Probably one of the most instantly recognizable instruments in the world, acoustic guitars are simple, but they can be compelling. When played well, they have an incredible ability to captivate their audience whether played solo or part of a group.
In this post, we will introduce 13 of the greatest and most famous acoustic guitar players worldwide. Each of them is a master of the instrument, and each has a unique style with much to teach us on how to play it beautifully.
1. Tommy Emmanuel (1955-)
With a career that spans five decades, Tommy Emmanuel is a legendary guitarist and a two-time Grammy nominee. He is renowned in his home of Australia, but he has also garnered many loyal fans worldwide.
Emmanuel was considered a child prodigy, receiving his first guitar at age four but never taking any lessons.
Instead, he was self-taught and learned by listening to the radio and watching his mom play the guitar. And by the age of 6, he was already playing professionally in a band with his entire family.
He is known for his energy and incredible technique. He is also known for his use of percussive effects on the instrument.
Although Emmanuel’s music incorporates many influences and styles, including jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, and rock, this type of country fingerstyle playing is at the core of his musical technique.
2. Django Reinhardt (1910–1953)
While he was born Jean Reinhardt but more widely known by his nickname Django, he was the first European jazz musician to make a significant contribution to jazz music.
He was a self-taught Roma guitarist who was at the forefront of the popular style of music in the 1930s and ’40s that came to be called “gypsy jazz.”
His playing was, at times, joyful, fierce, and lyrical. His intensity inspired many other musicians around the world.
One of the most technically able guitarists of his generation, his ability is even more impressive when you learn that he only played with two fingers!
He didn’t have use of his fourth and fifth fingers on his left hand due to a fire in which they were burned.
3. Andy McKee (1979-)
Known by his YouTube fans as “Tone the Chiefrocca,” —he has released six albums, two EPs, and one live album.
His journey with the acoustic guitar began in his teens when he started teaching himself how to play guitar. His electric guitar-playing cousin encouraged him to continue learning.
Fast forward a few decades and today, Andy McKee is considered one of the best acoustic guitarists in the world because he can magically transform a steel string guitar into a full orchestra using his signature two-handed technique.
4. Michael Hedges (1953–1997)
The iconic Michael Hedges, mostly known due to his weird two-handed picking style, was a master at playing the acoustic guitar and an accomplished composer as well.
Hedges was ten years old when he learned to play the flute and guitar.
After high school, he enrolled in a music school in Baltimore, Maryland, where he studied composition with the classical background of steel-string acoustic guitar. He learned about electronic music at Peabody Conservatory too.
The guitar virtuoso is known for simultaneously picking both ends of the instrument and has described his music as “heavy metal,” “acoustic thrash,” and “new edge.”
5. James Taylor (1948-)
The next musician on our list needs no introduction, James Taylor is a legendary performer who rose to fame in the 1970s with a string of hits.
His career spanned decades, and he won five Grammy awards and in 2000, Taylor was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the French government named him Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
In addition, he’s known as a great singer-songwriter, winning many platinum records and receiving a National Medal of Arts in 2011.
Taylor is continued to be admired as an amazing songwriter and performer. He has performed for many politicians, including Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, as well as at charity concerts, raising money for bombings.
6. Paul Simon (1941-)
Another legend of the guitar, Paul Simon is an American musician, singer, songwriter, and actor. He has a long career spanning six decades.
He is incredibly talented and has become one of the most acclaimed songwriters in popular music.
Simon’s career as a musician began when he met Art Garfunkel at 11 years. They performed in a production of Alice in Wonderland and began singing together when they were 13. They imitated the Everly Brothers, who sang close two-part harmony.
In addition, Simon developed an interest in jazz and performed with Garfunkel in a high school dance.
He’s a multiple award-winning artist and is considered one of the greatest musicians of all time. He has 12 Grammy Awards and five Grammy Award nominations for Album of the Year.
He is also one of only six artists to have won the Album of the Year award more than once as the leading credited artist.
7. Nick Drake (1948-1974)
English singer-songwriter Nick Drake is known for his songs and guitar playing despite hating performing live. In fact, there’s no known video footage of him playing as an adult!
He was educated at the prestigious Cambridge University, where he first performed as a folk singer.
Drak released his debut album, Five Leaves Left, in 1969. He recorded two more albums and then withdrew from public view for several years.
Drake suffered from depression most of his life, particularly during the latter part of his life, a fact often reflected in his lyrics.
His life was tragically cut short from an overdose of medication in 1974, although it is not known if it was intentional.
During Nick Drake recorded some of the most influential music ever to come from the British folk-rock scene.
8. Chet Atkins (1924–2001)
Another famous acoustic guitarist, Chet Atkins started playing musical instruments as a young child.
Beginning with the ukulele he switched to the fiddle before the guitar became his obsession often falling asleep holding his guitar, a habit that lasted his whole life.
He abandoned fiddles and steel guitars for a more pop-friendly approach that brought more fans to country music, known as the Nashville sound.
He was mainly a guitarist but played many other instruments, such as the mandolin, banjo, ukulele, and fiddle.
Atkins was also known as a songwriter, record producer, and occasional vocalist.
He earned several awards, including 14 Grammy Awards, a Grammy lifetime achievement award, 9 Country Music Association awards, and the Rolling Stones ranked him 21 on their list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
9. Maybelle Carter (1909-1978)
Female guitarist Maybelle Carter was born in Southwest Virginia and grew up learning traditional Appalachian songs.
She learned to play the guitar as a teenager and later became part of a trio group, The Carter Family.
It was during this time that she developed a distinctive style of guitar playing that combined rhythmic chords and melody plucking with her thumb that became known as the “Carter lick.”
Carter’s voice, widely recognized as one of the most prominent voices in country music, was featured on many recordings, but she was often uncredited.
One of her most commercially successful ventures was her collaboration with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their Album Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Over her life, her awards and achievements were numerous and in 1966 she was presented with a recognition that read, “Mother of Country Music.”
She and the Original Carter Family were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. The momentous occasion made Carter the first female performer to be inducted into the institution.
10. Charo (1951-)
María Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza, more commonly known by the name Charo, is best known for her striking stage presence and her trademark phrase “cuchi-cuchi“.
Unknown to most fans is the fact that she is a well-respected and classically trained flamenco guitarist.
Born in Spain, she trained on the guitar at age nine, under the famous Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia.
She released several albums with disco, salsa, and traditional sounds and stated she plays guitar for 3 hours each day.
She remains active in the show business industry. Her latest project was a special guest star in 2020 in Rupaul Drag Race.
11. Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1893-1987)
Elizabeth Cotten known as “Libba” bought her first guitar at age 12 and taught herself how to play it. However, she never learned to read music and played by ear.
She started singing to her own tunes and soon was writing her own music.
She gave up playing when she started her family, and it was 25 years later, when she was working as a maid, that the family she worked for noticed her talent. With their encouragement, she started re-learning the guitar.
She continued touring and releasing albums when she was in her 80s. In 1984, she won the Grammy Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording.
12. Joni Mitchell (1943-)
Another name that needs to be on this list, Joni Mitchell, is one of the most influential artists of our time. She is a legend who has been dazzling audiences with her music for over 60 years.
Joni Mitchell recorded her first Album in 1968, followed by several highly successful albums. She won her first Grammy Award for best folk performance for her 1969 album. Since then, she has won eight more Grammy Awards and is considered an icon of the music industry.
Over the past four decades, Mitchell has won many Grammys in various categories, including traditional pop, pop music, and lifetime achievement.
In 2007, Mitchell released Shine, her 19th and final studio album. This politically charged and environmentally conscious album was a Billboard success.
13. John Fahey (1939–2001)
And finally, we have American guitarist John Fahey who was a master of the steel-string acoustic guitar and played it as a solo instrument.
His style of playing has been hugely influential and is often described as the foundation of the genre of American primitive guitar.
So much so that Rolling Stone magazine placed him 35th in their “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list.
Fahey was such a giant of 20th century American music that in 2006, four tribute albums were made in his honor.
Summing up our List of the Greatest Acoustic Guitar Players
We hope you’ve been inspired by musical legends who are making music their own way.
These famous acoustic players are changing the face of music and paving new roads for other aspiring musicians.
We’ll be adding to this list so if you think we’ve missed any of your favorites, please let us know and we’ll add them in.