With each passing year, the technique and vision of the world's prog guitarists gets ever more audacious, taking the electric guitar into fresh new territory.
We asked you to vote for your favourite progressive guitarist of 2020 and you duly did, in your thousands. What your votes tell us is that there is no one type. There is no one approach.
That, after all, is what makes progressive music so exhilarating. It is the joy of discovery, and the sense of a journey taken when you surrender yourself to the artist's compositions.
This year's best prog guitarist has been doing this for a long time, but it is a sign of the scene's strength that there are so many younger players joining him. With progressive music, you can never be quite sure what the future holds, what lies in wait, but you can be sure that its future is promising.
1. John Petrucci
This year witnessed the Dream Theater master-of-riffs and shredder-in-chief release his first solo album in 15 years, Terminal Velocity. It is a special record, not least for the sense of fun that informs Petrucci’s compositions, but for Mike Portnoy joining him on drums, marking the first time the two have worked on a record together since Portnoy left Dream Theater in 2010.
As you might expect from JP, there’s a lot going on here. Terminal Velocity rewards the listener who delves deeper – but there’s a sense of hope writ large in the melodicism that is vital and immediate.
And human, very human – which is nice, because when someone plays guitar with the casual genius of Petrucci, pulling in note choices from all corners of music theory, there is always the whiff of the extra-terrestrial about them (*see Satriani, Joe).
To seal the deal on Petrucci’s 2020, he even launched his own line of beard oil. The only thing that defeat this luxuriously groomed young man and his godly whiskers is the milk in his morning cereal – Kryptonite to the bearded man.
2. Devin Townsend
Devin Townsend entered the year surfing the neural slipstream of his magnum opus, Empath, released in March of 2019. A work of staggering ambition, it bore testament to where Townsend’s creative powers could take him.
Sure, Covid-19 might have nixed most of the dates, screwing up the year, but Townsend nonethless released Empath Live Volume 1: Order of Magnitude, a live album taking from the first leg of the tour, and some new music via the Quarantine Project, and streamed Empath Live Volume 2, a virtual show performed to green screen and shot in 4K.
He even dropped some Strapping Young Lad tracks. “Can you believe this shit, people?” No, no one could. But here was Devin, rendered virtually in the sci-fi dystopia of our cursed present, holding court, entertaining. Same as it ever was.
By virtue of a single vote, Plini takes bronze in this year’s poll of best prog guitarists. It is a measure of how fast the Australian guitarist has risen that he’s sharing the podium with Messrs. Petrucci and Townsend. In terms of technique, style and approach, however, he stands alone.
An auto-didact who spikes the typical diet of shred with influences from fusion, djent, the full spectrum of progressive metal, Plini is the evolutionary leap the contemporary guitar instrumental was waiting for.
Impulse Voices, his second album, is a tour de force of feel and dynamics. On occasion, you’ll be floored by the technique, but we’d like to think that it is his imagination that had so many of your voting for him. So often, with progressive guitar, where everyone has a claim to virtuosity, players can play this stuff. It’s another thing dreaming it up and consigning it to tape.
4. Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief)
Multi-instrumentalist Bruce Soord’s guitar playing with The Pineapple Thief is not always in the foreground. There are many instances on the prolific English prog band’s latest album, Versions Of The Truth, where would puncture the spell that their ethereal sound casts on its audience.
Instead, his guitar bides its time, Soord waiting for the moment to lift the track with his graceful acoustic chops or a rhythmic motif on electric.
Soord’s discipline always rewards the song, and he has the uncanny gift of knowing how and when to apply a rhythmic texture or introduce melody into the song. As he explained to MusicRadar in August, it’s about sending the ego to the back of the queue.
5. Luke Hoskin / Tim Millar (Protest The Hero)
Luke Hoskin and Tim Millar’s hyper-technical virtuosity gives Protest The Hero’s urgent and anthemic prog-metal an energy that keeps everything moving forward. Released in the summer, Palimpsest, the Canadian quintet’s fifth studio album, is a tour de force of metal guitar playing.
Consistently inventive, check out tracks such as The Canary and From The Sky as a textbook example of how to combine metal’s uncompromising muscle with musical agility. It’s an exhilarating style, one that many imitate but can’t get close to because the feel of Millar and Hoskin working in lockstep is something that can’t be replicated. That’s just down to the weird chemistry that binds musicians together.
6. Richard Henshall / Charlie Griffiths (Haken)
Riding atop propulsive sci-fi polyrhythms, Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths’ guitars offer a breeze-block foundation for Haken’s sound, allowing it to go places that are far more musically daring than your quotidian djent brutality.
Their sense of timing is not restricted to performance either. How prescient of a band to release an album titled Virus in the middle of a global pandemic. Total coincidence, and yet nonetheless a metaphor to remember their year by.
Tracks such as The Strain showcase Henshall and Griffiths’ sense of feel, complex verse passages shapeshifting, assuming new forms as the song builds towards its conclusion.
7. Aaron Marshall (Intervals)
Aaron Marshall’s note choices are phenomenal, not least because you would imagine that they are all gamed out in advance, and yet they sound as thought he had just thought of them in the moment.
On Interval’s latest album, Circadian, following Marshall through the rabbit hole takes you through thumping rhythm figures and his febrile stream of consciousness. It is a dizzying experience, life-affirming. For guitar nerds of a certain persuasion, this must be like the sweet-toothed being led through Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.
At times, Marshall's sound seems inspired by Japanese gaming soundtracks, at others, it is as though he is pulling all this stuff from a hard rock and shred fever dream, referencing the 80s while taking a quantum leap forward. Which is apt. After all, this style of technically adroit metal is quintessentially 21st century music.
8. Yvette Young (Covet)
Yvette Young has rethought the art of guitar playing with open tunings and a two-hand tapping technique that might sound ostentatious in theory but in practice is as utilitarian as palm-muting and fits the songs totally. To watch her play with the sound off is to get the wrong impression about Covet and what she brings to their sound. Her tone is organic, warm, musical. It’s human.
While Covet’s 2020 album, Technicolor, could be categorised as math-rock but such a descriptor fails to convey how lush their sound is, and how Young’s guitar broadens its horizons. It’s Gen Z jazz, fusion for now, and no matter how long you have been playing the instrument, Young's sound will send you scampering back to your practice space with a head full of new ideas.
9. Anders Nyström / Roger Öjersson (Katatonia)
Releasing a new studio album, City Burials, and a live album, Dead Air, 2020 has been a big year for Katatonia. Those who have teleported into 2020 from 1993 would get a shock – yes, in more ways than one – when they hear how Anders Nyström and Roger Öjersson have evolved their sound, taking the melodic, grandeur of their death/doom early recordings and revising its emotional tenor.
The Katatonia of 2020 is more oblique, with a daring new wave feel to some tracks. The Fields Of The Nephilim influence is perhaps as profound as it has been at any point in their career, ensuring atmosphere is afforded due process in the writing room. What remains unmoved is the stateliness that Nyström and Öjersson bring to the table.
Pressing play on City Burials felt like an event. Dead Air was a communion in a year without company. That emotional tenor sure jives with the times we live in.
10. Robin Staps (The Ocean)
Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic was one of the prog metal albums of 2020. Heck, it might even be the prog metal album of the whole Phanerozoic Eon. Grand concepts typically green light musical adventure, and so it is with The Ocean.
To make this work, Robin Staps holds the reins tight on light and shade. There’s big riffs when you need ‘em, melodic Adam Jones-esque motifs, dizzying in their repeats.
Jurassic | Cretaceous, which features Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse, is a good example for where Staps’ imagination can take the band’s sound, even going so far as to incorporate some astral jazz in the mid-section.