It’s hard to think of a country music superstar better suited to hosting a guitar contest than Vince Gill.
That’s because, despite having sold more than 26 million records and winning more than 30 Grammy and CMA awards, Gill has never forgotten those tough years in the late Seventies when he was a struggling young guitarist trying to make rent.
“When I came out here as kid, I was living gig to gig,” Gill tells a capacity crowd at the Mint in Los Angeles before the Guitar Center Onstage with Vince Gill contest begins. “We’d open our cases on the Strand and play for people walking by, and then use whatever money they gave us to buy lunch.”
Tonight, it’s Gill’s turn to give back. With assistance from Guitar Center and several guitar gear manufacturers, Gill has flown five finalists in from around the country, each of whom will perform a song with him. Four of them will walk away with more than $6,000 worth of gear from Boss, D’Addario, Fender, Dunlop, Martin, Shure and Planet Waves. Each also will walk away with a great story to tell.
The other finalist—the one Gill deems the winner—will haul in the grand prize: $10,000 in cash, $20,000 in gear, a trip to Los Angeles to record a single with Grammy-winning producer Justin Neibank and, best of all, the opportunity to open for Gill at one of his scheduled shows.
After performing a few songs solo to warm up the crowd, Gill invites the first finalist on stage.
“The guitar player who’s about to join me is only 17, but he’s got the heart of a veteran musician who’s been doing this a long time,” Gill says. “He just kills me. Everybody, please welcome Justus West.”
Complementing Gill’s strummed acoustic with confident and twangy electric chicken pickin’ lines, young West proceeds to dazzle the crowd—and so do the next four finalists: Claudio Tristano, Tony Pierce, Stephan Hogan and Arielle. (Links to the performances are provided below.) After playing a song with each of the five finalists, Gill is given the tough task of choosing one winner.
“First, let me say I was so moved by the performances, I’ve decided to invite not just one, but all five of the finalists to join me on my upcoming tour,” says Gill, eliciting huge cheers from the audience. “As for choosing a winner, the choice was really difficult for me, not just because each finalist was so talented, but also because I truly believe music should be about collaboration, not competition. That said, I had to go with what my ears and my heart were telling me, so I choose Claudio.”
You can watch Claudio’s winning performance—and all the contestants' performances—at the Guitar Center Onstage with Vince Gill contest below.