In the early 16th century, the first version of what we now know as the guitar was created. This was an entire four centuries before anyone had ever touched or heard of an electric guitar. Across time, this wonderful instrument has given us over five centuries of musicians equipped with talent, and today we are here to narrow it down to the best acoustic guitarists of all time.
Deriving from the gittern, a guitar-like string instrument from the Middle Ages, acoustic guitars have been the backbone of the music world for centuries. Being one of the most famous and by far most played instruments in the world, the guitar has a long history encapsulating many different genres of music, from rock, blues, folk, jazz, and more. While the gittern differed in shape from the modern-day acoustic guitar, that design came in the Renaissance era, when the body started changing, and size expanded. Even today, acoustic guitars come in all shapes and sizes: ten strings, steel guitars, lutes, and many more.
Given the long history of the guitar, its popularity, and its versatility, it’s no wonder it’s the number one choice for most musicians. Few instruments can make a song complete as an acoustic guitar does; sometimes, you don’t need anything else. Look at songs like “Blackbird” by The Beatles or “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor; these songs would not be complete without the beautiful strumming that supports the lyrics.
Aside from the laundry list of masterpieces created with acoustic guitars, let’s get to the pure talent behind the instrument. Luckily, we at StudyFinds have scanned our sources to bring you the top five best acoustic guitarists as of today. As always, comment below if we missed your top pick. We would love to hear from you! Now, onto the list.
Best Acoustic Guitarists, According to Music Experts
1. Tommy Emmanuel
A two-time Grammy nominee and a legendary guitarist with a career spanning five decades, Tommy Emmanuel, made the top spot with no question. “He is renowned in his home of Australia, but he has also garnered many loyal fans worldwide, 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,” says Hello Music Theory.
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“What were you up to when you were four? Tommy Emmanuel was busying himself learning to play guitar, accompanying his mother, who played lap steel. By age six, he was playing in his touring family band, delivering rhythm parts with basslines included. Young Tommy didn’t know what a bass guitar was and had duly worked out how to play both parts on a six-string, assuming this was how it should be done. And so, with more than the basics of fingerstyle already under his belt at a tender age, Tommy had started out on the road to becoming the absolute guv’nor of fingerstyle guitar we know today,” writes Guitar World.
“The Australian titan of the acoustic guitar takes your top spot for 2021. He didn’t feature in last year’s list, yet has roared back to claim the crown. This year’s been relatively quiet for Emmanuel, in terms of releases, but he’s been touring and recently treated fans to a new EP recorded with UK guitarist Richard Smith,” adds Music Radar.
2. Django Reinhardt
“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,” comments Hello Music Theory.
Django Reinhardt ✨
New York City, 1946
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“If you thought playing with a full set of fingers on your fretting hand was hard, try working with two. Django Reinhardt has proven that he could do with two fingers what most people can’t do with a full set. When he was younger, this jazz guitarist lost most of the function in his fretting hand fingers in a fire. He was left with an index finger and middle finger to play the intricate leads you hear today,” Guitar Aficionado.
“If there is one guitarist that even Tommy Emmanuel looks up to, it would be the legendary Belgian-born Romani-French jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. He is certainly one of the most influential guitarists of all time, first becoming popular in Paris and then touring the US with Duke Ellington. His ensemble included the famed jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and together they established the format to be emulated for years to come,” raves Songbird Music Academy.
3. Eric Clapton
“Eric Patrick Clapton is an English rock and blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter, and he is the only three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, once as a solo artist and separately as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream,” explains TheTopTens. “His Unplugged album proves exactly why he is the most versatile guitarist to ever exist. From a Gibson to a Fender to Martin Acoustic Guitars playing Blues, Rock, Reggae, and countless other genres on them, Clapton is a God at them all!”
“Eric is probably known as the most versatile acoustic guitar player ever, both with his style, type of playing, and career choices. He came from the English rock and blues genre, but that didn’t stop him from spreading his talent across just about any genre or style and then hitting gold every single time. Be it rock, rhythm and blues, reggae, singing, songwriting, the list goes on. You can find many subgenres within the genres of Eric Clapton. Most people have a specific genre or era of Clapton that spoke most to them, but the best thing is that he’s still going at it to this day. If you see him give him his props, and he might bust a beautiful riff down for you,” adds PlayTheTunes.
Though Eric Clapton is known primarily for his use of the electric guitar, “when he released his infamous ‘MTV Unplugged’ album in the 90s, he showed he was a competent acoustic player; this album remains to be one of the best albums of all time and helped Clapton’ career see a resurgence. Not only can Clapton bust out a mean guitar solo on an acoustic, but his fingerpicking is also world-class,” notes Guitar Aficionado.
4. Mike Dawes
“Mike Dawes is a British fingerstyle guitarist who has been described as one of the most famous acoustic guitar players in the world. He is best known for his arrangement of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen, which has been viewed over 35 million times on YouTube. Dawes began playing guitar at the age of 11, and by the age of 16, he was touring Europe as a member of a rock band. He later attended college to study music but dropped out after one year to pursue a career in guitar playing,” says Get Muzeek.
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“Influenced by everyone from Michael Hedges to Pierre Bensusan, Dawes is a leading exponent of the new school of virtuoso acoustic guitar. He peppers his work with percussive hits of the instrument’s body – emulating kick drum, snare, and hi‑hat – and uses a raft of open tunings, from DADGAD to an open C#m9. Hammering on chords over the top of the guitar neck is a theatrical flourish, but it also gives those notes a more even attack, explains Guitar World, noting the exact technique and originality that makes Dawes one of the best.
While “The British acoustic guitarist and YouTube icon has been busy launching a podcast,” Music Radar notes. “He also put out a killer collaborative single with your number one, Emmanuel, who appears on Dawes’ jaw-dropping instrumental cover of ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.” Combining our first and fourth picks is undoubtedly a treat for the ears and can be viewed on YouTube anytime you’re in the mood for a good acoustic cover.
5. Kaki King
“To think of Kaki King as just an acoustic guitar player is to sell her art short. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her soundtrack to Sean Penn’s ‘Into The Wild.’ King’s groundbreaking theatre production ‘The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body‘ took her technically gifted playing style to the stage, using visual arts to elevate the acoustic’s possibilities. She is also an entrepreneur/inventor, creating the Passerelle, a metallic, moveable second bridge that can be used to wholly rethink what’s possible from the guitar. When armed only with her signature Ovation 1581‑KK acoustic and her imagination, she epitomizes the contemporary acoustic player, using a cornucopia of alternate tunings, percussive rhythms, and a keen ear for dynamics.” observes Guitar World.
— Guitar Player (@GuitarPlayerNow) March 24, 2023
“Some say that it is impossible to determine who is the best because there are so many different styles and ways to play the instrument. Others have their own opinions. Here are some of the names that come up most often when people discuss this topic; Kaki King,” raves Fuel Rocks—noting her unique technique and beautiful melodies as reasoning for being considered one of the best of her craft.
“The winner of GP’s Best Acoustic Guitarist honors in 2013, King has thrilled audiences with her astonishing two-handed tapping skills for more than a decade. She continues to push musical—and guitar performance—envelopes as a multi-instrumentalist, film composer, and multimedia artist,” adds Guitar Player. Being the sole female to make Rolling Stones’ “New Guitar Gods” in 2006, King has proved herself as not just one of the best but a “god” of the guitar world.
You might be interested in:
- Hello Music Theory
- Music Radar
- Guitar World
- Guitar Aficionado
- Songbird Music Academy
- Fuel Rocks
- Guitar Player
- Play The Tunes
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.