I’m not sure it’s possible to definitively say who are THE best 25 fingerstyle guitar players in the world. But I’m gonna try.
Here are the top 25 fingerstyle guitar players, presented in alphabetical order. I couldn’t bring myself to try to rank them. In fact, I’m not sure that’s even possible. But even with that disclaimer, it’s very likely that you may disagree, want to add or subtract a player. If that’s the case, please:
Add other worthy players to the comments below so that the list is truly complete. Thanks!
Here We Go…
Chet Atkins (1924 – 2001)
One of the “Great Ones” of fingerstyle guitar, Atkins took “Travis picking” (see Merle Travis further down the list) and turned it into an entire genre of country-based, jazz-flavored, fingerstyle genius. Chet Atkins is often quoted as a prime inspiration by contemporary players, particularly Tommy Emmanuel.
There’s a lot of material to choose from when listening to Chet, but a popular song to start with is “Windy and Warm”.
A French-Algerian guitarist wielding DADGAD in a dazzling display of modern fingerstyle guitar. While his playing throughout his career has spanned a variety of formats, his recent solo acoustic playing has won awards and made it’s way into soundtracks.
To get a sense of his style, listen to “So Long Michael“, a tribute to Michael Hedges (see list below) upon his passing.
The Montreal-based guitarist – who won the Canadian Fingerstyle Guitar Championships – deftly navigates pop covers like Coldplay’s “Talk” and original compositions like “These Moments“, and has the hippest website of the bunch. This guy’s the real deal.
The man himself! Tommy Emmanuel is an Australian fingerpicker who has dominated the fingerstyle guitar scene in recent years thanks to a combination of impeccable Chet Atkins style playing, high energy stage presence, great songwriting, and good old fashioned Aussie personality. His TED talk probably helped, too.
Check him out playing “Classical Gas” (over 12million views!).
Ed Gerhard is an exceptional fingerstyle player on steel string acoustic, dobro, and weissenborn. I have to admit, while he plays some great steel string tunes, I fell in love with his playing thanks to this weissenborn tune.
This British phenom is widely known for his “Passionflower” YouTube video, where he somehow combines harmonics, over-the-neck fretboard work, percussive slapping, singing, AND using tuners to change note values mid-riff…and manages to make it sounds like a compelling song. Crazy. By the way, how did he know this song is up first in my current Spotify playlist?
A young player coming out of Canada who has already gotten the attention of the fingerstyle community with tunes like “Tabula Rasa“. He’s already had the chance to work with movie soundtracks, the Olympics, and Antoine Dufour. Pretty amazing. You can sign up for some Skype lessons on his site (more info here).
Alex de Grassi
Alex de Grassi has been producing groundbreaking acoustic fingerstyle guitar work since the late 70’s. His work with the Windham Hill label produced fingerstyle classics like “Turning“. And his impeccable playing has even been documented into a teaching method for fingerstyle guitar: The Alex De Grassi Fingerstyle Guitar Method. A true legend.
Michael Hedges is widely acknowledged as the consummate fingerstyle guitarist. His avante garde approach to acoustic guitar broke out in the late 80’s, paving the way for thousands of guitarists after him to employ new techniques to the instrument. His definitive album is Aerial Boundaries, on Windham Hill Recordings. Check out the popular track, “Ragamuffin“. (Like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the thing to remember is that, while you’ve heard stuff like from other players, he did it first. He was the guy that made the other guys go, “Hmm. You mean we can do that?”)
An eclectic player who combines a variety of tonalities and techniques. Check out his tune, Lucid Drawl, and you’ll sense the scope of his playing. Inspiring.
Sungha Jung is a South Korean guitarist widely hailed as a guitar prodigy. His cover of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme song has over 52million Youtube views (as of this writing). A composer and instrumentalist, Jung is largely self-taught.
I’ve got a soft spot for Phil Keaggy because I grew up listening to him. His career started with electric guitar, songwriting, and fronting a band in Cleveland, Ohio. Yet the second half of his career has focused on fingerstyle guitar playing (which is kind of amazing seeing as he’s missing part of his middle finger on his right hand). His contributions to solo acoustic guitar, including the use of loopers, e-Bows, and avante garde technology, are often overlooked due to his pre-YouTube aesthetic and off-the-grid personality.
Kaki King goes her own way. Just check out her latest video, “The Neck is a Bridge to the Body“. She walks the line between popularity (she’s been on Letterman and recorded a soundtrack for Into The Wild) and off-the-beaten-path artistry (just scroll past the first few tunes under her name in Spotify). What makes her compelling is her incredible mastery of the acoustic guitar, and her willingness to challenge how it’s played. You can actually get a video lesson series from King if you want to explore her style.
Thomas Leeb is an Austrian-born guitarist, now living in California, who takes percussive acoustic guitar playing to the next level. Check out his album, “Desert Pirate”, and specifically his rendition of “No Woman No Cry” to put yourself on that fine line between inspiration and jealousy.
Adrian Legg spent a number of years as a guitar technician, wrote for guitar publications, helped design and launch acoustic guitar amps, AND is a genre-bending, technically acute composer and performer. It’s almost too much for one man.
Andy McKee came to popular renown through his astounding YouTube videos. A young American player on the CandyRat Records label, McKee has consistently delivered good-natured, prodigy-level acoustic guitar playing in recent years. Often cited, along with Tommy Emmanuel, at the top of “favorite fingerstyle guitar player” lists. There’s lots of songs to check out from McKee, but his cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” is a personal favorite of mine.
Igor Presnyakov is a Russian, classically-trained guitarist who also came to fame on YouTube. Despite having a long career in Russia and then in the Netherlands, YouTube became his launch vehicle to a wider audience in 2007. Despite having dozens of videos with millions of views each, his albums are few and relatively recent. Check out his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It“.
Performer, composer, teacher – Adam Rafferty is an American guitarist specializing in “funky fingerstyle”. If you read his excellent blog, you’ll quickly discover he’s a fan of groove, melody, and connecting with the audience. He also runs an online fingerstyle guitar school called Study With Adam. Check out his tune, “Affirmation“, from his most recent album, “Play Pretty for the People”.
The man could do it all. He was an actor, singer, songwriter, and, of course, guitarist. His playing style spanned everything from bluegrass to jazz. He’s perhaps best known for songs like “East Bound and Down“, but was equally a sensitive fingerstyle player, like on this version of “Georgia On My Mind“.
Don Ross is a Canadian fingerstyle guitar player and two-time winner of the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in Winfield, Kansas. An incredible player as well as a generally nice guy, you can catch a series of video lessons of him teaching fingerstyle playing from the ground up. He does a lot of great originals as well as covers like this one of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley.
Martin Taylor, MBE is a British jazz musician who has had a long career working both solo and with groups. His early playing was with Stéphane Grappelli doing gypsy jazz. His most recent work has been in solo/small ensemble fingerstyle guitar, like on his duet album with Tommy Emmanuel. You can even catch his online video lesson series over at ArtistWorks.
One of the greats. His name defines one of the key techniques of fingerstyle guitar: Travis picking (the thumb striking alternating bass strings in order to mimic a bass player). His career covered so much material, it’s impossible to sum up in a few short sentences, but his playing, his friendship with Chet Atkins, and his popular songs make him one of the “godfathers” of fingerstyle guitar playing. Check out Travis rocking this tune, “Cannonball Rag”, with nothing but a thumbpick and his index finger.
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.
Eric Johnson made his name as the consummate electric guitarist with his Grammy Award wining album, “Ah Via Musicom”. You’ve inevitably heard the key track on that album, “Cliffs of Dover”, somewhere, somehow, I guarantee. He’s an honorable mention here because his albums have always included a sprinkling of acoustic fingerstyle guitar. More recently, he’s also released an album entirely in this genre – EJ.
My favorite tune, though, is still “Song For George”.
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Well, this isn’t a person. It’s actually two of them. But they freaking rock. They’re cover of Metallica’s “Orion” (yes, that one) always blows my mind.
Again, you’re welcome.