The electric guitar often steals the show in the eyes of onlookers that are listening to a musical group. However, most guitarists know that the acoustic guitar requires a whole set of skills on its own.
World-class playing often presents itself on an acoustic guitar. This sound and style of playing tend to not be hidden behind effects, making every note easy to hear.
Here are some of the best acoustic players to have ever played the instrument. You can be sure that their influence has far reaches beyond their genres.
As far as bluegrass goes, Tony Rice was one of the most influential guitar players in the genre. With a career spanning over 40 years, his contributions remain to be reflected upon by generations of guitarists.
Throughout his career, Rice had many collaborations with some of the most well-known musicians in bluegrass. In fact, Rice was instrumental in progressing the genre beyond its folk roots.
He might not have the professional accolades that some other guitarists on this list have achieved. However, any serious acoustic player will tell you that Rice’s playing is worth more than a plaque on a wall.
Tony was one of those rare guitarists that was always aware of the skills he had. As his body began to fail, he retreated from performances until he could play with the chops he once had.
If you thought playing with a full set of fingers on your fretting hand was hard, try working with 2. Django Reinhardt has proven that he could do with 2 fingers what most people can’t do with a full set.
When he was younger, this jazz guitarist lost most of the function of his fretting hand fingers in a fire. He was left with an index finger and a middle finger to play the intricate leads you hear today.
This is a fact that continues to astonish people, particularly because his playing is so exquisite. Django Reinhardt will forever be one of the greatest acoustic players to have ever touched the instrument.
While most of his recordings stem from the 1930s and 1940s, they still hold up quite well today. The spirit and tradition of gypsy jazz are still in style today, no doubt influenced by Reinhardt’s playing.
In the 1960s, the guitar was starting to be utilized in a number of different ways. Artists were discovering how to push the instrument in different directions.
Jerry Reed was a Georgia native who developed a very unique swamp country style. His playing was completely mind-bending, although Reed made it look like it was easy.
In some ways, Reed was the complete package. He was a masterful guitarist, prime entertainer, and avid storyteller, as well as an actor.
As a musician, Jerry Reed has had massive hits ranging in nearly every decade of his career. He even wrote the theme for Smokey and the Bandit, in which he also played an acting role.
Jerry Reed was truly a country star in one of the last golden eras of country music. His playing will go down as some of the best to be recorded.
Billy Strings might be one of the youngest players on this list, but don’t let that fool you. This guitarist has shown the world that he can play the guitar just as well as the greats.
Before he was even 30 years old, he was invited to play with the biggest names in the industry. He is starting to become a household name with some of his more recent tours being sold out.
It’s a safe bet that Billy Strings has a long career ahead of him. His playing already ranks with some of the best to ever pick up the guitar.
Just imagine what a few more decades of experience could do for Billy Strings. 3 generations from now, people will still be talking about this guitar player.
For most of his career, Eric Clapton has been seen primarily with an electric guitar in hand. In fact, he is probably better known for being an electric player.
However, when he released his infamous MTV Unplugged album in the 90s, he showed he was a competent acoustic player. This album remains to be one of the best albums of all time and helped Clapton’s career see a resurgence.
Not only can Clapton bust out a mean guitar solo on an acoustic, but his fingerpicking is also world-class. It’s clear that he spent a lot of time listening to the early recordings of Delta blues musicians.
Sure, maybe other guitarists can play with more technique and speed than Clapton can muster. However, Clapton’s influence on music as a whole is undeniable, making him one of the best ever.
If you ask anyone who the most influential fingerpicker of all time is, they’d most likely answer Tommy Emmanuel. It’s a safe bet to say that this is a common belief amongst most guitarists.
Listening to any Emmanuel piece will blow your mind with his complex fingerstyle patterns and use of rhythm. Emmanuel is by far one of the most virtuosic acoustic players in recent musical history.
Most people’s introduction to Tommy Emmanuel is through his cover of Mason Williams’s Classical Gas. In fact, it’s probably just as famous as the original recorded version.
There aren’t too many guitarists that play with the technical tenacity that Emmanuel employs. For that, he will always be one of the best acoustic players of all time.
As far as traditional styles of bluegrass and country music go, Doc Watson is one of the best. His legacy remains to be extremely influential and his name is synonymous with bluegrass music.
While he might have been blind, Doc Watson employed a masterful touch on the guitar. His flatpicking skills were otherworldly for the time, prompting many guitarists to study his music and learn his techniques.
Watson was not slowed down by his age by any means. In fact, his last performance was only a month before he died at the age of 89.
It’s a safe bet that Doc Watson’s influence will live on for many generations. Acoustic players will inevitably be influenced by his playing, even if indirectly.
Del McCoury is another name that is synonymous with bluegrass music. Since 1958, he’s been actively pushing the boundaries of what is capable in the genre.
While you might recognize him by his iconic hairstyle, Del’s playing is truly the star of the show. His stage presence is calm and he’s not afraid to shout if one of his bandmates plays some slick lines.
Del’s influence reaches far beyond the bluegrass genre. He has one of the largest followings for a pure bluegrass player.
One of the most iconic events in the genre is DelFest, which has been going strong since 2008.
It’s safe to say that Del has had a lifetime's worth of achievements. There aren’t any signs of him slowing that musical train at all.
Most music genres seem to have their own kings. Blues has B.B. King, rock has Elvis, but who is the king of bluegrass?
That distinction would have to go to Jimmy Martin, who spent a great deal of time working with Bill Monroe. Martin’s contributions helped to push Monroe’s sound in a different direction, which was highly successful.
Eventually, Martin struck out on his own, forming a group called The Sunny Mountain Boys. This group would continue for a few decades, with Martin occasionally appearing on high-profile shows.
The biggest of these was undoubtedly the Grand Ole Opry, on which he appeared fairly frequently. However, because he had a volatile personality, he was never asked to officially become part of the show.
The name Segovia is often synonymous with the classical guitar style. He has done more for this style of guitar than just about anyone else in modern history.
Segovia was truly a virtuosic player, but he was kind enough to share his talents with the world. Quite a few professionals in today’s industry actually studied under Segovia as a guitar student.
In fact, if you go to any musical college for classical guitar, you’ll probably be studying Segovia. His influence in this realm of music will forever live on.
Segovia was a one-of-a-kind musician that had the utmost respect of any listener. He was even granted nobility in Spain because of his musical contributions.
Are you familiar with the staple bluegrass song Ginseng Sullivan? This popular song was written by Norman Blake, an influential flatpicker, and one of the best of all time.
Blake spent a decade working with Johnny Cash, working as a studio session player, and going on the road. This musical relationship continued through the majority of Cash’s life, putting Blake’s playing into the public ear.
Throughout his massive career, Norman Blake has released nearly 40 different albums. Many of these include collaborations with prominent bluegrass musicians, including Tony Rice.
He even contributed to the soundtracks of popular films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk The Line.
Norman Blake is a truly competent musician, with capabilities spanning other instruments including the banjo, fiddle, and viola.
The guitar has seen its fair share of child prodigies throughout the overall history of the instrument itself. One prodigy, Julian Lage, has the chops that land him in the rankings as one of the best.
Julian’s skills were so great that he performed at the Grammy Awards when he was just 10 years old. That alone is a massive feat that some musicians spend a lifetime never achieving.
Lage’s journey certainly didn’t stop in childhood. As he was just becoming a teenager, he joined the staff at Stanford’s Jazz Workshop.
You know that when a well-respected college asks a child to be faculty, they have to have serious skills.
Julian Lage has managed to stay busy in his professional career. He has a long list of contributions to many artists including David Grisman, Yoko Ono, and Nels Cline.
While he is mostly known for the mandolin, Ricky Skaggs is a highly accomplished acoustic guitar player. He exercises total command of the acoustic, with blazing fast leads being no difficult task.
For over 60 years, Ricky Skaggs has been contributing music for the world to enjoy. Skaggs was once one of the youngest to ever be invited as a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
At a time when country music was waning in the public spotlight, Skaggs has been credited with carrying the torch. When Chet Atkins says you’re saving country music, you know it has to be true.
Skaggs recently received the National Medal of Arts, which is the absolute highest official decoration an artist can receive. With a career like this, a medal like that is certainly well-deserved.
James Taylor is one of the greatest songwriters to emerge from the 1970s. His exquisite songwriting and lush voice were perfectly complemented by his delicate acoustic guitar work.
In fact, this was such a winning combination that it lead to him selling well beyond 100 million albums. Even today, James Taylor’s sound is extremely potent and instantly recognizable.
His most famous albums by far are Sweet Baby James, and Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. These early-1970s albums are what put James Taylor into the mainstream and receiving regular radio play.
Taylor’s works would go on to inspire generations of aspiring singer-songwriters. Many look to his honest lyricism and complex fingerstyle patterns as a source of inspiration.
Al Di Meola
For nearly 50 years, Al Di Meola has presented himself as a true wizard of the guitar. His performances go down in history as some of the most serious instances of pushing the guitar’s boundaries.
Al got his start working in Chick Corea’s band Return To Forever. Corea himself is one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, so this was a massive stamp of approval.
Some of Al Di Meola’s most famous works are those that blend Spanish classical elements with fusion jazz. His blazing solos can make anyone’s jaw drop to the floor.
Al continues to dazzle audiences and has been consistently releasing new albums nearly every year or two. Despite his age, Al Di Meola looks as if he’s never aged a single day in his life.
John Mayer is a household name when it comes to modern pop music. He essentially got his start in the realm of pop, eventually showing that he had much more to offer.
Alongside his distinct pop sensibilities, John Mayer has proved himself to be highly competent on the guitar. He’s clearly spent a lot of time studying the greatest of those who came before him.
While John might be best known for the electric guitar, he is also a highly skilled acoustic player. Some of his acoustic songs are often attempted as a challenge for learning guitarists because of their difficulty.
In terms of his career, John Mayer has been steadily consistent and always finds a way to remain relevant. The best part is that he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down his production.
It will be very interesting to see what Mayer has in store for the world as his career progresses. He is widely regarded as one of the best of all time, with plenty of evidence to support that claim.
When it comes to the guitar overall, Chet Atkins is by far one of the most influential players. Atkins helped to redefine the possibilities of what the guitar could do.
In fact, many people credit Atkins with saving country music, but he had influences well outside of the genre. It was Chet’s unique blend of country, jazz, and classical that really gained him the world’s attention.
That classic Nashville sound is often attributed to Chet’s guitar tone on his records. It was these sounds that would go on to influence generations of guitar players of all genres.
One of the best things about Atkins was the fact that he was always learning new things. He even worked with Eric Johnson, who is a genre-bending guitarist in his own right.
Chet Atkins is definitely royalty when it comes to the guitar in general. Both his acoustic and electric recordings remain a true gift to humanity.
Have you ever heard of Travis picking? It’s a technique employed by millions of guitarists to emulate a ragtime piano.
That technique, which has become a commonplace skill, originated from Merle Travis. Merle is one of the few guitarists in history that has had such a massive impact on other guitarists.
It is for this reason that Merle Travis deserves to be named as one of the best of all time. His technique forever changed the way the guitar would be played.
Paco de Lucía
In the 1970s, jazz was influenced by a wide range of different geographical styles of music. One of the biggest contributors to the Spanish classical influence was Paco de Lucía.
De Lucía’s contributions to the musical world are rich with highly complex techniques. In fact, many people hold Paco in the same regard as Andres Segovia.
Today, his work continues to be massively influential amongst serious guitar players. He possesses skills that can truly scare you (in the best way possible).
No list of best acoustic guitar players would be complete without the mention of Robert Johnson. There have been few guitarists that were as influential as he has been.
Johnson’s life is shrouded in mystery and is one of the most famous instances of Faustian mythology. Did Johnson sell his soul to the devil in exchange for otherworldly guitar skills?
It’s safe to say that nobody had ever heard anything quite like Johnson’s guitar playing. His recordings are enough to make anyone believe he might have actually gone through with the deed.
Plus, there are countless stories of how Johnson wasn’t actually all that good. Many say that his nightly visits to the cemetery and his infamous deal at the crossroads resulted in his skills.
Regardless of the mythology, Robert Johnson’s acoustic guitar playing was extremely influential. His work helped to inspire and inform generations of blues guitarists.
Some of the guitarists that have openly admitted to his influence include:
- Eric Clapton
- Keith Richards
- Bob Dylan
Much of his work is still covered to this day. He likely never would have guessed that he would achieve this much fame after his death.
If you were alive in the early 1970s, chances are that you would have watched the show, Hee Haw. This music variety show was hosted by Roy Clark, who possessed truly virtuosic guitar skills.
Roy Clark was a true entertainer for his time. It wouldn’t be uncommon for him to effortlessly show off his skills while being extremely humorous at the same time.
That, in part, is what made Roy Clark such a joy to watch on television. This golden era of television was one of the last instances of an entertainer of Roy Clark’s form.
He wasn’t exactly popular during his life, but Nick Drake has become regarded as one of the best. The digitization of music has allowed more people to discover and become addicted to his unique works.
Among his releases is Pink Moon, which is often ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time. This album features complex guitar work that colors on the lines of traditional song forms.
Drake’s sound is truly distinct and does seem to have a metaphysical aspect embedded into it. One cannot help but feel a certain mysterious X-factor that exists in his songs.
What’s fascinating is that Nick was actually self-taught, which is partially why he has such a unique sound. He would frequently combine alternate tunings and fingerstyle patterns for a complex tapestry of sound.
Nick’s life is a bit of a tragedy, especially considering that he never got to experience his successes firsthand. Over his career, depression caused him to self-isolate and live in frugality, eventually succumbing to an overdose of antidepressants.
Drake’s work remains some of the most haunting and beautiful to ever be recorded. Any guitarist would do well to discover his catalog for themselves.
Charo is best-known as a sort of pop star. She has a distinct hairstyle that is signature to her appearance, which can usually help one to easily recognize her.
But, unless you’ve given Charo’s work a proper chance, you likely wouldn’t be aware of her extreme guitar skills. Yes, that’s right, Charo is a very accomplished flamenco player.
In fact, she won a number of awards in 1995 for her flamenco playing on the album Guitar Passion. Don’t overlook Charo because she really is one of the best acoustic players of all time.
As jazz was being influenced by world music in the 1970s, John McLaughlin brought the Indian influence. McLaughlin himself is an extremely well-regarded guitarist in jazz circles, having contributed to a number of Miles Davis records.
John founded the progressive fusion jazz band Mahavishnu Orchestra to expand jazz’s boundaries using an Eastern influence. But it was his work in Shakti that saw him really employing the acoustic guitar to a wondrous effect.
McLaughlin’s playing is very much influenced by the sitar. Much of his phrasing takes on a sitar-like quality, playing on songs that have meters rooted in Indian classical music.
Another one of the youngest players on this list is Molly Tuttle. Despite her age, she’s proven that she has the skills to be ranked among the very best of all time.
In fact, Tuttle is well-versed in many of the classic bluegrass techniques, including flatpicking, crosspicking, and the clawhammer. She manages to carry on the traditional bluegrass elements while presenting something fresh for the world to enjoy.
Her professional career is already off to an amazing start. The awards she’s earned alone help to rank her as one of the best.
Plus, Molly is a rarity in the guitar community, which is an environment that tends to be dominated by men. Molly serves as a proper role model to show that women have just as much to contribute as men.
In the 1970s, the music world began to offer instructional videos for anybody that wanted to learn. If you wanted to learn acoustic fingerstyle, chances are likely that you might have learned from Stefan Grossman.
It was Grossman who began to produce the videos for the popular Vestapol series. This lineup of videos would often feature some of the biggest names to ever play the guitar.
In fact, Grossman’s work with this series plays a massive role in the preservation of modern music. If it wasn’t for his work, many of the techniques of the greats might have been lost forever.
It could be said that Grossman’s instructional videos planted a seed that we are just now seeing the fruits of. Would the model for internet-based guitar lessons exist had Grossman’s videos not been available?
Because of his absolute skill, and because of his dedication to education, Grossman is one of the best. The influence of his work is undeniable, with no scale capable of measuring his reach.
When it comes to influential acoustic guitar players, mention must be made of Bert Jansch. This Scottish guitarist has influenced some of the biggest names to ever be associated with the guitar.
Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Nick Drake, and Paul Simon are just a small sampling of the guitarists he’s influenced. He is one of the few musicians to ever receive multiple Lifetime Achievement Awards from the BBC.
Bert would often employ Travis picking, using colorful chord extensions to give his compositions a unique sound. Many of his work is also ripe with complex time signatures as his playing truly accompanied his role as a singer.
It is said that Jansch spent a good amount of time traveling the world to learn different styles of music. Much of these life experiences can really be heard in Jansch’s works, setting him apart from other musicians.
Many regard Bert as being one of the very best acoustic players of all time. Neil Young has even called him the acoustic guitar’s version of Jimi Hendrix.
If you aren’t well-versed in the world of bluegrass music, you’re missing out on some world-class playing. In fact, you would be completely unaware that people like Bryan Sutton are playing the acoustic guitar.
Just who is Bryan Sutton? Well, for starters, he began his career working for Ricky Skaggs, who is also featured in this article.
It was through his work in Ricky’s group that Bryan Sutton began to make a name for himself. He would eventually leave the group to focus primarily on being a session guitarist.
This area of his career is most impressive, boasting credits on over 100 albums from 1999 to the present day. Many of these albums are by some of the biggest names in the industry, including:
- Dixie Chicks
- Dolly Parton
- Brad Paisley
- George Strait
- Martina McBride
- Kenny Rogers
- Dierks Bently
- Trace Adkins
- Brooks & Dunn
- Taylor Swift
- Tim McGraw
If that wasn’t enough, Sutton has plenty of awards to show for his extreme versatility. The International Bluegrass Music Association named him Guitar Player of the Year 10 times between 2000 and 2016.
It just goes to show that many of today’s best players aren’t often seen in the limelight of the industry. Rather, these people are employed in the studio to perform for some of the best albums to ever be recorded.
This list certainly would not be complete without giving a nod of recognition to Lenny Breau. This man was truly a unique acoustic player who truly had a unique musical identity.
Much of Breau’s work falls within the realm of jazz music. However, he approached music in vastly different ways than any other guitarist of his time.
One way in which Breau was much different was the fact that he would occasionally play 7-string guitars. Even today, 6-string guitars remain the norm unless a certain genre calls for extra strings.
Lenny was directly influenced by Chet Atkins, expanding his interests with flamenco techniques and Travis picking. In many ways, Breau plays the guitar in much the same way that one would play the piano.
All of this combined is what gives Lenny Breau such a distinct style. In a way, there really hasn’t been another guitarist quite like Bert.
He might not have the fame that others on this list have. However, he more than makes up for it with his inventive playing.
Top Acoustic Guitar Players Of All Time, Final Thoughts
It’s probably a safe bet that this grouping of musicians failed to include many well-known players. However, each has had a definitive role, in one way or another, in pushing the boundaries of the acoustic.
These acoustic players will be looked upon as those that revolutionized what was possible. They are the ones that set the bar, only for somebody else to raise the bar higher.
In some ways, each of these players has both set and raised the bar in their own respective manner.
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