The top 20 acoustic guitar heroes of all time
ACOUSTIC WEEK: Who says you need to plug in to rock? In the right hands, an acoustic guitar can be every bit as funky, soulful and raw as even the dirtiest electric.
Whether strumming, picking, tapping or whacking, dabbling with effects or simply singing the songs that needs to be sung, acoustic players are often the most expressive and inventive guitarists going - which is why we set out to showcase the players you admire the more.
Bringing together genres as disparate as jazz, blues, classical and flamenco, here they are in all their glory: the 20 best acoustic guitar players, as voted for by you, the ever-discerning MusicRadar readers. Viva la acoustic!
20. Stephen Stills
It tells you everything you need to know about Stephen Stills that even Hendrix rated him highly. Stills was a guitarist’s guitarist in the era of greats, so it’s no surprise that when he transitioned from rock to folk he became a genre-hopping pioneer.
His acoustic wrangling is a fine reflection of the man: fiery, idiosyncratic, and all up front. He wields his guitar like a tommy gun and rattles off rock-infused folk licks and open-tuned melodic rhapsodies for fun. About as dynamic an acoustic player as you’ll ever see.
19. Bob Dylan
He might rarely pick up a six-string these days, but back in the day, Dylan started a folk revolution with nothing but a beat-up old acoustic and a suitcase full of songs.
Dylan made it look so easy that a legion of earnest young strummers picked up the guitar. They discovered the truth when they started trying to play like him, though.
Elaborate fingerpicking, open tunings, ear-catching runs and an impeccable sense of rhythm were the foundation that the Dylan legend was built on. He sourced his skills from legends of folk and blues, and combined them into something bitingly original. Hands down the best singer-songwriter ever to do it.
18. Jon Gomm
Is John Gomm the finest acoustic guitarist Blackpool ever produced? We’re going to go ahead and say ‘yes’, for this humble Englishman’s emotive, all-action guitar playing has captured literally millions of ears around the world since he went viral in 2011.
Banging, booming, tapping and scratching his way through dramatic performances that burst with emotion and invention, it’s no great surprise that the internet took Gomm to its heart. A modern marvel.
17. John Martyn
Playing an acoustic is one thing, but pouring your heart into it like John Martyn did is quite another.
The results were sublime, surprising and never short of spectacular. Coming out of the folk scene in the early ‘60s, he quickly surpassed his peers thanks to his natural talent and endless quest for new sounds.
His work in the ‘70s combined Echoplex delays and distortion with elaborate open chords and ear-catching fret wizardry. And while the soundscapes were impressive, the songs - wounded, bristling with passion, burning with soul - were the real stars of the show.
Mercurial and unique to the last, John Martyn was one of a kind. The connoisseur's acoustic idol.
16. Andrés Segovia
In the classical guitar world, Andrés Segovia changed the game. Not only did he state the case that the guitar can do the business as a classical solo performance instrument, but he proved it beyond all doubt.
Stunning tone and delivery, with a knack for the dramatic in a way that only classical music can really deliver, Segovia will likely be remembered long after most rock and rollers have been consigned to history’s wilderness. A genuine classical legend, and a player for the ages.
15. Robert Johnson
The original and, many would argue, the best. Robert Johnson, bluesman of fabled lore, with his unearthly tone and his deal with the devil, is barely even a real person any more.
If it weren’t for the few scant, scratchy recordings we have of him, it’d be easy to let the myth overshadow the man. But those recordings, beamed in from another age, are raw proof of a talent that defies explanation.
He did things with his fingers that people are still trying to figure out, and wrote songs that live on in the DNA of all popular music. His legacy, like some Mississippi Van Gogh, far outstrips his lifetime achievements, and he will forever remain the demon king of the delta blues.
14. Bert Jansch
The original acoustic guitar hero, Bert Jansch was a player’s player, and you need only look at the list of people that count him as an influence to see that.
Everybody from Jimmy Page and Neil Young to Pete Doherty and beyond cite Jansch’s distinctive and wide-ranging style as an essential ingredient in their playing.
One of the true pathfinders of the ‘60s folk music, Jansch’s complex fingerpicking and dark, brooding songwriting established his reputation, and whether solo or with Pentangle he proved his boundless ability with an acoustic time and time again.
13. Leo Kottke
Taking in folk, bluegrass, jazz and blues, Kottke’s driving, ringing 12-string playing is instantly recognisable and one of a kind.
Restlessly creative and in possession of a truly singular voice and vision, Kottke’s cult status as a 12-string superhero remains as strong as ever.
12. Neil Young
Neil Young is not a singer, nor is he a guitarist. Neil Young is a force of nature, like the wind or the sea or the sun, and his blazing talent is never better showcased than when he sits and strums his old Martin.
He is able to achieve more with one note than most guitarists can with a hundred, and while his playing is sparse and song-orientated, you won’t find a finer example of music’s power to move anywhere else in the known universe. A living, breathing musical genius.
11. Nick Drake
Even if you’d never heard of Nick Drake, his music would tell you everything you needed to know. The tragic singer-songwriter was in possession of a singular vision and dedication to his art that produced some of the most affecting acoustic music ever recorded.
Drake’s melancholy moods and labyrinthine tunings twisted longstanding English folk traditions into mesmerising new shapes. Never a note out of place, and never a song that didn’t need to be sung.
10. Andy McKee
Impeccable rhythm, effortless touch, timeless melodies - Andy McKee is not a man that has any trouble wrenching a beat from a wooden box while lacing spectacularly complex patterns over the top.
Technically flawless and with an ear for soaring melodies, McKee’s playing is not necessarily about speed or flash, but rather intent and feeling. His guitar tapping, harmonic pinging, open-tuned goodness has influenced an entire generation of acoustic-wielding troubadours, and for that we are eternally thankful.
9. Eric Clapton
An electric warrior reinvented as the modern icon of acoustic blues, Slowhand has the whole package: tone, technique, reverence for the source material, everything.
Obviously, when one of the greatest guitarists of all time sits down to play you know you’re in for something special, but there’s something about the way Clapton affects the listener that sets him apart.
His journey from young guitar god to elder blues statesman has been epic, and it’s inarguably his acoustic side that has propped up the second half of his career. Clapton is God? Maybe not, but he’s certainly all class.
8. James Taylor
Sweet Baby James laid down the template for ‘singer-songwriter’ when he broke through in the early ‘70s, and has subsequently become an institution.
Sensitive and fragile at first blush, Taylor’s songs have steel in the walls that have ensured they’ve passed the test of time. As fine a fingerpicker as there has been, and a songwriter of immense depth and emotional courage, James Taylor is an icon with good reason.
7. Jimmy Page
It’s almost unfair that one of the greatest electric warriors of all time, a riffmeister of repute and a rocker almost without parallel, also happened to be a brilliant and thoughtful acoustic player as well.
Jimmy Page’s musical magpie act and boundless virtuosity meant he was able to take almost any genre or style and bend it to his will. Much like his electric side, Page’s acoustic playing was unconventional, full of strange angles and unexpected shapes and changes. And yet it somehow always rocked. Simply exceptional.
6. Richard Thompson
A towering figure in the folk-rock realm, Richard Thompson’s characteristic sound and distinct songwriting voice will not be denied.
An innovator, hybrid picking his way into the hearts of aficionados across the globe, there are few that come close to Thompson’s mastery of his instrument. Can you play like that? No, you cannot, but don’t worry - that’s what Richard Thompson is for.
5. Michael Hedges
Way ahead of his time, and the forerunner of every top-tapping, open-tuning, harmonic-loving acoustic warrior out there, Michael Hedges was a trailblazer.
Close your eyes and you could be listening to three guitarists. Open them, and it’s just Hedges, dancing his way across the fretboard, breaking boundaries for fun. A great talent taken far too soon.
4. Chet Atkins
Chet Atkins was the man. Beloved of the generation of guitarists that went on to be the generation of the ‘60s, Chet was the titan of country music whose flatpickin’, acoustic-ripping playing would give anyone pause to stop, listen and admire.
Responsible for creating the Nashville sound and bringing country into pop, as a guitarist his influence was felt far and wide. Solid as a rock, technically perfect, and an all-time great without compare.
3. Paco de Lucía
Not sure where to start with flamenco? Check out Paco de Lucía and have your mind blown. Paco casts a huge shadow over the flamenco world, and is arguably the finest exponent of the Spanish style, well, ever.
The embodiment of Iberian fire and skill, Paco’s mastery of flamenco techniques and jazz leanings saw him acclaimed across the world for the genius he undoubtedly was. Emotive, innovative, astonishing to watch and heart-rending to listen to.
2. Django Reinhardt
We all know the Django story, but the actual recorded evidence is something else altogether. The hot jazz genius was a formidable speedster, yes, but his playing was also full of life and love, a romanticism that belongs to another century.
Django is revered as much for his feel, his tone, and his heart as he is his technical prowess. A master of his art whose influence is felt far and wide, Django is proof that talent will always find a way to turn a setback into an advantage.
1. Tommy Emmanuel
There are many emulators, but there is only one Tommy Emmanuel. Has he ever dropped a note? Or sounded anything less like God decided to inhabit an Australian dad and pick up the guitar?
Lightning speed, skills for miles and miles, and fingers blessed with the tone of the gods, Tommy Emmanuel has it all. He could make wire stretched across a plank of wood sound good. What he does with a guitar tuned to standard, with nothing but a pick and his imagination, is a wonder to behold. Emmanuel is both showman and showstopper.
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