“There are people out there with extraordinary technical ability, but you listen to their tone and you’re like, ‘Have you got ears or not?’”: Steven Wilson explains why he’s “constantly disappointed” by modern guitarists’ tones

Steven Wilson performing live
(Image credit: Rob Monk/Classic Rock Magazine/Future)

The state of guitar has never been healthier, with technically gifted up-and-coming instrumentalists ushering in a fresh era of electric guitar playing through innovative techniques and approaches.

However, according to Steven Wilson, such technically impressive chops will only get you so far, with the Porcupine Tree guitarist recently voicing his disappointment over how players fail to explore and experiment with their overall sound.

In fact, speaking in a recent episode of That Pedal Show, Wilson went so far as to label certain unnamed branches of guitar playing “boring”, owing to the fact it largely remains unchanged from a tonal perspective merely to facilitate faster playing.

“I’m constantly disappointed by extraordinary guitar players that have got no concept of how to change their sound, change their tone,” he offered. “They play with the same tone the whole time because it’s that tone that enables them to play a million notes. As a sound, it’s boring.

“There are some people out there with extraordinary technical ability but you listen to their tone and you're like, 'Have you got ears or not?'”

According to Wilson, the discipline of guitar playing isn’t simply the notes and chords one plays – instead, it’s also an artform of sound sculpting and tonal manipulation, which can be encouraged through experiments with various pieces of gear.

To quantify the balance between technique and tone, Wilson went on, “A lot of the modern generation of guitar players forget that 50 percent of being a guitar player is working with tone, with pedals and – let’s not be purist about this – these days with plugins.”

It’s a hot take that’s sure to raise a few eyebrows, but this is by no means Wilson’s most controversial guitar opinion in recent years. In 2021, he incurred the wrath of music fans when he admitted he was “never a fan” of Eddie Van Halen or the “shredder mentality” that he said Van Halen fathered – something he later apologized to Wolfgang Van Halen for.

More recently, he took aim at shredders, and labeled the discipline as a “sport”: “It’s very impressive,” he said at the time, “but it doesn’t communicate anything to me that I would really feel there [points to chest].”

In his interview on That Pedal Show, Wilson elaborated on what he thought makes a great guitar solo, once again emphasizing the importance of expression and emotion over speed for the sake of speed.

“50 percent of a solo is actually not [the] solo, it’s the chords underneath it,” he mused. “Because if you have an interesting chord progression, you can play one note, or two or three notes, and the way that those notes relate back to that chord progression – particularly if it is quite an unusual, complex chord progression with – that is where the beauty of the solo really lies.

“I don’t want a guitar player to come along and suddenly shred all over something with no relationship or no connection back to the soul or heart of the music.”

Wilson’s affection for players who can do more with less is well-documented. In an interview with Total Guitar last summer, he voiced his love for “guitar players that can play one note and break your heart rather than the ones who play 20 notes that go in one ear and out the other”.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.