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How to Stand Out as a Guitarist -A Look at Some Unique Players

Updated: Apr 26

Many sources online estimate that 10% of the Earth’s population play the guitar - that is over 700 million people! According to the CEO of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, Andy Mooney, 45% of the guitars they sell each year go to brand new players. Long story short, there are many guitarists and that number will keep increasing - obviously, this is because the guitar is the coolest instrument in existence!

There are a few different types of guitar players . Whilst there are many hobbyists, those who wish to play guitar for the enjoyment it brings them personally, you also have the professionals, that would be teachers and session musicians and finally, rockstars - those who are famous for playing the instrument. You may not fit into one specific category, or find yourself thrust into one without realizing that it has happened, but it is understandable when people feel a little overwhelmed by it all. 

If you are aiming to be a professional guitar player, or even a rockstar, how do you show that you are unique? How can you stand out as a guitar player? In this blog post, we will look at three of my favorite guitar players, and analyze what makes each of them different; what made each of them sketch a blueprint of their own?

Matteo Mancuso

(Credit: Luciano Viti / Getty Images)

Matteo Mancuso is a young guitarist from Italy that has taken the world by storm in recent years. He was cited by Steve Vai as being one of the most promising, talented guitar players alive and has recently shared the stage with greats such as Al Di Meola, Cory Wong and Tomo Fujita. He shot to fame via his YouTube channel, and started to work with brands like Line 6 and Yamaha - this helped get him noticed around the world and people really started to take him seriously as a guitar player.

I first noticed him about six or seven years ago on YouTube, where I saw a video of him performing ‘Fives’ by Guthrie Govan… entirely with his fingers! He has blended a classic, flamenco style right-hand technique, but applied it to blistering rock and fusion solos (he is also a dab hand at the jazz-y sound, too!). The impressiveness of his technique aside, his playing has a much smoother, more rounded tone than what you would expect (not better or worse, just an observation).  

Coupled with the fact that he seems to revel in pure joy simply by getting the chance to play the guitar as his job, he is definitely one of the most stand-out guitarists currently active. 

Check out this video of his, it is mindblowing:

Allan Holdsworth

(Credit: Glen Laferman)

I’ll try to keep this short and sweet, because Allan Holdsworth is one of my all time favorite guitar players and there is so much I could say.

Although he sadly passed away in 2017, Holdsworth continues to push boundaries with seemingly never ending layers of guitar wizardry. Robben Ford called him the “Coltrane of guitar” and there are countless legends who cite him as either a major influence, or simply the best guitarist who ever lived.

However, his playing wasn’t deliberately difficult, but rather due to a completely unique approach to harmony and melody. He would often devise his own method of harmonizing a scale, and even went so far as to create his series of chord symbols and scale names. The blistering speed that he was capable of was borne of an interest in the saxophone and violin from a young age, hence the frequent use of legato. 

Despite all of his work on various albums and instructional videos, he remained true to his beliefs. He was very critical of his own work, and would refuse to do something if it wasn’t in his best personal interest. There were also cases of him not releasing music simply because he changed his mind and didn’t think it was good enough. To put it shortly, he refused to sell out. As a result, he sadly ended his life in near poverty to the extent that his funeral was crowd-funded by his loyal fans.

Here is one of my favorite performances of Allan’s. Just look at the opening few chords and the start of the solo, and you will understand how other-wordly his playing really was:

Seasick Steve

(Credit: Danny North / NME / IPC Media)

Seasick Steve stands out to me for different reasons to Mancuso and Holdsworth. His technique is not flashy, his songs are simple but effective, and his image is just as important as his playing (more on that later!).

When you look into the history of this man, you will read of various exploits across the world in his younger years, from riding the rails across America for seasonal work or running a recording studio. However, he really broke out in the UK when he played on Jools Holland’s television show in the early 2000s. This is where I was first made aware of him and his unique approach to music.

Many of his songs consist of guitars with less than a full set of strings, tuned to an open tuning and set up for slide guitar. However, his most famous instrument is made from the hubcap of a Morris Minor car! It seems that Steve has no real affiliation with brands and manufacturers of music equipment as far as what guitarists would usually be associated with. As long as it plays the notes he wants it to, and sounds good to his ears, he doesn’t care - this is such a refreshing attitude to have! Seasick Steve also dresses with rough looking attire: plaid shirts, dungarees and a trucker cap - hardly fitting for an international artist, but that is why it works so well! It fits in with his persona and furthers his uniqueness. 

Another point that makes me admire his music is that it is just as effective with or without a backing band. Quite often, he can be seen or heard performing solo with no detriment to the outcome of the performance.  

The following link is of that very performance on the Jools Holland show I mentioned earlier:

Everything but the Playing

This is one of my favorite phrases, you will hear me use it time and time again. Standing out as a guitarist is difficult from a playing perspective, but doing so via other avenues is also tricky - in this post I wanted to touch upon the visual side of things.

Having a unique aesthetic means that you could potentially face scrutiny for the way you look, especially if you are dressed in a particularly wacky way (see the bassist MonoNeon for an example). MonoNeon is a phenomenal bassist and comes from a family of talented musicians, but is often not taken seriously because of how he looks. Though if you simply wear jeans and a t-shirt, you will blend in with everyone else even if your playing is stellar. Each person has a ‘sweet spot’ that they must find. For example, Slash of Guns n Roses and Velvet Revolver fame is almost as famous for wearing an oversized top hat wrapped in a belt as he is for his playing. A true artist must live and breathe the lifestyle; if you want to be a Country and Western axe-slinger, go buy a cowboy hat.

Final Thoughts

Some people don’t wish to stand out, and that is great as we should all have our own goals for where we want to go with the instrument. Let us have a quick recap on what we’ve discussed:

  • Technique - Focus on one area, or specific technique, and make that part of your signature style. Be known as the guy who plays spread triads, or tunes his guitar to 5ths like a violin,

  • Persona - Unless you are portraying a specific character (like the band GWAR), then being true to yourself, with appropriate embellishments, is a surefire way to stand out - you are already unique!

  • Aesthetic - Weigh up the pros and cons between fitting in with the crowd, or standing out too much. You could wear a funky shirt instead of a plain one, but dressing up as Bumblebee Man from The Simpsons is not a good look for the jazz circuit. 

If you feel lost or confused, perhaps both, then stick with learning your craft, focusing on technique, songwriting and your stage show and the answer will inevitably reveal itself further down the line.

Be true to yourself!



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