Who are the top 10 acoustic guitar players of all time? Before we begin, this is not a definitive list of the greatest acoustic guitar players of all time (far too subjective), simply a collection of players we’re big fans of here at RSL HQ...
Now, whether they may, or may not, appear on the updated Rockschool Acoustic Guitar syllabus (coming soon) is something you’ll just have to wait to find out 😉!
He may have retired the ol’ six-string these days, but back in the day, Dylan started a folk revolution with nothing but a beat-up old acoustic (most likely a Martin or a Gibbo) and a suitcase full of songs.
Dylan wasn’t the most technical player (although he was a lot better than some people give him credit for), but it was the way he made constructing affecting, razor sharp songs look so effortless that led a legion of earnest young strummers to pick up the guitar – transforming the future of music history in the process. His playing consisted of: elaborate fingerpicking, open tunings, ear-catching runs and an impeccable sense of rhythm – a foundation that a legend was eventually built upon.
A music historian in his own right, Dylan sourced his skills from legends of folk and blues, combining them into something so bitingly original he transformed the art of songwriting forever. Outside of the record breaking sales and innumerable list of awards, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" in 2012. The only time a songwriter has been awarded the prestigious prize.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
The gospel-singing, guitar-goddess paved the way for rock'n'roll royalty such as Elvis and Chuck Berry, influencing everyone from Miranda Lambert to Bob Dylan along the way.
Whether she was wielding a Dobro acoustic guitar or her electric Gibson SG, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is criminally ignored when it comes to the retelling of rock’n’roll. Without her, modern music as it is today would not be the same. A spellbinding singer and guitarist, pioneers such as Chuck Berry, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are all in some way influenced by her mesmeric performances.
The 1963 Blues and Gospel Train TV show performance in particular, was a huge influence on British blues players of the time, including Clapton, Beck and Page (who all acknowledged the transformative impact of Tharpe’s playing).
Robert Johnson. Where to even begin. A man whose fabled mysticism, guitar skills and cultural influence, would be hard for anyone in the history of music to match.
Johnson's poorly documented life and premature death gave rise to one of the biggest legends in American folklore. The one most closely associated with his life is that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads in order to attain the musical ability to become a virtuoso bluesman almost overnight.
Recognised as one of the original masters of the Delta blues Johnsons fingers created magic that people are still trying figure out. Between 1936-39 he recorded 29 songs that are a vital strain in the DNA of all popular music we hear today. From a ghostly, scratchy void those few scant recordings beam in from another age and remain raw proof of a talent that defies explanation even today.
Bert Jansch is a player’s player, cited as a vital influence for an array of musicians who view his distinctive playing style as an essential ingredient in their own development. From Jimmy Page to Neil Young and beyond.
Founding member of the band Pentangle, Jansch is one of the true pathfinders of the British folk music scene. Bert began performing his unique synthesis of folk, blues and jazz in the early 1960s, having hitch-hiked to London from his hometown of Edinburgh.
His complex, intricate fingerpicking accompanied a prolific discography of dark, brooding songs that collectively established his reputation as groundbreaking artist. Bert’s playing style included a good deal of improvisation, bending the strings and varying the time signatures to fit the natural rhythm of the words of a song. An acoustic guitar icon, without doubt.
Drake’s melodic masterpieces of melancholic verse and labyrinthine tunings took English folk traditions and moulded new, mesmerising creations.
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. Though he failed to find a wide audience during his lifetime, his work has since achieved wider recognition to generations of music fans who regard his work as sacred pieces of art.
Although Drake only recorded three albums during his brief lifetime, his ethereal magic remains something mysterious and unrepeatable. Haunting and timeless. Never a note missed.
Reinvented as one of the modern icons of acoustic blues music, Eric ‘Slowhand’ Clapton has the whole package as a player: tone, technique, reverence for the source material, the lot.
Here’s a fact for you: Clapton 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 of Cream. It is unlikely that in a list of the greatest guitar players of all time, that his name will not be mentioned.
After his early rock’n’roll years carving out iconic tracks, fiery leads and crystal-clear tones, Clapton embarked on a solo career that now spans more than 40 years – including a pair of No. 1 albums and a No. 1 single to boot. His journey from young guitar god to elder blues statesman is a rare thing, and it’s arguably his acoustic side – including possibly one of the best MTV Unplugged albums – that has secured his legacy forever.
As fine a fingerpicker as there has been in popular music, Taylor’s thoughtful, contemplative songs of immense depth and emotional courage solidified him as a legendary singer-songwriter of the highest order.
It took a huge amount of endeavour and bravery before he finally broke through in the early 1970s. Subsequently, becoming an American institution, selling 100 million albums in the process. Taylor continues to be esteemed as a songwriter and performer whose work speaks to people's inner emotional lives around the world.
His gentle tenor was accompanied by a complex web of chord changes rooted in Appalachian folk, and the country music of legends such as Hank Williams. In 2000, Taylor was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, followed by the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015.
Antônio Carlos Jobim
Widely considered one of Brazil's greatest and most innovative musicians of the twentieth century, Jobim internationalised bossa nova, merging it with jazz in the 1960s to create a new sound with remarkable success.
Jobim was an innovator in the use of sophisticated harmonic structures in popular song. Some of his melodic twists, like the melody insisting on the major seventh of the chord, became commonplace in jazz after he used them.
The ‘Father of Bossa Nova’ has had his songs performed by many singers and instrumentalists ever since, with a large number of them commonly included in jazz and pop standard repertoires. The song "Garota de Ipanema" (The Girl from Ipamena), for example, has been recorded over 240 times by other artists!
You may be familiar with the Django story, but the actual recorded evidence is something else altogether. The gypsy swing genius was formidably fast across the frets, yes, but his playing was also full of a romanticism that belongs to another century altogether.
At 18, Django was involved in a life-threatening fire that almost caused him to lose one of his legs. During an 18 month recovery period, he was given an acoustic guitar to pass the time, whereby he created a whole new fingering system built around the two fingers on his left hand that still had full mobility – the fourth and fifth digits on the left hand were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire.
Django is revered as much for his feel, tone and expression as much his technical ability. A master of his art whose influence is felt far and wide, Django is proof that talent and hard-work will always find a way to create something truly special.
Emmanuel could make barbed-wire stretched across a skateboard sound slick. Super-sound-finger-speed, complex chords and techniques supported by terrific tone and incredible percussive effects – Tommy Emmanuel has the whole package.
There are many followers, but there is only one acoustic guitar God. What he can do with a standard tuned acoustic guitar, with nothing but a pick and his musical imagination is absolutely spellbinding. Emmanuel is both a showman and a showstopper.
Although originally a session player in many bands, Emmanuel has carved out his own style as a solo artist over the years, releasing award-winning albums and singles over five decades. He was named "Best Acoustic Guitarist" in its Guitar Player Magazines readers' poll, not once, but twice. If this isn’t enough to convert you, you’ll just have to check him out yourself. Don’t blame us if you spend the rest of your day on his YouTube channel though.
If you've got a favourite musician that hasn't been included you've probably been screaming at your screen. It's understandable. You want the world to know about them. Well, we're not adverse to taking on some recommendations. If you'd like to leave us your own nomination, go follow us on Social Media @RSLAwards and comment on the post below!