Bluegrass guitar legend Doc Watson dies aged 89

Doc Watson, pictured in 2007
Doc Watson, pictured in 2007 (Image credit: Christopher Felver/Corbis)

The folk world is in mourning today for pioneering guitarist Doc Watson, who died aged 89 at a hospital in North Carolina on Tuesday (29 May).

Watson was renowned for his lightning fast flatpicking guitar style and has been cited as an influence by the likes of John Martyn, Steve Earle and Joe Bonamassa.

Born Arthel Lane Watson, in the small town of Deep Gap in North Carolina in 1923, the guitarist's first instrument was actually a home-made banjo that was given to him by his father at the age of five.

In a 1988 interview on NPR, Watson, who was blinded as a one year-old, said his father told him, "It might help you get through the world."

Learning to play the fretless instrument by feel and by ear gave Watson a seemingly preternatural ability when he picked up the guitar seven years later at the age of 12.

Watson then spent the next two decades working as a piano tuner and playing with country/bluegrass bands in his spare time, eventually developing a distinctive guitar style that amalgamated fiddle and banjo techniques.

His approach placed more emphasis on lead work and helped to dispel the notion held at the time that the guitar was an instrument only suitable for rhythm-playing.

In the early sixties the advent of the folk boom and the new enthusiasts' subsequent near-canonisation of 'authentic' Appalachian folk players meant the guitarist found wider recognition and was able to play full-time.

It was also in this era that he began to play and record with his son, Merle, a musical partnership that would last until the younger Watson's untimely death in 1985.

Throughout his long career Doc would go on to win a total of eight Grammys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

A true guitar virtuoso, Watson will be remembered for the his songs such as Rising Sun Blues, Tom Dooley and Deep River Blues and for (unknowingly) inspiring fear in any player that sat down with him.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Rosa Lee, and his daughter Nancy Ellen.

Matthew Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar,, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.