As every great guitarist knows, country music is more than just vocals and lyrics. While we have previously highlighted legendary country singers, this article focuses on the best guitar players in country music and their unique styles as instrumentalists.
The Sound of Country Guitar
Country music is known for its unique sound that blends elements of folk, blues, and western swing. At the heart of this sound is the guitar, a versatile instrument that can create a wide range of sounds and styles.
The sound of country music on guitar is characterized by a bright, twangy tone that emphasizes the melody. The country guitar often uses open chords, which create a ringing, resonant sound, and is played with a clean amp setting to maintain clarity and definition.
Country music guitarists use various techniques such as fingerpicking, hybrid picking, alternate picking, slides, and bends to produce complex and melodious lines and to achieve a smooth and legato sound. In addition to the standard guitar sound, country guitarists often incorporate effects like reverb, delay, and chorus to create a more spacious and atmospheric sound.
Overall, the sound of country music on guitar is rich, melodic, and twangy. Those are components of the classic country sound.
Best Guitar Players in Country Music
Country music has a rich history and a distinct sound, and the guitar has played a crucial role in shaping the genre. Over the years, many talented guitar players have emerged in country music, each with their unique style and sound.
We’ll explore some of the greatest guitar players in country music and take a closer look at what makes them stand out as instrumentalists:
- Merle Travis
- Chet Atkins
- Luther Perkins
- Roy Clark
- Glen Campbell
- Jerry Reed
- Albert Lee
- Vince Gill
Born & Died: 1917-1983, Years Active: 1936–1983
Another key figure in the development of the country guitar sound was Merle Travis, who pioneered the use of the “Travis Picking” style.
Travis picking is a ragtime-inspired, syncopated style of guitar fingerpicking that involves alternating plucking of chords and bass notes with the thumb while simultaneously plucking melodies with the index finger.
Merle Travis was a legendary American country and western singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Born in Rosewood, Kentucky in 1917. His unique guitar style blended elements of country, blues, and ragtime. He was known for his intricate picking patterns, complex chord changes, and melodic runs. Travis’ guitar style and technique had a profound influence on generations of country music guitarists, including Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel.
Travis’s songwriting was also highly influential, and he wrote several classic country hits, including “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon.”
Throughout his career, Travis received numerous honors and awards for his contributions to music, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. He also won a Grammy Award in 1974 for Best Country Instrumental Performance for his album “The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show.” Travis passed away in 1983, but his legacy as one of the most influential guitarists in country music lives on.
Born & Died: 1924-2001, Years Active: 1942–1996
One of the earliest pioneers of the country guitar sound was the legendary guitarist and producer Chet Atkins. Known as “Mr. Guitar” and “The Country Gentleman,” Atkins developed a distinctive fingerpicking style that combined elements of jazz and country, which he used to create hit songs like “Yakety Axe” and “Mr. Sandman.”
Born in Luttrell, Tennessee, Atkins learned to play guitar at a young age. He began his career as a session musician in Nashville in the 1940s, playing on recordings for artists like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
Atkins developed a unique guitar style that combined fingerpicking, chord melody, and jazz influences. He was known for his clean, precise playing and his ability to create complex arrangements that showcased the guitar’s versatility. Atkins also pioneered the “Nashville Sound,” a slick, polished style of country music incorporating pop and orchestral elements.
Merle Travis inspired Atkins’s signature picking style, which involved using his first three fingers on his right hand to pick the melody, with his thumb playing the bass notes. Travis, on the other hand, used only his index finger for the melody and his thumb for the bass.
Atkins won many awards and honors for his musical contributions, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, ranking 21st on Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list, 14 Grammy Awards, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Atkins continued to perform and record music until he died in 2001, leaving a legacy as one of the country guitar masters. His innovative guitar style and production techniques have had a lasting impact on country music and beyond, and his influence can be heard in the work of countless country music guitarists who have followed in his footsteps.
Born & Died: 1928-1968, Years Active: 1954–1968
Luther Perkins was a guitarist best known for his work with Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three (the backup band of Cash). Born in Tennessee in 1928, Perkins learned how to play rhythm guitar on his own. Perkins’s guitar style became a defining characteristic of Johnny Cash’s early recordings, providing a steady, driving rhythm for Cash’s distinctive vocal style.
Luther Perkins was an influential figure in the development of rockabilly music, a fusion of rock and roll and country that emerged in the 1950s. Perkins’s guitar style was marked by simplicity, using few embellishments and a rhythmic approach to create a distinctive sound suited to Johnny Cash’s music. His use of Fender guitars was instrumental in creating Cash’s signature “boom-chicka-boom” style, a hallmark of early rockabilly music.
Although he is often overshadowed by Cash and other country music legends, Perkins’s simple yet powerful guitar style remains an influence on country and rock music to this day. His contributions to the development of rockabilly music and the sound of Johnny Cash’s early recordings have earned him a place in music history as one of the most innovative and influential country music guitarists of his time.
Born & Died: 1933-2018, Years Active: 1947–2018
Roy Clark was an American singer, multi-instrumentalist, and television personality. He was born in Virginia in 1933 and began playing guitar at a young age. Clark’s father was a musician and encouraged him to learn to play several instruments, including the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle.
Clark was known for his virtuosity and versatility in guitar playing, with his shredding abilities on the strings. He has lightning-fast fingerpicking, plays intricate chord progressions, and can perform various styles of music, from country to jazz and pop. He was also a skilled showman who incorporated humor and storytelling into his performances.
For over 20 years, Clark hosted the TV show “Hee Haw,” where he displayed his musical abilities and comedic talent. He also appeared in several films and television shows throughout his career.
Clark received numerous honors and awards throughout his career, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009. He won a total of six Country Music Association Awards and a Grammy Award for his instrumental work. His contributions to country music and entertainment have made him a beloved and influential figure in American culture.
Born & Died: 1936-2017, Years Active: 1958–2013
Glen Campbell was an American country music singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Born in Arkansas in 1936, Campbell moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, where he became a sought-after session musician, playing on recordings by artists such as Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. His music was influenced by jazz and pop music, as well as traditional country music.
Campbell’s playing is characterized by his efficient finger movements, gracefully dancing across the fretboard, and effortlessly integrating his picking and fretting hands. He employed a clean and balanced tone and precise guitar lines that left no room for mistakes, with no distortion to conceal them. He is perhaps best known for his hit songs, including “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Gentle on My Mind.”
Throughout his career, Campbell won numerous awards, including four Grammy Awards, three CMA Awards, and two ACM Awards. In 2005, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 2012. Despite his passing in 2017, Campbell’s impact on country music and guitar playing endures.
Born & Died: 1937-2008, Years Active: 1955–2008
Jerry Reed Hubbard, known professionally as Jerry Reed, was an American country music singer, guitarist, and songwriter. By the time he was a teenager, he had already established himself as a sought-after session musician, playing on recordings for several artists.
Reed’s guitar work was unique, innovative, and technically impressive. He had a syncopated and intricate style and was skilled at fingerpicking. He could play complex arrangements with ease. Reed’s unique finger positioning while playing earned him the nickname “the Claw.” His playing often featured percussive techniques, such as slapping the strings and tapping the guitar’s body, as well as rapid-fire runs and fluid, melodic lines.
His guitar playing technique, still widely emulated, involved combining complex independent lines in the guitar’s bass and treble ranges while utilizing a rippling combination of fretted and open strings.
Jerry Reed remains a highly influential figure among country guitar masters, admired for his ability to interweave intricate, individual lines in both the bass and treble ranges of the guitar. Reed frequently used a mix of fretted and open strings, resulting in a flowing and rippling sound that has been emulated by many country music guitarists.
Throughout his career, Reed received numerous honors and awards for his contributions to country music. He won two Grammy Awards, both for his instrumental work, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame. Reed was also a respected songwriter, penning hits for artists like Elvis Presley. Despite his success as a musician, Reed also had a successful career as an actor, appearing in films such as Smokey and the Bandit, Survivors, and The Waterboy.
Born 1943, Years Active: 1959–present
Our list of top country music guitarists features not only Americans but also English guitarist Albert Lee, who has gained recognition in both country and rock music genres. Born on December 21, 1943, in Lingen, Herefordshire, England, he began playing the guitar at a young age and was soon performing with local bands. He started his professional music career with Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds in the early 1960s.
Lee is widely known for his exceptional fingerstyle and hybrid picking techniques, which allow him to play with incredible speed and fluidity. His unique style involves using a guitar pick and his fingers to pluck the strings, resulting in a rich and varied sound.
Lee has worked with top musicians like the Everly Brothers, Eric Clapton, The Crickets, Deep Purple, and Vince Gill, and has received multiple Grammy Awards, including one for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” He also won the prestigious “Best Country Guitarist” award from Guitar Player magazine five consecutive times.
Born 1957, Years Active: 1975–present
Vince Gill is a renowned American country music singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He was born on April 12, 1957, in Norman, Oklahoma, and began playing the guitar at an early age. He was inspired by his father, who was a country musician and encouraged him to pursue music.
Gill started his career as a session musician and performed with several artists, including Pure Prairie League and Rodney Crowell. In 1984, he released his first solo album, “Turn Me Loose,” which was well-received and helped establish him as a solo artist.
Gill’s guitar style is characterized by his mastery of various techniques, including fingerpicking and flatpicking. He is known for his smooth, melodic playing style and ability to combine different genres of music, including country, rock, and bluegrass. He is undoubtedly a masterful guitar player, with killer guitar skills complementing his superb singing voice and exceptional songwriting skills.
Gill has won numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including 4 Academy of Country Music Awards, 14 Country Music Association Awards, and 22 Grammy Awards, making him one of the most awarded musicians in history.
In addition, Gill has been honored with inductions into several prestigious halls of fame, including the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame (1997), Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005), Country Music Hall of Fame (2007), and Hollywood Walk of Fame (2012).
Practice Like These Country Guitar Masters
The country guitar masters we’ve discussed today are highly skilled and celebrated for their unique styles and techniques. Although they may seem intimidating, don’t be discouraged, but let them inspire you!
Remember, they were once beginners too. Start by taking baby steps and learning the basics, and if you’re already a guitar player, study the techniques of these masters to improve your country guitar playing. With dedication and practice, you can develop your unique style and make your mark in the genre.
So grab your guitar, practice like these legends, and see where your journey takes you!