15 pioneering pickers who invented country guitar

'King Of The Strings' Joe Maphis with his double-neck Mosrite Special

'King Of The Strings' Joe Maphis with his double-neck Mosrite Special (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Forget the spandex-wrapped, dive-bombing antics of the 1980s; the real golden era of shred guitar was the ’50s.

They didn't call it shred back then, of course, and most of the action took place in Nashville, not on LA's Sunset Strip.

Cats like Telecaster pioneer Jimmy Bryant, Nashville producer Chet Atkins and actor/singer/picker Jerry Reed played fast and clean. These guys, and the other 12 pickers on our list, raised the game for country guitar and inspired the current crop of Telecaster-spankers like Brad Paisley, Cousin Kenny Vaughan and John 5.

1. Mother Maybelle Carter

No matter what country guitarist you're talking about, or the style of the music they play from Western Swing to Outlaw, it all started with Mother Maybelle Carter.

Mother Maybelle's style was known by a bunch of different names - Carter Family picking, the thumb brush, the Carter lick, the church lick, the Carter scratch. It involved picking out the melody of a tune on the guitar's bottom strings while maintaining the rhythm on the top strings.

The technique came out of informal lessons Maybelle received from African-American musician Lesley Riddle. The definitive recording of the technique can be heard on the Carter Family's 1928 recording Wildwood Flower.

2. Eldon Shamblin

It may surprise some that many of the country guitarists in thus list were heavily influenced by black American jazz music. Nowhere is that crossover more apparent than in the Western Swing music of the ’30s and ’40s. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys were the genre's biggest fish and guitarist Eldon Shamblin was the band's six-strong genius.

Shamblin combined a constantly shifting pad of comp'd chords with rapid single-string runs on Western Swing classics like Ida Red, a style that was compared to jazz virtuoso Charlie Christian.

Eldon Shamblin was also one of the first players to use a Fender Stratocaster. Leo Fender himself presented Eldon with a custom Gold Strat in 1954, the year the model was launched. Eric Clapton offered Shanblin $10,000 for the guitar in the early ’80s. Eldon said no.

3. Les Paul

Good old Lester Polsfuss might not strike you as a dyed-in-the-wool 'country' guy, but there isn't a genre of 20th century popular music the guitarist and inventor hasn't influenced. Country music is no exception.

Most of us know his name thanks to the headstocks of countless Gibson guitars. Contrary to popular belief, Les didn't design the Gibson Les Paul, but he was instrumental in its birth. His greatest legacy, however, is the development of multitrack recording, using Nazi technology seized in France at the end of World War II.

Les was also a bloody good guitar player. His lightning fast jazz, country and blues chops and pioneering use of multitracking and tape delay are captured on his 1951 hit How High The Moon, recorded with then-wife Mary Ford.

4. Jimmy Bryant

Although the man himself likely would've found the term distasteful, Jimmy Bryant was the first shredder. The country-jazz records he cut with steel guitarist Speedy West are a masterclass in breakneck pace licks and comp'd chords, cut super-clean at a time when amplifier distortion was still regarded as a fault.

In the 1950s, the man simply had no equal. Aside from his instrumental prowess, Bryant wrote the Waylon Jennings hit Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line. His use of the then-new Fender Telecaster was important in establishing it as a serious musical instrument, this at a time when others dismissed it as a gimmick and "toilet seat with strings".

5. Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins’ credentials as a guitarist are as good as it gets. His super-precise Travis Picking - simultaneously playing bass, rhythm and melody - on a succession of Gretsch guitars that bore his name, led to a seemingly endless run of hit instrumental albums in the ’50s and ’60s.

As a guitarist, Chet has been a huge influence on the likes of Mark Knopfler and Tommy Emmanuel. Yet, he was also an important producer in Nashville in the ’50s and ’60s, overseeing hits by Elvis Presley and others.

Atkins was one of the architects of ‘The Nashville Sound’, the point when country music switched its focus from the kids to an adult audience after being decimated by the onslaught of rock 'n' roll. Out went the fiddles and banjos; in came the pianos and strings.

6. Luther Perkins

Of all the guitarists on this list, Johnny Cash sideman Luther Perkins was easily the least technically accomplished. He wasn't a dynamic performer, appearing almost cadaverous onstage only his hands seemed to move. Yet, Perkins had something rare that all guitarists want. The man had his own sound.

Picking on his Telecaster's bottom strings, Luther injected a primitive beat into 45s like Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk The Line and Get Rhythm.  

Luther plated with Johnny Cash right up to his tragic death in a house fire in 1968. For all the virtuosity apparent in the rest of this list, it's Luther Perkins' style that is the most recognisable. He created a sound that made The Man In Black an icon.

At his funeral, a heartbroken Johnny Cash stood over his grave and whispered, "thank you, Luther".

7. Merle Travis

Born in Rosewood, Kentucky in 1917, Merle Robert Travis was a pioneering country guitarist, and the man behind the Travis Picking technique. Using his legendary method, Travis would play the bassline, rhythm part and melody line on one guitar, usually a Gibson Super 400.

Like other country guitarists of his era, Travis was heavily influenced by jazz musicians, and the acoustic blues players of the Mississippi Delta.

Merle was also an accomplished songwriter, penning the work song Sixteen Tons and the haunting Dark As The Dungeon, a song made iconic when Johnny Cash recorded it for his 1968 live album At Folsom Prison. Travis cut the song on his 1946 album Folk Songs Of The Hills.

8. Roy Clark

For many Americans, singer, actor and guitarist Roy Clark will forever be remembered as the presenter of country music variety show Hee Haw from 1969 to 1997. As a guitarist, Clark is unforgettable as one of country music's greatest showman.

One of only three guitarists on this list that are still alive, Roy came out of an era when country pickers played fast and clean. He endorsed a bunch of guitars over the years, most notably Mosrite, Gretsch and, currently, Heritage.

More importantly, Roy fired up generations of kids to take up guitar by making it look like a blast to play, always pushing himself to his limits at speeds that are still exhilarating today.

9. Joe Maphis

Born Otis W Maphis back in 1921, the man rechristened Joe and famed as King Of The Strings was country music's flashiest player.

A lifelong devotee of Mother Maybelle Carter, Maphis did things on his double-neck Mosrite guitar that would've been seen as the work of the Devil to The Carter Family of the ’20s and ’30s. He was astonishingly fast for one thing, ripping off incredible solos between verses, and seemingly without breaking a sweat.

From 1953 until his death in the mid-’80s Maphis was backed up by his rhythm guitarist and wife Rose Lee.

10. Scotty Moore

Of all the guitarists recorded here, Winfield Scott ‘Scotty’ Moore III is arguably the most influential.

Scotty’s life was changed forever when he was introduced to a young truck driver called Elvis Presley in 1953. The introduction was made by producer Sam Phillips, owner of the Memphis Recording Service aka Sun Studio. The records these men cut there - That's All Right, Good Rockin' Tonight, Mystery Train et al - define rockabilly music.

The 45 that changed the world was Elvis' RCA 1956 release Heartbreak Hotel. When it hit radio airwaves in the UK, Scotty's violent solo blew away kids called John and Paul, and Mick and Keef.

“When I heard Heartbreak Hotel, I knew what I wanted to do in life,” said Rolling Stone Keith Richards.

“It was as plain as day. All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis; I wanted to be Scotty.”

11. Don Rich

While most of the guitarists on this list took care of business in Nashville, Buck Owens and His Buckaroos icon Don Rich pioneered a West Coast style.

'The Bakersfield Sound' was named after the tough working class town in California. There, in rowdy dance halls like The Blackboard Cafe, bands would blast out tales of broken dreams and heartache, the sound of their Telecasters ricochetting off the concrete floors.

Don's super-bright and clean sound was an influence on Help!-era Beatles, who covered Buck Owens' Act Naturally on the album. He also changed the lives of players like Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam and Derailers frontman Brian Hofeldt.

Rich died in a motorcycle accident in 1974, an event that his friend and bandleader Buck never got over.

12. Jerry Reed

Few human beings were blessed with more talent than Jerry Reed. A gifted songwriter, he penned classics like Guitar Man and US Male, both recorded by Elvis Presley. He also wrote A Thing Called Love, a hit for Johnny Cash, and the country funk of Amos Moses and the Grammy-winning comedy hit When You're Hot You're Hot.

As an actor, he most famously appeared in the 1977 Burt Reynolds smash Smoky And The Bandit, also writing and performing the theme tune East Bound And Down.

Yet it's as a guitarist that Reed was at his best and most unique. That's him playing the intro to Presley's version of Guitar Man, and his own recordings of The Claw and Jerry's Breakdown were hugely influential for players like Jerry Donahue and Tommy Emmanuel.

13. James Burton

Telecaster master James Burton was only 13 when he began playing guitar professionally - he was still just a teen when he joined the house band of the legendary Louisiana Hayride radio show.  

The first great entry on Burton's CV was the solo he cut on Dale Hawkins' 1957 classic Susie Q. The second was his string-bending masterclass on Ricky Nelson's 1961 hit Hello Mary Lou.

Burton was one of the first guitarists to experiment with light strings for easier bending. He would use banjo strings to get the feel he wanted.

These days, of course, he's best known as Elvis's Vegas-era guitar slinger, a post he took up in 1969. His deployment of the then-new Fender Paisley Telecaster transformed it from a hippy-era sales dud to a mega-bucks vintage classic.

14. Clarence White

Born Clarence Joseph LeBlanc, Clarence White (see what he did there?) was influential in country music first as the guitarist in bluegrass band The Kentucky Colonels, and subsequently the six-string ace in the Byrds.

A staggeringly gifted player, Clarence is perhaps most notable as one of the pioneers - along with fellow Byrd Gene Parsons - of the B-Bender guitar. Installed in his heavily bastardised Telecaster, the device raised the B string up a whole tone to emulate the sound of a pedal steel. The guitar, nicknamed 'Clarence', is now owned by Nashville legend and archivist Marty Stuart.

15. Willie Nelson

There are plenty of great guitarists that could have made our top 15. Session guys like Grady Martin, Hank Garland and the multitalented and recently-departed Glen Campbell, to name but three. Yet no-one ever mentions the sweet melodic soloing style of recreational drug enthusiast Willie Nelson.

Nelson's solo work is heavily influenced by gypsy-jazz legend Django Reinhardt, and he invariably performs on Trigger, the beat-to-hell Martin N-20 classical guitar he's owned since 1969.

The Red Headed Stranger will always be best known for defining Outlaw Country in the ’70s and writing standards like Funny How Time Slips Away, Hello Walls and the Patsy Cline 45 Crazy but it's time his guitar playing was reassessed.