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The best pop, RNB and funk guitarists of 2020, as voted for by you

Cory Wong's top 3 fink tips for guitarists
(Image credit: Future)

For too long, the electric guitar has been looked upon as the sole preserve of the rocker or metal kid. Or as an instrument for blues or jazz, with the acoustic for the singer-songwriters out there. 

But what about everything else? What about RNB and funk, or pop, which covers multitudes? We can't ignore just how the six-string’s influence extends into popular culture at large, and in musical contexts that don't fit within the boundaries of the genres that we traditionally associate with the guitar hero. This is a category to recognise the players taking the guitar somewhere new. 

To the masses? Yes, but not necessarily. Some of the guitarists voted for by you have star power already – the Haim sisters, for instance. Others are just at the beginning of their career. But they are evolving the craft of guitar playing, bringing it in tune with a changing musical landscape.

1. Cory Wong

There are few players in the world who have a more natural affinity with the instrument than Cory Wong. Whether he is demoing gear or performing one of his original compositions, he is always in the pocket – meticulous, classy. Wong has style. And – holy moly – he is prolific, releasing five albums in 2020, appearing on tracks by the Fearless Flyers and Lexsoul Dancemachine.  

Cory Wong lesson

Cory Wong

(Image credit: Olly Curtis / Future)

Read more: How to write guitar hooks around major, minor and dominant chords

Wong grew up immersed in music of various styles. He started on bass. If he had a superhero origin story for how he got his style, it would be in learning Blood Sugar Sex Magik on bass then guitar, burrowing deeper into the RHCP canon to see how funk can be folded into different interpretations.

Naturally, he would gravitate towards the Fender Stratocaster. He was made for it. “I love the fact that it’s so versatile,” he told Guitarist magazine. “Pretty much 90 per cent of what I do is in the fourth position, neck and middle pickup.” And it is in those in-between tones that Wong really finds his voice.


2. H.E.R.

It doesn't matter if she has a Martin acoustic in hand, a Telecaster or Strat, Gabriella Wilson, aka H.E.R., has the uncanny knack of finding the right tone that supports her voice and the song. 

Her neo soul, RNB and funk sound manages that rare trick – pulling off a style that is unique and forward thinking without cutting the cord connecting it to its forebears. 

But it wasn’t just the music that supported H.E.R.’s year in guitar. Of all the Fender artists to get a signature Stratocaster this year, H.E.R.’s was the coolest. Not only was does it have the matching painted headstock but the iridescent Chrome Glow is an all-time classic finish from the company of classic finishes. 

Fender H.E.R. Stratocaster

The Chrome Glow finish on the H.E.R. Signature Stratocaster is one of the best we have seen in years. (Image credit: Fender)

3. James Bay

Like most other musicians, James Bay’s year was downsized by the pandemic. He had recorded his third studio album in the company of über-producer Dave Cobb, out in Nashville, with the first single, Chew On My Heart, released in July.

Brandon Flowers of the Killers was a collaborator, and while we await a title and a release date, you can expect the radical transparency of a pop confessional when it sees the light of day. 

“I’m typically a very private person and this next record is much more personal and vulnerable,” Bay told the NME. “My long-term girlfriend and I were just kids when we met; we knew each other before any of this happened to our lives. The album is a bit of a tribute to our journey.” 

During 2020, Bay was also a high-profile supporter of the #SaveOurVenus campaign to protect grassroots music venues during the Covid-19 shutdown.


4. Danielle and Alana Haim (Haim)

Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III was a showcase for how far the sisters have come in developing a sound that resists readymade comparisons. There’s country rock. There’s indie-folk. There is no shortage of introspection, honesty and humour. And in tracks such as Don’t Wanna, with Alana’s honey-cream guitar motif working around a god’s honest groove, there’s a lot of fun, too.

Check out The Steps for a textbook example in layering acoustic and electric guitars in a contemporary pop song comprising all natural ingredients. Perhaps that is what makes Haim so different. They always find the sweet spot in finding where place best to place the guitars, with a sound that’s organic and hasn’t had the life worked out of it.


5. Lindsay Ell

Lindsay Ell is another one of those players with a touch and feel to turn you green with envy. Though we have seen her with a Les Paul, Ell is a Strat player, always has been. That was her first guitar. Her dad presented her with one, taught her Stairway To Heaven, and she started performing from the age of 10. 

Like Joe Bonamassa, that early exposure to the instrument, growing up alongside it, can only have helped make the guitar second nature. Her country blues style doesn’t want for groove. She’s as at home with the acoustic as she is plugging an HSS Strat into a Vox AC30 for some chewy grind, or keeping it clean with some pristine classic Strat Fender tones. Whatever sound it is, it just seems to come so easy.


6. Lianne La Havas

Lianne La Havas is a fascinating artist to watch at work. There is an effortless glide to how she will bring some jazz into a soul track – a musically spicy proposition – or ratchet up the intensity with her guitar playing without it becoming rock. Solving that equation requires finding the right tone, and La Havas is judicious when it comes to finding a guitar that will sweeten the mix or add some salt if needed. 

The texture of the tone, she says, casts the die for the track’s mood. La Havas has used a variety of guitars over the years – a Trussart Steelcaster, Gibson ES-175, ES-335 and Trini Lopez models among them – but it her 1964 Harmony Stratotone and nylon-string acoustics that come to the fore on her third studio album.


7. Justus West

Many of you might recognise Justus West from his Fender Play instructional videos. He is a bona-fide phenom on a Fender Strat, his fingerstyle chord voicings working perfectly in concert with his voice. West’s career was launched in 2016 when as a 17-year-old finalist at a Guitar Center Onstage contest. 

But he has enjoyed a meteoric rise since then, working with Alicia Keys and Terrace Martin, producing John Legend’s Bigger Love and Princess Nokia’s Everything Is Beautiful. And he is still so young. The best is yet to come.


8. Ryan Lerman (Scary Pockets)

A straight-up funk band out of Los Angeles, the Scary Pockets is centred around the vision of keyboardist Jack Conte and guitarist Ryan Lerman. With Conte the CEO and co-founder of Patreon, and YouTube being the principal medium through which they delivery the music, there’s something quintessentially 21st-century about them. 

But in many ways they are a retro proposition, drafting in a rotating roster of musicians to play hotchpotch covers sets of Gloria Gaynor, Stevie Wonder, Clapton, Radiohead and others. Lerman’s tones could be right off Soul Train, his fingerstyle chord work the perfect foil for Conte’s keys.