Bluegrass flatpicking is a long tradition with a lot of fine players. And many of those players are not just excellent flatpickers on acoustic guitar – they also excel on banjo, mandolin, and more! It’s an intimidating amount of talent to sift through.
So how do I propose to rank the best 25 Bluegrass Flatpickers in the world? Well, I’m going to dodge the issue a bit.
I’m going to put down 25 players that have dominated the field. But I will refrain from ranking them #1, #2, #3, etc. I think that’s as close as I can get. I’m sure you’ll discover some great inspiration for both listening and learning from.
Add other worthy players to the comments below so that the list is truly complete. Thanks!
Here We Go…
Acoustic guitarist Russ Barenberg is known as one of the most melodic instrumentalists in contemporary acoustic music, and his compositions are among the finest the genre has to offer. He got his start in 1970 with the groundbreaking bluegrass band Country Cooking and since then has been a member of a variety of highly influential groups. Barenberg’s 1979 debut solo album Cowboy Calypso showcased his sophisticated playing and immediately established him as one of the premier composers and arrangers in the emerging new acoustic scene.
There’s a lot of material to choose from when listening to Russ, but a popular song to start with is “Big Bug Shuffle“.
Although he is proficient with a variety of stringed instruments, Norman Blake is famous for his acoustic guitar skills — he was one of the major bluegrass guitarists of the ’70s. Blake came into view in the late ’60s, when he began performing as a sideman with artists as diverse as June Carter and Bob Dylan.
To get a sense of his style, listen to “Billy Gray“.
Cyrus Whitfield Bond, known professionally as Johnny Bond, was a popular American country music entertainer of the 1940s through the 1960s. He got his first break working for Jimmy Wakely in the late 1930s and went on to join Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in 1940, sometimes performing with his Red River Valley Boys. He also acted on occasion in films including Wilson and Duel in the Sun, and was later a regular on the 1950s Los Angeles country music television series Town Hall Party.
Check him out playing “Louisiana Swing”.
John Chapman’s exceptional multi-style solo classical guitar performances provide top-notch musical artistry, creating warmth, romance and excitement for corporate, social, and wedding event celebrations. His passion and commitment to providing excellent music and service is evident from beginning to end! By blending both finger-picking and flat-picking styles Chapman authentically performs; Jazz, Brazilian Bossa Nova and Samba, Nuevo-flamenco, Pop, Rock, Folk, Americana, Rhythm and Blues, Ambient, World, light Classical and more, on nylon and steel string guitars, acoustic and electric.
One of my favorite is his cover of “In My Life” by Beatles.
John Carlini is an American Grammy nominated jazz guitarist and arranger based in New Jersey notable for blending bluegrass and jazz. He has performed with David Grisman, mandolin player Don Stiernberg, singer Bill Robinson, Bucky Pizzarelli, Rio Clemente, flatpicking guitarist Tony Rice, and many others.
Check out this tune “Banister River” by John Carlini & Tony Rice.
Dan Crary is an American bluegrass guitarist. He helped re-establish flatpicked guitar as a prominent soloing bluegrass instrument. Crary is an innovator of the flatpicking style of guitar playing. He is also a Speech communications Professor at California State University, Fullerton. Crary categorizes himself as a “solo flatpicker” and has recorded several projects that feature him along with guests, usually other innovators of the guitar in all styles.
“Thunderation” is one of his super creation which I like so much.
Alton Delmore was an American country singer, guitarist, fiddler and songwriter. With his brother, Rabon Delmore, they performed as the Delmore Brothers. He was very skilled songwriter, penning literally hundreds of songs, many of which have proven to be durable. Most important, he was among the few early traditional country acts to change with the times, and pioneer some of those changes.
Check out his tune, “Good Times In Memphis”, and you’ll sense the scope of his playing.
Andy Falco is a guitarist from Long Island, New York specializing in American roots music. He spent his early years cutting his teeth playing blues, funk and R&B on Long Island and in the New York City music scene of the 90’s when it was defined by the various small venues curating vibrant musical environments.
He created many good tunes. One of my favorite is his cover of “Sittin’ On Top of the World”.
Beppe Gambetta is an Italian acoustic guitarist and singer. He has founded Red Wine, an Italian bluegrass band. He wrote the first Italian instructional book on flatpicking. His flatpicking style is similar to Doc Watson’s and Moravian folk music. This style is characterized by flashy licks, intricate cross-picking patterns, open tunings, and fluid slides up and down the neck of the guitar.
Check out his “Sleeping Tune“.
David Grier is an American acoustic guitarist. He is considered to be one of the premier flatpicking guitarists in the world. His unique phrasing and his ability to create multiple variations on a theme are hallmarks of his playing style.
One of his great creation is “New Soldier’s Joy”.
The careers of many child stars are often short-lived when the attention fades; and to continue to stay at the top of their field requires more and more work, often with fewer incentives, many never reach the next level of performance. Not so with Cody Kilby, perhaps because his early success was due to his natural genius being matched only by equal parts determination and discipline. By now, the boy-wonder beginnings of star instrumentalist Cody Kilby are well-known to fans of bluegrass and acoustic music.
Watch here a demonstration with his Signature Model guitar.
Bill Napier was a mischievous, delightfully artistic and personable man with a musical ability that is completely undeniable. His original style of picking is remembered, admired and emulated by countless bluegrass players and fans around the world. A love of the Stanley Brothers’ music saw Napier learn to play mandolin, and in 1954, after relocating to Detroit to find factory work, he played in the evenings with a local band, Curly Dan And Wilma Ann With The Danville Mountain Boys.
Check out this tune of Stanley Brothers with Bill Napier – Going To the Races
Mark O’Connor is an American bluegrass, jazz and country violinist, fiddler, composer and music teacher. O’Connor has received numerous awards for both his playing and his composition. As a teenager he won national string instrument championships for his virtuoso playing of the guitar and mandolin as well as the fiddle. His mentors include Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson who taught O’Connor to fiddle as a teenager, French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli with whom O’Connor toured as a teenager, and guitarist Chet Atkins.
Check out his guitar playing here.
Edwin Ellsworth Peabody, known as Eddie Peabody was an American banjo player, instrument developer and musical entertainer whose career spanned five decades. He was the most famous plectrum banjoist of his era. He reached national fame in America during the mid 1920’s by recording for many companies and offered them a cheap way of producing a record by playing melody, initially alone with a singer and later with piano accompaniment and singing himself . He has created many tunes. Check out his “Roses of Picardy“.
Tony Rice is an American guitarist and bluegrass musician. He is perhaps the most influential living acoustic guitar player in bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, newgrass and flattop acoustic jazz. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013. I’ve been listening his many songs, but my my personal favorite is “Church Street Blues“.
Don Reno burned with creative intensity. From his youngest years through a distinguished career in music, he was always “on” as a showman, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist of prodigious talent, songwriter and composer. He generously devoted time and attention to fans and fellow artists. Never content with the status quo, he pushed edges, cross-fertilized musical genres, and invented styles to fit the times – picture a “bluegrass Chuck Berry.”
I love to listen his tune of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down“.
George Shuffler was an American bluegrass guitar player and an early practitioner of the crosspicking style. During his career Shuffler played with The Bailey Brothers, The Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. He was a 2007 recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award and in 2011 was elected to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. Check him playing “Nine Pound Hammer“.
Tim discovered bluegrass in the mid-1970s as a freshman at Ketron High School, becoming a banjo player. He switched to guitar in the late 70s and became a member of several groups, including Mountain Memories and The Boys in the Band. In the late 1980s, Tim formed Dusty Miller with Adam Steffey and Adam’s wife at the time, Tammy Rogers (later a founding member of the Steeldrivers), Brian Fesler and Barry Bales. Janet’s Song is one of his greatest creations.
Larry Sparks is an American Bluegrass singer and guitarist. Larry Sparks is a dedicated leader for bluegrass music. Larry is among the most widely known and respected touring musicians in bluegrass and gospel music today. He was the winner of the 2004 and 2005 International Bluegrass Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year Award. Watch his cover of A Face in the Crowd.
Bryan Sutton is an American musician. Primarily known as a flatpicked acoustic guitar player, Sutton also plays mandolin, banjo, ukulele, and electric guitar. He also sings and writes songs. Sutton is a Grammy Award winner and a nine-time International Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year. To have a good idea of his creation, listen “Cricket On the Hearth“.
Jordan Tice is a singular voice on the American roots music scene. Over the last ten years, he has developed a reputation as a unique and versatile guitarist and prolific composer of some of the most thoughtful and well-crafted tunes of his generation. Just like the greats of the past, Jordan has a voice and aesthetic that is all his own with which he filters the sounds and conventions of American Music into something unique.
Check out this tune as a start – “Collings D1 A T“.
Sean Charles Watkins is a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. He is a member of the contemporary folk band Nickel Creek, the duo Fiction Family and the supergroup Works Progress Administration. He is the brother of Sara Watkins. His new album “What To Fear” is a follow-up to 2014’s acclaimed “All I Do Is Lie”, which had been Watkins’ first solo effort in nearly a decade, ten years that had been jammed with collaborative projects and a herculean amount of touring. I love his track “What To Fear” from the album What To Fear.
American Grammy-winning guitarist who profoundly influenced bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and more when he came on the scene in the 60’s. His genius wasn’t just on guitar, but he played banjo, harmonica, and sang.
Check out “Walk On Boy”. You’re welcome.
Clarence White was an American bluegrass and country guitarist and singer. He is best known as a member of the bluegrass ensemble the Kentucky Colonels and the rock band the Byrds, as well as for being a pioneer of the musical genre of country rock during the late 1960s. Check out “Listen To The Mockingbird“.