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Next generation of guitar greats win multi-genre international guitar competition

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Next generation of guitar greats win multi-genre international guitar competition

August 22
23:30 2019

15 next generation guitar greats were announced as winners of the seventh annual international Wilson Center Guitar Festival

Hailing from 50 cities around the world, 15 of the next generation of guitar greats were announced as winners of the seventh annual international Wilson Center Guitar Festival (Guitar Festival) on Saturday, August 17, 2019. Newly expanded this year to five genres—Blues, Classical, Fingerstyle, Jazz, and Rock—the three-day Guitar Festival welcomed a total of 61 semi-finalists to the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts (Wilson Center) in Brookfield, Wisconsin, from August 15-17, for a chance at their share of $40,000 in cash prizes and a performance at Milwaukee Irish Fest.

From a record-setting pool of more than 120 YouTube preliminary round applications, a jury of independent guitar professionals in each of the five genres selected the semi-finalists who were invited to compete at the Wilson Center. On-site judging for the semi-final and final competition rounds was “blind,” with judges located behind a screen.

For the list of 2019 competition judges, please visit www.wilson-center.com/2019-guitar-festival-judges.

“Over the seven-year history of the Festival, more than 500 guitarists have applied from more than 30 countries around the world,” said Guitar Festival Competition Manager Jennifer Grokowsky. “Our competitors are of the highest quality, and judges in each genre noted how difficult their decisions were this year.”

A complete list of winners is included below, and each of their preliminary round YouTube video submissions may be viewed by clicking their name online at www.wilson-center.com/2019-guitar-festival-competitors.

In the Blues competition, first place was awarded to Roger Schaumann (Canyon Country, Calif.), second place was awarded to Jackson Potter (South Miami, Fla.), and third place was awarded to Aaron Bissoondial (Wayne, N.J.).

In Classical, first place was awarded to Kacey Ellis (Chicago, Ill.), second place was awarded to Samuel Hines (Mora, Minn.), and third place was awarded to Yerum Yoon (Columbia, Md.).

Milwaukee and Minnesota guitarists shared the awards stage in the Fingerstyle competition, with Michael McKinnon (Milwaukee, Wisc.) placing first, Casey Smithley (Plymouth, Minn.) placing second, and William Boulé (Milwaukee, Wisc.) placing third.

In Jazz, first place was awarded to James Zito (New York, N.Y.), second place was awarded to Robert Varon (Pittsford, N.Y.), and third place was awarded to Nathan Borton (Lansing, Mich.)

Recently engaged guitarists Millisa Henderson (Boston, Mass.) and Max Boras (Boston, Mass.) were respectively awarded first and second place in Rock, with third place awarded to Yeril Lozano (Simpsonville, S.C.).

The 2019 winners were announced from the Jorgensen Stage in the Wilson Center’s Harris Theater on Saturday evening prior to the Festival’s ticketed headliner concert featuring jazz guitar legend John Scofield with longtime musical mates Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart as part of the “telepathically tight” John Scofield Trio. First-place winners in each genre received $5,000, as well as the opportunity to perform on the Coors Light/Parkview Stage at Milwaukee Irish Fest on Sunday, Aug. 18; second-place winners in each genre received $2,000; and third-place winners in each genre received $1,000. All first-place winners also received a three-month supply of genre-specific strings, with second- and third-place winners receiving a one-month supply of genre-specific strings, courtesy of New York-based Augustine Strings.

“We want our festival to offer emerging guitarists a chance to not just win prize money, but to confirm their calling as artists. To be an artist takes hard work, practice—and just a bit of luck,” said Wilson Center Guitar Festival Manager and Engagement Director Annaliese Wolff.

This luck was in evidence at Milwaukee Irish Fest on Sunday, where 1st place Rock winner Millisa Henderson was invited by Moxie—a band comprised of five artists with traditional backbones who are delivering a new brand of Irish music heavily influenced by Electro, Jazz, House, and Rock—to return to the stage and perform a song with them. “I was the final guitarist to take the stage as part of the competition winners’ performance at Irish Fest. Moxie was the next band on the line-up, and I guess they heard me playing from backstage,” said Henderson. “They are such amazing artists and have such an incredible stage presence and energy—getting to play with them in front of so many of their fans was definitely an experience I will never forget!”

“It was exciting to watch this year’s participants make connections with fellow artists and industry leaders from around the world, and we are grateful to all of our festival supporters and partners whose collaborative spirit allowed us to fill this year’s event with those types of opportunities” said Wolff. “We hope that these connections will give each competitor that much more of a chance to succeed in their passion.”

In addition to the live competition rounds and ticketed headliner concert, the Guitar Festival also featured three days of free events for music lovers of all ages, including master classes and workshops in all five genres, industry vendors, artist wellness sessions and career panel discussions, an outdoor beer garden with live music, an art exhibition of upcycled guitars, a make-your-own-guitar family art workshop, acoustic yoga, and more. “It’s basically become our informal tag line to say that this three-day event is truly a celebration of all things guitar,” said Wolff.

The 2019 Wilson Center Guitar Festival was made possible through the support of Headliner Show Sponsor Krause Funeral Homes & Cremation Services; Classical Category Sponsor Mark & Sharon Cameli in memory of John Cameli; Rock Category Prize Sponsor John Shiely; Classical Show Sponsor JoAnne & Don Krause; Supporting Sponsors The Les Paul Foundation and Vince Shiely; and Promotional Partners 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, Augustine Strings, Biloba Brewing Company, Cascio Music, Celtic MKE, Guitars for Vets, Steinhafels, and Wisconsin Public Radio.

A complete biofor  each winner is below; headshots are available upon request. For more information on the 2019 Wilson Center Guitar Festival, visit www.wcguitarfest.com.

(Picture uploaded with release: 2019 1st Place Rock Winner Millisa Henderson, photo by Jennifer Mazza Photography.)


Established in 2013, it is the goal of the Wilson Center Guitar Festival to celebrate the greatest guitarists of today and tomorrow. As the only guitar festival in the world to feature five different genres—Blues, Classical, Fingerstyle, Jazz, and Rock—the weekend is filled with activities for music lovers of all ages. In addition to ticketed concerts, the Festival offers many activities that are free and open to the public, including: semi-final and final competition rounds, master classes, leading industry vendors, and live music from local artists.

To learn more, visit www.wcguitarfest.com


As a multidisciplinary nonprofit cultural arts facility with a 17-year history of excellence, it is the mission of the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts to serve as a catalyst for lifelong discovery and exploration of the arts. Situated in Brookfield’s beautiful Mitchell Park, the Wilson Center is recognized as a cultural anchor in the Greater Milwaukee community and focuses on three main disciplines: performing arts, arts education, and visual arts. Since opening in 2002, the Wilson Center has continued to celebrate its five core values of excellence, innovation, passion, stewardship and collaboration through a diverse array of premier performances, educational programs, classes, festivals, and special events. The Wilson Center annually welcomes more than 45,000 people, including more than 10,000 students—many of whom are being introduced to the arts for the first time. Through arts education programs such as Beyond the Classroom, ArtsReach, and Arts Camp: The Art of Nature, as well as year-round visual art classes and exhibitions, the Wilson Center offers access to the arts for children, teens, families, and adults.


Aaron Bissoondial (3rd place – Blues) is a 19-year-old guitarist from Wayne, New Jersey. He won third place in the Rock/Blues category at the 2016 Wilson Center Guitar Festival. Other awards Aaron has won include the Outstanding Soloist awards from both the West Milford Jazz Festival and from the Livingston Jazz Festival. He attended the Manhattan School of Music Precollege and currently attends the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami on a Presidential Scholarship. Combining his love for gospel and blues styles with the use of bottleneck slide guitar and his passion for the jazz tradition is what creates his unique sound.

Inspired by artists ranging from Frank Zappa to Periphery, Max Boras (2nd place – Rock) is a guitar force to be reckoned with. Originally from Northvale, New Jersey, he picked up the guitar at the age of six. He has toured all over the Northeastern U.S., playing at legendary New Jersey venues such as the Stone Pony and Ding Batz. Max has shared the stage with Dweezil Zappa and opened for Steve Vai. Through high school, Max participated in the precollege program at Manhattan School of Music. In 2011, he was accepted to their classical guitar program. That same year, he performed in a masterclass with Pepe Romero. After leaving MSM, Max moved to Boston to pursue a degree from Berklee College of Music. In May 2019, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Professional Music. Currently, he is launching a progressive rock duo, Hydria, with his fiancée. Their first EP will be released in January 2020. Max proudly endorses DiMarzio Pickups and Amptweaker Pedals.

Hailing from Wichita, Kansas, Nathan Borton (3rd place – Jazz) is a Michigan-based jazz guitar player that draws heavily from the Midwestern tradition of bebop and the blues. Recently, Nathan graduated and was a teaching assistant for the nationally acclaimed Jazz Studies program at Michigan State University under the direction of Rodney Whitaker. While attending Michigan State, he studied guitar with the great Randy Napoleon. Nathan has played with and alongside names such as Rodney Whitaker, Dmitri Matheny, and the Sencalar/Glassman Quintet. In 2018, he was a finalist in the Wilson Center Guitar Festival. Nathan is an avid educator of music and currently teaches at the Jazz and Creative Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, under the direction of Benje and Ashley Daneman.

While attending Eastern Washington University on a football scholarship, Will Boulé’s (3rd place – Fingerstyle) interest shifted to the guitar. After graduating with a BLA degree in Music with an emphasis in Classical Guitar Performance, and attending workshops with Alex de Grassi, he entered the MM program in fingerstyle guitar performance at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. In 2017, he was a finalist in the Wilson Center Guitar Festival. He performs frequently at open mic nights in the Milwaukee area and has focused principally on the performance of compositions by Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke.

Kacey Ellis (1st place – Classical) has been studying classical guitar from the age of ten. While in Florida, he studied with Rafael Padron and Thomas Koch. In 2013, Kacey moved to the city of Chicago to study with Denis Azabagic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He graduated magna cum laude and was awarded the Music Performance Award. Kacey recently finished his graduate studies at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where he studied under Denis Azabagic. Masterclasses with notable guitarists and pedagogues such as Sergio Assad, Eden Stell Duo, Benjamin Verdery, Andrew York, and Margarita Escarpa have cultivated a thorough understanding of the various teaching methods and styles that exist in the guitar repertoire.

Millisa Henderson (1st place – Rock) is an instrumental rock guitarist based in Boston, Massachusetts. She was raised in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and has been an avid performer and guitar enthusiast since age 11. Inspired by guitarists like Joe Satriani and Aaron Marshall, she hopes to carry on a tradition of blazing solos and soaring melodies for the next generation of guitarists. Millisa has played throughout the United States and in Europe as a solo artist and with various bands. She’s performed at the NAMM show and at venues such as the Berklee Performance Center, The Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, and Graceland. Millisa is currently a student at Berklee College of Music and will complete her bachelor’s degree in Spring 2020. Currently, she is launching a progressive rock duo, Hydria, with her fiancé. Their first EP will be released in January 2020. Millisa proudly endorses Equilibrium Guitars, Ernie Ball, Dimarzio, Walrus Audio, Strymon Engineering, EX-Gear, and Moxy Guitars.

Samuel Hines (2nd place – Classical) is an award-winning guitarist from Southern California. His passion for guitar is clearly seen by those who experience his music. Recent invitations include the International Guitar Series in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and as a guest artist at festivals in California, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Besides having a busy performance schedule, Hines has placed in more than 30 competitions, with recent first prizes including the 2019 Houston Guitar Festival, the 2019 New Orleans International Guitar Festival, and the 2019 Appalachian Guitarfest, among others. Hines was also a competitor at the prestigious Parkening International Guitar Competition, selected as one of 15 competitors from around the world for participation at the 2012, 2015, and 2019 editions. Samuel’s educational background includes a Bachelor of Music from Vanguard University of Southern California with Michael Nigro, a Master of Music at University of the Wisconsin-Milwaukee with René Izquierdo, and he is currently pursuing his Doctor of Musical Arts with Maja Radovonlija, where he is the teaching assistant. Samuel plays a 2014 Antonio Marin Montero on Augustine Regal Strings. samhinesguitar.com, facebook.com/samhinesguitar

Yeril Lozano (3rd Place – Rock) was born in Estelí, Nicaragua. As a young boy, he spent hours watching his father play on a Stratocaster. At 14, he started playing a little, years later he was inspired by Marty Friedman’s solo in “Tornado of Souls,” however, he was limited in knowledge. Then a friend loaned him Troy Stetina’s lead volumes 1 & 2, which he studied daily for hours. He continued to study many of Troy’s books: Speed Mechanics, Thrash Metal, and more while listening to Satriani, Becker, Malsteem, Wylde, Petrucci, Dream Theater, and Opeth. In 2001, he started a Christian progressive rock band, Golgota, and recorded several original songs. Yeril has a passion for music and can’t imagine a world without it. Music is always present in his life, and he has helped many musicians in his country. Due to civil unrest, Yeril and his family relocated to Greenville, South Carolina, in 2018.

Michael McKinnon (1st place – Fingerstyle) is a recent graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, completing his Bachelor in Fine Arts for Performance in Fingerstyle guitar. He now teaches guitar and ukulele at Brass Bell Music Store in Glendale, Wisconsin, and continues to compose and perform when he can. He looks forward to another year of competition at the Wilson Center Guitar Festival and wishes the best of luck to all competitors across the genres.

Winning second place in the 2018 blues/rock genre at the Wilson Center Guitar Festival, Jackson Potter (2nd place – Blues) is a Minnesota-raised jazz and blues/rock guitarist. After graduating high school in 2016 with a number of awards and musical accomplishments, Jackson entered the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami where he is studying jazz guitar and performance with veteran player, John Hart. He is currently working towards his undergraduate degree, composing and performing music with his trio, the Jackson Potter Trio, doing session work for local artists, and teaching guitar in solo and group settings.

Roger Schaumann (1st place – Blues) started playing guitar at 15, teaching himself by watching videos of his favorite guitarists—Stevie Ray Vaughan, Derek Trucks, Freddie King, and many other great blues players. Roger started playing on his church’s worship team, eventually becoming the worship leader and also starting a band with four of his siblings. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young boys. Roger still plays quite a bit at home as well as leading worship at their church. He is still a huge blues fan and loves learning new licks from guitarists like Matt Schofield and Josh Smith. This was his third time entering the guitar competition. The first year he entered, he made it to the final rounds, and last year he placed third.

Casey Smithley (2nd place –  Fingerstyle) is a husband and father of two (with a third on the way!) living in Plymouth, Minnesota. He was heavily involved in music throughout high school and college as a singer and multi-instrumentalist, but put music on the back burner while in law school. As a huge admirer of Andy McKee, Michael Hedges, and Don Ross, he picked up fingerstyle guitar nearly three years ago and has largely devoted his limited practice time toward learning and writing in this style.

Robert Varon (2nd place – Jazz) is a Rochester-based musician with many different stylistic abilities ranging from classical to various types of contemporary music, but with a focus on and true passion for jazz. At 10 years old, Robert found an interest in rock music and picked up the guitar. At 12, he became interested in jazz and started studying with Bob Sneider. He has since won a high school division Downbeat Award, been recognized by the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, won tuition scholarships from Eastman Community Music School every year, played on several professional recording sessions, performed with his own groups at the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, and was accepted into the 2017 All-State Jazz Band. He will be attending the Eastman School of Music to study jazz performance this fall.

Yeram Yoon (3rd place – Classical) is a classical guitarist known for his diverse repertoire, fluent technique, and sensitive musicianship. He began his guitar studies at the age of 10 and his eclectic influences include blues, rock, R&B, jazz, and classical music. Yeram has also garnered impressive accolades ranging from numerous competition prizes to premiering new works for the guitar. He has made appearances at renowned venues such as the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society Showcase Concert and the Marlow Guitar International Series. From 2018 to 2019, he was awarded the Ablan Memorial Scholarship from the Cleveland Institute of Music as the “most promising guitarist” and “most talented guitarist.” In spring of 2019, Yeram received his bachelor’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music under the tutelage of renowned guitarist and Grammy Award-winner Jason Vieaux. He will be pursuing his graduate degree this fall with Cuban guitar virtuoso René Izquierdo at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Peck School of the Arts.

James Zito (1st place – Jazz) is a New York-based guitarist, composer, and educator, described by Artslife magazine as “The natural.” A native of Orlando, Zito has distinguished himself as a soulful player beyond his years. He is a recent graduate from the Manhattan School of Music where he spent four years under the mentorship of guitarist Rodney Jones. Some of his most notable accomplishments range from performing in New York’s finest jazz clubs, to being the youngest member of the Dr. Phillips Jazz Orchestra—directed by Rodney Whitaker. Additionally, he has participated in a number of festivals and competitions including the Caramoor Jazz festival, Jazz Vespers series, and the Jarek Šmietana International Guitar competition. Zito has played alongside some of the top rated musicians in New York and Florida including Rodney Whitaker, Michael Dease, Terell Stafford, Leon Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Dick Oatts, Grant Stewart, and many more.

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