This summer, Shalfi Edu went viral without singing a note. The 25-year-old guitarist posted a video of his playing — full of flitting fingers, though the mood remains insistently tranquil — on the app TikTok, which now functions as music’s primary discovery engine. Edu added a caption out of a teen romcom, a stamp of emotion on all the casual showmanship: “You’ve hurt someone who’s hurt you. Seeing them suffer causes you pain, but you’re too angry to apologize or stop. You feel conflicted.” The clip has earned over a million views and nearly 270,000 likes.
Instrumental pop was shunted out of the mainstream decades ago, but on a good day, Edu’s videos can rack up seven-figure view counts on TikTok. He has been posting on Instagram since 2016 (18,500 followers) and YouTube since 2018 (9,200 subscribers), but his reach on TikTok makes those platforms look puny — in less than a year, Edu has amassed more than 212,000 followers. Another one of his videos from August received around 6,000 views on Instagram and nearly 1,800 on YouTube, peanuts compared to its 438,000 on TikTok.
TikTok is mostly known for goofy comedy videos, dance challenges, and its ability to propel an unknown artist onto a major-label roster (not to mention its ongoing feud with the Trump administration, which makes the app’s future uncertain). But TikTok is such a widely used platform that it contains a myriad of subcultures, including a corner devoted to athletic displays on guitar and bass or soothing, liquid acoustic covers, all doled out in the most digestible of 15-second increments.
This is where Edu has found a following, along with Blu DeTiger (866,000 followers), who is introducing live slap-bass to a generation of teens, Towa Bird (402,000), who plays whirling electric guitar solos like they never went of style, AcousticTrench (556,000), who plays balmy, don’t-wake-the-baby covers, and Justin Kim, who built on AcousticTrench’s mellower-than-thou approach and has already earned 1.2 million followers even though he’s been playing guitar for a mere 20 months.
“The virality of it is insane,” DeTiger says.
POV: You’ve hurt someone who’s hurt you. Seeing them suffer causes you pain, but you’re too angry to apologize or stop. You feel conflicted. #lofi
“Why Don’t I Try This?”
DeTiger has been playing bass since she was seven, enamored with virtuosos like Bernard Edwards, Larry Graham, and Meshell Ndegeocello; she left New York University to tour with (and open for) the electronic group the Knocks. In March, while killing time before heading to London to play in Caroline Polacheck’s band, she decided to post a video on TikTok.
“It was, ‘why don’t I just try this?'” she says. “I put my phone up, recorded me playing ‘Say So’ by Doja Cat, posted it, went to the airport, landed in London, checked it, and I had 100,000 likes. Once that popped off, I was like, ‘I should keep doing this.'”
Within weeks of landing in London, DeTiger was back home in Manhattan, and every one of her upcoming gigs was cancelled. “I was like, I’ll just make TikToks every day and see what happens,” she says. “Every day I woke up, put on an outfit, learned a song, covered it.” Her source material runs from Seventies funk classics to contemporary streaming hits: Recently, she nailed the pirouetting bass work from Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” and added thumping lines to Sub Urban’s “Freak” with Rei Ami.
DeTiger is not the only instrumentalist who adheres to the post-a-day regimen. Kim had only been playing guitar for about seven months when he started putting videos on TikTok. “It helped me grow on guitar because I was trying to post every day,” he says. “Forcing myself to learn a new song that quickly pushed my progress.” His very first post, a cover of “Shallow,” has amassed 1.5 million views to date.
Horace Bray was already a part of the guitar community on Instagram (he’s played with India.Arie and Sam Fischer, among others) when he started to notice peers rocketing upwards on TikTok. “I’ve seen people get so successful so quickly there just by finding their niche,” Bray explains. “Seeing that work so well, I decided for a month I was gonna post every single day.” He has picked up more than 14,000 followers with his own fretwork-centric videos.
“People Love Covers”
Many of the instrumentalists who have built loyal followings on TikTok do so by covering popular songs or taking fan requests. “People love that sense of familiarity” in a cover, DeTiger says.
DeTiger quickly noticed that “the videos that popped the most were often me playing slap bass over pop or rap songs” like “Say So” or Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” At a time when most bass lines are simple, brute-force loops programmed on a laptop, DeTiger’s embellishments add range and slap-in-the-face bounce.
You Are My Sunshine ☀️❤️
AcousticTrench and Justin Kim are on the opposite side of the spectrum: If DeTiger is an acrobat, these two guitarists function like hypnotists. AcousticTrench often plays balmy covers of well-known songs — “Careless Whisper,” “You Are My Sunshine” — with his phone set up inside his guitar, so the viewer’s focus is on the instrument’s strings, which sometimes go wildly wavy thanks to a nifty digital effect. AcousticTrench’s dog also shows up prominently in the clips, adding to their idyllic, leave-your-troubles-behind pull.
Edu has found a different pocket of listeners with original compositions that split the difference between these two poles. “There’s a certain level of athleticism and chillness [in his playing] which I think works really well,” Bray says. “It’s immediately him doing things you don’t ordinarily see people do on the guitar — that’s the hook.”
“Everything Converged Nicely”
One of the cruel ironies of the modern music industry is that few acts want to be considered a “TikTok artist” — it still has a stigma of frivolity and flash-in-the-pan-ness — but playing the TikTok lottery is one of the most effective ways for a young act to quickly reach a wide audience. “I know a lot of musicians are bitter about feeling like they have to go on TikTok to be relevant,” Bray says.
But for some, the potential gains are worth the slog. Edu, who is releasing the Morioh EP this month, says his TikTok views have driven listeners to find — and, crucially, stream — his instrumental music on other platforms.
“The majority of my Spotify streams are a direct result of TikTok,” the guitarist notes. “A label approached me for a distribution deal for the last EP I put out, which is being pressed to vinyl, and I think most of the sales for that vinyl have come almost directly from TikTok. A majority of my growth on Instagram this year is also the direct result of TikTok.” (He does have YouTube to thank as well: That’s where the rapper Russ found and sampled Edu’s work.)
DeTiger, who hopes to emulate the bassist-artist paths of Graham, Ndegeocello, and Tina Weymouth, has also used her covers as an effective springboard to push her originals, in which she sings as well as plays bass. Her song “Figure It Out,” a strutting pop cut with a Motown-like bassline, has racked up more than 14 million streams on Spotify since April. “My cover videos were connecting [on TikTok], and my song was connecting at the same time,” she says. “Everything converged nicely.”
DeTiger is now planning to release another single this month and eventually an EP that she describes as “funky and very nostalgic for the dancefloor because I wrote a lot of it during quarantine.”
Bray also took to TikTok to help launch his originals. “I got it ’cause I have a couple releases coming out starting on September 17th,” he says. “Every month through December I’m going to have more singles coming out — and hopefully I can make some fun content on TikTok around that.”