As the digital age progresses and DIY culture continues to grow, the guitar virtuoso has become an endangered species. Gone are the times when you had to be a musician to release a record. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and some time on his hands can write, record, and release an album.
Of course, this raises one important question: where are today’s great guitarists? In the expansive, decentralized mess of the 21st century music industry, the cream doesn’t necessarily rise to the top (case in point: Ke$ha). Still, there are some promising young guitarists out there that you may have missed. Here are five that are worth checking out:
A bizarre cross between Neil Young and Kurt Cobain, Kurt Vile’s music is relatively straightforward but surprisingly difficult to classify. His studio work indicates a simple lo-fi rock aesthetic, but it really comes to life in his live performances. Vile’s live band, the Violators, produces a dirty, rootsy, grungy sound reminiscent of the early ‘90s Seattle scene. In live performance, Vile switches between a few guitars (typically a couple of Les Pauls and a Gibson acoustic/electric) to create a variety of tones from creamy to crunchy, which he supplements with plenty of effects pedals. This tonal variety is most audible in Vile lastest record, Smoke Ring for My Halo.
Though you may not recognize Wata’s name, you may have heard her work as the detached and introspective lead guitarist for the Japanese metal band Boris. Beneath this metalhead heartthrob’s withdrawn demeanor is an adventurous, pummeling, and unapologetic guitarist. Like Boris itself, what makes Wata so interesting is her versatility: she’s as proficient at transcendental noise drones as she is at kicking out floor-shaking stoner/doom licks. Keep an eye out for one of Boris’ upcoming albums, Attention Please, which will feature Wata’s vocals throughout.
A recent addition to Michael Gira’s Young God label, London guitarist James Blackshaw recalls the American Primitivism movement of John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and the rest of the Takoma Records gang. Using a twelve-string acoustic, Blackshaw lays down loop after loop of lush, slowly developing soundscapes. His agile, folksy fingerpicking is as impressive as it is pleasant to listen to, and at age 30, Blackshaw has plenty more to show us.
In terms of technical proficiency, Marnie Stern is easily the best guitarist on this list. What’s more, she’s the most unique: Stern’s quirky, virtuosic, and frenetic style is probably unlike anything you’ve heard before. Alternating between furious tapping and nimble sweep picking, Stern crafts bizarre and dissonant math rock at breakneck speeds, all the while maintaining a catchy pop sensibility. Picture Kaki King on a variety of stimulants, and you’ll get the idea.
Between his band Deerhunter and his solo project Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox has been taking the independent music scene by storm. The 28-year-old Athens, GA native has already solidified a signature aesthetic. Layers of dreamy, ethereal guitar riffs meld with Cox’s equally spacey vocals for an ambient yet energetic sound. Though clearly indebted to the shoegaze of the early ‘90s, Cox’s music possesses a minimalism that many shoegaze guitarists are unable to achieve. On his most recent tour with Deerhunter, Cox used only phase, distortion, delay, and reverb. Compare that with Kevin Shields’ monster pedalboard!