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Six-string saviors John Mayer is part of a new school of guitar heroes

Once upon a time, a guitar solo was much more than an opportunity for a midshow bathroom break. For several generations, the technical capabilities of a guitarist, and the way that guitarist married technique to emotion, were paramount. But something funny happened on the way to guitar nirvana.

It's not as if modern popular music has fully abandoned the electric guitar. You can hear it in every subdivision of the form, from country to hip-hop, alt-metal to Top 40. However, for anyone who came of music-loving age any time after, say, 1995, the six-string has been mostly an agent of sound and fury, most of it signifying nothing.

Recording technology, combined with the industry's insatiable lust for the instant hit, combined a decade back to form the ready-made rocker, the eager young hopeful with a modicum of talent but no time to earn a solid footing as a musician. The wheels of commerce anxiously ground out prefab players who could, frankly, hardly navigate their instruments. This is where Pro Tools and its various recording studio analogs came into play: If the kids couldn't man their axes too well, no matter -- we'll just piece it together in the studio, digitally.

It's no wonder that most rock music between, say, 1995 and 2003 sounded pretty much homogenous, as bands and artists became all but interchangeable.

Happily, all of that is starting to change now. There's a new breed of guitarist eager to study his forebears and take their work to the next logical stage. These are mostly younger players, a breed of musician in touch with tradition, but rooted in the present. It would be premature to posit an electric guitar renaissance just yet, but the signs are certainly hopeful.

Here are a few of the ax-grinders to watch.

>John Mayer

A disciple of the late, great Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mayer arrived a few years back as little more than a more melodic Dave Matthews clone, a good-looking kid with readily apparent talent and a penchant for pop hooks. No one was demanding he re-create himself as a more serious musician, but that seems to have been Mayer's plan all along. Suddenly, the pop kid was sharing stages with blues legends like Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, and proving he could hang, and then some.

Mayer formed a trio with drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino as a sort of side gig, a more musicianly ancillary to his pop career. In this environment, he proved to be a fluid, soulful player and first-rate improviser capable of blending the influences of Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix into a contemporary blues/R&B hybrid.

Of course, he hasn't given up on his pop career, but rather, brought his guitar playing to the fore on his immaculately written soul-pop pieces. Evidence of this more mature Mayer is all over his latest album, "Continuum," and will certainly be apparent when he takes the stage inside HSBC Arena on Saturday evening.

>Jake Cinninger

As guitarist with progressive jam band Umphrey's McGee, Cinninger brings incredible chops and wonderfully bizarre phrasing to bear on the band's ambitious song structures. His influences would seem to be King Crimson's Robert Fripp and patriarch of the bizarrely virtuosic, Frank Zappa, but Cinninger has his own angle on the capabilities of the electric guitar in the post-post-modern rock age.

He's one of the finest players of his generation, to be sure.

>Nels Cline

Cline is not a kid, but he's relatively new to the mainstream music world, as guitarist with Wilco for the past several years. Cline brought avant garde tendencies with him when he emerged from the New York City underground and applied them with brilliance and taste on Wilco's "A Ghost Is Born" disc. He can be heard creating a new standard for modern electric guitar playing on the band's soon-to-be-released "Sky Blue Sky."

Cline is a delightfully weird guitarist and is truly pushing the envelope.

>Grasshopper (Sean Mackowiak)

Mackowiak has been bringing his left-of-center guitar soundscapes to Mercury Rev fans for quite some time now, but over the course of the band's last three albums and subsequent concert tours, he turned into one of the most wildly inventive purveyors of spacey, atmospheric guitar effects out there.

Grasshopper is not just being clever, though. His sonic manipulations always serve the song, but they also provide an update of the Pink Floyd ethic of textural experimentation. His playing is not about "chops," per se, but Mackowiak is clearly an innovator.

>Johnny Greenwood

The Radiohead guitarist took cues from U2's the Edge and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck in the band's early days, but he has since perfected his own rather radical style -- part Miles Davis '70s-era avant garde, part alternative rock, part compositional intelligence.

>Andrew Stockdale

Australia's Wolfmother came out of nowhere two years ago to reinvigorate the long-dormant power trio formula and won a Grammy for its efforts. Stockdale is the band's guitarist and vocalist, and it's clear he grew up enthralled with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and, more than likely, Soundgarden.

Stockdale is greatly indebted to both Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi, and his style offers a melding of the two, with serious touches of "stoner" psychedelia thrown into the mix. Wolfmother is one of the most exciting metal bands in many a year, and much of the credit for this must go to Stockdale's guitar playing.

WHO: John Mayer

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: HSBC Arena

TICKETS: $41 to $51

INFO: (888) 223-6000 or www.hsbcarena.com

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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