These Four Young Players Are Advancing the Art of Fingerstyle Guitar

Fingerstyle guitar is in good hands, judging by the diverse talents of Jontavious Willis, Janet Noguera, Hayden Pedigo, and Muireann Bradley.
Clockwise from top left, guitarists Janet Noguera, Jontavious Willis, Muireann Bradley, and Hayden Pedigo
Clockwise from top left: Janet Noguera, Jontavious Willis, Muireann Bradley, and Hayden Pedigo

Fingerstyle guitar is in good hands, judging by the diverse talents of Jontavious Willis, Janet Noguera, Hayden Pedigo, and Muireann Bradley. Whether offering a fresh take on traditional styles (Willis and Bradley) or pushing modernist ideas into new territory (Noguera and Pedigo), each one of these rising stars has found a voice of his or her own.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then synthesis is the sincerest expression of respect—and demonstration of mastery. And it’s safe to say that all four of these artists have synthesized their influences. Willis brings a contemporary mind and wit to country blues that make the music relevant and fun. Noguera’s energy and drive add the adrenaline needed to jump fast and far off of her classical-cum-new-age foundation, while Pedigo’s cinematic mindset makes the guitar the centerpiece of an evolving soundtrack. And Bradley—the youngest of the bunch—slips so comfortably into her blues-folk that it sounds as fresh as anything on TikTok.

It’s interesting to note that they’ve all come of age artistically in what some think of as a post-guitar era—or at least, post-guitar-hero era. It’s not that the instrument has lost anything as an expressive tool, nor is there a dearth of excellent players finding new ways to make it speak. But the guitar’s totemic image has changed; where virtuosity was once a destination (one with relatively narrowly defined inhabitants), the instrument is now more of a vehicle for expression. A vehicle can not only take you places, but it can help you discover new sights on a familiar path. That’s especially true when driven by four young pilots who clearly know the way. 

Jontavious Willis seated playing a National resonator guitar. Photo by Willam Pirandello
Jontavious Willis. Photo: Willam Pirandello

Jontavious Willis

Born and raised in rural Georgia, Jontavious Willis is steeped in the traditions of the early blues pioneers, both from his home state and outside it. His love for performance began in his childhood, singing gospel at a Baptist church with his grandfather, but his devotion to the blues took hold at age 14, when he found a video of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” on YouTube.

Willis, now 28, says that while Waters led him to pick up the guitar, his earliest inspirations were closer to home—he was particularly inspired by his grandfather’s singing ability and his father’s impeccable taste in music and impressive collection of recordings. Willis’ other primary influences are a who’s who of early blues. He says, “I love Big Joe Williams, Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, and Blind Lemon Jefferson for their various regional styles and songwriting and performance skills.”

Tampa Red in particular got Willis focused on slide playing. “He had such a clear sound on his tricone, and his playing really varied in emotions among his songs,” Willis says. “Memphis Minnie was a badass Black woman who was playing guitar in the early 20th century, and she was a trailblazer. I really enjoy her style, and I like to hear the blues that women played. Memphis Minnie is one of the best guitar players ever, male or female.”

Willis credits Big Joe Williams for his explorations of open tunings, and Ma Rainey for the country character that has shaped his music. He cites Blind Lemon Jefferson for combining syncopated guitar playing with a wide range. “He played in various keys, and focused on lots of different topics,” Willis says. “Blind Lemon Jefferson kind of set the tone for what country blues was about. He went up and down the neck, high voice/low voice. He only lasted five years, but he put out so many great songs. He is a huge influence on me, especially when playing in the key of A.”

For Willis, those pioneers are more than source material; though they died long before he was born, they were for all intents and purposes his teachers. “A lot of people in the blues world have mentors or people that they grew up around, but I’m mostly self-taught and learned what I know from old records,” he says. “Growing up in the country, people have an appreciation for the days of old, and I always had a connection to the old music. I started singing in the gospel church, and when I found blues, it was natural for me to take it up.”

Looking to the future, Willis hopes to keep playing his music and celebrating the blues of rural Georgia. “I always try to hang out with the elders and always love to talk about the blues,” he says. “I’ll talk to a dog about the blues! Blues is an African American–made music that is universal. The dialects and references are at home to me, so I get excited to go around and preach the blues.” 

What He Plays

Jontavious Willis’ main guitar for both recording and touring is a custom Fraulini Angelina grand concert built by luthier Todd Cambio. “I love Todd,” Willis says. “He shares my passion for the music, and he’s really responsive and keeps my guitar in good shape.” 

Willis strings the Angelina with D’Addario EJ26 phosphor bronze custom light (.011–.052) sets. “I don’t need heavy strings to have a heavy sound. I like light strings to go with the light guitar,” he says. 

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Willis uses various D’Addario capos and slides. For electronics, he prefers an L.R. Baggs Lyric pickup and sometimes uses a Baggs Venue DI. “L.R. Baggs’ gear is solid,” he says. “It brings out the acoustic sound without saturating it.” —EM

How He Plays 

Willis is not just a fastidious fingerpicker but a mean slide player as well. The example here comes from his arrangement of the traditional song “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home,” based on a recording that banjoist and jug-band pioneer Gus Cannon (1883–1979) recorded in 1927. (See Willis’ lesson on the arrangement in the May/June 2021 issue.) In this excerpt, Willis negotiates the I chord (G7) by picking the open fifth string in steady driving quarter notes with his thumb, while adding a syncopated melody on the upper strings, played with the bottleneck. —Adam Perlmutter


Musical example: guitar notation and tablature demonstrating the style of Jontavious Willis

[For more on Jontavious Willis’ guitar technique, check out the workshop he taught for the Acoustic Guitar Patreon community. You can access the video replay, plus tab and notation by joining today!]  


Janet Noguera; Photo by Janet Noguera
Courtesy of Janet Noguera

Janet Noguera

Northern California–based Janet Noguera is no stranger to the pages of Acoustic Guitar, having been included, at age 19, in the May 2014 issue’s feature on 30 great guitarists under the age of 30 feature at age 19. In the decade since, Noguera has completed her studies in classical performance at the University of California, Santa Cruz; taken master classes with Andrew York, Benjamin Verdery, and Grisha Goryachev; studied with Alex de Grassi and Thomas Leeb; and won numerous awards. 

Sadly, Noguera’s career trajectory was interrupted when she took a break to care for her mother, who died from cancer in 2017. But over time, her love of music returned and blossomed with her critically acclaimed 2022 debut album, Myriad Worlds, which showcases her combination of rhythmic dexterity and melodic invention—as well as her diversity as a multi-instrumentalist. “I play guitar, bass, ukulele, harp guitar, a little bit of percussion and piano,” Noguera says. “But my main instrument is [steel-string] acoustic guitar.” 

Noguera credits her musical development to a combination of the fingerstyle books of her youth, learning from members of her large musical family, watching YouTube videos, and the formal training she received growing up, in college, and beyond. 

“I grew up in a very sheltered and religious environment in Mexico, raised by a huge family of musicians in a church, which was also my grandfather’s house,” she says. “I told my brother I wanted to try his guitar and he happily got me into it. I was hooked! Later, my brother had to travel to the United States and left his guitar, so I continued practicing on my own. My grandfather and uncles noticed my passion for it; they were excited and taught me more.”

Almost from the beginning, Noguera explored the guitar with openness and curiosity, noodling around, inventing riffs, and generally gravitating toward composition. “I realized I didn’t have to do everything the same way others did,” she says, “because it seemed to be a more individual and experimental approach to music.”

Noguera experienced a magical moment when she attended a Kaki King show as a teenager and was then inspired to explore the potential of open and alternate tunings. “The day after the concert, I tried tuning my guitar in different ways, watching her videos, and trying to emulate her techniques,” Noguera says. “Her very introspective and mysterious sounds also intrigued me and had a big impact on me, especially for my early fingerstyle compositions.” 

Among Noguera’s other influences are adventurous steel-string guitarists like Jon Gomm, Pierre Bensusan, Alex de Grassi, Thomas Leeb, and CandyRat Records artists such as Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, and Trevor Gordon Hall. “From Alex de Grassi in particular, I learned about how to elegantly balance some modern techniques with traditional fingerpicking,” Noguera says. “But a lot of his fingerpicking is not so simple; he uses a lot of polyrhythmic patterns.” 

At the same time, Noguera has drawn from classical players like Carlo Domeniconi and Andrew York—influences most prominent in her compositional process. She says, “I like that York’s approach is about composing from a classical perspective with well-crafted voices and counterpoint, but also about the beauty of simplicity. He can write music that can be very easy on the ears and easy to understand, but also write very complex, mathematical music for the brain.”

While the world music–influenced Myriad Worlds might be categorized as modern fingerstyle, Noguera combines non-traditional techniques with the foundation she developed as a classical guitar major. “I was still learning a lot at college as a music/classical guitar major, and all of that naturally incorporated into my playing,” she says. “When it came to my own style, I was focusing more on the music, composition, and colors. 

“So I was using any techniques and physical approach necessary to achieve particular musical ideas on guitar—from open and altered tunings to tapping, percussive techniques, all sorts of harmonics techniques, combinations of these techniques, or even making up my own,” she adds. “Anything for the service of the pieces I was writing. But the traditional fingerstyle technique is also still something I tend to work with. It all depends on what I’m going for musically in a piece.”

What She Plays

In 2014, Janet Noguera won Lowden Guitars’ Best Young Guitarist award, so it’s no surprise that her main instrument for the last decade has been a Lowden Richard Thompson signature model.

“It’s my main choice because the woods on that guitar are so rich for percussive resonances,” Noguera says. “It has that dark tone which I really like, and it also has a special, personal sound one gets attached to; we have both adapted to each other so well. It works great acoustically and also plugged in on live shows.” For amplifying the Lowden, she uses an L.R. Baggs Anthem system, combined with a K&K Big Twin for percussive bass sounds. 

In addition to the Lowden, Noguera sometimes plays Baton Rouge and Timberline guitars, all set up with Elixir strings. Her pedalboard includes an Elite Acoustics compact digital mixer, a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 tuner pedal, and a Neunaber Immerse Reverberator pedal. —EM


Musical example: guitar notation and tablature demonstrating the style of Janet Noguera

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How She Plays 

Noguera is known for her use of extended and percussive guitar techniques, but on her recent composition “Pink Clouds from a Skyscraper” (full score available at janetnogueramusic.com) she opts for a more conventional approach to the instrument. To get into Noguera’s tuning, lower strings 3 and 5 by a half step and raise string 4 a whole step, for open string pitches E G# E F# B E, which can be identified as open Eadd9. Let everything ring throughout, and enjoy the beautiful textural contrasts between the natural harmonics, open strings, and fretted notes. —AP


Hayden Pedigo bathed in blue light, playing an acoustic guitar. Photo by Victoria Alexandrova
Hayden Pedigo. Photo: Victoria Alexandrova

Hayden Pedigo

Hayden Pedigo paints soundscapes with his guitar, drawing on influences ranging from John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Will Ackerman to filmmaker Harmony Korine, German ambient avant-garde music, and producer Brian Eno. A self-described performance artist, the Texas native has dabbled in a range of media and activities, including a nationally covered run for city council in his hometown of Amarillo at the age of 24. Now 29, Pedigo has released nine albums, including 2023’s The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored—not bad for a guy who almost gave up on the guitar as a preteen.

“I couldn’t really shred, for lack of better term, just because my left hand couldn’t move fast enough,” he explains. “I thought about quitting guitar when I was 12. Then I discovered Ry Cooder when I was 13 or 14 years old. That completely changed how I played guitar because I no longer put the emphasis on the left hand moving really fast. I started using the slide and using my fingers instead of the pick. And then I discovered Leo Kottke.” 

Like Kottke, Pedigo uses fingerpicks, though he plays with his thumb, middle, and ring fingers. But when it comes to technical influences, he calls Fahey “the big one.” “Kottke was the gateway, but Fahey was the one that completely just broke everything open for me, as he did for a lot of people,” says Pedigo. 

Pedigo started out covering Fahey tunes, before taking his own compositions in a different direction. “I started to find my own voice once I realized I didn’t really like using the bluesier scales that Fahey used,” Pedigo says. “And especially once I found Windham Hill players like Will Ackerman, I became more interested in the melodic side of guitar. Also, I was listening to a lot of German experimental music and was very into that impressionistic music, new age-y ambient, Brian Eno, and things like that. By the time I was in my early 20s, I was trying to move away from that straight Fahey type of playing.”

Pedigo is known for using open and invented tunings, and he organizes his sets to account for retuning between songs. He claims not to know how to play in standard and says his alternate tunings often come intuitively. “What’s really dumb is I don’t know what any of them are,” he says. “I just come up with tunings by ear and then I use my tuner and write down each string. But when people ask me, ‘What is that open tuning?’ I don’t know.”

Pedigo’s use of the capo makes it even more difficult to define the tunings he uses. “I just prefer how the capo sounds,” he explains. “I like a higher tuning; I just think it sounds quite a bit prettier. I don’t like super low-sounding tunings. It kind of goes back to how I do a lot of things ‘incorrect’ with guitar because even in my open tunings, I tend to tune all of my strings slightly sharper [than the A440 standard]. I don’t know why—my ear prefers that sound. It gives me a really distinct sound, and I feel like it makes it where people can kind of pick out my playing.”

Though they might be eccentric, the tunings are always in service of the music, and with each new album Pedigo is striving to focus less on technique than on coaxing grander and more gorgeous statements from his guitar. “I’m obsessed with melody. And I want to become more and more melodic,” he says. “I want to make very impressionistic music, and it can only get better. In five years, I just hope I can make the most beautiful guitar record ever made.” 

What He Plays

Hayden Pedigo uses different rigs for touring and recording. His main six-string for the studio is an Opus hand-made by Australian luthier Theo Nicholas. “It resonates forever,” he says. “It’s the craziest guitar that just sounds like it’s glowing.” 

Pedigo leaves the Opus at home when he goes on tour. Currently, his live rig includes a new Yamaha FG9, which has a small neck he finds especially comfortable, and a Yamaha 12-string. “I don’t even know what the model number is,” the guitarist admits. “But it sounds huge.”

Pedigo prefers coated phosphor bronze D’Addario XS sets (.012–.053), on his six-strings. As for acoustic effects, when playing live, he requests these from the house. “I just ask them to throw a long-tail reverb where those notes just drone out forever,” he says. —EM

How He Plays 

While Pedigo admits to being somewhat freewheeling when it comes to using alternate tunings, for his composition “Tints of Morning” he opts for the decidedly conventional choice of open D. The guitarist seeks beauty in his work, and this piece is no exception with its hints of a Dmaj7 chord. Pedigo plays a full performance of “Tints of Morning” in a video from AG’s Sessions in Place series. To play along, tune slightly sharp and place a capo at the first fret. —AP


Musical example: guitar notation and tablature demonstrating the style of Hayden Pedigo.

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Muireann-Bradley-colour-landscape-image00007
Courtesy of Muireann Bradley

Muireann Bradley

Some musicians are harder to interview than others, but in the case of young Irish guitar phenom Muireann Bradley, we can cut her some slack. She had a concert the evening that worked best for us. When we asked about the following day, her publicist politely shut us down with a somewhat novel reason: “She has school in the morning.” 

In between classes, however, the county Donegal native has found time to break through in a big way. Her New Year’s Eve 2023 appearance on Jools Holland’s BBC Hootenanny catapulted her debut album, I Kept These Old Blues, into the U.K.’s Top 10 download chart. If that’s unusual for a teenage guitarist, it may be even more noteworthy for the material on the record—traditional country blues played with deft and fluid technique in which her voice and guitar fit together as one.

Like several of the players here, Bradley’s love for music began at home. As a child, she marveled at the guitars that her father, John Bradley, had collected and loved to hear him play them. “My biggest influence is my father,” she says. “Watching and listening to him play and sing was what made me want to learn how to do it myself. My other influences are the musicians I grew up hearing him listening to: Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Reverend Gary Davis, Memphis Minnie, and Elizabeth Cotten, to name just a few.”

Bradley began taking lessons from her father after he gave her a guitar for her ninth birthday. “I immediately started learning how to fingerpick with alternating bass notes with the guitar tuned to either open G or D, with a capo on the second fret to further shorten the scale,” she says. “I think the first tune I learned was a bluesy version of ‘Three Blind Mice’ that my dad showed me, then tunes like Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Spike Driver Blues’ and ‘Vestapol’ in open D and Stefan Grossman’s ‘Working on the New Railroad’ in open G.”

Bradley says her picking technique—thumb and two fingers—comes from Mississippi John Hurt. “I rest my ring finger on the guitar top,” she says. “My pinky doesn’t touch the top because it’s too short.”

Now 17, Bradley has established herself as a talent to watch, first in Ireland and the U.K., and now across the pond as well. Highlights of her musical experiences to date include the aforementioned Hootenanny performance and meeting fellow performers Rod Stewart, Ruby Turner, and Raye; and an appearance on The Late Late Show in Ireland.

While filming for Trad Fest TV at Ardgillan Castle outside Dublin, she was thrilled to encounter American blues master Eric Bibb. “I grew up hearing Eric’s records, and to meet him was just mind blowing,” she recalls. “He is such a lovely humble, kind, generous, and genuinely spiritual man.”

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In addition to getting her homework done, Bradley was set to attend the RTE Radio 1 Folk Awards in Dublin at the end of February and is planning a mini tour of Ireland during the Easter holidays. In five years, Bradley will be 22. Where does she see herself? 

“Hopefully still playing the music I love,” she says. “And hopefully by then, I will be writing more of my own tunes and original music.”

What She Plays

At home, Muireann Bradley takes advantage of her father’s excellent collection of vintage and new guitars. “A lot of the guitars have kind of become mine now,” she says. “I play a 1934 Gibson L-50 round-hole archtop (pictured above), a Waterloo WL-S, a Waterloo WL-14 X, and a Gibson ’50s LG-2 reissue, which I got for my birthday a few years ago.”

Bradley’s most recent acquisition is a McNally Model S, built by luthier Ciaran McNally in his Northern Ireland workshop. “It’s a beautiful 00-size guitar with a flamed maple back, sides, and neck, a Sitka spruce top, and all-over sunburst,” Bradley enthuses. 

Bradley strings her Gibsons with Elixir Nanoweb light phosphor bronze sets (.012–.053) and her other guitars with D’Addario nickel bronze lights (.012–.053). True to vintage form, she mics all of her instruments live and refrains from using effects. —EM

How She Plays

Bradley plays the blues with such stylistic authority that it’s hard to believe that the music is coming from a teenager in rural Ireland. The notation here depicts the first four bars of Bradley’s intro to Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Played in open-A tuning (sounding in the key of D major due to a capo at the fifth fret), the example starts on the IV chord (D7/A) with a partial barre across the top four strings, then moves down to the open position for some strong bluesy moves on the I (A). Be sure to check out Bradley’s full performance of this classic song on her recent AG Sessions video. —AP


Musical example: guitar notation and tablature demonstrating the style of Muireann Bradley
Emile Menasché
Emile Menasché

Guitarist, composer, writer.

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