This week, Polyphia dropped their first new material in three years with Playing God, a trap-shred banger that finds Tim Henson and Scott LePage once more melding guitar music in their own genre-boundaries-be-damned image.
Yet the rise of a new generation of production-savvy guitarists has given birth to an entire movement of players who perform neo-soul fretboard theatrics over the kind of trap and lo-fi beats popularized by hip-hop over the past two decades.
This tectonic shift marks arguably one of the most significant developments in the evolution of an instrument that popular culture still associates almost exclusively with rock and metal.
So if, like us, you’ve got Playing God on repeat, you might want to check out the following players who flex their jaw-dropping chops over intricate hi-hats and booming kicks. Trust us, when it comes to next-level guitar playing, this list is no trap…
1. Ruben Wan
Given this LA-based virtuoso is one of YouTube’s pre-eminent neo-soul guitar instructors, you’d quite rightly expect his playing to be a literal masterclass in noteworthy licks, and his solo material certainly delivers.
A potent cocktail of influences spanning Guthrie Govan, George Benson and Isiah Sharkey lends Wan a lyrical style that favors memorable melodies over unending modal runs. That’s not to say he can’t add his fair share of outrageously tasty flourishes, however – check God Complex’s whammy bar flair and wistful harmonies.
2. Manuel Gardner Fernandes
Like his touring pals in Polyphia, Manuel Gardner Fernandes started out as a prog-metal shredder in Unprocessed, but the viral success of his jaw-dropping percussive Instagram shorts – so impressive they spearheaded the infamous (and disproven) “hands don’t glitch like that” Instagram fake debate – displayed a rhythmic ambition beyond blinding distorted runs.
Gardner Fernandes has a wealth of rapid-fire solo material that demonstrates both his guitar and production chops in the trap arena, but his band has also followed suit, best showcased on Tim Henson and Clay Gober-featuring cut, Real.
3. Justus West
The go-to guy for hip-hop’s elite, Justus West is as much a grade-A producer as he is a ludicrously talent player – a combination of musical traits that makes West a genuine force to be reckoned with in the lo-fi scene. Owing to his penchant for both practices, the songwriter is constantly venturing into new ground, regularly concocting luscious ambient soundscapes that accommodate his neo-soul soloing.
Whether it be with a PRS or Abasi Concepts Larada in hand, West is not afraid to experiment with his lead line noodles, nor does he shy away from assembling some truly stunning sonic atmospheres for his six-strings to swim in. Put them both together, and you’ve got yourself one unmissable talent.
4. San Holo
Midwest emo meets EDM in Sander van Dijck’s expansive productions under stage name San Holo. His crystalline single-coil lines wouldn’t sound of place in your common-or-garden post-rock track, but van Dijck paints way outside the lines, embellishing his irresistible melodies with chillwave synths and running his army of Fenders through lo-fi plugins for extra warble and width.
To hear his style in a more traditional rock context, check his blissed-out guest spot on Covet’s Shibuya.
Though Hedras has already won over a legion of fans over the course of three studio LPs, the virtuosic instrumentalist is usually heralded as something of a prog-rock loyalist, pairing his electrifying overdriven tone with conventional arrangements.
His latest releases, though, have signalled a clear drift towards the trap/lo-fi bracket. Now, the fretboard mastermind is partial to a cleaner tone – a theme of the genre itself – and dabbles in EDM-infused, electronic drum-led arrangements that play host to his six-string sorcery. It’s a fresh approach clearly evidenced in his recent single, Angels.
Despite the shake-up, the level of ingenuity remains the same, with Hedras’s melodic-inclined mind capable of telling a story through a range of impossibly intricate yet surgically precise fretboard explorations.
6. Ichika Nito
Ichika Nito is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player – a man who took one string and used it to create an impossibly virtuosic guitar solo that many would struggle to eclipse even with six at their disposal.
Ichika Nito has been at the forefront of guitar-led experimentation for some time now, and though he often gets his kicks by toying with absurd musical ideas, his technique, approach, imagination and vision are absolutely unwavering in their execution. From subtle melodies to hypnotic microcosms of ingenious playing, Nito can quite literally do it all.
In fact, such is Nito’s prowess, he was even selected as Ibanez’s first-ever Japanese signature artist, and was bestowed a Quest ICHI10 signature guitar for his efforts in pushing the instrument to new heights.
7. Jakub Zytecki
If chill vibes are your cup of T-type, this Polish polymath is your boy. While he has been known to make use of the occasional live drummer, the cavernous reverbs, heavily compressed clean chops and ethereal samples take the waterfall-like fluidity of his Mayones Legend lines far and away from the typical rock guitar template.
No wonder for a player who once told us, “I don’t really listen to guitar music – I’m not even sure if I like it!”
8. Kazuki Isogai
His YouTube videos rarely exceed the one-minute mark, but that’s all the time Kazuki Isogai needs to showcase his immeasurable six-string chops. A jazz man at heart, Isogai’s knowledge of the ‘board is up there with some of the genre’s best – think Julian Lage – though his modernist, soulful twist on chord progressions and lead playing makes for a particularly fresh listening experience.
If, like us, you require more Isogai material, his studio repertoire is a literal goldmine of lo-fi soundbites, with Isogai – who is also an instructor for the highly esteemed Pickup Music institution – distilling his jazz powers for some easy-on-the-ear noodles, defined by brilliant double-stops, tender scale runs and knockout note flurries.
9. Melanie Faye
She’s shared the stage with the likes of Hayley Williams, Willow Smith and Mac DeMarco, but Melanie Faye’s own music is quite unlike anything else.
An irresistible mashup of old-school soul and contemporary hip-hop – complete with glitchy trap hi-hats – gives Faye the platform to let loose her trademark quick-fire pinky slides, not to mention lyrical runs that give John Mayer a run for his money. A followup to 2020’s Melanie Faye EP can’t come soon enough.
10. Kaichi Naito
An unsung hero of the trap guitar scene, Kaichi Naito has flown somewhat under the radar compared with some of the other players on this list, but that’s not reflective of the sensational arsenal of skills he possesses.
Always striking a balance of melody, arrangement and technique, Naito isn’t afraid to dial back his chops for some more modest musings to serve the wider composition, though can also call upon the downright sublime when it’s needed – from eight-string percussive sweeps, string-skipping lines and mind-boggling two-hand taps.
As an added bonus, he sometimes provides free tabs of his tracks. Not that we’d have any idea of where to start with them, mind…