For five years now Guitar Center has conducted its OnStage competition, a nationwide search for the best undiscovered guitarists. After previously enlisting rock acts like Jane’s Addiction, Mötley Crüe, KISS and Slash, Guitar Center this year went country by having Vince Gill headline as the superstar judge.
Would-be guitar heroes had to submit a video performing Gill’s recent single “Take Me Down” and, from a pool of 6,000 entrants, five were chosen to perform on stage with Gill at a small Los Angeles club on Sept. 28. The winning guitarist received a Grand Prize package that includes recording a single with the Grammy-winning producer Justin Niebank, tons of music equipment, performing at a Vince Gill concert and $10,000 in cash.
This year’s final five was a talented and eclectic bunch. There was Tony Pierce, a Texas-born, Nashville-based guitarist who is half of the country duo Pierce Avenue. Italy native Claudio Tristano was a finalist in Guitar Center’s “Blue Masters” contest. Stephan Hogan’s country rock sound drew upon his Central California roots. At 17, St. Louis’ Justus West was the youngest of the five competitors while the lone female finalist, Arielle, has a resume that already includes performing with Cee Lo Green and Queen’s Brian May.
While only Pierce and Hogan identified themselves as country musicians, Pierce pointed out that “this just shows Vince’s reach as an artist. He impacts everywhere; it’s rare for a country artist to do that.” All five did share a huge admiration for Gill. Each spoke how friendly and warm Gill when they rehearsed earlier in the day. “He made you feel at home,” said Tristano, while West remarked that “I will probably call him ‘Uncle Vince’ from now on.”
Gill, similarly, was impressed with these young musicians. After joking that he was going to tour with them as a “guitar orchestra,” Gill turned serious with his praise. “I’ve been inspired to get to hear young people enthusiastic about being creative, about playing music,” he said adding, “these are five wickedly talented musicians who remind me of me when I was a kid.”
Gill served as the “warm-up” act for the contestants. He first took the stage at the Mint, a long-running, decidedly un-glitzy club in Mid-City Los Angeles, for a solo set populated with humorous anecdotes and personal tunes (“This Old Guitar and Me,” “When I Call Your Name,” “I Still Believe In You,” “The Key of Life” and a new number dedicated to his old friend, Merle Haggard). Bringing out his band, Gill then upped the room’s energy as they performed “Tryin’ To Get Over You,” “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” and “Whenever You Come Around.”
Finally, it was time for the main event: Gill and his band playing with the five finalists. West came out first and did some fancy finger-picking on “High Lonesome Sound.” Tristano injected some soaring slide-guitar magic to “Threaten Me With Heaven.” Pierce and Hogan both brought the honky tonk to the Mint. Pierce laid down some lively runs on “One More Last Chance,” while Hogan helped to electrify “Liza Janes.” Arielle created some Hendrix-like fireworks with her fast and fluid leads throughout “Pretty Little Adriana.”
When Gill returned to the stage to reveal the winner, he spoke how he believes that it is “never about the competition, but always the collaboration.” With that in mind, he made the surprise announcement that he was inviting each guitarist the opportunity to play with him at a concert. Then, stating that “my ears speak to me what they speak to me,” he proclaimed that Claudio Tristano was the winner. Tristano was quite overcome with emotion when he came out on stage, but he showcased his graceful power and restraint on a stirring rendition of “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”
Where Tristano and his fellow finalists go from here can’t be predicted but a thoroughly impressed Gill sees good things, proclaiming that the future looks “mighty damn good” to him.