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10 Fingerstyle Guitar Masters

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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.


The following is a list of 10 top-of-the-range fingerstyle guitarists in no particular order. At this level there's no sense in trying to grade them in terms of who is best. Each has their own unique qualities and styles, and all deserve to be on the list. Many more could be included, but these ten will give you a good idea of what the top level of fingerstyle guitar sounds like in a variety of musical styles.

1. John Renbourn

Born in London in 1944, John Renbourn was part of the early 60s London folk music scene. He specialised in folk and Renaissance-Period music plus he composed many of his own solo fingerstyle guitar pieces. He was a guitarist in the band Pentangle and also had a successful solo career. Other great acoustic guitarists who were part of the London scene at that time included Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, John Martyn and even Paul Simon for a while.

2. Chet Atkins

Born in 1924 in Tennessee, Chet Atkins became one of the foremost guitarists in the U.S.A. His fingerpicking technique, based on that of his friend, Merle Travis, became his trademark. He is credited with helping to establish and develop the "Nashville Sound" which provided a significant popularity boost to American country music.

3. Joe Pass

Born in New Jersey in 1929, Joe Pass was a renowned jazz guitarist who worked with some of the greatest names in jazz including Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. Originally a flatpicker, he switched from playing with a pick to playing fingerstyle later in his career. With mastery over both techniques, his place as one of the top jazz guitarists of the 20th century is secured.

4. Kaki King

Born in 1979 in Atlanta, Kaki King has a very intricate and diverse range of fingerstyle techniques that she employs with taste and style. She uses a range of altered tunings and also plays lap steel guitar. Watch her in action as she performs the song "Goby" from her album "Until We Felt Red".

5. Michael Hedges

Born in Oklahoma in 1953, Michael Hedges' fingerstyle techniques are highly distinctive. Altered tunings are common in his recordings as are tapping techniques. Listen to his most famous guitar instrumental piece, "Aerial Boundaries" in the video below.

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6. Leo Kottke

Born in 1945 in Athens, Georgia, Leo Kottke is highly regarded and included as one of the elite of fingerstyle guitarists. He specialises in country, folk and blues and often employs altered tuning or standard tuning dropped in pitch by one or two semitones. Watch him play "Deep River Blues" in the video below

7. Tommy Emmanuel

Born in 1955 in New South Wales, Tommy Emmanuel is a virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist. He was influenced by the finger-picking style of Chet Atkins, with whom he studied for a period. His musical styles include country, rock and jazz.

8. Joni Mitchell

Born in Alberta, Canada in 1943, Joni Mitchell, is included in this list, not for technical wizardry but for sheer artistry in her songwriting, and that includes her guitar arrangements. It comes across whenever she's playing guitar or any of the many instruments she's capable of playing. On guitar she uses a vast range of altered tunings and achieves beautiful and atmospheric accompaniments that complement her renowned vocal ability.

9. Tony McManus

Born in 1965 In Paisley, Scotland and now based in Canada, Tony McManus specialises in Celtic guitar arrangements, often with DADGAD tuning. In the video below he's playing "The Seagull" in another altered tuning, which he explains after playing it. He also plays different genres of music including classical and jazz, but he's best known for playing Celtic (especially Irish) pieces.

10. Merle Travis

Born in 1917 in Rosewood, Kentucky, Merle Travis is the father of a finger-picking technique now named after him. Travis picking is an alternating bass note rhythmic pattern with chords and melody that Travis somehow managed to do with just his thumb and index finger. These days people use their thumb and three fingers when Travis picking. Watch Travis perform with this technique to play the song "Midnight Special"

© 2021 Chas Mac

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