Few things inspire greater awe in guitarists than watching and hearing a great finger-stylist at work. Oftentimes the best finger-pickers seem to incorporate music from a multitude of genres--country, jazz, blues … you name it. Below we’ve profiled ten of the very best. Let us know, in the comments section, which great finger stylists we missed!
Merle Robert Travis was an American country singer and guitarist who came up with a unique finger-style technique which later would be called Travis picking. The peculiarity of this kind of picking was in "preset right-hand pattern[s]" while fingerpicking, with the left-hand fingering standard chords. He is also credited with devising the first solid body electric guitar, coming up with a model, which, when perfected by Leo Fender, would become a key element in early rock 'n' roll.
William Thomas "Tommy" Emmanuel is an Australian world-famous fingerstyle guitarist.
Emmanuel often curls his left-hand thumb around the neck of the guitar onto the fretboard to play some notes, rather than using only his fingers to play—contrary to how classical guitarists play, but not unusual for jazz and country guitarists. He frequently plays common three-finger chord shapes with just two fingers. He commonly uses a thumb pick, a flat pick (plectrum), his fingers or a combination of these in his playing, a style known as hybrid picking.
Amongst his trademark rapid virtuosic licks and cascading harmonic progressions, he often uses a technique that imitates an electric guitar's tremolo system on acoustic guitar—by pressing the palm of his right hand against the fretboard of the guitar near the neck joint, while maintaining forward pressure with his left hand on the top of the headstock, the guitar neck slightly bends away from the body and consequently affects the pitch of the strings to achieve the desired sound.
Chester Burton "Chet" Atkins was an American musician, and one of the founders of the Nashville sound, which expanded country music's appeal to adult pop music fans. When he was young, he used to listen to Travis Merle a lot on the radio. But as he couldn’t see Travis playing, Chet didn’t know that Travis played the guitar with his thumb and just one finger. So, he started fooling around with three fingers and a thumb, which turned out to be a pseudo-classical style that he stuck with. This signature thumb and finger guitar-picking style Atkins created not only influenced future musicians, but led Atkins to design guitar models, collaborating with the Gretsch Guitar Company, and later with Gibson.
Joe Pass was an American jazz guitarist of Sicilian descent solo guitarist. New York Magazine said of him, "Joe Pass looks like somebody's uncle and plays guitar like nobody's business. He's called 'the world's greatest' and often compared to Paganini for his virtuosity. There is a certain purity to his sound that makes him stand out easily from other first-rate jazz guitarists." His solo style was marked by an advanced linear technique, sophisticated harmonic sense, counterpoint between improvised lead lines, bass figures and chords, spontaneous modulations, and transitions from fast tempos to rubato passages. He would regularly add what he called "color tones" to his compositions, to give what he believed was a more sophisticated and "funkier" sound. He would often use melodic counterpoint during improvisation, move lines and chords chromatically or play melodies by solely shifting chords, and descending augmented arpeggios at the end of phrases.
Born in Sacramento, California, in 1953, Hedges helped bring to the acoustic guitar in a very modern context with his use of hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonic slaps, alternate tunings, and the incorporation of percussive elements which would latterly influence many generations of guitar players. Furthermore, Hedges pulled bass lines, lead lines, moving chords and percussion parts simultaneously out of just one guitar (live these were dubbed his “man-band” performances), using a custom-made double neck guitar. As a guitar player, Hedges was a master. Nevertheless, the music he composed was lush, visceral, and deceptively playful (he humorously inserted the lick from the classic Iron Butterfly track ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ into an otherwise straightforward song).
Andy McKee is an American fingerstyle guitar player who often employs in his performances unique alternate tunings, percussive knocks, two-handed tapping, over-the-fretboard playing, partial capos and natural and artificial harmonics. One video in particular, for a propulsive yet ethereal tune called “Drifting,” became one of YouTube’s first viral sensations - likely because it was both melodically appealing and visually stunning - and racked up millions of views on the then-new site.
Anthony Dufour is a French-Canadian acoustic guitarist. His style can be easily recognized by the abundance of percussion, slap and natural harmonics. Some of his special tricks include: tying his scarf/bandana around the end of his guitar’s neck to mute the strings above the nut. Using a Dunlop thumb pick which he files down so that the tip of the pick is shorter and at a more comfortable angle for his playing style. His two rings serve no specific purpose; those are his wedding and engagement rings.
Donald James Ross or Don Ross is a guitarist who plays in style a style that he describes as "heavy wood." Ross's advanced technique and his sure feeling for rhythm combine with uncommon ideas to make his style instantly recognizable. He often uses percussive techniques and plays intricate down and upstroke patterns with his thumb. His use of acrylic nails allows him to get the sound of long fingernails without the hassle of broken nails.
For 40-plus years Leo Kottke has showcased his phenomenal skills as a finger picker, drawing from blues, jazz and folk to produce sophisticated, polyphonic melodies. Along the way he’s overcome injury and partial hearing loss, even reconfiguring his technique to accommodate tendon damage in his right hand. Through the years, Kottke has collaborated with such musical giants as Chet Atkins, Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones – and his mentor, John Fahey.