If you’re a guitar player who surfs social media for playing inspiration, chances are that you’ve heard the neo-soul guitar style before.

This highly popular style of guitar playing is all the rage on social media platforms and continues to inspire a new generation of players to experiment with fresh ideas and techniques to take the style to the next level.

This article will give you a comprehensive history of neo-soul guitar, its influences, and the five eras that helped establish it as a unique genre.

Neo soul vs neo-soul guitar

Before we talk about all the florid and exciting sounds associated with neo-soul guitar, we need to start by looking at the difference between neo soul and neo-soul guitar.

  • Neo soul: This is the music genre that appeared in the mid-90s and early 00s that began to combine elements of hip hop, contemporary R&B, gospel, and jazz music.
  • Neo-soul guitar: This is a guitar style inspired by neo-soul music where the melody lines are all played by the guitar rather than by a singer.

The birth of early neo soul (1995 – 2000)

The term ‘neo soul’ was originally coined by Kedar Massenburg, a record producer and the president of Motown Records in the late 90s.

  • Neo soul became a term used to market a new style of music that took influence from hip-hop and combined it with contemporary R&B.
  • Massenburg was a significant figure that gave rise to the careers of both Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.
  • It cannot be overstated how important Massenburg’s contributions to neo soul have been in defining and promoting the genre.

The following artists had a massive hand in shaping the neo-soul sound:

  • D’Angelo
  • Lauryn Hill
  • Van Hunt
  • Maxwell
  • Erykah Badu
  • Musiq Soulchild
  • Raphael Saadiq

This list is not exhaustive, but it’s worth mentioning that the trinity of D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu were arguably the most prominent pioneers of the genre.

D’Angelo’s album Brown Sugar, released in 1995, was a landmark record and kickstarted a wave of other crucial neo-soul albums.

Due to their commercial success and widespread influence, the ‘big three’ albums from this initial era are:

  1. Brown Sugar, D’Angelo
  2. Voodoo, D’Angelo
  3. Baduizm, Erykah Badu

It’s also worth noting that both styles of music owe a large part of their identity to the legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla. To this day, many neo-soul artists and guitarists cite J Dilla and other producers such as Flying Lotus, Nujabes, and Q-Tip as major influences in the development of the genre.

A guitar great lies in wait..

Much like Prince’s bands, D’Angelo’s records were often stacked with highly sought-after, musicians. One musician who had a significant influence on D’Angelo’s Voodoo and the neo-soul sound was guitarist Spanky Alford.

  • Spanky Alford was a consummate, highly skilled guitarist, credited as one of the founding fathers of neo-soul guitar.
  • Spanky’s playing style merged the chordal ideas and techniques of gospel quartet guitar, with the sounds of jazz guitar and R&B playing styles.
  • Jonathan Dubose Jr. is another crucial guitar player from the gospel and secular music scene who made huge waves with super clean tone and tasteful chord voicings.

Even today, many of the sounds and stylistic features heard in neo-soul guitar are directly related to the gospel guitar style that originated in churches across the United States.

Spanky Alford and Jonathan Dubose Jr are credited as two important pioneers of the genre, but there are many others that have also made significant contributions:

  • Jarius Mozee
  • Kerry ‘2smooth’ Marshall
  • John “Jubu” Smith
  • Isaiah Sharkey
  • Chris Payton
  • Erick Walls
  • Kevin Wilson

Check out our article on the 10 essential neo soul chord progressions to get you started!

The DVD era (2005 – 2008)

Back in 2005, before YouTube and Facebook were barely a twinkle in the now-tech giants’ eyes, DVDs were one of the only sources for learning neo-soul guitar secrets!

Much like the VHS tapes that came before, DVDs were essential for guitar players to study live performances and instructional videos from their favorite guitarists.

You had to go out and buy a tape or disc if you wanted to learn how the greats did it!

  • For neo soul as a genre, the DVD era popularized the music and the guitar masters’ education tapes became folkloric legends among guitar players.
  • Many of which have been uploaded to YouTube since.

Here are some of the most influential DVD’s that helped neo-soul music reach wider audiences:

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

Released in 2005, this concert was dedicated to J Dilla and showcased some of the upcoming talents including a young Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and some important The Roots band members.

This was a huge favorite among guitar players and is still widely viewed as the first must-watch for aspiring neo-soul guitarists.

Another classic go-to for neo soul guitarists. This tape of Spanky Alford showed off his solo guitar playing over a classic hymn.

In 2007, Jonathan Dubose Jr’s solo from a live performance took the guitar world by storm!

Recorded in 2002, this was an hour-long lesson with Spanky himself as he talked about his chord choices, guitar influences, and how to incorporate R&B guitar ideas into playing contexts.

The “YouTube” era (2007 – 2013)

The rise of YouTube marked the beginning of the end for DVDs and video tapes.

  • As more people got access to the internet and video cameras, sharing guitar techniques and ideas became easier than ever before.
  • During this crossover period, old teaching tapes such as Spanky Alford’s The Lord’s Prayer, and Jarius Mozee’s training course clips were uploaded to YouTube.

This new era gave a platform to tons of amazing online educators and guitar instructors who would share home videos captured at churches across America, or teaching material of their own.

Some of the most important channels that helped to expand not only gospel music, but neo-soul guitar content were:

  • Kevin Wilson – This still remains one of the goldmines of neo soul and gospel quartet guitar videos and lesson instruction. Kevin Wilson is also the founder of the International Guitar Summit/International Musician’s Summit.
  • James Ross – a GRAMMY-nominated Soul artist whose music emanates from the intersection of R&B, gospel, and blues.
  • Gospel Chops – another very important channel for neo soul, especially for drummers and bassists.

The early Instagram era (2014 – 2018)

With YouTube already exposing the world to neo soul and gospel music guitar styles, the introduction of Instagram started a brand new tidal wave of players.

  • The “early” era of Instagram was an exciting time as videos were often limited to 15 seconds and later extended to 1 minute.
  • This required musicians to cram their ideas into small snippets.
  • Oftentimes, viral videos were low production and not the sparkling 4K, high-definition clips that you’d see today.  

Early Instagram was a very inspiring time for guitarists to get their names out into the world and showcase their immense skills. Neo-soul guitar really took off at this point as the platform became about showcasing each musician’s skills and ideas in a short window of time.

Some important names from that new wave of neo-soul guitar are:

  • Paul Castelluzzo
  • Beau Diakowicz
  • Mateus Asato
  • Julian Maguire (Julesthewulf)
  • Kaspar Jalily
  • Kerry “2Smooth” Marshall
  • Todd Prichard
  • Rodrigo Gouveia

Who curated these artists?

In the early days of Instagram, viral videos were hard to come by and there wasn’t yet a function for sending videos to your close friends. Comments sections were the blossoming beginnings of musicians meeting, collaborating, and sharing ideas for new videos.

You might be surprised to know that it was our very own Instagram page @PickupJazz that played a major part in curating all these great names!

  • Our co-founder, Sam Blakelock was an active session musician in New York during this time and created a popular platform for musicians to have their videos reposted and shared on a much wider stage.
  • PickupJazz became the social media account that musicians and guitar fans across the world would watch to learn about new guitarists who were taking Instagram by storm!

The modern era (2018 – present)

As many of the early Instagram guitarists took on major session guitarist roles, producer capacities, and began to set up their own teaching platforms, there was a second wave of neo soul guitarists who started to change the game once more.

  • Inspired by the previous generation, the second generation of Instagram guitarists did things a little differently than the first generation.
  • Many of them invested in high-quality cameras, audio software, and learned how to edit videos and produce beats that would sit well on the platform as short, digestible performances.

These guitarists often mixed the neo soul guitar style with other genres and guitar traditions including prog rock, straight-ahead jazz, fingerstyle guitar, and many other styles.

This really expanded the compositional and performance possibilities that could be heard in neo-soul guitar.

Here are some of the most important second-wave Instagram guitarists:

  • Melanie Faye
  • Ruben Wan
  • Nicklas Myhre
  • Ashton Sellars
  • Chon
  • Jack Gardiner
  • Kazuki Isogai
  • Toshiki Soejima

We hope you’ve enjoyed our brief history of neo-soul guitar!
Learning neo-soul guitar can teach you an incredible amount about the instrument itself, and the exciting, undiscovered places that you can take it next.

As a relatively young genre of music, neo soul is still growing, meaning there’s plenty of opportunity for new artists to get involved and make an impact – so come and join the party! 🎸🥳

Author: Jack Handyside