The best prog guitarists in the world right now, according to you

Join us for our traditional look back at the stories and features that hit the spot in 2022

Best of 2022: End of year polls might be modest acts of democratic engagement that allow us to cast a vote for our favourite players but they often tell us something more. Sometimes they reveal something about guitar playing itself – particularly when we are talking best prog guitarists of 2022.

These players, all voted for by you, the readers, are the guitarists who are pushing the envelope, who are looking for new techniques, to new levels of virtuosity, and for new sounds in which to place the guitar.

They are not all shredders. Who among the following is a shredder? Maybe one… Maybe two. Shred, and the act of fretboard pyro, might be the means but it is not the end. Not for progressive guitar in 2022. 

Indeed, your number one pick, a double act who have recorded the most radical guitar record of the year, compartmentalise their virtuosity, secreting it within riffs, and in rhythms that have hitherto been alien to guitar music. 

They are joined by players who have taken rhythm guitar far away across the horizon from four-to-the-floor open chords, or eighth-note grooves. They are joined by players whose imagination has made them so hard to pin down that having them here, in a prog section, seems almost out of place. But then they all share a sense of sonic frontiersmanship, a curiosity about their instrument and its place in popular music. Maybe that’s what makes them prog.

Anyway, let’s boogie – in 5/4 of course.

1. Tim Henson and Scott LePage (Polyphia)

What Tim Henson and Scott LePage did on Polyphia’s Remember That You Will Die will, or at least should, go down in guitar history as one of its most audacious hours. It is all kinds of crazy. There is something for everyone here.

For aficionados of the percussive plink of an electro-acoustic nylon-string guitar, a sound more commonly savoured in bossa nova or nuevo flamenco, here’s it’s applied to glitzy beats and rhythms, bringing a crisp and fresh textural element to a pair of players whose chops are the very definition of overachievement.

But why not do as they did on Chimera and take said nylon-string and partner it with an eight-string electric guitar, which LePage decided he’s tune the eighth string down a half-step while tracking just for kicks? Polyphia are going to have to go out and perform this at some point, and album that was recorded in sprints, of moments of scarcely playable technicality, and put together to service a song that’s designed to make your jaw drop. 

Can they actually play this stuff live? Well, kind of.

“If we ever do play that one, I am very curious to see how we end up making it work,” LePage told MusicRadar. “Basically, what we do when we write is we think in serving the song, right? Most of the time anyway. There is a small aspect of, ‘Okay, this needs to be performable.’ But sometimes we just do cool shit for the sake of doing cool shit and we worry about it later. If we have to change some stuff, we do that. 

“Like, we did the Chimera guitar playthrough and it we had to cut it so Tim could switch his guitars and shit so I am not sure if that is going to be a feasible thing to play but it is a cool song. I think we did a good job with the song. We’ll see if we can ever make that one happen!”

Besides the popularisation of the nylon-string, now officially released as part of Ibanez’s signature guitar lineup designed in partnership with Henson LePage, Polyphia also welcomed a slew of guests to collaborate.

Sophia Black dropped by to offer some tongue-twisting verse over ABC, Chino Moreno of Deftones cameo on the brutal Bloodbath – retouching the Texan quartet’s metal roots – and, for the coup de grâce, Steve Vai, on the brilliant Ego Death. 

2. Charlie Griffiths

Just when you thought Charlie Griffiths was sworn to the eight-string he scaled down to six and make a conceptual record about a prehistoric fish named the Tiktaalik, which should put an end to all those letters we've been getting that read, “Dear MusicRadar, what is prog guitar?”

This record, titled Tiktaalika, is a sprawling display of metal guitar invention, the likes of which positions Griffiths on a similar astral plane to Devin Townsend, administering big musical ideas with the lightest touch, not afraid to have a little fun, not afraid to mix pounding riffs with life-affirming melodic excursions for the bridge.

The solos are off the charts. Like the best players, Griffiths’ intonation is always on-point, and he makes this stuff look so easy. Maybe, on some level, it is. Moving down from eight-strings to six must be like swapping the camper van for a sports coupe. 

Back to Tiktaalika, the track, it plays out like a postmodern work of instrumental guitar, referencing Metallica (the title), Slayer riffs, and more in between, but binding it all with his own internal logic. The album should work gangbusters for fans of SYL, Dream Theater, et al.

3. Steve Howe (Yes)

Steve Howe is spirited upon the podium on the strength of him being a bona-fide legend and the 50th anniversary tour for Yes’ groundbreaking fifth album, Close To The Edge, a recording that still sounds fresh all these years on, offering both the lightning bolt of inspiration and a path for adventurous players to follow.

You needn’t acquire vintage gear to follow him down the tone rabbit-hole. For the anniversary tour, Howe told MusicRadar he has been using a Line 6 amp modeller.

“Line 6 is an amazing company,” he said. “Very hi-tech. Each time they’ve brought a new pedalboard out that's what I've been using. So, with this year’s Close To The Edge tour, I did the same thing; I sat down and updated my programs to fit the set. 

“I put the record on the hi-fi and had the amp and processor on in my control room at the same time. A guy called Steve Burnett helps me reproduce the sounds. Each song has a setting. And in the end, instead of running around the pedalboard pressing various buttons, I just press one.

Steve’s guitar playing is brilliant. I’ve always been amazed at his incredible talent. Even on the last tour I did with him, I’d come off stage and say to him, ‘How do you do that?’

Jon Anderson

“It feels like a very simple, clean cut guitar processing system. But it doesn't sound processed. The way I steer the programming with Steve is towards an authentic sound. We don't want to sound too digitised.”

Speaking to MusicRadar to mark Close To The Edge’s 40th anniversary, Jon Anderson paid tribute to his bandmate, admitting that even he was in awe of him

“Steve’s guitar playing is brilliant,” he said. “I’ve always been amazed at his incredible talent. Even on the last tour I did with him, I’d come off stage and say to him, ‘How do you do that?’ But the great thing about his playing here is that he’s always aware of the structure. He’s not just playing to play.”

4. Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes (Animals As Leaders)

Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes might have had a rush of blood to the head and recorded with a Les Paul on Animals As Leaders’ first album in six years and a tour de force of instrument progressive metal, Parrhesia, but that doesn’t mean they’ve had an about turn. 

Parrhesia is the sound of a band leaning into the future, a guitar duo leaning on Matt Garstka’s improbably inventive drumming, and what we once thought impossible on guitar coming into view.

Abasi has had quite the year on his own steam, hooking up with Ernie Ball Music Man for a new signature line of Kaizen electric guitars, with a compressor pedal from his own brand, Abasi concepts, in the works. 

Parrhesia, though? Whether it is the string-skipping on Micro-Aggressions the fever dream of The Problem Of Other Minds, or the volcanic eruptions of Thoughts And Prayers, the technical wizardry always serves a purpose. Blowing your mind is just a happy accident along the way.

5. Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree)

Porcupine Tree’s return was a long time coming but it was hardly a sure bet. Steven Wilson doesn’t have trouble filling his day. 

He is one of the most in-demand mixers in rock, working with some of the biggest bands on the planet – even those, such as Def Leppard, who are comfortably outside of what you might think is his prog wheelhouse. 

His solo career has arguably eclipsed Porcupine Tree. And yet the wheels had been in motion for a decade before the pandemic offered Wilson the chance to get drummer Gavin Harrison and keyboard player keyboard player Richard Barbieri into the studio to finish Closer/Continuation, tracking in September 2021 for a summer 2022 release.

Harridan, one of the standout tracks from Closer/Continuation, dates back to 2012, when Wilson and Harrison started knocking ideas about. There were others. But they had their own projects going on, life got in the way, and these ideas had time to gestate and develop in their own time.

Closer/Continuation was written mostly on bass guitar and drums and perhaps because of that it leaves enough space for Wilson’s Fender Telecaster to sound heavy without a ‘board full of drive pedals. A neat trick. One we should have seen coming but then, after all these years, Wilson has proven himself the arch illusionist.

6. Steve Rothery (Marillion)

Steve Rothery has always offered a counterpoint to the idea that progressive guitar was the preserve of the virtuoso, at least as the concept is most commonly understood.

Drawing from folk – its open tunings and its milieu – from George Harrison and Andy Latimer’s work on early recordings by Camel, Steve Hackett and David Gilmour too, Rothery often plays guitar as though he’s trying to change our perceptions of the instrument, or to somehow disguise it, to smuggle it into the mix in the atmospheres he creates. The last thing he does is call attention to the playing. But we hear that vibrato, Steve…

An Hour Before It’s Dark is a remarkable album, emerging out of the pandemic like a riposte to time itself, and the idea that a band can’t write its best material decades after forming. We underestimate wisdom in today’s society. We underestimate it at our peril.

7. Stu Mackenzie and Joey Walker (King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard)

Prolific, protean, and volatile, trying to predict the route a King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard composition is going to take is a fool’s errand. At their best, it is as though they themselves are uncertain, and they mine that unpredictable, improvisational energy to set their songs on edge.

This year saw the release of a trio of albums in October alone: Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava; Laminated Denim; and Changes. This is a band who can’t stop writing, can’t stop tracking, can’t stop playing.

But when you’re hot, you’re hot, and their sound is a wonder to follow as it takes the scenic route through psych rock, garage rock, indie and the automatic inertia of krautrock. 

The only setback came when Stu Mackenzie announced in August that he has had Crohn’s disease for a number of years and it got pretty bad. They had to cancel the tour. But they’ll be back at it. 

8 =. Devin Townsend

Tied at 8th spot, Devin Townsend marked 2022 with a typically epic project, hooking up with producer GGGarth Richardson to track Lightwork, and its companion piece of B-sides and demos, Nightwork.  

Ethereal, profound, intimate and yet formidable in its scale, Lightwork finds Townsend explicitly writing songs – verses, choruses, bridge sections and deep breaths so you stick the landing – and proving once more that when it comes to writing such grandiose arrangements and staying light on your feet, there’s no one better.

8=. Geordie Greep (Black Midi) 

Geordie Greep’s approach to recording Black Midi’s latest album, Hellfire, was to simply plug into his guitar amp – a Marshall JMP – and turn the thing up. That move was reportedly inspired by AC/DC, which is one of the last cultural references you expect to turn up on an end of year best prog guitarist list, but there you go.

Speaking to Total Guitar, Greep explained how his writing process began with a subversive act of pastiche, of taking a style – anything goes – and surrendering to it to see what ideas come out.

“Along the way you think ‘What if you put in this chord which they never use, or you suddenly went into this rhythm which they don’t usually do?’” he explained. “It’s just ways of taking things we know but altering them slightly. Not for the sake of it, but to make something that’s interesting and hasn’t exactly been heard before.”

10. Larry LaLonde (Primus)

This year, is a vote for Primus a vote for Rush? Well, kind of. It’s a margin call. We’ve got Larry Lalonde, Les Claypool and Tim “Herb” Alexander packing out enormodomes with a setlist dominated by the Canadian prog institution’s 1977 classic album, A Farewell To Kings.

But okay, there was also some new music in the form of Conspiranoid, a three-track EP featuring the band’s longest track, the near title track Conspiranoia. This is the sound of Primus getting real. 

Not so real that they’ve turned into Rage Against The Machine, but, y’know, reflecting some real world phenomena through their own surrealist lens, and a thematically it’s more than a hop, skip and a jump away from Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.