Frequently Asked Questions
About Acoustic Guitar


Who Should I Listen To? (Great Acoustic Guitarists)

This is a very subjective topic.  There are tons of great musicians to choose from.   There are many who are often cited as being masters in a particular style, or having a style all their own that sets them apart from the rest of the guitar playing community.  The following list is by no means definitive.  It is merely a listing of the artists and performers who frequently come up in discussions on rmmga.  Think of the following recommendations as a survey of acoustic guitar musical styles, as well as a survey of great musicians.  For a more complete lists see:

Fingerstyle guitar can be broken down into two basic categories, old and new.  By old, we generally mean country blues popularized during the 1920's and 30's by black artists in the South, Chicago, and New York.   By new, we mean contemporaries of these popular country blues players, as well as modern players who have developed their own style or greatly expanded upon the ideas of those who preceded them. 

Early 20th Century
The most extensive historic list of these artists can be found on Wikipedia.  But here is selected set of significant artists, but by no means all inclusive.

: Over the last 10 years, this list has gotten huge.   What is listed here is not really representative of all the significant fingerstyle guitar players today.  I will attempt to fill this in as time goes on.  

  • Chet Atkins
    We really don't need to tell anything about this guy do we?
  • Muriel Anderson
    Muriel Anderson was raised in a musical family in Downers Grove, Illinois.  Her mother taught piano and her grandfather had played saxophone in John Philip Sousa's band.   Muriel fell in love with the guitar at age ten and learned every style available to her, culminating in classical guitar study at DePaul University.  She went on to study with classical virtuoso Christopher Parkening and with Nashville legend Chet Atkins.   In 1989 Muriel won the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship.
  • Duck Baker
    Richard Royall "Duck" Baker is a fingerpicker of the first order.  He first became widely known for his recordings on Kicking Mule Records containing fingerpicked arrangements of Irish and Celtic tunes.   Thereafter he began arranging for fingerpicked guitar other musical genres, including ragtime, blues, renaissance, swing, and jazz.   He has also produced anthologies of fingerpicking guitar music for Kicking Mule and Shanachie records, and lessons for Stephen Grossman's Guitar Workshop. 
    Recently, he has been recording and touring with his wife, Molly Andrews, performing a collection of songs under the broad classification "American Traditional". Unlike many professional musicians, Duck is an articulate writer, so he frequently writes articles and liner-notes as well as guitar lessons.
  • Pierre Bensusan
    Pierre Bensusan's name has become synonymous with contemporary acoustic guitar genius, long before the terms New Age or World Music were invented.  
    Working exclusively in the unusual DADGAD tuning, Pierre has developed a bittersweet melodic approach that incorporates Folk, Celtic, Jazz, Impressionist, Brazilian, Medieval, Latin, North African rhythms, wordless vocals and French songs. Bensusan has established himself as a compelling concert performer and a stellar contributor to worldwide music festivals.
  • Pat Donohue
    Pat Donohue is "a masterful guitarist and talented singer-songwriter of blues, folk and jazz" (Los Angeles Times). His talents are displayed weekly in his appearances on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion where his guitar playing writing and singing are featured regularly. 
  • Doyle Dykes
    Truly, nothing one might say or hear about Doyle Dykes can prepare the listener for the actual experience of hearing him play the guitar. Like a number of great guitarists, this resident of the Tennessee River Valley is blessed with a natural affinity for the instrument, which he has developed into virtuoso technique through many years of hard work and dedication.  However, Dykes' talent goes well beyond the kind of technical prowess that comes with practice and repetition.  Both by writing dazzlingly original compositions and by creating dynamic, interpretive arrangements of standard and sacred repertoire (much of it rarely attempted on solo guitar), he transforms his impressive skills into an emotionally powerful tool for musical communication.
  • Tommy Emmanuel The guy Chet Atkins called one of the greatest guitar players on the planet....and that ain't no lie!
  • Alex de Grassi
    Alex de Grassi recorded his first album Turning: Turning Back in 1978 for Will Ackerman's then-fledgling Windham Hill label (Acoustic Guitar magazine recently cited this album among the top ten essential finger-style recordings).   The overwhelmingly positive response to the album and the follow-up, Slow Circle, launched him on a career as one of the most innovative fingerstyle guitarists and composers of eclectic music. 
  • Ed Gerhard
    With musical inspirations ranging from Andrés Segovia to Mississippi John Hurt, Ed Gerhard has created a "guitar voice" of his own that is being recognized and praised worldwide.  Known for his gorgeous tone and compositional depth, Gerhard can move a listener with a single note.
  • Laurence Juber
    Laurence Juber has been playing guitar for over 35 years, and was the lead guitarist in Paul McCartney's band, Wings, winning a "Best Rock Instrumental" Grammy for the song, "Rockestra".    However, Laurence, best known to his fans as "LJ", has since established himself as a musician in his own right, releasing six acoustic guitar instrumental cd's, featuring his unique fingerstyle technique and extensive use of alternate tunings. 
  • Phil Keaggy
    Quote from Tom Loredo:  For those of you wondering who Keaggy is, he is best known as an incredibly brilliant and lyrical guitarist, a master of a wide variety of acoustic and electric styles.  Much of his music is characterized as "Contemporary Christian Music" (CCM), and thus he has not received the attention his talent deserves.  An interview with Keaggy appears in the May/June 1992 issue of Acoustic Guitar with the subtitle, "One of the best guitar players you may never have heard"!  
  • Steven King
    Recording artist Steven King is an "acoustic jazz" fingerstylist whose skills won him the National Fingerpicking Championship at the prestigious Walnut Valley Festival, in Winfield, Kansas. An accomplished improviser, composer, orchestrator, arranger, and accompanist, Steven's favorite performance mode is the acoustic guitar. He is that rare guitarist who convincingly executes simultaneous ("true") walking bass lines, chords, melodies, and rhythms. Steven's many recordings of original and cover material and two instructional videos have elicited superlatives from the guitar press, and dealers have nothing but praise for his Taylor workshops.
  • Leo Kottke
    Quoted from a bio by B.A. Head:
    Leo has had a prolific career, delivering 19 studio records, four live records, six compilations and at least four movie soundtracks.  He has jammed and recorded with a wide range of musicians, from Chet Atkins to Procul Harum to the Violent Femmes.  He has won the Guitar Player magazine annual readers poll as best folk guitarist for four years in a row, from 1974 to 1978.  Leo has also influenced an entire generation of acoustic guitarists -- including such fingerstyle innovators as the late, great Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, Peppino D'Agostino and Don Ross, to name just a few.  Given these accomplishments and the general accessibility of his music, it is unbelievable and almost tragic that relatively so few members of the general public have heard of him.  
    In the more than 25 years that Leo has been composing, arranging and playing guitar music, his style has evolved from the blindingly fast and aggressive to the rhythmically delicate and intricate.  He is always reinventing and reinterpreting his own music and that of others. While you'll usually find Leo in the "folk" section of your record store, or sometimes in the "new age" section and rarely in the "jazz" section, his music is in fact all and none of these: it is simply "Leo."
  • Adrian Legg
    An amazing electric fingerstyle guitarist.   He plays custom made ovation guitars, and uses alternate tunings almost exclusively.  His music includes anything from bluegrass to waltzes, with lots in between.  His style and sound are very unique; he does lots of string bends, and uses quick-tuners mid-song which sometimes mimicks a pedal-steel guitar.  During his concerts, he talks almost as much as he plays; which can be just as entertaining as he relates song origins, his British background, and humorous thoughts on life in general. 
  • Billy McLaughlin
    Billy McLaughlin is recognized as one of the world's finest guitarists and composers.  He was named "Acoustic Guitarist of the Year by the Minnesota Music Academy in 1996.  His electrifying live performances and independently released albums have garnered rave reviews and high profile visibility from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Billboard and Acoustic Musician.  He is currently performing more than 125 concerts a year.
  • El McMeen
    El McMeen is an accomplished fingerstyle player who specializes primarily in "Celtic Music".  He is considered to be THE authority on this style of music.  He has 5 books published by Mel Bay which are dedicated to this popular style.  He has recorded 4 albums as well as an instructional video.  If you like the Celtic style of music and want to learn to play this style, El McMeen's music, books, and web site should be on your list.
  • Dorian Michael
    A guitarist/composer with roots in neofolk stylings representative of early Leo Kottke recordings, Michael is nonetheless his own musical man.   Crisp picking, rhythmic drive, a diversity of well-crafted compositions and intensity balanced with a sense of humor characterize this fine artist.  He has studied and worked with almost every style except flamenco (never wanting to play quite that fast.)
  • Franco Morone
    This top Italian fingerstylist is recognized and praised as one of the most gifted  performers of the international guitar scene.
  • Al Petteway
    Al Petteway has won 12 WAMMIE awards (Washington [D.C.] Area Music Association awards) for his instrumental albums, which feature some of the nicest fingerstyle playing fusing Celtic and American traditions you're likely to hear, often with accompaniment by Uilleann pipes, digeridoo, bodhran, and other traditional instruments.
  • Preston Reed
    Preston Reed plays acoustic steel string guitar in a revolutionary, self-invented percussive style that integrates simultaneous melodies and drum rhythms. Drawing on jazz, rock, funk and ethnic musical influences and combining the skills of a drummer, keyboardist and guitarist, Preston performs unique compositions that transform the guitar as we know it into a new instrument.  Called "phenomenal" by Al DiMeola and "inspiring" by the late Michael Hedges, Preston's solo concerts are amazing and delighting audiences throughout the world while his workshops challenge an entire generation of guitar players to think differently about the creative possibilities of the acoustic guitar.
  • Chris Proctor
    Chris Proctor was a pioneer of the contemporary fingerstyle guitar movement, arriving on the scene after Leo Kottke but before the Windham Hill label popularized the style in the early '80s. Since then, Chris has won the national fingerpicking competition at the prestigious Winfield festival, and has released several exceptional, well-received albums of original music, as well as instructional videos and books. As one of Taylor's most active clinicians, Chris is on the road most of the year, interspersing workshops with the numerous concerts he performs all over the country, and charming audiences with a style one critic referred to as "baroque folk."
  • John Renbourn
    John Renbourn has been at the forefront of innovative acoustic guitar playing since the mid-sixties when, along with Davey Graham and Bert Jansch, he was in the vanguard of the British Folk Revival. He was a founder member of the successful "Folk Baroque" group, Pentangle, and then went on to form other alliances such as the John Renbourn Group and Ship of Fools.

    John's musical tastes range from classic American Folk/Blues through medieval and early classical to Jazz and his current interest in Celtic music. Apart from his numerous solo recordings and appearances, he regularly performs with a wide variety of other artists such as Robin Williamson, Isaac Guillory, Stefan Grossman, Archie Fisher, and Duck Baker.

  • Don Ross
    Don Ross has emerged as one of the most respected musicians in Canada and one of the top guitarists in the world.  In September 1996, he managed to do what no other player has done: win the prestigious U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship for the second time (he first won in 1988). The competition, held yearly in Winfield, Kansas, cannot be won only with immaculate technique, but the player's music must also display a high degree of emotion and intensity — hallmarks of Don's style.
  • Martin Simpson
    Martin Simpson is one of the world's premiere acoustic guitarists, and a powerful songwriter with a rich, charactered voice. His playing is quite idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable, and revered among guitar fans. His body of work is diverse, encompassing all types of traditional and acoustic music, and he has toured with everyone from June Tabor to Steve Miller.  Another great Simpson site.
  • Tim Sparks
    Here is what Leo Kottke has to say about Tim Sparks:
    "I'm Tim Sparks' biggest fan.  His stuff is very difficult to play but it doesn't sound difficult.  I think that's real musicianship.  He's really one of the best musicians I know."  Let's face it, when you get that kind of respect from Leo Kottke ... what more needs to be said.

Though bluegrass and old-time string band music have been around for a long time, the use of guitar as a lead instrument is a fairly recent development.  The styles of flatpick guitar for other than rhythm playing range from relatively simple statements of song/tune melodies to spontaneous melodic improvisation much as a jazz soloist might play.

Most bluegrass and flatpicking guitarists play dreadnought guitars.  There are a few reasons for this: a) Tradition: "Well, that's what Uncle Newt and Cousin Stub played." b) Bass response: Dreadnoughts have a strong bass response, which makes them the ideal guitar for playing rhythm behind a string band. c) Loud: Bluegrass/flatpicking guitarists have to compete with _seriously_ loud instruments like banjos and fiddles.  Small-bodied guitars sound sweet by themselves, but they quickly get lost when doing single-string lead work in an ensemble that includes louder instruments.

Norman Blake
Norman Blake plays in a deceptively simple, elegant style.  He's not a 900-mile-an-hour fire-breathing monster, as are some of the folks discussed below (see Tony Rice, Mark O'Connor).  He plays in a syncopated, chord-based, "self-contained" style in which the melody and chords are played together.   Not really a "bluegrass" guitarist as such, he classifies his music as "old-time country", though it's quite different from what is usually called "old-time" music nowadays.  One of his chief claims to fame is resurrecting obscure old fiddle tunes and songs and arranging them for guitar.  Good examples of such tunes are "President Garfield's Hornpipe," "Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine," and "Whiskey Before Breakfast" (which has become a standard part of most flatpickers' repertoire). 

He's been a studio musician on many albums (including Bob Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" and Michelle Shocked's "Arkansas Traveller"). He's usually found in the company of his wife Nancy (who accompanies him on a 1929 Martin 00-45 and cello).   Norman Blake's instrument of choice is a 1934 Martin D-18, which is a mahogany dreadnought with wide fingerboard, slotted peghead, and 12 frets clear of the body.

Maybelle Carter
Maybelle (of carter family fame) wasn't a flashy picker, but is generally credited for popularizing the style where the melody is picked on the bass strings.   I believe she was using the style as early as the late 20's.

Dan Crary
Dan Crary is one of the inventors of the style.  He is a very fleet and fluid player who invented many of the licks and runs that have become standard cliches of the flatpicking vocabulary.  Dan Crary's instrument of choice is a Taylor Dan Crary model, which is a 14-fret cutaway rosewood dreadnought.

Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman is the only three-time winner of the National Flatpicking Championship, which is held yearly in Winfield Kansas, USA. Steve is an extremely inventive, humorous, and fluid player, with impeccable tone and a seemingly bottomless well of improvisational ideas.  His melodic material seems to be more based in traditional melodies and harmonies than in the blues and jazz vocabularies as with, say, Mark O'Connor and Tony Rice.  He also has lots of instructional material available, and he (or more usually his answering machine) can be reached by phone at 1-800-FLATPIK.   He publishes a free quarterly publication called "The Flatpicking Hotline."  Steve Kaufman's current instrument of choice is a seven-string Gallagher cutaway rosewood dreadnought.  (The seventh string is tuned to a low B, two octaves below the second string. He uses a 0.066" gauge for the seventh string.)

Mark O'Connor
Though known these days primarily as a prolific Nashville studio session fiddler, Mark O'Connor is a virtuoso flatpicker of the highest order.  A child prodigy, he won the National Flatpicking Championship at age 14.  His playing is very fast, very clean, and melodically very chromatic and intense.  Many of his melodic ideas seem closely related to those of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and saxophonist John Coltrane.

Tony Rice
Tony Rice is one of the true visionaries in the world of flatpick guitar. He's a very adept player and is a brilliant linear improvisor, with a vocabulary all his own.  A significant portion of his playing is based in the pentatonic and blues scales, and he has a rhythmic drive that no-one can match.  He can develop a line that moves logically between very traditional-sounding melodic areas and some very modern-sounding modal/pentatonic areas.  One striking aspect of Tony's playing is the evenness of his articulation - it's almost more like a piano or even a clarinet than a guitar.  Melodically, Tony Rice is the player that it seems most young flatpickers try to sound like (with varying results and degrees of success).  Until recently, his instrument of choice was the famous Clarence White/Tony Rice herringbone, a modified pre-war Martin D-28 with a large soundhole and non-original, bound fingerboard with no fret markers.  That guitar was damaged last year when his house was flooded.    His current instrument of choice is a Santa Cruz Tony Rice Model D, which is basically a copy of the White/Rice 'bone.

Doc Watson
Doc Watson is the grand old man of flatpick guitar.  He first came to prominence as a flatpicker in the Folk Boom of the '60's.  He plays in a clear, sparkling down-home, "ragtimey" style.  He usually plays in smaller ensembles, typically with just one or two other guitars.  He is often seen accompanied by Jack Lawrence, who is a great picker in his own right.  He most often plays mahogany dreadnoughts.

Clarence White
Clarence White was one of the inventors of the flatpicking style, and with The Kentucky Colonels, became one of the first guitarists to break out of the "strictly rhythm" role of the guitarist in most bluegrass bands.  He played with great speed, economy, cleanness, and inventiveness.  He played many guitars, but he is most associated with the famous White/Rice herringbone mentioned above.   Clarence White was run over and killed by a drunk driver in 1973, while carrying equipment to his car.  He is sorely missed.


Lenny Breau
Breau is noted for his skill at self-accompaniment, and his use of artificial harmonics.  His solo playing often sounds like two guitarists. Two of his solo albums - Five O'Clock Bells, and Mo' Breau - are available on a single CD, on the GENES label.

Steven King
Recording artist Steven King is an "acoustic jazz" fingerstylist whose skills won him the National Fingerpicking Championship at the prestigious Walnut Valley Festival, in Winfield, Kansas. An accomplished improviser, composer, orchestrator, arranger, and accompanist, Steven's favorite performance mode is the acoustic guitar. He is that rare guitarist who convincingly executes simultaneous ("true") walking bass lines, chords, melodies, and rhythms. Steven's many recordings of original and cover material and two instructional videos have elicited superlatives from the guitar press, and dealers have nothing but praise for his Taylor workshops.

Earl Klugh
Klugh uses a nylon-string acoustic to play fingerstyle Jazz.  Check out Earl Klugh Trio, Vol. 1 for a fine example of his work.

Joe Pass

Django Reinhardt
Reinhardt was a Belgian Gypsy who became the only European to significantly influence Jazz during the swing era.  He lost the use of his pinky and ring finger on his fretting hand after being burned in a caravan fire when he was eighteen.   Despite the loss, Reinhardt's speed, and power were phenomenal.   Melodically, he was an arpeggio-based player, who also posessed a highly sophisticated sense of harmony, though he could not read or write a note of music.   He was one of the only Jazz guitarists to use a flattop acoustic guitar. An excellent collection of his recordings is available on a set of CDs called Djangology/USA on the Disques Swing label (distributed in the US by DRG Records).


There are invariably those artists that can not be classified as fingerpickers or flatpickers.  They fall into the "Other" category.

Eugene Chadbourne
Eugene Chadbourne is an incredible guitarist that most people have never heard of.  His playing can be put into several categories, but he is usually considered an avant-garde player or a free improvisor. Possibly one of the fastest guitarists alive, his playing can remind one, at various times, of orchestra pieces by Stockhausen, of Jerry Reed or Albert Lee at 78 speed, of industrial machinery, or of Looney Tunes cartoon soundtracks, and often all within the same piece.  He's a very humorous player and uses various nonstandard techniques, including prepared guitar (placing alligator clips, paper, and other things in the strings to change the tone) and bowing the guitar with various items, including other strings, balloons, and so forth.

Hans Reichel
Hans Reichel conjures some lovely, eerie, and some downright weird sounds from his acoustic guitars that he builds himself.  One main feature of his guitars is that, instead of a fixed bridge like on a normal flat-top, they have a moveable bridge and and a tailpiece like on an archtop.  These guitars have frets _between_the_bridge_and_the_tailpiece_ as well as the normal frets on the neck, so he can play the strings on both sides of the bridge.  On these guitars, he can set up some resonances that you would swear were produced by some kind of space alien steam-harp from Jupiter.  He is definitely worth checking out, if you can find any of his recordings, which will most often be found in the import bins of more open-minded record stores.

Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey is a free-improvising guitarist from England.  He started out as a more-or-less straight-ahead jazz guitarist, but in the '60's and '70's, he and several others in the European jazz scene, including John Stevens, Evan Parker, and others, moved into totally free, sound-based improvisation.  His playing is extremely angular and totally abandons all standard melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic material.   He makes jawdroppingly virtuosic use of non-standard techniques, including tone clusters, beating tones, percussive effects, high harmonics, and wide intervals.  If you like 20th-century music by people like Xenakis, Stockhausen, Babbitt, and the like, you'll probably like Derek Bailey.  If not, well, maybe not.  His main acoustic guitar is a Martin D-18.  One of the finest recordings of his acoustic playing is the album "Duo Exchange," with the cellist Tristan Honsinger.

Top of Page