Face-melting maestro on fast track to success

When Stephen Dadaian plays guitar, it’s hard to keep your thoughts straight. As his fingers fly across the frets and methodically produce fresh melodies, you’re forced to stare slack-jawed at his display of technical skill.

He makes his hand-bending acrobatics look so effortless that you occasionally have to snap out of your stupor and remember that very few people have reached his level of performing. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Dadaian, junior psychology major, has attracted a staggering amount of acclaim in the six years he has played the electric guitar. The Cresskill, N.J., native has won numerous contests, including Slash’s “Ultimate Guitar Showdown,” a high-profile shredding showcase sponsored by Music Nation last year. He has also played at Columbia University, the Berklee Performance Center in Boston and on 92.3 WKRK-FM in New York.

Recently Dadaian was named a finalist in the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society 2008 Student Competition, which features the best collegiate classical guitar players from the Delaware tri-state area.

“I decided to start entering contests around the time I started teaching,” Dadaian said. “I try to keep the same mentality for a competition as I would for a performance – that is, to play the pieces smoothly, and keep my composure.”

For Dadaian, a certain level of ad-libbing is needed to keep a performance fresh. After playing for years and practicing for hours each day, Dadaian says that he has mapped the neck of the guitar out in his head, and can easily understand the components of a melody before touching a single string.

“Improvisation is one of the most important aspects of coming up with a guitar solo or riff,” Dadaian, who swears that his winning video for Slash’s contest only took three takes, said. “I really don’t consider performers who can read music but can’t write or improvise true musicians. Some of my best ideas come to mind from just jamming with my band or playing over a drum machine.”

Stylistically, Dadaian refuses to be pinned down to one specific type of guitar-playing. Although he cites staple guitar greats like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana as influences, he has spent time exploring the work of blues artists like B.B. King and classical composers like John Williams.

He expresses this diverse palette when he performs. Dadaian frequently jumps across genres, hammering through a metal riff one moment and finger-picking a gentle blues number the next.

“I feel like the way I play today is an accumulation of all the styles I have learned since I began playing,” Dadaian said. “I try to incorporate all of the different styles I appreciate into my playing to come up with a unique sound.”

Dadaian is currently playing in a three-piece hip-hop/rock band that will record an album over the summer. He also has high hopes for this spring. Dadaian will audition for the NBC talent program “America’s Got Talent” in New York City on April 7 before participating in the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society competition on April 13.

Despite all of the accolades, Dadaian remains amazingly modest about his ability.

“You know, I appreciate everything that everybody says, and I know that I’ve reached a certain level of playing, but I’m still always trying to learn more and be better,” he said. “A lot of people compliment me, but there are a lot of people who looked at my video (from the Slash contest) and said, ‘Oh, he’s just a technical player.’ It’s hard to win everybody over. That’s why I’m always trying to improve.”

When you finally manage to collect your thoughts while watching Dadaian perform, it’s easy to see how he’s gotten to such a high level of playing: practicing tirelessly, studying the classics and most importantly, exploring different sounds. The worst thing an aspiring guitarist can do, he said, is get stuck in a rut.

“The only way to get better is to keep pushing the boundaries of what is considered difficult,” he said. “Try new songs as much as you can – even if it’s Dragonforce on expert in ‘Guitar Hero.'”