You could be forgiven for not knowing who Guthrie Govan is. Like most virtuoso guitar players, his fan base is demographically confined, more or less, to practicing guitarists and wannabes. Gifted musicians in general crave to extend their reach — beyond this practitioner class — to the non-expert lay listener. Felix Mendelssohn didn’t play for the pianists in the audience; nor did Charles Mingus cater exclusively to the enthusiasts of the double bass. But a guitarist is always condemned to this sort of everlasting kinship with the rest of the tribe — branded, if he’s any good, the Lord of the Axe or a “guitarist’s guitarist”, for better or worse. He is fated to playing improv gigs at guitar stores, hosting evening workshops on the art of soloing, and reviewing assorted “gear” on YouTube. Guthrie Govan has done all of that; and that is probably why you’ve never heard of him.
Govan’s sound is defined by the way he plays, rather than by the engineering wizardry of his gear. In his best songs, the music you hear has an almost viscous quality to it — progressing as though in a liquid flow, one note drawing the other out.

I started listening to Govan’s music because I, too, considered myself to be a part of the tribe. Actually, it wasn’t through Govan that I got exposed to his music, but through the YouTube videos of other no-hopers like myself — aspiring guitar gods all — trying their hand at Govan’s signature chops on camera. Most of these videos were embarrassing even to watch, while some were so good they gave you a crisis of faith. Among the latter was one pitch-perfect cover of a popular Govan tune, memorably titled “Wonderful Slippery Things”, by a teenage girl named Jess Lewis. This video, which now has over a million hits, directed me to Govan’s original music and to his only solo album Erotic Cakes. Sometimes, when I listen to it, I think of Lewis — with her cherry-red Fender Stratocaster (Maplewood neck), her shoulder-length hair obscuring the face, and her boundless reserves of musical talent — as Govan’s ideal listener.

There’s an organised syndicate of guitar supremos active in the United States that once occupied a sizeable niche of the music industry there. Figures like Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, though not as popular today as they once were, styled themselves as Wagnerian maestros; they sought to establish the electric guitar as the central compositional instrument in music, a louche replacement to the piano. Most of their songs were contemporary equivalents of the classical étude, or a musical piece written to showcase the virtuosity of the composer. Expensive spectacles were organised for these guitarists, great exhibitionistic orgies, one of which, put together by Satriani, is called, with world-historical conceit, the G3: a live concert featuring any three of the world’s best guitar players. (They should, by the way, rename G3 to G2, because one of the Gs is always Satriani himself.) Last year, Govan too played a G3 tour with Vai and Satriani, reconfirming his credentials as the best in business.

And yet Govan comes across as a misfit in these exalted ranks. Take, for instance, his openness to musical styles other than the bread-and-butter guitar-friendly genres of rock and metal. Jazz influences can be heard in every bar of music in Erotic Cakes; and Govan once performed live with the rap singer Dizzee Rascal, causing a mini scandal within the metalhead community. Also worth noting is Govan’s apparent disinterest in “tone”, that guitaring buzzword that serves, for many, as a substitute for skill, and helps sell expensive products (amps, effects pedals, compressors — you name it). Govan’s tone is the last thing that the music draws attention to. Instead, we find ourselves transfixed by those other old-fashioned components — like melody, phrasing and the expressive range of what we hear. His sound is defined by the way he plays, rather than by the engineering wizardry of his gear. In his best songs, the music you hear has an almost viscous quality to it — progressing as though in a liquid flow, one note drawing the other out. Govan may have noticed this quality, for it can’t be a coincidence that he chose to name one of his finest tunes “Wonderful Slippery Thing”.

Last week, Govan played this particular song, as well as some of his other hits from Erotic Cakes, live at Delhi’s Hard Rock Cafe. He was accompanied by two ridiculously adroit Indian musicians, Mohini Dey on the bass guitar and Gino Banks on drums. The band operated not unlike a jazz trio: their performance was improvisation-heavy, and the three musicians took turns presenting instrumental solos. Watching him live, it occurred to me that Govan may be among the very few guitar players in the world who are immune to the Hendrix syndrome. Which is to say that he doesn’t behave like a showman on the stage, unlike both Vai and Satriani, who can’t strum a chord without making some maniacal gesture alongside. Govan is more engrossed in the business of playing. Everything else — the ambience, the audiences, the entire show — is extraneous.

Throughout the Delhi gig, he barely moved from his spot on the stage. At one point during the show, a roving beam from one of the stage lights fell on his face, and he almost got startled, requesting that the light be turned off. Besides, he kept asking members of the audience, politely, to put their camera phones back in their pockets and concentrate more on trying to directly engage with the music. “If you put those cameras away, we can all have a good time,” Govan said. “We can either feel like we’ve all been invited to this party, or we can feel like we’re in a zoo. With these many cameras pointed at you, it’s zoo world.”

Charles Mingus is said to have shouted at his audience once, at a nightclub in New York, because they weren’t quite listening to what was being played. It’s the mark of the true musician to demand not just attention, but respect for the music. In this sense, as in many more, Govan is to be seen as a consummate musician, not just a super-talented guitar player who can hold his own during a jam with Satriani. And if it is music that interests you, rather than the gimmicky theatrics of guitardom, you ought to really know who Guthrie Govan is.