The classical guitar is a beautiful instrument with an expressive power far greater than its size would imply. Plucked stringed instruments like the lute and, in Ancient Greece, the lyre, have long provided highly aesthetic entertainment for the music-listening public.
Classical guitar as an institution first saw respected formalization with practitioners in the early 15th and 16th centuries. Following a decline in popularity in the beginning of the 20th century, 20th century and 21st century guitar players have brought back the popularity of the instrument.
In this article, we’ll cover the 13 guitar players who are arguably producing the most significant music on this instrument today.
1. Andrés Segovia
Famous teacher, guitar player, and arranger Andres Segovia was born in Spain in February of 1893.
Segovia’s work is best remembered for his tireless addition of classical, romantic, and baroque works to the classical guitar repertoire.
He was reportedly a joy to watch in performance, with a highly expressive attitude that he poured into the music.
Many of Segovia’s students went on to lead notable lives as guitar players. Of particular interest, the illustrious career of John Williams (see below) began under the tutelage of Segovia.
Segovia’s name will be remembered for helping to bring in new listeners and greater respect for the guitar as a serious instrument of the classical repertoire.
2. John Williams
John Williams is one of the most, if not the most, recognizable personalities on our list of classical guitarists.
Though born in Australia, John Williams is English through and through. His father, also a musician, founded a Spanish guitar academy in London when the son was still young.
If any musician were to be given sole credit for the expansion of classical guitar as an institution in the modern classical eye, it would be John Williams.
His first BBC appearance saw a massive growth in the popularity of the instrument and commenced a fabulous international career for Williams himself.
Now 80 years old, Williams lives with his wife Kathy Panama in London, peacefully enjoying his twilight years.
3. Pepe Romero
Born in Malaga, in Spain in 1944, Romero has been responsible for bringing a studied sophistication to the fiery Flamenco guitar. In fact, Romero can be seen as something of a Flamenco specialist.
As a solo guitarist, he has toured all across the world, from the United States to Europe to China to the Middle East.
His music synthesizes the Flamenco sounds of his native Andalucia with a classical sensibility. Romero comes from a talented family, as his brothers and father both play guitar like him.
As a teacher, Romero has said that true music is about a connection between souls: feeling that in the atmosphere of a theater is, for him, the peak experience of life.
4. Julian Bream
Julian Bream, an Englishman with a penchant for classical guitar and lute, is one of the biggest names in classical guitar in the 20th century.
Like many of the musicians on our list, Julian Bream came from a talented musical family, and his earliest childhood memories include strumming along on his own guitar as his father riffed with his jazz guitar.
Julian Bream, in addition, to help revive interest in the classical guitar, was responsible for a great expansion in the popularity of the lute through the 20th century.
5. Ana Vidović
Wildly popular on YouTube, Ana Vidovic is a classical guitarist originally from Croatia.
She has virtuosic talent that, for such a young age, demonstrates incredible technical skill and emotional maturity.
She has been known to capture the minds and hearts of her fans, wowing the audience with not just her beautiful playing but her powerful stage presence as well.
As a virtuoso, Ana Vidovic played her first live concert when she was eight years old and won her first competition when she was thirteen. When asked about her influences, Vidovic cites John Williams as a major inspiration.
Having just turned 40, Vidovic is as well-liked and popular as ever, having to date released six solo CDs and two DVDs.
6. Sharon Isbin
Sharon Isbin is an American classical guitarist originally from Minneapolis.
Isbin has had a long and influential career. Most notably, Isbin is the founding director of the Juilliard School’s guitar department.
In this capacity, Isbin has trained many of the up-and-coming talents in music for the next generation.
Besides her work as an educator, Isbin has been a prolific performer. She has played in over 200 orchestras across the planet and has been responsible for more guitar commissions than any other guitarist working today.
Now, Isbin is probably best recognized by the public for the documentary about her life and work, entitled Sharon Isbin: Troubadour.
7. David Russell
David Russell is a Northern Irish guitar player who is best known today for his impeccable (some have said flawless) technical skills and wide musical reach that has earned him the 2005 Grammy award for best instrumental soloist in classical music.
Though born in Glasgow, Russell and his family moved to Menorca (a Spanish island) when he was just five.
On this island, Russell’s developing brain was steeped in the tradition of Spanish guitar. It was here that he first came into contact with the likes of Julian Bream and Andres Segovia.
After his studies, Russell began an impressive solo career that continues to this day.
8. Francisco Tárrega
Today considered the “father of classical guitar” and one of the best guitarists of all time, Francisco Tarrega began his life innocuously, bathed in the Mediterranean heat of his native Spain.
Though Tarrega’s father reportedly had a good deal of talent on the guitar, he was employed as a watchman at a nearby convent.
When Tarrega’s father was at work, the boy would pick up his father’s guitar and attempt to mimic the beautiful sounds of the father.
Tarrega is now best remembered for his compositions, which play an important part in the modern classical repertoire.
9. Christopher Parkening
Christopher Parkening, an American guitarist, is still a very active instrumentalist who employs his great talent in teaching today at Pepperdine University.
Parkening, whose equally famous cousin Jack Marshall first introduced him to the guitar of Segovia, began his career as a young boy admiring the greats.
After steeping himself in an intensive classical education, Parkening embarked on a wildly successful professional career at the age of 19.
Segovia is reported to have said that Christopher Parkening is a brilliant musician, a statement backed up by the record of Parkening’s brilliant career.
10. Xuefei Yang
Another member of the newer generation of classical guitarists, Xuefei Yang is a guitarist from China.
What has regularly impressed commentators about Yang is her ability to gain such mastery over an instrument in a country with such a slight classical guitar tradition.
Perhaps we would do best to remember the comment of Segovia’s here, that music speaks primarily to the soul.
Now a great touring artist, Yang has traveled well beyond her native China, spreading guitar music throughout the world.
11. Narciso Yepes
Another Spaniard makes our list in the highly-beloved figure of Narciso Yepes.
Born in Lorca, Yepes had a long road before him to become the famous virtuoso he’s remembered to be today.
This long road, as a boy, was literal. When Yepes was a young boy, his father bought him a guitar and guitar lessons.
Because the family was impoverished and lived rurally, the father took Yepes on a donkey five miles to and from lessons three times a week.
Today, Yepes is especially remembered for his contribution to classical guitar with the employment of the ten-string guitar.
12. Liona Boyd
Liona Boyd is an English woman who grew up Canadian. Though it may have been her beauty as a young woman that earned her the appellation “The First Lady of Guitar,” it was her skills as a classical musician that has spanned six decades.
A guitarist whose career brings together many of the guitarists on this list, Boyd took lessons as a young woman from Narciso Yepes, Andres Segovia, and Julian Bream, among others.
A well-known recording artist, Boyd has also recorded with the likes of Eric Clapton, Yo-Yo Ma, and Olivia Newton-John.
13. Manuel Barrueco
Originally from Cuba, Barrueco is a classical guitarist whose work as a teacher has played a major part in the development of American classical musicians in the Peabody Institute in Maryland.
When Barrueco was 15, he and his family emigrated from their native Cuba as political refugees, finding peace and purpose in the United States: it was here that Barrueco began his recording career.
Now almost 70, Barrueco continues to wow the classical world with his technical prowess and expressive capabilities.
Summing up our List of The Greatest Classical Guitarists
In this article, we’ve covered some of the biggest names in classical guitar, as well as some of the most influential names to watch today.
We hope you enjoyed reading and listening just as much as we enjoyed compiling this list!