We look at the young players who are shaping the future of the fretboard.
While popular music might not revolve around the guitar as much as it once did (for better or worse), there’s certainly no concrete evidence to suggest that the instrument is as redundant as some critics might make it to be. In retrospect, the 2010s offered several moments of fretted genius – you probably just didn’t hear them on the radio.
Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the guitar heroes who might have flown under the radar in the last decade, but still demonstrated immense technical prowess and pushed the instrument in the right direction. Let’s tuck in!
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A true maverick of modern guitar, Blake Mills is a unique, astonishing player. He’s a virtuoso in every sense of the world, yet rarely hogs the spotlight with long guitar solos or displays of fretboard wizardry, instead applying his immense talent in small, potent doses to maximise their effect. Finding fans in the likes of Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne and Billy Gibbons, Mills is acclaimed for his uncanny slide guitar playing and jazzy chops, while his recent solo works have seen him explore the sonic possibilities offered by vintage Roland guitar synths to wonderful results. If that’s not enough, Mills is also a hot-in-demand session guitarist and producer, previously working with the likes of Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius and more. What’s not to like?
While his playing tends to be overshadowed by the fingerstyle genius of his former bandmate Kurt Vile, The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel definitely knows his way around the fretboard. The Philadelphia native’s playing is a wild melting pot of styles, fusing aspects of ’80s arena rock with elements of roots and even shoegaze, while a number of his guitar solos seem to take inspiration from Robert Fripp at times. A fervent user of the Fender Jazzmaster, Granduciel is noted for having a penchant for copious amounts of pedals and old gear, and certainly knows how to stagger his songs to maximise the full impact of his lead work, as heard on tracks like ‘Pain’ and ‘Strangest Thing’.
An emerging titan in the world of jazz-fusion, the world was introduced to the work of Mansur Brown in 2017 when he was 20 years old through his playing on Yussef Kamaal’s groundbreaking LP Black Focus, a record that many consider a modern classic of UK jazz. Since that album, Brown has established himself as a player on a number of guest turns on records from Alfa Mist, Kamaal Williams and Joy Orbision, displaying his prowess between genres as well as his masterful use of effects pedals. A gun on six-string and eight-string alike, Mansur Brown’s debut album Shiroi is jam-packed with crazy guitar moments, but it’s his playing on this live rendition of ‘Love Is The Message’ with Alfa Mist, Yussef Dayes and Rocco Palladino that takes the cake – he shreds so hard and doesn’t even break a sweat.
Across her last three albums as St. Vincent, Annie Clark has shown off her strengths as a versatile songwriter and cunning producer, and knows how to get the most out of everyone she works with. By all means, she’s known for being a guitarist – after all, her signature model with Ernie Ball Music Man is one of the best new guitars released in years – but her playing in itself tends to be overlooked in favour of everything else. Clark, who attended Berklee and is apparently a big fan of Dimebag Darrell, is fluent in both technical shredding and angular, pedal-powered art-rock mastery, often fusing the two approaches to make for a wonderful cocktail of styles.
A child prodigy who cut his teeth in Chicago’s gospel scene and learnt from the late great Spanky Alford, Isaiah Sharkey began touring when he was 16 years old, and has since risen to become one of the most respected young guns going today. His prowess on the guitar was transmitted to the masses on neo-soul legend D’Angelo’s 2014 comeback Black Messiah, with Sharkey laying some of the most addictive fretwork heard in years on songs like ‘Tutu (When It’s Done)’ and ‘Sugah Daddy’. Sharkey’s contributions to Black Messiah saw him land a Grammy before he had turned 30, and he now serves as the touring guitarist for John Mayer’s live band, where he steals the show most nights – to the delight of Mayer, we’re sure.
Best known for his work with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Ruban Nielson is a one man weapon – he’s a gun producer and multi-instrumentalist, and boasts an immediately recognisable voice that’s helped make UMO the indie sensations they are today. It’s on the fretboard where Nielson is at his best, however, with the New Zealand native capable of some insane shredding that tends to be overlooked by many listeners. Rarely playing with a pick and often using half-step tunings, Nielson’s style seems to fuse the emotional potency of Jimi Hendrix with the technical fluency of Frank Zappa, with songs like ‘Hunnybee’ and ‘Like Acid Rain’ displaying his solo and rhythm chops alike.
We all know that Australia can churn out some killer guitarists, but Oscar Dawson’s playing really is something else. As one half of Holy Holy, Dawson has been a part of some of best alternative rock to have come out of Australia in recent years, with his songwriting and skills as a producer being just as good as his talent with a guitar. The only left-handed player to make this list, Dawson has a penchant for pedal-stacked tones and killer rhythmic playing, but it’s his lead playing in tracks like ‘Elevator’, ‘True Lovers’ and the immense, scorching extended solo of ‘You Cannot Call For Love Like A Dog’ that makes him really stand out from the pack.
Savages are undeniably one of the best post-punk groups of the past decade for many a reason – their chemistry is insane, their bleak aesthetic is brilliant, and lead singer Jehnny Beth is a certified star. It also goes without saying that Gemma Thompson’s guitar work is phenomenal, with each song featuring a standout moment where Thompson lets loose with her angular, exprimental playing. Drawing influence from our very own Rowland S. Howard, Thompson is a master of coaxing extreme, jarring sounds out of her setup, utilising pedals and feedback to her advantage to help create dense walls of sound to backdrop the group’s music.
If you’re ever feeling frustrated by your own abilities as a guitarist, we 100% recommend sitting down and watching any video that features Yvette Young playing guitar to get your inspiration back. As the lead guitarist for math rock trio Covet, Young dazzles listeners with her crazy two-handed tapping technique and use of alternate tunings, creating sparkling, lively instrumentals that are incredibly immersive and soothing to listen to. Young also runs a popular YouTube guitar channel, and recently teamed up with Ibanez for a signature YY10 Talman guitar, decked out in a slick Slime Green finish.
This is almost certainly one of the best guitar stories in recent memory. Born in the depths of the Saharan Desert in Niger, Mdou Moctar rose to prominence through a compilation of songs originally traded via network of Bluetooth and memory cards in West Africa, and has since been touted as the Hendrix of the Sahara – despite not hearing the music of Hendrix himself until 2015. Moctar’s style blends the traditional elements of Tuareg guitar music with the cosmic energy of psychedelic rock, utilising an idiosyncratic fingerpicking style and droning sympathetic strings to blend the past, present and future of guitar into his work. A true legend in the making.
While you’re here, check out our recent spotlight on some of the most expensive guitars of all time.