Steve Vai names 5 contemporary guitarists who are taking the instrument to the next level

Steve Vai
(Image credit: FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival))

Steve Vai's legacy as a guitar player is unbeatable: a virtuoso who not only backed rock royalty, but designed his own instrument, practically invented his own vocabulary, and changed the way we think about instrumental guitar music forever.

So when he lists five contemporary players to watch, we'd all do well to listen – as we did back when he named the 'best guitar player' of all time (if such a concept existed, of course).

There are some game-changing guitarists with hugely individual styles here – with Vai's endorsement, the future of exemplary guitar playing is in very safe hands indeed…

1. Tim Henson

“Tim Henson [of Polyphia] is exploring new grounds. I’m seeing an evolution in a direction that I didn’t… that I couldn’t even see coming. And it’s magnificent. I just love hearing those ideas and watching the execution of them. 

“He thinks totally outside the box. And if you listen to early stuff, you can hear when he was thinking conventionally, but something happened and he just surrendered to some kind of creative vision. And that’s what their music is. It’s fantastic.”

2. Cory Wong

“I love watching him play. It’s rare for a guitarist to truly understand what it means to lock and what it means to groove. Of course, everybody has a level of understanding of groove. You may have a shredder that just has this powerful ability to play wildly fast. Or a jazz guy who can play chord changes at the speed of light. 

“There’s few cream-of-the-crop guitar players who play rhythm that own the groove. They own it – meaning they can play ahead of the groove, behind the groove. They can divide the groove in a relatively unconventional kind of a groove, and own it, and make you feel it while they’re doing it. And I love that about Cory. He owns it. 

“He’s also doing really interesting things with arrangements, reaching outside of the box of conventionality and [the style is] a little more homeschooled. He’s using horns and these kinds of things, as opposed to technology, as being in the forefront. It’s really about groove and I love that.”

3. Matteo Mancuso

“He’s one of these players that has really evolved the fusion-style guitar playing. He has incredible ears, but his technique is pretty remarkable. You know, he can play with a pick, but he plays with his fingers. 

“The variations of tone that he gets and the smoothness, and things like his intonation, his ability to play melodically over pretty fierce changes and stuff like that. I think he’s more of an evolution in the fusion department. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the things that he eventually comes out with.”

4. Yvette Young

“Yvette [of Covet] is just a wildly artistic person from head to toe. Her guitar playing and the things she comes up with is one aspect. It’s a particular colour in her palette. She has this creative perspective that I just find so refreshing. She’s an artist, she paints, and I just really love the energy and the atmosphere that she manifests.”

5. Daniele Gottardo

“Daniele is one of the few, for me, that is doing remarkable things with technique. I see phenomenal players all the time. People send me clips and it’s stunning what younger people are doing, how they’re evolving technique on the guitar. 

“But it’s very rare that I ever hear any real harmonic evolutions. Daniele sends me stuff sometimes. I listen and I go, ‘Okay, this guy’s thinking and feeling outside of the box.’”

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Robin Davey is is an English-born, LA-based musician, record producer, musical director and videographer. Robin formed UK blues rock band The Hoax, who were signed to East West records in the mid-90s. Other bands include The Davey Brothers, The Bastard Fairies, Well Hung Heart and blues rockers Beau Gris Gris & the Apocalypse, who also feature his partner Greta Valenti on vocals. The two run a video production house, Growvision, and produce our Pedalpocalypse series.