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Navigating the New Age of Guitar Virtuosity



Guitarist/producer John March guides us through this current renaissance of musical mastery.

Above photo (cropped): Matteo Mancuso, Photo Paolo Terlizzi

In the ever-evolving landscape of modern guitar playing, a new generation of guitarists is reshaping the boundaries of technical mastery. Artists like Matteo Mancuso, Josh Meader, John Cordy, Jack Gardiner, Tim Henson, Tom Quayle, and Lucas Montavanelli, to name just a few, are redefining what it means to be a virtuoso in the modern era. (It would be almost impossible to list all of the advanced and virtuosic players making their presence known in the world. YouTube is filled with content from these evolving musicians.) However, amidst this push towards technical perfection, a crucial question arises: are we witnessing a shift away from the soulful, more imperfect human touch that has long defined the spirit of playing music in search of perfection and predictability?

Virtuosity in and of itself is not novel, Oscar Peterson, Cannonball Adderly, Coltrane and Brecker, Holdsworth, and Bireli Lagrene are all a few modern examples of instrumental virtuosity and deep musicianship. I am also not saying that these artists are moving away from the emotionally vibrant connection to music, as that is clearly evidenced by their musicality and uniqueness, but at the same time they do set a standard of achievement that influences the general community in such a way as to imply that this particular path is the direction things are heading.

Matteo Mancuso – Photo Paolo Terlizzi, Sixhats Studio – Favara – Farm Cultural Park 2023

Now, these guitarists, being celebrated for their astounding technical abilities, represent a completely natural evolution in guitar playing, as with all instruments and artistic processes, things develop and change. This rapid expansion of ability and skill is in large part due to instant access to large amounts of detailed information that technology and media afford to the current generation of players. With the plethora of resources available today – videos, recordings, and various digital platforms – young musicians have unprecedented access to learning materials. This access can be a double-edged sword, fostering incredible skill development while also potentially leading to uniformity in playing styles, with less emphasis on individuality and emotional expression. Many times it can be challenging to distinguish between players because the approaches to tone and touch and improvisation contain many of the same types of techniques and ideas.

Their music is a dazzling display of precision, speed, and complexity. Yet, in a recent interview with YouTuber Rick Beato, Matteo Mancuso himself acknowledges a real appreciation for musicians who, despite not being technically perfect, bring a unique and captivating, and often imperfect approach to their music.  (This leads into another topic for a later discussion about the nature of emotive feel vs skill and technical execution, and where they meet, and how it gets defined. For now, we are looking at specifically extremely high-level technical and creative proficiency.)

This new wave of guitarists often gravitates towards a form of playing that may not align with mainstream, commercially successful music – typically finding their niche in less commercial, more exploratory musical spaces. While their virtuosity is lauded, it doesn’t necessarily translate to financial or professional stability. This trend highlights a dichotomy within the music industry, where technical brilliance and commercial success do not always go hand in hand. (Alan Holdsworth would be a perfect example of the disparity between accessibility and commercial success not aligning with virtuosity.) 

Furthermore, there’s a growing concern that the pursuit of technical perfection might lead to a homogenization of style. 

Homogeneity noun ho·mo·ge·ne·i·ty ˌhō-mə-jə-ˈnē-ə-tē  – : the quality or state of being of a similar kind or of having a uniform structure or composition throughout: the quality or state of being homogeneous

However, there also seems to be a resurgence in the appreciation for music that balances virtuosity with deeper musical perspectives. Bands like Snarky Puppy with musicians like Cory Henry, or multi-instrumentalists/composers/arrangers like Jacob Collier exemplify this balance. Very talented and accomplished musicians showcasing both technical excellence and a profound musicality that resonates on both an intellectual and a more emotional level. The great thing is that this trend moves away from mechanically produced Pop music and returns us to deeper and potentially more profound explorations with new composers and improvisers exploring unique ideas and possibilities. What is exciting is seeing audiences resonate with this kind of craft and exploration as they experience a renaissance in the search for depth and profundity.

A Few of the Rising Stars of Guitar Wizardry

Jack Gardiner emerges as a distinctive figure in the world of modern guitar virtuosity, blending emotive expression with technical finesse. His style is marked by fluid melodic lines and nuanced phrasing, with amazing precision and control and using his technical skills to enhance the emotional depth of his music. Gardiner’s versatility spans modern jazz and progressive styles, making him a standout for his ability to convey complex emotions and narratives through his guitar. He epitomizes the new generation of guitarists who prioritize not only technical mastery but also the instrument’s capacity for profound emotional expression.

Tim Henson of Polyphia stands out with his unique stylistic blend. Henson’s approach with Polyphia merges elements of progressive rock, jazz, and even electronic music, creating a sound that is both innovative and unmistakably unique and modern. His intricate guitar work, characterized by complex rhythms, intricate and complex non-traditional guitar parts, and unexpected melodic turns, challenges traditional notions of guitar playing.

John Cordy, a prominent figure in the UK YouTube guitar scene, has gained notable success as both a phenomenal guitarist and a YouTube creator, specializing in guitar modeling technologies and novel approaches to learning and playing. Cordy’s YouTube presence, where he demonstrates the nuances of guitar modeling technology, has not only established him as a go-to resource in the digital music world but also highlights his ability to adapt to and incorporate modern technological advancements into his art. His style, often marked by melodic creativity and harmonic depth, reflects a versatile approach, appealing to a wide range of audiences from hardcore guitar enthusiasts to those intrigued by the evolving intersection of music and technology.

Josh Meader’s virtuosity shines through his technical proficiency. His playing style is a dazzling display of speed and precision, pushing the limits of what can be achieved on the guitar. Meader’s performances often feature rapid-fire notes and sophisticated harmonic concepts, showcasing a deep understanding of the instrument’s capabilities. His initial forays onto the music scene were based on performing transcriptions of extremely complex improvisations by other virtuosos on non-guitar-based solos. Artists like Michael Brecker and Cory Henry performed on guitar. These seemingly flawless re-creations of these solos were dazzling displays of musicality and technical facility. Since then he has gone on to show many sides of his developing skills through composition and performance and interpretations of different pieces and styles of music.

Matteo Mancuso brings a different flavor to this mix. He is redefining the interaction between the right hand and the electric guitar, offering a fresh perspective on guitar playing. Mancuso’s technique, which combines traditional picking with fingerstyle approaches, allows for a broader range of expression and dynamics, adding a unique texture to his music. His ability to execute seemingly impossible linear architectures and complex melodies through his improvisations with ease and a fluid sense of structure and development is a testament to his innovative approach to technique and exploration.

These guitarists, each with their distinct approaches, represent the diverse landscape of modern virtuosic guitar. They are not confined by genre boundaries but are instead exploring new territories, investigating and incorporating new approaches to technical and creative performance possibilities, and blending various influences to create something genuinely original.

Their journey is not just about technical proficiency. It’s about redefining the guitar’s role and capabilities in modern music, exploring the infinite possibilities of what is physically possible on the instrument and where that boundary is and can be broken and surpassed, and moving beyond the conventional to explore new sonic and performance possibilities. They appear to be at the forefront of a movement that values innovation, creativity, and above all, musical expression. The pressing question seems to be: is this true?

This new wave of guitarists challenges the traditional views of what guitar music should be, offering a fresh and exciting perspective. As they continue to push the limits of their instrument and their abilities to physically execute the impossible, they are not only shaping the future of guitar playing but also setting standards for what is considered to be high levels of musicianship and expression, but to what end? If, in the end, many of these stylists start to sound the same, where does the exploration for unique expression come in? Is that even necessary? 

I watched a video on  YouTube the other day, of a “Collaboration” between many young guitar players with a lot of technical facility, playing over a backing track. The playing was technically astounding and impressive, for a few minutes. The issue I had was that nothing I was hearing could be identifiable as a specific player. In fact, if I closed my eyes often I could not tell when one player would stop and another began. This kind of playing does not interest me as much as it feels programmatic and not individuated. Seeking technical virtuosity over uniqueness feels like hearing the same conversation repeated, even though the speakers are articulate, the content of the conversation does not vary. Many styles of music create a vocabulary and approach that requires repetition and regurgitation of existing ideas and patterns. In fact, many “purists” for various styles like Blues or Jazz, actually inherently require those repeated ideas and concepts and approaches, to even be considered viable within those genres.

The Contrast with Mainstream Pop

In contrast to the rise of virtuosic talents, mainstream pop music often operates on a different spectrum. Many pop musicians, while successful and popular, may lack a fundamental understanding of music or the intricacies of their instruments. This is not to diminish their ideas but to highlight a different approach to music – one that often prioritizes marketability and broad appeal over complexity or technical mastery.

This new world of home recording, social media, and digital distribution has opened doors for countless musicians, allowing them to share their unique voices with a global audience. However, it also brings into question the emphasis on virtuosity in modern music. The relentless pursuit of technical perfection can sometimes overshadow the essence of what makes music resonate with people – its ability to express the inexpressible and connect on a deeply human level to a diverse demographic rather than a specialized subset of instrumental enthusiasts. (I am not saying either is better, although I lean towards instrumental music that takes risks over Pop music which for me feels more formulaic.)

The evolution of how an instrument is played, or for that matter any form of artistic expression, is an ongoing journey. While the emphasis on virtuosity showcases the incredible skill, hard work, discipline, and dedication of these musicians, it’s important to remember that music, at its core, is about communication and expression. Young musicians like Tim Henson, Josh Meader, and Matteo Mancuso are certainly pushing the boundaries of guitar playing, creating new sounds and techniques. Their efforts to innovate and experiment are commendable and vital for the progression of music as an art form.

Yet, it’s equally important to encourage musicians to find their own voice, regardless of their level of technical skill. The beauty of music lies in its diversity and the personal touch each artist brings to their work. If Music is functionally an evolving language then having differing and evolving conversations and different degrees of articulation seems important. I do agree with Jacob Collier, who recently commented  that: “there are no rules, no right or wrong or best and worst, just what works and what resonates for different people.”

Conclusion: Navigating the Future of Music with Purpose and Openness

While this article focuses on the guitar, it’s essential to recognize that this phenomenon of rising virtuosic talent is not confined to a single instrument. Across the musical spectrum artists on all instruments; pianos, violins, drums, etc. are pushing the boundaries of their instruments and their craft. They are exploring new realms of technical proficiency while also delving deeper into the emotional and expressive possibilities of their instruments.

The landscape of modern music, shaped by digital advancements and a new generation of virtuosic artists, is a testament to the ongoing evolution of this art form we call Music. As we witness these changes, let’s celebrate the efforts of these musicians in creating new ideas and approaches. At the same time, let us also encourage all emerging artists to pursue their unique styles and voices, and to explore without the fear of failure or inadequacy. After all, music is a continuous conversation, viewed through different generational lenses, a nonverbal language that expresses the stories of humanity, creativity, inspiration, improvisation, and deeper ideas. Whether it’s through complexity or simplicity, every musical expression adds a valuable voice to this ever-evolving dialogue. 

This is an opportunity to explore new horizons, to redefine boundaries, and to discover the endless possibilities that music holds. This is a moment for artists to delve deeper into their art, for audiences to open themselves to new auditory experiences, and together, continue the ever-evolving conversation that is music. With each note played and each melody sung, we all can contribute to this dynamic, ever-changing tapestry, weaving a future where every sound, every rhythm, and every harmony finds a place. I believe that the contribution of the virtuosic has its place and its own importance as part of this evolving musical dialog and I am grateful that I get to experience and learn new ways to express myself by hearing what they have to offer. I look forward to what the future holds in unexpected and amazing ways that I cannot even begin to imagine now.

About the author:

John March, one of our featured writers here at Jazz Guitar Today, is a Blues and Jazz guitarist currently living in northern Spain. John is known in the Guitar community for work he has done around performing and tribute recordings of works by Ted Greene, having been a student of his for more than 25 years. John is also a recording engineer/producer and mixer, having worked in studios like the Record plant in New York, Westlake Audio and Magnolia studios in Los Angeles. His technical experience goes back to working as a freelance Synclavier programmer in the late 80s and early 90s. He’s currently living in northern Spain, working as a producer, session Guitar Player and Mixer remotely for clients around the world. You can find more information about John here:

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