The best modern guitarists is a category that should be dictated by younger guitarist, not the old heads of music. Because the young people are the ones being directly influenced by these guitarists. That is my measure of "best" or "greatness". Are the influencing young people in a way that has never been done before? Or are they introducing classic and traditional playing to a new audience?
So in actuality this is more of a list of the most influential modern guitarists. As a relatively young guitarist that thinks they have their finger on the pulse of modern music pretty well, I think I can write this article with high confidence.
I know tonnes of other musicians that are inspired by the same people I am, and I am around tonnes of musicians that have differing tastes that tell me all about their favorite guitarist.
Before we get into it. I do have a bias towards soul, funk, R&B, and blues types of music. It's just what I dig, so expect more players within those genres.
Best Current Guitarists in the World
The Best modern Guitarists
Tom Misch is a British born Neo-Soul giant thats popularity has been skyrocketing recently. He is best known for his tune 'It Runs Though Me" which can be heard in the video above.
One of his biggest influences growing up was another person on this list... John Mayer. Misch even uses a John Mayer signature Stratocaster which can be seen in the video above.
What really sets Misch apart is his sense of melodicism. He crafts short and sweet melodies that get stuck in your head, and have you humming for days after hearing them. The opening guitar melody to "It Runs Though Me" is so simple, but so catchy. His melodicism is what makes him one of the best guitarists today.
He pairs his great sense of melody with unique harmonic choices. The chords used throughout his songs many would call "jazz chords". This just means the chords are very harmonically dense. Music nerds love this type of stuff because to them these harmonically dense chords are far more interesting to listen to than the basic Major and Minor triads of most pop music.
The key to Misch's success is his mixture of his easily digestable melodies being paired with complex and interesting harmony. This makes it so that non musicians can gravitate towards the pretty melodies, while music nerds can be satisfied with the complex harmonies.
Tom Misch is revered by many including one of his biggest inspirations, John Mayer. They can be seen playing a tiny desk concert together above. Other guitarists that have shown admiration for Tom include Cory Wong and Tomo Fujita.
The hardest thing to believe about this guy is that he is only 25, and really just starting to hit his stride. We will for sure see more to come from this dude in the future, and he will continue to inspire a new generation of musicians.
Gary Clark Jr.
The best modern guitarists
Gary Clark Jr. is one of the most prominent remaining blues guitarists. Many see him as one of the few still carrying the torch for many of the great blues guitarists such as B.B. King, Albert King, and Muddy Waters.
The Tiny Desk Concert, seen above, starts out with an absolute killer groove. Give it a listen if you have never heard Gary Clark's music before. Other popular tunes of his include: Bright Lights, I Don't Owe you a Thang, and When my Train Pulls in.
Gary Clark is one of the few remaining true blues guys left. There are a ton of popular guitarists that are blues inspired currently, but none feel as authentically blues to many as Gary Clark does. Something about the way he plays is so raw and perfectly blues. Not many other guitarists out there right now can really capture that essence as well as Gary Clark does.
All of these things make Gary Clark incredibly influential to many young guitarists including myself. Many people think that being able to play as many notes as possible as fast as possible is talent on the guitar. Gary Clark teaches us that it isn't about how fast you play, but rather the note choices you make and how you phrase your solos that really sets a guitarist apart.
The Best modern guitarists
Cory Wong is a new age funk guitarist that is most popular for his role within the band Vulfpeck. Within Vulfpeck he plays "lead rhythm guitar". This is kinda something he pioneered, or at least brought into a new era. He plays rhythm guitar in a particular way where it almost becomes melodic in nature.
One of the things everyone talks about with Cory Wong, is his crazy right hand technique. To the untrained eye it looks almost as if he is just flailing his limp hand at the guitar. Somehow though through his right hand technique he is able to keep extremely steady time. He is almost metronomic in his playing. It is so perfectly in time.
I think this is a big reason why he is such a big inspiration to younger guitarists. Because the importance of time and rhythm playing is not really stressed to us guitarists as much as ripping awesome solos is. Cory opens up a new dimension in a lot of young peoples playing by introducing them to the importance of steady and accurate time.
Cory Wong also does a ton of solo work which I think I like better than his stuff with Vulfpeck. Which is saying a lot because every musician, I know, and their mother loves Vulfpeck. Cory's solo work is super cool and fun because it puts him front and center a lot of the time, and lets his "lead rhythm" playing shine.
Here is one of my favorite songs of his called "Takeoff". What's awesome about this tune is Cory's ability to bring his unique style to a fun and easy listening tune.
If you really would like to hear Cory Wong's signature sound I would listening to a song like "Lunchtime" or "Airplane Mode". Both are pretty awesome and groovy tunes.
The best modern Guitarists
Tosin Abasi is a guitarist that is best known for his playing with the band "Animals as Leaders". What's unique about Tosin is his preference of an extended range guitar. Tosin sticks pretty much to only 8 string guitars, and often times plays where he functions as the bass as well as the guitar. He's kinda like Charlie Hunter's emo cousin.
Even though a lot of the music he makes is a little bit harder, he has roots in jazz, classical, and funk. Citing Victor Wooten as someone he learned the double thump technique from.
Tosin's style has inspired a ton of young guitarists. Something unfortunate though is that many of these guitarists cannot find adequate teaching to better learn how to emulate Tosin's style and then create their own music with it.
This is because music schools don't really like any music made within the past 50 years. The things learned in modern music school can be more easily applied to the styles of other guitarists on this list like Cory Wong or John Mayer.
Even without traditional schools embracing styles like Tosin's he has been able to thrive in his own way as one of the most influential modern guitarists.
The best modern guitarists
Chris Stapleton is one of the greatest all around musicians alive today. The man is a top tier singer, songwriter, and guitarist. It really is incredible how great he is at so many things. With a lot of musicians you can say "They are an amazing songwriter", or maybe "They are a crazy good guitarist", but with Chris Stapleton you can say that and more.
Something I've noticed is that younger people tend to write him off because he's "country", and for some reason young people think country music is the enemy. Even though Chris wears a cowboy hat and lives in Nashville, I don't really see him as a "country artist". He kinda has his own unique style going on. A mixture of folk, bluegrass, soul, rock, and country music all gets put together to create Stapleton's sound.
If I had to put Stapleton in a box and say he is one specific genre, I would say soul more than anything. The rawness of his vocals come to the forefront of his songs. You can just feel the emotion in every single note. One of Stapleton's best vocal performances comes on his song "Sometimes I Cry".
This song blows me away every single time I listen to it. Stapleton's way of combining simplicity along with incredibly complex vocals allows for the song to be super accessible to a wide audience. Because everyone can listen to those chord changes, but music nerds will be satisfied with the amazing vocals on top.
Enough about his singing, let's talk about his guitar playing. He plays guitar in a very similar way. Full of emotion. He is a player that I would say focuses on playing the right notes at the right time rather than playing a bunch of notes all over. You won't really ever see him shred like a mad man, but that's okay. He plays the guitar like he sings, he is telling a story. They are ups and downs that you can feel within the melodies he is creating. He is much more of an emotional player than a technical one.
It is kinda hard to spot these kind of players out. It is really easy to see someone that is super technically proficient, and know that they are really good because they are playing super fast. It is a completely different game when someone chooses to play slower for the sake of the song. Often times as guitar players we see these simpler solos and think "I can do that". Sure you can play the same notes, but can you make it feel the same way they did? Probably not.
The best modern guitarists
Synyster Gates is best known for his role within the band Avenged Sevenfold. One of the greatest metals bands of the 21st century. Gates is really known for his ability to incorporate ideas from other genres, and bring them into metal music. He takes a lot of inspiration from blues and jazz players. Specifically Gypsy Jazz playing. Gypsy Jazz is a genre that involves very fast jazz soloing. He then takes some of the ideas within Gypsy Jazz and applies them to his metal soling.
In my mind, what sets Gates apart from many other metal guitarists is his melodicism. Within his solos he creates great melodies. A lot of metal guitarists just stick with the approach of playing as many notes as fast as possible, but he incorporates super fast and technical playing with the perfect melodies. Maybe it's because I am a sucker for a good melody, but this is what makes Gates my personal favorite metal guitarist.
To many it just shows that he is a well rounded musician. Not just a shredder. Musicians know the importance of a great melody, and that is why Synyster Gates is one of the best modern guitarists.
Scott LePage and Tim Henson
The best modern Guitarists
Scott LePage and Tim Henson are two members of the band Polyphia. Polyphia is best describes as a progressive metal or progressive rock band. Their stuff takes a little bit of getting used to before you can really get into it. It sounds a little strange to the unindoctrinated. There is no doubt in my mind though that they are some of the most influential guitarists out there right now. So many different guitarists that I know have all tried to learn their song G.O.A.T. because it is such a cool and unique song.
Polyphia has been around since about 2010, but only within the past 3 or 4 years have they really gained popularity. Similar to young players that like Tosin Abasi, music school unfortunately really hate this type of music. They don't see it really as music, so young guitarists are left to their own vices to try to learn this incredibly difficult and cutting edge music.
The best modern guitarists
I saved my favorite for last. I don't know if there is another guitarist out there right now that is as influential as John Mayer is for young guitarists. This is probably because we grew up listening to his songs on the radio, so then once got older we already knew so much of his catalog. We were able to jam out to his pop music while discovering how great of a guitarist and musician he really is. Also we were too young to realize the dumb stuff he said to the press... By the time we came into more of ourselves he was much less of an ego maniac, and far more likable.
Mayer's blending of pop music with his blues and soul influences is perfect and completely unique to him. I like to liken him to Stevie Wonder in the way that they can make music that musicians love, but also great pop music that anyone can listen to and enjoy.
Mayer is similar to Chris Stapleton in the fact that often times it isn't about how many notes they are playing, but rather how the few notes they do play feel. Mayer's solo on "Edge of Desire" is one of my favorite guitar solos of all time, but yet it's so simple. For the longest time it is just the first three notes of the major scale. This song and solo also both demonstrate the importance of space in song writing and soloing. Something that not everyone seems to grasp.
If you want to inspire a young guitarist have them listen to John Mayer's "Where the Light is" live record. It is filled with great electric guitar soloing, acoustic guitar rhythm playing, blues tunes, and pop tunes. It is such a complete album that isn't tampered with by the recording process. It is just purely a live performance. It's raw.