It takes a truly exceptional talent to catch the attention of the guitar industry’s most well-respected players and be hailed as the future of guitar before they’ve even released their debut single. Matteo Mancuso is that talent.
The young Italian was catapulted in front of a global audience earlier this month with the arrival of his first-ever studio single, Drop D, setting the guitar world alight with hypnotic phrasing and an unorthodox technique like no other.
But Mancuso has been around for quite some time prior to Drop D’s arrival. Even without a formal release to his name, the Yamaha Revstar loyalist has managed to amass huge audiences on YouTube.
And, unlike some other aspiring players, Mancuso’s audience includes some very famous faces: Joe Bonamassa, Al Di Meola, Steve Vai and Tosin Abasi have all tipped their hats to the young player, waxing lyrical about his technique, tone and style.
What is it about his approach that has arrested their attention? Well, his technique, for starters, is unlike any other electric guitar players’. With an approach rooted in fingerstyle, Mancuso channels the right-hand technique of a bass guitar or classical guitar player, positioning his four fingers over the strings.
It’s a position that lets Mancuso flirt with the speed of light and easily experiment with off-the-cuff note delineations while he solos, but also one that allows for a supremely dynamic touch.
Paired with his silken left-hand ability and incredible ear, it adds up to a unique sound that you won't find anywhere else in the electric world.
But for Mancuso, it wasn’t about fashioning a new approach just for the sake of it – it was about learning what he thought was the norm.
“I started playing with fingers when I was around 10 years old. That was my first approach,” Mancuso explains. “I never played with a pick because I often saw my father playing a lot of classical guitar with fingers back then, and I just thought every guitar was meant to be played like that.”
His own classical training further embedded these norms, though despite being a fan of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC at the time, such training merely pushed Mancuso towards rhythm playing.
In fact, he didn’t want to be a lead guitarist at all to start with. “I didn’t like most of the classical repertoire, and always playing solo guitar was boring to me,” he admits. “I wanted to play with a rhythm section.”
Since no other player was applying the classical technique in an electric context, Mancuso was forced to diversify his influences, looking for technical and musical inspiration from two different pots of players.
The usual suspects are all cited by Mancuso, who namedrops “Eric Johnson, Scott Henderson, Allan Holdsworth, Frank Gambale, Eddie Van Halen, Greg Howe and many more” as players who have helped shape his mesmeric lick arsenal.
Technique-wise, it’s a slightly different story: “I don’t know any player that applies my fingerstyle technique to electric guitar,” he says, “but there are some electric players that use fingers in a different way.
“One of the first that comes to my mind is for sure Mark Knopfler, but also some modern players like Andre Nieri from Brazil, who uses only fingers for some of his lines.”
Tom Quayle and Claudio Pietronik – key champions of hybrid picking – also get a nod.
The lightbulb moment for Mancuso came when these two worlds collided with his classical training.
“I started to apply some rules on my right-hand technique, based on what I learned from the classical world. It really helped me a lot in terms of technique and economy of motion,” he says. “Also, studying other instruments’ solos inspired me a lot in terms of finding new solutions for the right hand.”
To that end, saxophone players in particular helped train Mancuso’s ear, which is geared towards conjuring spellbinding lead licks akin to Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley that simultaneously incorporate Van Halen-style two-hand tapping flair or Bonamassa-informed pentatonic assaults.
As Mancuso puts it, “Studying other instruments' vocabularies forces you to find and explore new possibilities.”
Anyone hoping to channel Mancuso’s style will no doubt be intimidated by the thought of having to master total control over each right hand extremity in this way, but for the player himself, technique isn’t even the biggest obstacle – it’s tone.
“One of the biggest challenges for me is to have an even sound with all the fingers of the right hand,” Mancuso notes. “My sound is a mix of nails and flesh, so I have nails like classical players but I keep them very short.
“I believe you need to have nails for fingerstyle guitar, otherwise the sound would be too muddy and dark, but at the same time you need to take care of them. If a pick breaks, you can just take another one, but you can’t do the same with nails.”
But don't let that put you off. As Mancuso explains, his style helps unlock “unusual note jumps and arpeggio patterns” and is the perfect opportunity to expand your vocabulary while “finding unorthodox ways to look at the guitar”.
The fact his first single has caused such a stir is borderline unprecedented, but it makes the words of Vai, Bonamassa, Abasi and Di Meola all the more understandable.
“I blanked when answering who my new favorite guitarist is... here he is, Matteo Mancuso,” Bonamassa once said. “I have not seen anyone reinvent like this since Stanley Jordan.”
Di Meola, who has played live with Mancuso, went one step further: “An absolute talent; his improvisational ability is light years ahead. It would take two or three lifetimes,” he said, while Abasi called Mancuso “a virtuoso beyond virtuosos”.
Vai – who also included Mancuso in his list of five players taking the guitar to the next level – offered perhaps the most remarkable piece of praise: “The evolution of guitar is firmly secure in the hands of these kinds of players.”
How does it feel to receive such accolades? Well, exactly as you'd imagine: “It feels amazing, of course!”
“I remember that the videos of Joe and Steve talking about me came up on the internet during the pandemic,” Mancuso recalls. “If I have to find a positive thing about that period, it's that I had more time to make new videos. I like to think that maybe because of that, they discovered me.”
But with that praise comes an added layer of responsibility, according to the up-and-coming guitar star, who has used the words of Vai, Bonamassa, Abasi and Di Meola as extra motivation in his music.
“It feels so unreal to hear these legends talking about my playing, but at the same time you feel more responsible,” he concludes. “It was also motivation to give 100 percent on everything I do.”
- Matteo Mancuso’s debut album, The Journey, is available to preorder now ahead of its release on July 21.