Meet 2020's Guitarists of the Year

Guitarist Of The Year 2020
(Image credit: Igor Paspalj / Jukka Ranta-Maunus / Courtesy of Mike Papapavlou / Fred + Hanna)

Last year was notable for a lot of what we didn’t have. There were no 2020 Olympics, no Boston or New York City marathons. Wimbledon was canceled, as was the Masters Tournament. 

If you were pining for NCAA Women’s March Madness, there was little madness to be had. Hell, even the Scripps National Spelling Bee was called off in 2020, marking the first time the event hasn’t taken place since 1945. 

But not even a COVID pandemic could stop Guitar World and Guitar Player’s search for 2020’s Guitarist of the Year, nor did it deter heaps of talented guitarists from responding to the call. 

In fact, we noticed a dramatic increase in the number of entries we received, and they came from all parts of the world: Japan, Australia, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, France, the US and the UK. If we can draw any conclusions, it’s this: While people’s leisure options were limited in 2020, they clearly spent more time playing the guitar

The 2020 Guitarist of the Year competition was sponsored by PRS Guitars. As in past years, categories included Electric Guitarist, Acoustic Guitarist, Young Guitarist (age 17 and under) and Bass Guitarist. This year, however, we added a new category — Guitar Teacher of the Year.

Combing through the mountainous number of video entries was no mean feat, and the editors of GW and GP spent hours whittling them down to five finalists for each category, assessing the players’ technical ability, originality, musicality and feel.

The finalists’ videos were then sent over to our celebrity judges: John Petrucci, John 5 and Nita Strauss weighed in on the Electric Guitarist entries; Tosin Abasi, Matt Heafy and Lzzy Hale chimed in on the Young Guitarist crew; and Molly Tuttle, Kaki King and Christie Lenée judged the Acoustic Guitarist category.

If we can draw any conclusions, it’s this: while people’s leisure options were limited in 2020, they clearly spent more time playing the guitar

Finally, the Bass Guitarist judges were Tracy Wormworth, Doug Wimbish and Scott Reeder. Editors also voted, as did you, casting thousands of GOTY votes throughout November and December.

Meanwhile, based on the glowing (and numerous) video testimonials sent in by students, Mike Papapavlou was chosen as our Guitar Teacher of the Year. In addition to generous prizes supplied by PRS Guitars, winners can count on seeing the numbers of clicks their videos spiking considerably; over the past two years, clips of the finals have generated more than four million views.

And who knows? Greater fame could be right around the corner: Past Guitarist of the Year winners include Dave Kilminster (Roger Waters, Steven Wilson) and Guthrie Govan. Without any further ado, let’s get to know all the winners of the guitar-centric categories.

Electric Guitarist of the Year 2020: Igor Paspalj

Igor Paspalj

(Image credit: Igor Paspalj)

Igor Paspalj was thrilled to be among the finalists in the Electric Guitar category, but when he heard the news that he bagged top honors, he could barely contain his excitement. 

“I’m over the moon. It’s just the most incredible news ever,” says the Dubai-based musician, who works as a guitar teacher and studio musician. “I feel so grateful and humbled to be recognized at this level, and I want to thank everybody who voted for me. This means more to me than I can say.” 

I feel so grateful and humbled to be recognized at this level, and I want to thank everybody who voted for me. This means more to me than I can say

Igor Paspalj

Paspalj’s winning video entry, a performance of his original song Into the Blue, is a jaw-dropping marvel of compositional excellence, bravura improvisation and breathtaking technical precision. In what amounts to a mini guitar clinic, he dispatches bluesy clean leads, then blitzes through a shredfest of sweep and alternate picking. 

His style is a seamless mix of his main influences – he lists Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, Steve Morse, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani as the biggies – but he also cites members of the “new guard” (among them Guthrie Govan, Mateus Asato, Tom Quayle and Feodor Dosumov) as recent favorites.

Says Guitar World Editor-in-Chief Damian Fanelli, “While all five finalists in the Electric category were obviously talented, we started looking for other qualities – including tone, touch, taste and feel – which brought us to Igor.

“Based on his three-minute entry video alone, one can see how virtuosic he is – Senior Music Editor Jimmy Brown likens him to a 21st-century Niccolo Paganini! It just seems he can do it all – flawlessly – and make it sound great as he’s doing it. We look forward to hearing more from Igor.”

Paspalj picked up the guitar at 13, learning chords, scales and simple riffs. His world changed dramatically when a friend gave him an audio cassette of instructional lessons, which also included recordings of Van Halen’s Eruption and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Far Beyond the Sun

“Both of those songs were so different from anything I’d heard before,” he says. “The sound, the energy – they had everything!” Paspalj taught himself to play both tracks, and he devoured as many VHS guitar lesson videos as possible. He later enrolled in music school and earned a master’s degree in music theory. 

“During this period, I was also greatly influenced by classical music,” he explains. “I developed a guitar language that owed a lot to the masters. I also developed my own style of phrasing, and while it might not be revolutionary, I’m still working on it. It’s a never-ending journey.” 

In addition to his daytime gigs, Paspalj is an experienced live musician, who, in normal times, would perform up to six nights a week.

“Because of COVID, there’s no live shows anymore, which has been unfortunate because that’s been my favorite part of being a musician,” he says. “When you get to play live, you can try out new things in terms of improvisation and sound, even experimenting with your stage look. I’m hoping I can get back to gigging soon.”

Acoustic Guitarist of the Year 2020: Alan Gogoll

Alan Gogoll

(Image credit: Fred + Hanna)

In the past two years, acoustic guitarist Alan Gogoll won first place in the 2019 Furch Guitar International Guitar Competition and bagged the top spot in the 2020 Magic Guitars International Guitar Competition. 

One might think the Australian native has become jaded by all the acclaim, but Gogoll, who took the crown of GW and GP’s 2020 Acoustic Guitarist of the Year, quickly lays such a notion to rest. 

“The full impact of winning hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he says. “I need to say to myself a few times, ‘Alan, you’ve won the highest award for what you do in the world!’ I’m very grateful to have had the chance to compete, and I want to thank everybody who voted for me, especially the judges who made the final decision. To receive that level of recognition from other professionals is really very special.”

Gogoll’s winning entry, a whimsical and transporting original composition called Otter Rain, is a star-turn performance in which he displays his dazzling, innovative “bell harmonic” technique. 

Playing an Åstrand Å-OMC guitar (handcrafted in Sweden), he utilizes both hands to simultaneously pluck radiant, bell-like tones from the strings. He punctuates this technique with spirited, rhythmic raps on the guitar’s body, thus dispensing with the need for an accompanist. 

“I wrote Otter Rain last summer in France, so it’s quite a recent piece,” Gogoll says. “Like pretty much every song of mine, it came about through practice and working on technique, not actively sitting down and trying to write something. So it was all very subconscious, you could say.” 

He points out that live streams and his YouTube clip of Otter Rain have already become fan favorites. “The song holds a special place in my heart.” Having started on the guitar at 5, the mostly self-taught Gogoll discovered his love of harmonics when he was 9. 

“They unlocked this magical, beautiful side of the guitar,” he says. “Perfecting how to use them was challenging and rewarding. Over time, I realized I didn’t have to be in a band to get a full sound or make music. I could play bass notes and do all sorts of other things on just one guitar.”

In 2017, Gogoll produced a video series called Stringscapes for which he built a custom guitar and camera rig to capture string vibrations from inside the guitar while looking out onto various landscapes.

He’s also released a number of albums, including 2014’s Whimsical Toad, 2017’s Mulberry Mouse and last year’s Moonlight Lantern. Thanks to his heavy presence on social media, he’s been able to tour internationally, and he’s looking forward to a post-COVID world in which he can perform live again.

Guitar Teacher of the Year 2020: Mike Papapavlou

Mike Papapavlou

(Image credit: Courtesy of Mike Papapavlou)

Mike Papapavlou won’t have to look too far to thank the people who voted him Guitar Teacher of the Year 2020. The Manhattan-based instructor can extend his appreciation personally to his own students who sent in glowing video testimonials on his behalf.  

There’s David Arnstein, who said, “I picked up the guitar again after 30 years of not playing. I was nervous about how rusty I was and wondered if I could ever play again. Mike is a wonderfully gifted teacher who has really helped me along the way. He believes that playing music at any level will enhance the quality of your life.” 

Mei Hui enthused, “Mike is the best guitar teacher because he is passionate about teaching and making an impact on people’s lives.” And Arianna Taylor summed it up succinctly: “He really believes in me, and I get confidence from him.” 

Papapavlou admits he was overcome by the heartfelt messages from his students, but at the same time he attempts to put the award in context. 

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world to hear all the glowing words of praise, and I thank everybody who voted for me,” he says.

“I know that I’m not the greatest teacher around – there’s always going to be somebody who knows more than me. But people don’t care how much you know until they know you care about them, and this award proves that my students realize that I’m really invested in what they’re doing.”

When I saw how I could impact people’s lives – it’s that look on their face when they learned something new – I understood I was doing something meaningful

Mike Papapavlou

Born in Cyprus, Papapavlou started playing guitar as a kid. His early favorites were hard rock and metal bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden, but in his teens he fell in love with Motown, pop, funk and blues. 

He played in local bands before moving to the UK to earn his undergraduate degree in music, and in his early 20s he emigrated to New York, where he received his master’s degree in jazz guitar at the Allen Copeland School of Music. 

“I came here by boat to pursue the American dream,” he says. While exploring various musical opportunities, Papapavlou began teaching purely out of financial necessity, but it didn’t take long for him to realize his true calling. 

“Lots of guitarists want fame and money, but how many can say they do something they’re really proud of?” he says. “When I saw how I could impact people’s lives – it’s that look on their face when they learned something new – I understood I was doing something meaningful.”

Young Guitarist of the Year 2020: Juho Ranta-Maunus

Juho Ranta-Maunus

(Image credit: Juho Ranta-Maunus)

As the saying goes, some people are just born with it. Such appears to be the case with 14-year-old Finnish prodigy Juho Ranta-Maunus, whose preternatural skills allowed him to edge out the other exceptionally talented entrants in the hotly contested Young Guitarist of the Year 2020 competition. 

“It’s amazing and unbelievable at the same time,” Juho says. “I feel grateful that so many people viewed my playing and voted for me. I received lots of positive feedback and messages. I want to thank everybody who travelled on this journey with me. I also feel very honored that top celebrity players appreciated my playing. I’ll definitely continue to work hard on my guitar playing and music making.” 

Juho worked for three months creating the prize-winning video of his prog-tinged original composition, Diversity. As he explains, “Because of the three-minute time limit for the competition, I tried to include the most compelling and technical parts of the song.” 

That he did; along with showcasing his keen sense of melody, the video is a brilliant display of the guitarist’s fluid sweeps, tasteful phrasing, impeccable tone and masterful vibrato. (Anyone who wants to check out the full version of Diversity can do so on Juho’s YouTube channel, and it’s also available on Spotify, iTunes and other platforms.)

Juho, who lives in the western Finland city of Seinäjoki, was inspired to take up the guitar at age 8. “I fell in love with the guitar immediately, from the first touch,” he says.

I express my emotions through the guitar, and I think my voice on the instrument has grown over the years

Juho Ranta-Maunus

After a few lessons at his local music store, he enrolled at the South Ostrobothnia Music Institute in Seinäjoki, where he studies electric guitar along with band, composition and piano. “Antti Honkanen has been my electric guitar teacher this whole time, and he’s awesome.” At first, Juho played along to music from bands like Europe, Metallica, Bon Jovi and Megadeth.

He cites John Petrucci as his biggest influence (“I discovered progressive metal because of him”) and has also become enamored of Plini and Kiko Loureiro. “I really like Plini’s prog-djent style and the exotic chords he plays, and I love Kiko’s melodies.”

His main guitar is a PRS SE Custom 24 M-SB Limited through a Blackstar HT20-RH MKII amp. Making his own YouTube videos has sharpened Juho’s producing chops – he cuts tracks on Garage Band and edits clips using either Final Cut Pro X or iMovie.

As for the immediate future, he says that he’ll continue to study with Honkanen, but once he leaves college, he dreams of turning pro. “I want to play in a band and tour,” he says. “I express my emotions through the guitar, and I think my voice on the instrument has grown over the years because of all the hard work I put into it.”

Guitarist of the Year will return in 2021. For more information, head to the official website.

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Guitar World Staff

Since 1980, Guitar World has been the ultimate resource for guitarists. Whether you want to learn the techniques employed by your guitar heroes, read about their latest projects or simply need to know which guitar is the right one to buy, Guitar World is the place to look.