Electric guitarists get all the glory – stacks of amplifiers, arenas full of fans, that big, big sound sending shockwaves through adoring crowds. Meanwhile, the acoustic players of the world are the sensitive souls, playing delicately and carefully in their unamplified corners of music history. The best acoustic guitarists have quietly made innovative sounds and amazing tunes that have altered how people think about the guitar.
Even though there are many out there, here is a list of the top ten acoustic guitar players.
Folk-rock legend Richard Thompson has such a wide musical vocabulary, his fingers might be the only ones capable of being able to work their way through 1000 Years of Popular Music. Most often relying on a hybrid picking technique – in which he plays bass and rhythm with a pick and plucks out melodies with his fingers – Thompson conjures what sounds like a full orchestra from a solitary acoustic guitar. Starting out in English folk group Fairport Convention, then forming a duo with his then-wife Linda Thompson, and going solo in the early ’80s, Richard has worked through a remarkable depth of styles – from middle age musical relics and traditional folk tunes to bluesy workouts and Britney Spears covers. His acoustic masterpiece, however, might be the haunting fingerstyle ballad “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” a tingling epic that so perfectly exhibits Thompson’s many talents when showcased in one of his outstanding live performances.
Long considered a foundational pillar of 20th century classical guitar, Andrés Segovia was universally celebrated for his modern-romantic repertoire, his immense catalog of classical transcriptions for the guitar, and his extremely emotive and expressive performances. Segovia was unmatched in his ability to coax an endless phalanx of tones from his guitar, and his mastery of intricate chord phrasings was unparalleled. Born Andrés Torres Segovia on February 21, 1893 in Andalucia, Spain, Segovia studied with various flamenco players in his youth, as well as at the Paris Conservatory in 1915. His musical preference and style, however, would evolve away from flamenco and more toward expressive art-music. Segovia’s fingerstyle incorporated a combination of fingernails and fingertips, which produced a sharper sound; this technique is preferred by a majority of modern classical players. Segovia was also an early devotee of nylon strings over gut strings because of nylon’s superiority in maintaining stable intonation.
Scottish folk guitarist and singer songwriter Bert Jansch achieved international prominence with folk group Pentangle in the late ’60s and quickly became revered by critics and musicians. None other than Jimmy Page said of Jansch’s solo debut album: “I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing.” His distinctive clawhammer technique, liberal use of unusual chords and love for bending strings slightly sharp and flat give his style a sound all of its own. But he remains a massive influence; just ask Johnny Marr: “He completely re-invented guitar playing and set a standard that is still unequalled today… without Bert Jansch, rock music as it developed in the ’60s and ’70s would have been very different.” Neil Young recently brought Jansch out on tour and but for health issues Jansch would be a worldwide household name. Miss out on Jansch at your peril.
There wouldn’t seem to be any straight musical line connecting Mississippi Fred McDowell, Appalachian murder ballads, Bela Bartok and Balinese gamelan music, but in his brilliantly iconoclastic career, steel string great John Fahey found those kind of connections and made them sound stunningly natural. With masterful fingerpicking technique, a bold, swooping approach to slide work, some uncanny string-bending ability, and his own inimitable way of having a solo line jump forward, Fahey was a consummate player and a unique stylist. Fahey is sometimes heralded as a guitar “primitivist” because when he began recording in the ’50s and early ’60s, he focused his talents on reviving and celebrating the folk, blues and old-time sounds of traditional American music. But he was never merely a revivalist or a traditionalist, and while “primitive” might aptly describe his proudly un-hip artistic sensibility, it doesn’t begin to describe the fearsome dexterity he brought to the instrument.
Steve Vai calls him “Uncle Adrian” and Joe Satriani just says, “He’s simply the best acoustic guitar player I’ve ever heard.” Londoner Adrian Legg has more technique in one finger than most of his peers have in all 10 and spent a large part of his career writing about acoustic playing for various guitar publications. His website is a wealth of information for anyone seeking expert advice and tips. Legg plays alternating bass fingerstyle and uses every technique under the sun from multiple hammer-ons to exquisite use of harmonics, banjo-peg retuning and single or double-string bending. But that’s just part of the picture; he’s also a terrific and off- the-wall entertainer, a witty raconteur and compelling performer and writer.
Emmanuel is one of those rare guitarists who possesses so many incredible qualities, he’s almost impossible to define. All you can do is stand in awe of his massive talent. He seemingly can move from one extreme to another, stylistically as well as technically, with amazing ease. His talents seem best displayed with his solo acoustic work, where his thumbpick and three-finger approach is simply without peer, but he is also a fantastic electric player, and a wonderful entertainer as well! What I love also is how Tommy can be pure “flash” and excitement, but he can also turn on a dime, and play with warm and sensitive emotion. He can handle some of the most complex guitar arrangements with pure ease and passion, and few can ever duplicate what he can do in terms of playing several parts at once on the guitar. Truly a master guitar player of epic proportions!
One of the all-time guitar greats, the bluesman to top all bluesmen might be the most influential guitarist in music history. Seemingly all players praise this king of the six-string, whose amazingly complex technique and soulful delivery continue to amaze more than 70 years after his death. When Rolling Stones axeman Keith Richards was first introduced to the long-gone musician’s recordings, he reportedly asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?” Of course, it was just Johnson on the recording. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” Richards said. But Johnson was just as admired by his contemporaries, who marveled at not just his skill, but his versatility to play country, jazz and slide guitar. Johnson was so good, a rumor developed that he sold his soul to Satan in exchange for his musical prowess. How many guitarists can claim a legend like that?
It’s one thing to be a remarkably accomplished instrumentalist – it’s another thing to almost completely reinvent the way in which your instrument is played. The classically trained Hedges was pioneering in his approach to the acoustic guitar, using hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonic slaps, alternate tunings and more to create a whole new vocabulary of sound for the instrument. In fact, there are still plenty of Hedges admirers valiantly trying to figure out how in the world he could pull bass lines, lead lines, moving chords and percussion parts all at once out of a single guitar. Hedges would loom as a guitar giant on technique alone, but the music he created was also extremely beautiful and deceptively playful (he wasn’t above slipping the lick from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” into an otherwise delicate melody). Hedges died in a car accident in 1997 at age 43. He remains a deeply missed talent whose exceptional music stands as an artistic challenge and a soulful inspiration to anyone who picks up a guitar.
Inspired by Merle Travis, Chet Atkins took fingerstyle guitar to new heights. As a live and session player in Nashville, he had no equal. Atkins would pick a bass line with his thumb on the lower strings and fingerpick melodies and harmonies with his other four fingers. The intricate way he did this, seemingly so effortless, influenced thousands – from Scotty Moore, Eric Johnson and Lonnie Mack to Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Albert Lee – but none could ever duplicate Atkins’ dexterity or musicality. He also understood the changing music industry and moved into production early on, working on Elvis, among others for RCA. His adoption of strings in country music refined the Nashville sound and country music’s ’60s crossover success. But it was as a picker that Atkins really defined himself and felt happiest. Knopfler called him the best guitarist in the world.
Belgium-born Jean “Django” Reinhardt was one of the earliest prominent jazz musicians in Europe, and he will forever reside on the very top-tier of the pantheon of great jazz axemen. Born to a musical family on January 23, 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-a-Celles, Belgium, Reinhardt’s youth was spent in various Gypsy encampments near Paris. He started playing violin, guitar and banjo at an early age – the earliest recordings of Reinhardt are from 1918, and he’s playing banjo – and by his teens he was supporting himself entirely through his music. Reinhardt’s lifelong wizardry on the acoustic guitar was all the more amazing considering the horrific burns he received over much of his body, including his left “fret” hand, when his home went up in flames. The third and fourth fingers of his left hand were partially paralyzed, yet after rehabilitation he was able to adjust his playing style to use his two good fingers predominately and his damaged fingers to make chords. A number of Reinhardt compositions remain jazz standards, including “Djangology,” “Swing 42,” “Minor Swing” and “Nuages.