Are you one of those people who get frustrated when you’re told that you’ll listen to music from a “boy band” and what you get is a bunch of pretty boys with flawless skin and jaw-dropping dance skills? Where are the guitar riffs and the noisy percussion, you ask? Well, wonder no more as we present to you four Korean bands with members who actually play musical instruments.

Warning: No dance breaks and dance version MVs for these acts, though.

F.T. Island

During the time when K-pop was all about boy groups (TVXQ! Super Junior! SHINHWA! H.O.T! Sech.Kies!) and a smattering of girl groups (Fin.KL! S.E.S! Baby Vox!), bands – not “boy bands”, but bands with members playing musical instruments were mostly relegated into the Korean music indie scene. That was until FNC Entertainment released F.T. Island, a band that made its mark in the country’s music landscape. Suddenly, being in a band that just rocks — no elaborate choreography, no members who may just bank on their looks — became accepted and prompted even the rise of more rock bands into mainstream Korean music.  

The band has undergone three changes in its member lineup – the first being guitarist Oh Wonbin leaving the group two years after their debut to try his luck with a solo career and play other genres of music. He eventually became a soloist and actor and just in January, announced his marriage plans and his impending fatherhood. The second change introduced Seunghyuin as Wonbin’s replacement as the band’s guitarist, a position he held for more than 10 years, after which he left FNC and subsequently the group so he could focus on his acting career. The band’s leader and one of its founding members, Junghoon, had to quit the band and his career in the entertainment industry after it was revealed that he was involved in the Burning Sun scandal, where he was part of a group chat that had members exchange videos of sexual activities without the consent of the other party.

This brings the current band lineup down to three, with the remaining members enlisting and getting discharged more or less at the same time.  Drummer Minhwan was discharged in September 2021, main vocalist Hongki was discharged in April 2021, and bassist Jaejin was discharged on August 1, 2021. In December 2021, the band released Unthinkable, their first song as a trio. 

All throughout their now close to 15-year career, the band has had chart-topping albums, EPs, and singles not only in Korea, but also in Japan. With the emergence of actual bands like Day6 and Wonder Girls (later in their careers) of JYP Entertainment and CNBlue and N.Flying also from FNC, we can safely say that it was F. T. Island that pioneered the concept and made bands trendy.   

Top 3 F.T. Island Songs

The thing about F.T. Island is that they are actually more known as a band that plays power ballads, not the dark and hard rock songs bands are usually known for. Think Meatloaf or Journey versus Metallica. So, a trademark F.T. Island song is more centered towards Hongki’s soaring vocals that only a few K-pop male vocalists can challenge – only the late Jonghyun of SHINee, Yeoseob of Highlight, Woohyun of INFINITE, and lately, Hwesung of N.FLying come to mind. For a mind-blowing extravaganza that will leave you speechless, look for the track Still Love You with the two power vocalists of FNC’s two bands. 

But I digress. The power ballad Severely is definitely the first song that comes to mind when we’re talking about F.T. Island. The 10-year-old song (yes, the song was released on January 30, 2012) also has an iconic music video featuring AOA’s Seolhyun. So you can see two of FNC’s talents that have also ventured into acting – Hongki and Seolhyun. Otherwise, you will experience Hongki’s heart wrenching vocals in this track that feels like a decades-old Korean standard ballad. 

If you’re looking for something a bit hard-hitting in the thread of hard rocks, Take Me Now is the song for you. The heavy guitar riffs alone will really convince you that F.T. Island can rock it with the best of them. 2009’s Bad Woman features a balance of haunting melodies and Hongki’s vocal range, making it a perfect gateway F.T. Island song.  


Following the massive success of F.T. Island, FNC Entertainment may have felt the need to corner this niche market they have created with groups that have members that actually play musical instruments. Thus, two years after debuting F.T. Island, the company introduced another band to the public, CNBLUE. True enough, the company was rewarded with success anew as Yonghwa, Minhyuk, Jungshin, and Jonghyun experienced success in both Japan and Korea from the get-go. 

As with a number of acts in this period in K-pop that were exposed to the Japanese market first before debuting in Korea, CNBLUE also had their debut stage in Tokyo. After finally charting decently in Japan with their second EP (their first release was completely in English and did not chart in Oricon) and with original bassist Kwangjin replaced by Jungshin before the year ended, the band finally made their Korean debut in January 2010 with the EP Bluetory and the single I’m a Loner. The rest, as the old adage goes, is history. 

All of the band’s title tracks until 2017 have charted high and all their EPs and albums until 2017 have sold over 50,000 copies, a rare feat for a band. Even F.T. Island only averages 40,000 copies sold with their releases. All members also started to venture into acting only a year after their debut and were nominated and won accolades for their television work. Not only were they successful in their home country and Japan (having been the first band since 1971 to top the Oricon charts), but also charted well in Taiwan. While it took F.T. Island 53 days from debut to win in a music program, CNBLUE for a time held the record for winning in a music show in the shortest time since debut, with I’m a Loner winning in Music Bank 15 days after their debut. 

With the band’s massive success came controversies and intrigue, with the first being their awkward rivalry with their labelmates F.T. Island. Since they were the only two bands that dominated the “mainstream” K-pop scene in the late 2000s to early 2010s, it was a bit inevitable that the two groups were always pitted against each other. Primadonnas (F.T. Island’s fandom name) assert the superiority of Hongki’s vocal skills and the fact that F.T. Island is the more senior group that blazed the trail for acts like CNBLUE to follow. Through the years, news about competition between the two groups have not died down. From the alleged preference of FNC towards the more junior group, Hongki claiming he earns more than Yonghwa and again, Hongki accidentally spilling that Jonghyun has had plastic surgery to make his ears prettier, BOICE (CNBLUE’s fandom) had to endure quite a lot. 

As for their music, CNBLUE’s music sounds more pop, which makes it more radio-friendly, and thus, more successful commercially. It also doesn’t hurt that all members took on acting jobs way early in their careers, making the group popular to more people, not just to followers of K-pop. But then, the group has also gone through a lot in terms of controversies involving the members, particularly Yonghwa and Jonghyun. And no, these doesn’t involve Hongki, although Jonghyun and F.T. Island’s Junghoon suffered the same fate later. 

In 2016, both Jonghyun and Yonghwa were accused of obstruction of business / insider trading, aka the illegal act of buying a company’s stocks after being given beneficial information by people inside the company. In this case, the two were supposedly tipped to buy stocks of their own company, FNC Entertainment, when the price is low before they dramatically increase in value as they will be welcoming a high-profile celebrity in their talent stable. It was revealed later that it was Yonghwa’s mom who bought the stocks on his behalf, as she has been managing his son’s finances for years already. On the other hand, Jonghyun held on to his stocks even though he was advised that having them would result in legal issues for him. He was fined for this offense and the public’s perception of CNBLUE unfortunately took a bit of a hit. 

A couple of years later, Yonghwa was involved in another scandal, this time regarding his admission to Kyunghee University’s PhD program. It appears that during the time he was applying to the program, he invited his professor to his studio to catch up with him and show him his work. In hindsight, that was a wrong move considering that one of the requirements to the PhD program is an interview with a faculty member. Thus, it looked like Yonghwa was trying to influence his professor into admitting him to the program. Alas, some speculated that Yonghwa was trying to get in the PhD program so that he could avoid his military enlistment schedule. Yonghwa explained in a handwritten letter that the entire professor-PhD affair was a miscommunication and he was not aware that part of the PhD application process was an interview with one of the faculty members and that he has not plans of ever avoiding his conscription. 

Finally, the Burning Sun scandal dealt a huge blow to the careers of everyone involved, including F.T. Island’s Junghoon and CNBLUE’s Jonghyun. Jonghyun immediately left CNBLUE after he was named as one of the parties in that controversial chatroom, although he did not release a statement about his status in the entertainment industry. He has not appeared on TV since then, though. Since his departure, the band has had two Korean comebacks and one Japanese comeback.

Top 3 CNBLUE Songs

Not considering their banging debut track I’m a Loner, which the group and FNC had to pay fines when it was proven that it was plagiarized from an indie band’s song, CNBLUE’s singles discography features one catchy tune after another. Intuition, Hey You, and Can’t Stop are stand-outs and if you haven’t heard any of these, it’s high time you do. 


After immersing ourselves in the world of K-pop’s first two mainstream bands, let’s talk about the maknaes of FNC Entertainment, the company of the two aforementioned “pioneers”. N. Flying is the product of FC feeling they have caught lightning in a bottle with the success of F.T. Island and CNBLUE, so why not tempt fate by producing a third band, because after all, third time’s the charm? Like their senior CNBLUE, N. Flying also started their careers in Japan where they first performed and released an indie single album in 2013. They also served as F.T. Island’s front act in their 2013 Japan tour. And just like their predecessors, N. Flying’s Japanese activities were met with success.  

In May 2015, N. Flying finally debuted in Korea, which was postponed for a bit as the band’s leader, Seunghyub, got injured in July 2014. The music video for their Korean debut single, Awesome, also featured FNC labelmate Seolhyun of AOA. But alas, unlike F.T. Island and CNBLUE’s high-profile Korean debuts, this did not do as well. True, the EP peaked at #4, but it only eventually sold close to 4,000 copies. Considering Cheerful Sensibility, F’T. Island’s debut album, sold over 83,000 copies in 2007 and CBBLUE’s Bluetory sold a whopping 219,000 copies, the 4,000 copies N. Flying’s debut EP sold significantly pales in comparison.

The band entered 2017 with promise as they welcomed a new member in Yoo Hweseung, who despite looking like a formidable contestant/trainee in the second season of Produce 101, got axed quite early in the show’s second elimination round. In his limited exposure in the show, Hweseung was shown to be a very competent trainee, knowing the full choreography to INFINITE’s Be Mine while doing vocal runs. It, unfortunately, did not do his team a lot of favors as the opposing team had Kenta (who eventually debuted under the project group JBJ) who snatched a whole lot of popularity votes. Eventually, he was eliminated in the 35-conterstant cut-off (aka Episode 8) where it was revealed he was ranked 39th, four places short of continuing with the show. It was later revealed that FNC did not really plan on having Hweseung go all the way to the finals and only wanted him in the show for a bit of exposure. 

Thus, close to a month after his last PD101 episode was released, Hweseung was announced as N. Flying’s newest member and would be the band’s other main vocal on their second EP, The Real. This was followed by two other EPs in 2018, The Hottest in January and How Are You? in May. The sales of the three EPs with Hweseung did not experience major increases with only 6,000 units sold for The Hottest and 7,900 units for How Are You? 

The Real, Hot Potato, and How R U Today, the band’s three singles did not really make a splash commercially, with the music video for The Real generating some buzz as it featured a cameo of Jang Moonbok, a popular PD101 S2 contestant. People continued recognizing Hweseung’s superior singing skills but unfortunately, the band struggled in amassing a solid fanbase. An EP that sells less than 10,000 units is something both F.T. Island and CNBLUE have not experienced in their entire careers! Those are sales figures only nugu (that term for obscure groups from new entertainment labels) groups would be familiar with. N. Flying needed a breakthrough. 

If the lack of significant success wasn’t enough, later in 2018, bassist Kwangjin (before you scratch your head, yes, he is the same Kwangjin that Jungshin replaced in CNBLUE) was embroiled in a scandal where people accused him of acting inappropriately towards fans. Initially, he said he would be taking a break from group activities before officially leaving the group a day after Christmas, 2018.

Almost three years to the day he officially left N. Flying, Kwangjin announced that he has been freed of all harassment allegations against him. He explained that it was true that he dated a fan who later became her girlfriend, causing N. Flying fans to request his removal from the group. To protect his band and then-girlfriend, he did quit the group, but rumors persisted that he sexually harassed fans. So, he spent three years taking legal action to clear his name. Days before posting this announcement, he also posted pictures of his marriage.    

Anyway, back to the breakthrough. Probably derailed by the Kwangjin drama, the band had to wait until the New Year of 2019 before releasing Rooftop which they promoted on music programs, and by holding a concert series starting January 19. The song charted in the lower 100s before going viral on social media when the group was already in the final days of promoting it in the last week of February. The song then shot up to the top of most Korean music charts, including the Gaon Digital Charts where it took the top spot for two consecutive weeks. The band also took their first music show win on March 5, close to four years since their Korean debut. 

Rooftop became that single break the band needed to sustain their career. They haven’t had a massive song to match Rooftop’s popularity since then, but their songs have continued to chart and more importantly, their albums (one full-length studio album, one reissue album, and two EPs from 2019 to 2021) boast of five-figure sales, a far cry from the anemic average 5,000 units average their previous releases sold. 

Top 3 N. Flying Songs

N. Flying’s discography is filled with bops, but if we have to choose three standouts, we shall go for three that were released in the different stages of the band’s career: Obviously, Rooftop, during the time when the band was reduced to four members and they didn’t have a bassist (although Dongsung was already present as the band’s bassist during the song’s recording, he was still not an official member); Oh, Really? with the current line-up; and The Real with the original line-up (this one is really catchy).


Finally, let’s talk about a band that’s not from FNC! Day6 actually started off as 5LIVE in 2014 with Sungjin (main vocals and guitar), Jae (guitar), Young K (bass and vocals), Junhyeok (keyboard), and Wonpil (synthesizer), performing in the Mnet reality show Who is Next Win (aka the show that produced Winner and iKon) before drummer Dowoon joined the line-up in mid-2015. The band was then renamed Day6 and debuted in September with the single Congratulations from the EP The Day. Both the song and the EP met considerable success, with the EP selling more than 10,000 copies and the single peaking at #48. Internationally, the EP peaked at the second spot on Billboard’s World Album Chart. The band spent the rest of 2015 promoting overseas in Singapore and Taiwan while also holding their first live concert in Seoul in November.

The band was about to make their first comeback in March 2016 when JYP announced that Junhyeok has left the group in February “for personal reasons”. However, rumors revealed that Junhyeok had decided to date a fan, which is in violation of JYP Entertainment’s rule that their artists are banned from dating in the first three years of their career. Whether it was Junhyeok’s decision to leave the company or JYPE’s decision to let go of him once they found out of the violation is unclear, but the band was left without a keyboardist when Letting Go was released on March 30. This comeback was the band’s music show stage debut on M Countdown, as they only relied on live performances and their music video to promote their debut single. 

2017 was a very productive year for Day6 as they kicked off the Every Day6 project, where the band would be releasing a couple of songs every month with concerts and music videos. In the middle of the year, they also released their first full-length studio album, Sunrise which contained the first five releases they had for the year plus versions of their singles Congratulations and Letting Go and two new tracks.  They concluded the year with another full-length album Moonrise, which contains their releases from June to December, three new songs, and final versions of their B-sides from their debut EP. The year-round project raised the profile of the band, with the two albums faring better in terms of sales, reaching more than 48,000 copies for both releases. 

The band spent 2018 launching their career in Japan while releasing two EPs in Korea: Shoot Me: Youth Part 1 in June and Remember Us: Youth Part 2 in December.  July 2019 had the group release The Book of Us: Gravity, their first (and so far still their only) EP that peaked at number 1 in the Gaon Album Chart. The band also had its first music show win while promoting Time of Our Life, four years after debuting. In May 2020, the band released The Book of Us: The Demon that contained the lead single Zombie, which peaked at No. 4 on Melon’s real-time chart and went up to the No. 1 spot in Bugs. Zombie continues to be the band’s most successful single to date, as it peaked at number 18 on the Gaon Digital Chart. In August of 2020, the band’s first sub-unit, Even of Day composed of Young K, Wonpil, and Dowoon, debuted. 

In 2021, Sunjin and Young K have enlisted in the Korean military. In the absence of the two, the remaining members launched their solo releases one after the other. However, on December 31, 2021, Jae announced via Twitter that he will be taking a hiatus from his promotions as a member of the band. However, JYPE announced on the same day that he has already been released from his exclusive contract with JYP Entertainment and therefore, from the group. 

Jae complaining about JYP is nothing new. Through the years, he has been vocal about the company’s lack of support when it comes to his solo efforts, including his personal YouTube channel where he has also posted his rants. But then, a lot of artists (all GOT7 members come to mind) have been direct about their dissatisfaction with the way JYPE runs things. But this, along with Jae’s seemingly personal problems, has caught the attention of fans and casual observers alike. In one of his live broadcasts this year, Jae used a derogatory term against Jamie, one of her closest female friends, and his former co-hosts in the Arirang music show, After School Club. This has made people think that Jae has more issues than just his dissatisfaction over JYPE’s poor treatment of him. 

But back to the group – not a lot of activity these days as three members are already in the middle of serving their military enlistment. Wonpil has dropped his solo release, Pilmography in February.      

Top 3 Day6 Songs

Day6 doesn’t come short when it comes to releasing high-quality material. In terms of commercial success, the band’s highest-charting songs are Zombie (peaked at #18 in Gaon), their debut track Congratulations (peaked at #58 in Gaon), and their latest single as a complete band, 2011’s You Make Me (peaked at #73 in Gaon). 

If you’re into music videos with a continuing storyline, check out the MVs of Congratulations and You Were Beautiful, which features Choi Wooshik of Parasite and Our Beloved Summer fame. 

Here’s hoping we’ve given you your fill of Korean boys who rock with this list. And we’re also hoping more bands with members who actually play instruments will join mainstream K-pop in the years to come.  

Featured Image: CNBLUE official Japan Twitter