2021: A Guitar Odyssey
Guitar World|February 2021
Six successful guitarists from completely different backgrounds tackle the state of guitar in 2021, the repercussions of the digital universe, the future of guitar heroes, how to maintain one’s passion and unique voice amid the cacophony, living in the past, magic knobs and more
By Richard Bienstock

CHRISTONE “KINGFISH” INGRAM

“The blues was the Civil Rights movement, and it’s everything that we have going on in the world now. It brings us together. And we can use that to our advantage at this point in time to call that our blues”

JOHN 5

“A hundred percent, there will be another guitar hero. It’s up to us, to the people reading this and the people listening to the music, to go, ‘I can be the next guitar hero.’ And that doesn’t mean just being able to play the guitar well ... It’s someone that is progressive. There’s a lot that goes into it”

KIRK HAMMETT

“All guitar heroes are judged by one thing: the song they’re playing. You can be the most ripping guitar player, but if your songs suck or are boring or just flat, people are going to be impressed for about 15 minutes. And then they’re going to check their Instagram, see what other guitar players put up”

ADAM JONES

“You can learn all this technique, you can learn how to play ‘Eruption’ just like Eddie [Van Halen], you can know all these pentatonic and harmonic minor scales. But it’s what you do with it. The techniques are second — what you’re reaching for is what’s inside”

ST. VINCENT

“If you look at the culture, we have deconstructed the idea of a quote-unquote rock star. It’s a very even playing field in terms of people’s eyeballs. Some kids on TikTok are as looked at as pop stars. Also, I don’t know that virtuosity is really what we value as a culture globally right now. I think it’s kind of the opposite”

TRIVIUM’S MATT HEAFY

“One of the biggest things for me was getting into Brazilian jujitsu, which taught me what it is to build something from the ground up. I’ve only ever played guitar and sang in Trivium… but getting my butt kicked for three, four, five years in jujitsu and gradually having to realize that you have to put in so much time and practice to get good at something was really instructional”

MATEUS ASATO

“I always try to send a message. I grew up in church, so I have this way of thinking that you have to touch people’s hearts. And I don’t sing — I just have my guitar, and I have to make it speak somehow. So I analyze guitarists who are able to do that, like John Mayer and Derek Trucks”

THERE’S AN OLD saying: the only constant is change. And to be sure, the guitar-playing universe has been in a steady state of flux since man first stretched a string between two points and gave it a pluck centuries ago. In more modern, rock-centric times, the guitar, and how it is picked and strummed and tapped and rapped, has continued to evolve in terms of style, speed, technique and countless other aspects. Indeed, here at Guitar World we spent much of 2020 looking back at the myriad developments that have occurred in the six- (and seven-, eight- and so on) string universe in the 40 years since this magazine debuted.

With that in mind, Guitar World rounded up six of today’s most accomplished players — all of them groundbreaking, forward-thinking artists in their own right — to discuss the state of the instrument in the present day, and also what it might look like in the future. These artists hail from various backgrounds and play in a multitude of styles: from the otherworldly, effect-pedal-heavy electro-pop-funk-rock of St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) to the art-damaged, shape-shifting metal of Tool’s Adam Jones; the iconic thrash riffing and heroic soloing of Metallica’s Kirk Hammett to the trad-modern downhome blues of Christone “Kingfish” Ingram; and the over-the-top shred insanity of ghoulish Tele-master John 5 to the fluid, melodically and harmonically complex virtuosity of Instagram and YouTube superstar Mateus Asato.

It’s a disparate bunch, to be sure. But they all have one thing in common: a devotion to carving out their own unique sound and approach. “People are looking for individuality,” Hammett says. “And true emotional connection. I think that’s what really makes a guitar player stand out — a real connection to the heart, to the soul, to the mind, to the gut.”

It’s that commitment to individual expression — as well as, let’s be honest, the sheer awesomeness of the instrument — that will continue to keep the guitar fires burning in the hearts, souls, minds and guts of future generations.

“Guitar is the most fun thing in the world,” St. Vincent says. “The. Most. Fun. That’s not going to go away. It’s just going to be different people getting introduced to it in different ways, whether it’s through Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Ramone or Joni Mitchell or a guy on YouTube with a thousand followers. People are going to go, ‘Oh, I love that sound. I love that thing. I want to do that!’ Then they’ll take it up. And that’s the way it goes.”

Around seven or eight years ago, there were multiple news reports about “the death of the guitar.” Whatever it was that inspired those stories — maybe it was the lack of guitar on Top 40 pop songs at the time — would you say we’ve moved on from that?

ST. VINCENT: I feel like it’s all cyclical, so we shouldn’t be writing any obituaries. And the whole mechanism is so decentralized now that there’s space for everything. It doesn’t seem like the same gatekeepers are there. We have streaming platforms, we have social media, we have YouTube, we have all these ways that people can discover and find new music. And so I think that it’s never going to be the death of the guitar. Especially after we come out of this pandemic — people are going to be eager for new sounds, new things that are creative and that feel inspired to them. And if they haven’t heard a lot of guitar, they might hear a guitar and go, “Holy shit! What’s that?”

ADAM JONES: I’m not familiar with the “death of the guitar” conversation. But I’m also not on the pulse of everything going on. My style is more about being socially withdrawn and being kind of stuck in my ways. But I understand it. I mean, Pro-Tools and digital music and just how anyone can do it in their basement now, I can see music changing and becoming less about the performance of the recording and more just an emotional statement. So I can understand why someone would say that.

KIRK HAMMETT: I’m not a musical snob, and I don’t want to talk shit about other genres of music, but I will say that guitar has taken a huge backseat and it’s really not as popular as it used to be. And that’s fine. I’ve been in this place before — in the early Eighties it was all synths and New Wave and whatnot, but then guitar came roaring back with a vengeance.

That’s true; when Metallica first came out, a lot of rock music was seen as dinosaur music.

HAMMETT: Exactly. So I’m hoping it’ll roar back. Because nowadays it’s easier to learn how to play guitar than ever before. The resources are right at your fingertips. It’s a phone away, you know?

There’s no doubt that the digital world has altered how we approach the instrument.

JOHN 5: With the internet, with Instagram, YouTube, you have unbelievable extremes happening. People playing with both hands, Stanley Jordan-style, or doing something at great speeds or playing beautiful classical guitar — anything at all — but it’s the most extreme that I’ve seen guitar playing. And I love it. And I think that now it’s at a higher plateau. It’s more and more and more because younger people and older people are looking at these videos and going, “Wow!” That’s inspiring them to pick up the guitar again, or to maybe pick up the guitar for the first time.

CHRISTONE “KINGFISH” INGRAM: And the players, if you just go on Instagram there are so many guitar players who are finding new and different ways to approach the instrument. When you see all these people playing in different alternate tunings and using the guitar as a drum and stuff like that, that shows you that there’s a resurgence… or not even that there’s a resurgence — it just never let up. It just had to come back in front of people.

MATEUS ASATO: I don’t know that I see guitar coming back the same way as it was like in the Eighties, where even a pop ballad song would have major solos, but I believe guitar is getting its space in a different language — I think that would be a way of saying it. And, of course, things like Instagram are a way to see that. If I just search for the hashtag “guitar,” I see so many videos. It’s a great reminder for people, like, “Dang, guitar can be cool!” It’s not just an old-school thing.

Most of you brought up social media, which has dominated the conversation in the last few years. To that end, some of the biggest guitarists in the world — based on followers and views — are people who have built up massive fanbases on YouTube or Instagram. How do you think this development has influenced or changed our universe?

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