, well-crafted instrumental music can tell great stories.

“These artists are “bringing back the instrumental”—and reminding us that yes, indeed, well-crafted instrumental music can tell great stories.” —@revivingreason
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1. Jim Beaugez, “Molly Miller Talks ‘Bringing Back the Instrumental’ and Why She Prefers to Play behind the Beat,” Guitar World, January 6, 2023,

2. Tom Bukovac, “Homeskoolin’ Volume 307, Tom Bukovac, ‘Next Stop, Buffalo,’” YouTube, May 9, 2024,

3. Molly Miller and David Eibl, “Talking to: Molly Miller,” YouTube, April 10, 2020,

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