I want to create a genre of my own: Guitar prodigy Maya Neelakantan

A fortnight after she took the world by storm with her raga-infused rock riff, 11-year-old Maya Neelakantan is back to where she belongs – in front of her camera in her bedroom in MRC Nagar in Chennai, filming her reels for Instagram, switching between her guitars gifted by rock legends, no less.
Guitar prodigy Maya Neelakantan
Guitar prodigy Maya Neelakantan

Bengaluru | A fortnight after she took the world by storm with her raga-infused rock riff, 11-year-old Maya Neelakantan is back to where she belongs – in front of her camera in her bedroom in MRC Nagar in Chennai, filming her reels for Instagram, switching between her guitars gifted by rock legends, no less.

Despite being only 11, the guitar prodigy remains steadfast in her long-term goal – even in the face of instant fame.

"My dream is to create a genre of my own. Something that merges all of my musical interests together. It'll be a combination of extreme thrash metal and intricate Carnatic music in its traditional form. And it will be something as crafted as Tool music," she says confidently.

Tool, a band that Maya swears by, is a US-based heavy metal band that music experts say steered rock and roll from its "sullen Nirvana phase to a neck-snapping rhythmic phase post 1993," and the band's guitar riffs are said to "resemble elegant mathematical equations." In fact, when the world discovered her, post her June 25 performance for 'America's Got Talent' – in which she intertwined heavy metal with Carnatic music by sneaking Raga Natabhairavi into her interpretation of Papa Roach's ‘Last Resort' – Maya was already back in Chennai.

"It's all the same as ever, except that now more people are listening to what I play on my Insta page," Maya told PTI over the Zoom.

But, as you scroll down her Insta page, you can tell it's not the same, no matter how much she insists.

Maya's meticulous documentation of her incredible musical journey on Instagram for the last two years, including her two months in the United States, when she went to perform for 'America's Got Talent'.

Once there, though, she criss-crossed the country, meeting and jamming with guitar legends like Alex Skolnick, the lead guitarist of thrash metal band Testament, formed in 1983, Eric Peterson, lead guitarist of California-based Testament and ‘thrash metal' legend and guitarist of the bands Exodus and Slayer, Gary Holt.

For instance, the song she last covered on Instagram on July 1 is rock and roll legend Black Sabbath's ‘War Pigs', a 1970's masterpiece released by them towards the tail end of the Vietnam war and in which the band took a stand against America's imperialism.

In her note accompanying the video, Maya says she picked up the little trick that she uses in the song, called pinch harmonic – pinching one of the strings after picking them to silence it, giving a subtle twist to tune – from rock stars Peterson and Holt.

"I learnt, in fact, several other new techniques from Peterson, like thirds (a complex technique which lets musicians manipulate intervals between notes) when I visited him in San Francisco," confirms Maya.

Her journey started when she was six years old, cracking the guitar bits with the help of YouTube tutorials.

"I have been listening to Slayer, Metallica, Slipknot, Exodus and Lamb of God ever since I was two years old. I loved thrash metal because of how energetic it sounded. Every time it was playing, I always jumped up and down," says Maya.

So, when she started to learn, Maya says she jumped right into it, choosing Metallica's ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls' as her first song to learn.

But Maya reckons that it was her cover of Tool's ‘7empest' – a 15-minute song in which the guitarist leisurely bends scales and twists notes, until they all collapse into a crescendo – finally lifted her on to a league of her own. She says it is also possibly one of her renditions that got her an audition invite from the ‘America's Got Talent' team.

"I was nine when I uploaded ‘7empest'. The same night, I was written about in famous guitar magazines. Soon, I decided to start an Insta page. My very first follower was Adam Jones, the lead guitarist of Tool himself," says Maya.

Around that time, Maya says she was also introduced to ‘Guitar' Prasanna's music, another Chennaiite, who is credited with being the pioneer in using guitar to play Carnatic ragas.

"He is based out of the US and so I learnt to play Carnatic music on guitar from him online," she says.

Between him and rock legends, Maya says she eventually found her groove.

Despite her measured responses to most everything, Maya does let the little girl in her slip to the fore every now and then.

Like when she gushes over her very first gift from a rock legend – autographed guitar from Tool's Jones. She jumps in excitement, pointing out the autograph and doodle that he drew for her on the guitar.

But Maya is extremely aware that her life is different – while most her age go to school, she stays home, pursuing education via online, but essentially existing to play the guitar, “six to seven hours a day”.

"Sure, I enjoy going to the playground with my little brother as much as any other kid would. But I also understand that things I experienced don't happen a lot. So, I am more grateful for that," Maya says.

Three things she says she learned so far. "I must always remember what got me started in this journey, so I don't get caught up in all this and I must not let go of my love for playing guitar. Most importantly, I must be very giving too, because everybody I have met so far has given me so much," says Maya.

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