Every guitar player has their favorite guitarists that they look up to. Whether it’s for tone, style, speed, technique, or their taste in note selection, each guitar player has something that makes them unique, and things that draw us in as fans of the instrument. Over the past few years, two newer guitar heroes have emerged from a packed crowd of virtuosos; Tim Henson and Cory Wong.
While these two players seem like an unlikely pairing, they’ve emerged as guitar gods in their respective corners of the music-verse. While they don’t have much in common on the surface, their distinctive styles and influence on the guitar world are unmistakably similar. Let’s dive in to what makes these two players unique, what brings them together, and what we can learn from their unconventional rises to fame!
Tim Henson and Cory Wong made instrumental guitar music cool again.
We’d be remiss to not start off with an important similarity between Tim and Cory, they have brought instrumental guitar music back in a big way; not just on YouTube or in 30 second Instagram clips, but on stages around the world and on the charts.
While players like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have always been cool, it’s hard for me to think of any new instrumental guitar acts that have made a splash in recent years quite like Polyphia and Cory and the Wongnotes.
When I first started playing guitar in middle school, I would geek out over tabs, research pedals and amps, and try to emulate the tones and playing styles of my guitar heroes. I obsessed over Satriani’s live DVD from The Grove, and learned as many of the intros as I could (I was never good enough to play the solos).
Over time, I’ve become more and more interested in songwriting and production, and the guitar has started to feel like more of a tool than an instrument to me. This song needs guitar? Let me grab a guitar, has basically become my level of engagement with the instrument. Watching Tim and Cory play has really snapped me back into the world of caring about guitar again in a way that I didn’t expect. So, these guys have that in common, but they also have some pretty stark contrasts, so let’s dig into what makes them unique.
Your Unlikely Faves: Tim Henson and Cory Wong
If you spend enough time in music circles, you will probably come across more than a few people who would put both Tim and Cory in their top 5 current guitarists list. This may seem strange to some, because beyond the “instrumental guitar music” label, they have very different styles.
Genre and Style
For one, Polyphia’s music is centered primarily around lead guitar. While the rhythm section of Polyphia are undoubtedly talented, the songwriting and production is focused around the riffs. The crowd at a Polyphia show are ready to sing along to their favorite hammer-ons and pull-offs, the same way a Rush crowd was filled with air-drummers and dudes counting time signatures in their heads.
Tim and Scottie are two of the most impressive guitar players to watch, especially from a technical standpoint. Their tapping technique, sweep picking, and fantastic harmonizing are a joy to watch regardless of your feelings on their music.
This couldn’t be farther from the vibe of Cory Wong’s projects. I don’t often think of of guitar moments from the Wongnotes when Cory comes up, and instead I immediately think of two things: the man has timing and sauce for days, and he serves the song. It’s not rare for a horn line or a drum groove to be the first thing that grabs your ear in one of his tunes. As a composer, arranger, and producer, Cory’s music feels like an all star band of funk and jazz influenced jams. While he’s clearly the frontman and the star of the show, it’s not uncommon for him to step aside and play a 2-3 string chucking pattern for a majority of a song.
Nobody in their right mind would call Cory Wong untalented, but I wouldn’t blame someone who doesn’t really play guitar for enjoying a Wongnotes show without being able to explain what makes Wong “good”. And frankly, that’s part of what makes being a fan of Cory feel somewhat validating, in a strange sort of way. Watching a Wongnotes show reminds me of drinking a single origin coffee, black, straight from the pour-over. Yes, anyone who likes coffee will think it’s good, but finding the subtler notes of flavor that someone who isn’t immersed in the hobby would miss is a strangely fun part of the coffee world. In the same vain, watching Cory do his thing is enthralling to someone who gets it, entertaining to someone who doesn’t, and while it’s hard to tell which audience member enjoyed it more, the coffee guy would certainly say that they did.
Tim and Scottie seem to gravitate heavily to harmonic minor scales when writing riffs. They have a dark, almost Latin feel that creates a somewhat spooky and mysterious vibe right away. Cory, on the other hand, switches it up often, but the one mode that jumps out to me the most is mixolydian. The mixolydian mode always gives me funky, 90’s cartoon theme song feelings, and lots of Cory’s music enters that realm.
Tim seems to pull influence from current trends like hip hop, trap, and pop tunes, while Cory’s style feels more like an homage to the greats of yesteryear with a modern flair. Regardless of your preferred style, you can’t deny that both Tim and Cory have really carved a niche for themselves when it comes to writing instrumental music.
Image and Aesthetic
While Tim and Polyphia have had their fair share of viral headlines over the years, Cory seems to be a more lowkey and understated personality. While the Polyphia headlines are usually blown out of proportion, out of context quotes, they were never accused of being the most humble band in the land. And frankly, when you’re that good, I’m not sure you owe it to the world to be quiet about it.
Polyphia have a taste for the more expensive, high budget look when it comes to promotional materials, where Cory tends to opt for a more basement style vibe from time to time. You won’t find Wong CGI’d into a space ship any time soon, but frankly, it would feel out of place.
Both Polyphia and Wong have created an image that suits their music quite well; Polyphia with their “how did they do that?” look, and Wong with his “I could probably do this (spoiler, you probably can’t), but he already did it better” style.
While the contrasts are glaring, there are some similarities creeping under the surface for us to explore that explain the overlap in fanbase.
Tim Henson and Cory Wong are alike in more ways than one.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that Tim and Cory have in common.
Their approach to tone is surprisingly similar.
Tim and Cory have very different tones, but you could describe Tim’s clean sound as spanky and compressed, not as much as Cory’s, but it’s there. They also both have no problem recording straight in to a DI when it’s called for. I would describe Tim’s tone as the “humbucker, distortion” version of Cory’s, in a way. While that may sound like a stretch, their collab song (below) shows an overlap in tone that you may pick up on.
These guys are prolific.
Yes, these guys put out a lot of great music. However, their content output is unmatched by their peers. Both are totally open about their processes, their inspirations, their gear selections, and more.
It seems that Polyphia breaks the internet every quarterly with music videos that take the world by storm. The reaction to “Playing God” is something I have never seen in my life as a music journalist, and the subsequent debut of Tim’s signature Ibanez acoustic-electric took the gear world by storm.
As if that wasn’t enough, “Ego Death” made a similar splash just a few months later, with every guitar reaction channel slamming their laptops shut after Steve Vai’s solo. If you want to play like Tim, you’ll need to dedicate hundreds of hours to practice, but there are not secrets that you’ll need to unearth. His YouTube channel is full of lessons and tutorials to get his sound and technique down pat.
Similarly, Cory Wong is a content machine, with live sessions, production breakdowns, and tutorials available for just about every song in his prolific catalog. From live performances on a hockey rink (complete with ice skates) to a variety/talk show format with special guests, Cory Wong fans have hours of high quality music-adjacent content to feast on.
If you’re a fan of Polyphia or Cory Wong, you have no shortage of inspiration, entertainment, and education for you to digest.
Plini, a guitarist worthy of his own article, has a collaboration with Tim and Cory, which caught a certain sub-sect of the guitar-web by storm, the people who live in the middle of the “Cory Wong and Tim Henson mega-fan” Venn diagram (aka me).
At the end of the day…
…Tim and Cory are both amazing guitar players, composers, and producers. While we aren’t supposed to play favorites, nobody will blame you for preferring one’s music over the other. However, as a fan of the guitar world, I can’t help but admire both equally for influencing players around the globe, bringing amazing music to life, and giving their knowledge and talent to the world for our enjoyment.