Meet Maya Neelakantan, the 11-year-old Guitar Prodigy From Chennai Who Rocked ‘America’s Got Talent’ Stage 

  • In an episode that aired on June 25, she impressed the judges and audience with a perfect rendition of Papa Roach's “Last Resort.” and received praise from some big names in the music industry.

For the past few days Maya Neelakantan has been googling her name and finding all the press she’s got since she rocked “America’s Got Talent” (AGT) stage late last month. “It’s really fun to see sooooo many articles about my AGT performance,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I’ve been having a fun time reading every one of them.”

In an episode that aired on June 25, the now 11-year-old from Chennai impressed the judges and audience with her rendition of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” on guitar. The AGT episode was shot almost three months ago when Maya was 10. 

Dressed in a bright orange lehenga, her hair partially braided, the young girl showed her prowess on the guitar as she strummed it with confidence. The Gibson electric guitar she used for her AGT performance was a gift from one of her “biggest rock heroes” — guitarist Adam Jones from Tool. She told Hindustan Times that the legend gave her the guitar when she visited him in Los Angeles in March.

On the AGT stage, Maya began her performance with an authentic Carnatic Natabhairavi Raga, and then played an improvised version of “Last Resort” by Papa Roach. Her “solo in the later sections had several Carnatic gamakas along with the Metal, Rock and Blues phrases,” according to a Facebook post by her teacher Guitar Prasanna. 

Her music was so stunning that all four judges — Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Howie Mandel, and Heidi Klum  — joined her on stage to rock it out. Cowell even called her a “rock goddess.”

Maya Neelakantan, with her parents Neelakantan and Lorina, her baby brother Rudra, and her teacher Guitar Prasanna, right. (Photo: Guitar Prasanna Facebook) Top photo: Maya talks to the judges after her performance on “America’s Got Talent.” She blended Carnatic music with heavy metal to perform her rendition of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort.” (Photo: Maya Neelakantan X)

Collider notes that “Last Resort” — the song Maya chose, is “famed for being a tricky one to perfect, with many having tried and failed, so for someone just ten years of age to master, not just the song, but her nerves too, is nothing short of remarkable.”

While backstage, she told viewers that her “biggest dream is to create my own music. So, I’m just gonna go, and I’m gonna play it.” 

The young guitar prodigy rose to prominence with her metal rock renditions of iconic numbers Metallica, Tool, and others. In 2022, she stunned Adam Jones, Tool’s guitarist with her rendition video on his song “7empest. She has already amassed 48k followers on Instagram. She also has a YouTube channel, which her parents manage.

The internet went in a tizzy after Maya’s AGT video went viral. She even got shoutouts from some big names in the music industry.  Papa Roach commented on a video of the AGT performance she posted on Instagram. “Let’s gooo!!” the band said with a sign of the horns and cockroach emoji. “Absolutely killed it, Maya!” The band also urged their fans to help get Maya to the AGT Finals. 

Gary Holt, guitarist, bandleader, and main songwriter for thrash metal band Exodus, also commented on the Instagram clip. “She was EPIC,” he wrote. 

Gibson, the legendary guitar brand, congratulated Maya, in response to her post, adding the sign of the horns, fire, and a heart emoji.

Testament and Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist Alex Skolnick also commended her act. “Judges and audience[s] didn’t know what hit them,” he wrote. Death metal band Possessed commented with just one word — “awesomeness.” “

The family of late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton also said they were “very proud” of Maya. 

Her teacher Guitar Prasanna also had nothing but praise for his student. “Yesterday my incredibly talented student 11 year old MAYA NEELAKANTAN rocked it at ‘America’s Got Talent’ on NBC,” he posted on Facebook. “When I started playing Carnatic music on the guitar years ago, I could have never imagined Carnatic guitar playing would be on display on a World stage like ‘America’s Got Talent,’” he continued. “Maya Neelakantan has opened the doors for everyone! To see a 10 year old girl play guitar like that is so inspiring for me and I am sure for everyone! This is great talent and a beautiful warm personality blessed with divine grace! I maybe her Guitar teacher but I am her biggest fan.”

Maya Neelakantan with her teacher Guitar Prasanna. (Guitar Prasanna Facebook photo)

He also posted a photo with Maya and her family — parents Neelakantan and Lorina — and her baby brother Rudra. “While all of us are celebrating the incredible talent mixed with the beautiful personality that Maya Neelakantan is, I want to acknowledge the amazing support she has had from her family,” he wrote. “Maya is blessed to have such a beautiful family who have given her so much in this journey.”

Anand Mahindra, the chairman of Mahindra Group, took to Twitter to praise the young musician. “Maya Neelakantan is only 10 years old. 10! Yes, Simon, she’s a Rock Goddess. From the land of Goddesses,” he wrote. He even suggested inviting Maya to perform at the Mahindra Blues Festival. 

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Maya told Hindustan Times that she was  inspired by her father, who played the guitar as a hobby. He encouraged his daughter to teach herself beginning at age 6. 

She has been learning Carnatic music from Guitar Prasanna for two years now. “I’ve been doing the same thing the whole time except now I’m playing harder techniques,” she told Hindustan Times. She trained for AGT for about two to three weeks. Guitar Prasanna helped her in creating the song which she rearranged it in the end. Actress Jessica Pimentel of “Orange Is The New Black” fame coached her for the movements for AGT and also helped me prepare mentally for the show because it was my first time on stage. 

Maya Neelakantan with Eric Peterson, rhythm guitarist of the thrash metal band Testament. (Photo: Maya Neelakantan X)

She got advice from all her “guitar heroes,” including Gary Holt, guitarist for Exodus and Slayer, who also came to the AGT set to watch her play on stage, and support and cheer. Gary came down from Sacramento to Los Angeles to support me and that made me a lot less nervous.

She told Hindustan Times that her dream is “to create my own music by combining Carnatic music with Heavy Metal.” She dabbed “a little bit” of that for her AGT performance, she said, adding that she’s “very proud of the result.”

Maya credits her parents for her journey so far. “My parents are very, very supportive of me and always have been my entire life,” she told Hindustan Times.  “It’s because of them it’s possible for me to continue following my passion and meet so many guitar legends,” she added. Her parents always tell her that it’s “most important” for her “to enjoy the process and not worry about the result.” 

And that’s why she really enjoys everything she  has been doing in her life. “When I came to AGT, I thought of it as a party not a competition.” 

Maya has cleared the first hurdle in AGT, but given her talent and support from family and the music fraternity, and her fans, there’s no stopping this young girl from the road to success, fame and fortune. 

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