The Sicilian guitar prodigy shares his reflections on The Journey – all photos by Paulo Terlizzi
Sometimes, life just doesn’t seem fair. You love music, you start playing, you get in a band, you practise for years, you get good, you make a name for yourself. But then you hear someone who torpedoes your efforts right out of the water, and you think, I don’t know, I might as well give up right here. You don’t of course, you keep going and you keep persevering, because no matter how many people are better than you, none of them are quite like you, and anyway, you enjoy it, so you rock on, and rightly so.
But who are these super-people who seem to outplay everyone else with such apparent ease? For us oldies, it might be someone like Al Di Meola, who was playing stunning jazz fusion with the mighty Chick Corea when he was still a teenager. For the next generation, it might have been Steve Vai, who was taught to play by Joe Satriani and became Frank Zappa’s transcriptionist while still at university, subsequently joining Zappa’s band as a kind of stunt guitarist, in order to play what Zappa called the ‘impossible’ parts. For the younger still, maybe Joe Bonamassa, who opened for BB King when he was literally 11 years old, was the monolithic presence. But when the likes of Di Meola, Vai and Bonamassa join up as one man to shout their admiration for a new kid on the block like Sicilian internet sensation Matteo Mancuso, it’s an indicator that there is something very, very special in the air.
Now 26, the Palermo prodigy has just released his debut solo album, named The Journey, a mix of Di Meola-style Spanish jazz and Vai-style metal shredding, with gloriously and restrainedly melodic interludes thrown in. With top-notch backing musicians and pin-sharp production, it’s a masterclass in how to play guitar. Velvet Thunder was invited to drop Matteo some questions about his life, influences and style, which were answered in friendly, genial tones. Let’s see if we can find out what makes the man tick…
Firstly, I am keen to hear about Matteo’s father Vincenzo Mancuso, himself a session guitarist of some report in his homeland. Clearly he was a monolithic early influence – but how much did he really affect Matteo’s playing style, and entry into the professional world? Is the rest of the family very musical?
“My Father was and still is a big influence. I always say that he was more a listening guide than a teacher – the advantage of having another musician in the family is that you have so many inputs from the start, and I have to thank him a lot because of that! My mother likes to sing a lot, my sister plays the guitar and she often writes songs; my brother is studying classical guitar at the conservatory in Palermo.”
Matteo himself studied jazz guitar at Palermo, but his stated influences are not all jazz by any means. I would be interested to know who were his biggest early influences?
“I have always listened to music, since I was kid. I started playing at 10 years old; my biggest influences were AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Hendrix of course. So I started with classic rock.”
If that was the soil he originally grew in, how has he now taken on so many different influences, from jazz and blues to prog and heavy metal?
“I think it is because I had a sort of rich musical diet! My father is a big fan of the traditional jazz guys like Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and Django, but he is a rocker too! So I was listening to so many genres, that I eventually ended up mixing all of this together.”
A lot of musicians from deeply musical families end up learning a variety of instruments, probably just because they are readily available. Has he always concentrated on guitar, or does he play other instruments too?
“The only instrument I studied outside guitar was the flute at High school. I really liked that instrument, but once I got into the conservatory I never had the time to study it again. I studied a little bit of piano at conservatory but I never got good at it!”
It’s tragic that you can really enjoy an instrument, but there just isn’t enough time in this life to concentrate on more than one thing. Matteo’s focus is clearly on the guitar – and if you watch videos of him playing, you’ll notice that he doesn’t use a pick or plectrum like most rock guitarists, nor does he employ an easy-to-follow standard fingerpicking technique. Instead, his fingers flash across the strings, doing whatever is necessary to get the notes he wants, at the speed he wants to play them. How did he develop this unique picking style?
“Like any other technique in the world, practice, practice, practice! Classical guitar helped me a lot of course, especially to develop strength on my left hand. But I don’t consider myself a good classical guitar player; I just took some things from the classical world.”
It was my understanding that, in addition to Palermo, he also studied at Berklee College in Boston, which would have been a huge upheaval. Sadly though, there’s a big difference between winning a place at a highly respected college halfway across the world, and actually going there, as he explains:
“I never studied at Berklee. I won a 30K scholarship at Umbria Jazz in 2017, but even with the scholarship it was still too expensive for my Family to send me there – so I finished my studies at the conservatory in Palermo.”
The next subject I wish to tackle is the age-old dichotomy between playing by ear and learning to play from music. Each style has its champions and its genii, with a few select souls excelling at both. Learn-at-home kids rarely pull off the dedicated study needed to learn musical notation, but it is generally assumed that formal training will emphasise this aspect. On which side of the fence does Matteo reside?
“Improvisation is a really big part of my formal training. I’m not a great sight reader so I don’t often work with paper; I do some transcriptions once in a while in order to learn some solos that I like, but I mostly practice improvisational concepts or learn repertoire.”
Well, that is comforting to all of us who never really got to grips with the dots on the page. Whichever technique is in use though, it’s another big step to spread your wings and tour the world. Matteo has been playing all over the world since he was young. Does he find that difficult?
“Absolutely not! It is the best job in the world, and most of the time it doesn’t feel like a job; I travel the world playing the music I love, that’s why I feel really lucky to do that.”
Like many modern artists, Matteo’s extraordinary talent originally became widely known though his YouTube channel, which is currently running at over 150,000 subscribers. How did that start? And how has it developed since it started?
“I started uploading some videos in 2014, but I never thought it was something important; I just wanted to record myself while playing or studying. I realized later that a social media presence was something very useful, especially in the music industry, so I tried to make more videos – but I never saw myself as a ‘content creator.’ I’m too lazy to record a lot of videos!
Outside of Sicily, I think it’s fair to say that Matteo is known mostly from this online presence. But had he done other types of recording before the Journey album?
“Before this album, I did a record with the band DriftLab, an electronic fusion quartet, (Federico Malaman on Bass, Daniele Chiantese on Drums, Manuele Montesanti on Keys). Manuele wrote all the songs and I recorded guitars on the whole album. I also did a live CD with PFM, a popular Italian prog band, and once in a while I guest on songs, like for example, What’s Your Name, by the Italian singer Mario Biondi.”
Given that he started so young, has already been in a number of bands, and has been seeing online success since his mid-teens, I’m curious to know why it has taken him until now to record his own full album?
“I think because I was interested in so many styles that I didn’t know what to record first! I wanted to do a standard oriented, guitar duo album with my father, but also a pure jazz trio album, and also a rock-prog project. All of that melted into this album here, but it took a lot of time before all of these ideas melted into a more structured musical identity.”
One of the many things that impressed me about this album is that it isn’t just a one-man show – all the musicians are extremely gifted, and the production is spot-on perfection as well. How has he found people to play with, who share his musical vision and can play to such a high standard?
“Most of the musicians that took part on the album are long-time friends, like Riccardo Oliva and Peppe Bruno. I met the other musicians (Stefano India and Giuseppe Vasapolli) at the conservatory in Palermo. I think I just was really lucky to met them!”
There is a track on the album with the fairly prosaic title of Drop D, because it is played in a non-standard tuning. It’s a jazz fusion stunner, starting in a smooth 6-8 before drifting into prog-metal territory, with a definite flavour of Gary Moore. In the promo material attached to the album, Matteo implies that he was considering the coolly dramatic title Stormchaser for this number, but stuck in the end with Drop D. It may seem a minor point, but I really need to know what prompted that decision. It’s another boost for those of us who sometimes feel we haven’t got it together as well as we would like …
“I actually prefer Stormchaser! Drop D was just a working title, but I forgot to change the name of the track during mix and mastering!”
While we are on the subject of track titles, there is a number towards the end of the album named Samba Party, which employs a different band from the rest of the album. It’s not a samba at all though, even though it is inspired by the good-time, samba-based tunes one might associate with Carnival time – the official video can be viewed at the foot of this page. Mattteo considers it one of his favourite tracks from the album, so I ask if the title was inspired by Santana’s classic Samba Pa Ti (Samba For You)?
“It started like an inside Joke between me, Riccardo Oliva and Gianluca Pellerito! I just wanted a funny name and I came up with Uomo Samba (Samba Man). Then I switched to Samba Party because it is really similar to Samba Pa Ti – but it doesn’t have anything to do with Samba or Santana, it is just a name!”
Changing the subject slightly, I have to go back to the three guitar heroes mentioned at the outset – Al Di Meola, Stave Vai and Joe Bonamassa – all of whom have gone on record praising Matteo’s speed, versatility, technique and touch. They are not the only ones either. For a young player, just emerging on to the international scene, this must border on the surreal?
“It is a priceless feeling of course! And the thing that they have in common is that they are guitarists that I listened to a lot during my development as a musician, so I think that somehow they hear that I took a lot of ideas and inspiration from them and they are just happy about it!”
Most of the promo shots, including those on this page, show Matteo holding a Yamaha Revstar guitar, which is a little out of the mainstream. Is there something specific about the Revstar that he likes?
“I started playing Revstars in 2017. I wanted a guitar that was really similar to a Gibson SG, and luckily the Revstar was really what I was searching for. I mostly use my custom Revstar now, but it’s not too distant sonically speaking from today’s Revstar Professional.”
Is the guitar all-consuming, or are there other things he likes to do?
“I really like to play Padel tennis with friends, or football; I like to play sports when I have the time. Going to the sea is also a thing I do. I play guitar every day of course, but I’m not very rigid about my practice routine, I just play when I want – but I try to play every day.”
It’s a good position to be in I think, for someone who has been building a fan-base in the background for many years, and has now exploded into the mainstream with a stunning debut album. I ask if he has any structured plans for the future, and the reply is good news for UK fans, especially those in the south-east!
“I will try to make more music and be more proficient in general, especially with the production of new material. I would love to try to come up with one CD per year. And continue discovering things on guitar of course! I will be playing my first UK show on Wednesday 27th September at the O2 Academy Islington, London, and I’m very excited to play there.”
Well that’s all great, and I would really like to thank Matteo for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. The album is now available via the Mascot label, and UK gig-goers will have an opportunity to catch the live magic really soon! Caio!
The Journey by Matteo Mancuso is now available via The Players Club / Mascot
He plays his first UK show on 27 September at the O2 Academy Islington, London.