As much as I hate to undercut my good man Jeff, I figure I could offer up an argument for the opposing side of the three guitar player approach. Jeff cited Periphery, asking, “What’s stopping Periphery from writing a few crazy proggy sections where all three guitars are doing something completely different but complementary to each other?”
Absolutely nothing, because they’ve already done it. It happens all over their debut album, albeit often in a subtle fashion, because they’re either tucked behind vocals, or overpowered by production that isn’t actually as good and clear as it could be. The best example I can give is Periphery’s epic “Racecar,” which you can hear above. There are moments throughout the track where there are two harmonizing rhythm tracks playing alongside each other with a cleaner delicate melodic part over it—for example, 5:30; harmonies are panned left and right and there’s a centered clean ambient track being layered that you have to really listen for). There are moments where there are two melodic leads and a rhythm track—6:50, harmonizing leads and a chuggy rhythm being laid down underneath. Most importantly (and properly answering Jeff’s rhetorical question), there are even moments where there are three different guitar tracks being played simultaneously where nothing is doubled—clean atmospheric layering, killer guitar lead, and a low rhythmic chugging during the song’s major hook at 9:55. It takes more than a passing listen to pick out several different guitar parts, especially when they’re all being challenged in the mix alongside bass and drums.
The case is harder to argue for Whitechapel (and even harder for Chelsea Grin, but my buddy Gunnar (DeusExMachina) managed to find a song of theirs that had three clearly defined guitar parts), who focuses heavily on low rhythmic playing. Admittedly, they do attain a huge guitar sound and I can at times pick out the guitar parts when I listen hard enough. Some could argue that two guitarists could pull that off. On record, yes, of course. Jeff cites Veil of Maya‘s Marc Okubo, who does all of the guitar work himself on the recordings. Having seen them play live before, Marc relies on a loop pedal and backing tracks to pull off the layered sound. I’d argue that Periphery’s compositions rely much more heavily on layers and harmonies than Veil of Maya, and wouldn’t translate as well live when performed in such a way, as there is much more going on.
Thanks to modern recording technology, a guitar player can theoretically record as many layers as he wanted. In fact, it’s actually a common practice for guitarists to double-track their parts to achieve a huge guitar sound and to track harmonies, but in a live setting, it can’t be recreated with only one dude unless you want to use backing tracks, tapdancing on different loop and effect pedals, or straight up ignoring guitar tracks, which I’ve seen Josh Travis from Danza do when performing live. With Danza’s one player, you won’t likely hear all the atmospheric layering performed live in front of you. With Periphery, Kvelertak, and other bands that utilize three players, it’s guaranteed.
In the end, I’d rather see upwards of five guitarists sharing the stage and reproducing the album material faithfully than just one dude jamming to a pre-recorded track or two dudes who ignore the harmonies and big guitar sound. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but having multiple guitar players is all a matter of pulling off the many tracks that your recording has for the live audience so you don’t get a weaker version during the live show. You can’t knock any band for doing that.