5 Veteran Classical Guitarists Every Guitarist Must Know

There are thousands of amazing classical guitarists out there, so this list outlines the veterans and pioneers of the instrument.

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Classical guitar isn't exactly the most listened to or popular genre, but as guitarists, we know that actively listening to other genres and styles can definitely benefit our playing. It's time to start digging the classical guitar because it's the guitar in its highest artistic form. It's not stuffy or boring or intended for old people. If you've never considered listening to classical guitar before, it's well worth it. There is no denying the level of musicianship and technical proficiency needed to make the classical guitar work. There's no distortion, no effects, no amps.

But it can be difficult knowing where to start if you want to get into classical guitar. There are thousands of amazing classical guitarists out there, so this list outlines the veterans and pioneers of the instrument, which is a great place to start. These are the masters who made the instrument popular and established it as a legitimate classical instrument. The order in which this list is presented is more or less chronological, starting with the players who made it popular, and followed by the generations that kept its momentum going.

01. Andrs Segovia

As far as many are concerned, classical guitar wouldn't be what it is today without the innovation and influence of Andrs Segovia. Segovia was born in 1893, and at an early age, took a particular interest in the guitar, which at that time was mainly considered a folk and flamenco instrument, hardly on par with established classical instruments like the violin. Segovia debuted his first live concert at age 15 and went on to sell an astounding number of records and toured the world for the majority of the 20th century. Segovia lived his life attempting to achieve what he believed to be his vocational duty for the guitar: to expose the world to the guitar's beauty, to rid the guitar of its folk-instrument reputation, to build up an extensive quality repertoire, and to encourage formal teaching of the guitar on par with established classical instruments.

Segovia influenced all major contributors to the classical guitar movement. If you were to compare the genre to metal, Segovia would be Tony Iommi an innovator and creator of a unique style that paved the way for future guitarists.

As classical guitar study became more methodical and streamlined, Segovia seemed fall out of favor with younger players who may criticize his sloppiness and technique. But Segovia pushed the possibilities of what the guitar can achieve. The following video features a performance from the 1950's, when Segovia was a seasoned professional and was at the peak of his game.

Listen for: lyrical phrasing, warm sounds, and musicality

Video: "Variation On A Theme Of Mozart" (1:12 in video)

02. Julian Bream

Unlike most of the players on this list, Bream was one of the few players who operated, for the most part, outside of the Segovia circle. Inspired by jazz great Django Reinhardt, the British Bream studied several instruments as a child, and eventually toured the world for the better part of a century, playing a large role in the popularization of the instrument. In addition to guitar, Bream transcribed, performed, and recorded music for various traditional stringed instruments, such as the lute, baroque guitar, and vihuela, a cousin of the modern guitar. Bream was also one of the first to use nylon strings on the guitar.

Like Segovia, Bream's style is virtuosic in the sense that musicality seemed paramount over technique, but during Bream's earlier career, classical guitar technique wasn't as developed as it is today, thus his interpretations are quite expressive and unique to his British humor. Bream is the Hendrix of classical guitar.

Listen for: expression, tonal variety

Video: "Conde Claros" on Vihuela

03. John Williams

John Williams, not to be confused with the famous composer of the same name, is revered in the classical guitar community as a technical master. His technique is flawless and much of the modern classical guitar technique can be credited to him. His tone and interpretations may be perceived as colder and more mechanical, giving him a unique aesthetic.

Williams studied with Segovia at an early age, and eventually went on to gain international fame from touring and recording. Unlike the rest of these guys, William's career briefly stepped outside of classical guitar with projects like the 1970's fusion group, Sky, and collaborations with Pete Townsend of The Who.

The following video features the music of Paraguayan composer, Augustn Barrios, a composer that Williams popularized. Segovia disliked Barrios, most likely dismissing the South American music as too folky, but William's love for Barrios's music introduced yet another style to standard guitar rep. Some landmark albums to check out are From the Jungles of Paraguay: John Williams Plays Barrios, and his duet album with Julian Bream, Julian and John.

Listen for: technical precision, control

Video: "Vals Op 8. No. 4" by Barrios

04. Christopher Parkening

Christopher Parkening was America's first star classical guitarist. He began his studies with the famed Romeros at a young age and soon caught the attention of Segovia, who later claimed that Parkening was one of the best guitarists he had ever heard. Some considered him a prodigy. He landed a record deal at age 18 and recorded groundbreaking albums, such as Parkening Plays Bach and In The Spanish Style. Parkening went on to found the classical guitar department at the University of Southern California, gave 90 concerts per year by the time he was 20, and toured the world several times by the time he was 30, at which point he retired from professional touring. He is also a champion fly fisherman, if guitar wasn't enough.

Parkening has the least expansive catalog of these guitarists, a result of his pursuit of perfection. Extremely influenced by Segovia, his style seems like a tighter, cleaner and more evolved version of Segovia. His phrases are executed with precision, the utmost musicality, and legato usage. Parkening also is a heavy advocate of varying tonal colors through hand and nail placement. For example, he will shift his right hand toward the bridge to achieve a brassier ponticello tone, or shift closer to the neck for a warmer dolce sound.

Listen for: Tonal color changes, Segovia influence, cleanliness, and beautiful tones

Video: "Jesu Joy Of Man's Desiring" by Johan Sebastian Bach

05. David Russell

A relatively younger player within this group, David Russell offers a significant output of technically impressive albums that contain a warm tonal presence and unique repertoire. Like Bream, Russell's pieces can sound rougher and reverberated, quite different from say, Parkening, but they are virtuosic nonetheless. Russell's career picked up later in his life; however his output is impressive, averaging a studio release nearly every year for the past 15 years.

Listen for: virtuosic speed, solid technique, and consistency in tone

Video: "Spatter The Dew" a traditional Irish piece

Other Mentions:

Other notable players to check out are Manuel Barrueco, Paul Galbraith, The Romero's, which include the famed Pepe and Angel Romero, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, which includes Scott Tennant, the author of Pumping Nylon, a revolutionary instructional book that became a standard in classical guitar teaching.

Of course, classical guitar isn't for everyone, but understanding the mechanics and musical possibilities of classical guitar can improve your playing and develop a discernable ear. These guitarists are all masters in their own right. After listening to them all, you'll notice huge differences in their styles, but that's what is so intriguing about classical guitar; there are a plethora of possibilities regarding interpretation, technique and individual style. So give it a shot if you haven't already. It may lead so some inspiration and ideas for your own playing.

By Zach Pino

157 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Jesus_Dean
    Amazing! Just when you think you're the shiznit, you see something like this that knocks you down a peg or two.
    flecktowned
    Great article, hopefully UG keeps putting out more like this and not just on classical guitar. Would love to see some banjo/ukulele/other strings get some love.
    Iommianity
    John Mclaughlin and Al Di Meola are two of my favourite guitarists, but they'd be the first to tell you they're not 'classical' guitarists in any strict sense.
    jm911 wrote: It should be required for every guitarist to listen to these people... This isn't your usual Drop-D Powerchord crap... totally different possibilities for both instruments. what i've noticed is that there are certain qualities of each that you should take advantage of. and btw, "Drop D Powerchord Crap" is such a biased comment. i dont like playing "drop D powerchord crap" either, but resepect other people's taste man.
    Thank you. I dunno how these people think they're being more objective than the guy who said he wouldn't try to broaden his horizons at all because he only likes blues and rock.
    DrumVillain
    This applies especially to the metalheads here. We usually appreciate classical intros to metal songs like Battery and Last in Line, or we feel proud to say how classical-inspired metal is in general, but never actually listen to any 100% classical guitar songs. Glad to see this article pop up. I have a lot of classical guitarists on my iPod but have never heard of any of these guys. Time to go broaden my musical horizons!
    CFH-For-Life
    Sladey : Rodrigo y Gabriela.
    THIS I ****in love Rodrigo y Gabriela. They make amazing music and there so friggin talented its unreal
    metallica-#1
    Iommianity wrote: John Mclaughlin and Al Di Meola are two of my favourite guitarists, but they'd be the first to tell you they're not 'classical' guitarists in any strict sense. jm911 wrote: It should be required for every guitarist to listen to these people... This isn't your usual Drop-D Powerchord crap... totally different possibilities for both instruments. what i've noticed is that there are certain qualities of each that you should take advantage of. and btw, "Drop D Powerchord Crap" is such a biased comment. i dont like playing "drop D powerchord crap" either, but resepect other people's taste man. Thank you. I dunno how these people think they're being more objective than the guy who said he wouldn't try to broaden his horizons at all because he only likes blues and rock.
    and besides, just because they tune to Dropped D doesnt mean they cant play, granted there are a few guitarists out there who tune down because its easy and they want to take short cuts but then there's players like Ian D'Sa who tune to dropped d to create his unique and complex rhythms with his guitar by playing lead and rhythm at the same time. i dare the guy who posted that to learn Tears Into Wine by Billy Talent and then come back and comment, i bet his tone would change considerably
    jm911
    It should be required for every guitarist to listen to these people... This isn't your usual Drop-D Powerchord crap...
    totally different possibilities for both instruments. what i've noticed is that there are certain qualities of each that you should take advantage of. and btw, "Drop D Powerchord Crap" is such a biased comment. i dont like playing "drop D powerchord crap" either, but resepect other people's taste man.
    Nugma
    Classical and electric are definitely not two different instruments, they're both guitars, both in same tuning and at the core, the same. That being said though, you shouldn't compare the two, but I'd say that classical guitar is definitely a valuable thing for an electric player to listen to, as it gives a lot of persceptive and great ideas. It has a lot of things and ideas that you can apply to an electric, even when playing metal, no doubt about it.
    GasPipe
    Very surprising to a classical article on this site, and I found it very educational. Thumbs up UG!
    satch_magic
    I appreciate this. I'm primarily an electric guitarist but my degree is in classical guitar performance. The two are completely different animals worth mastering. But they both inspire each other when playing. And as a metal guitarist, I can honestly say if you have the right classical, Drop D sounds a lot more thick and chunky on a classical just thought I'd stick that in there
    aig91
    This is the most awesome article I've read in weeks. Love it! Checked
    Orlando01
    I saw John Williams live a few years ago, he played a Barros piece(I forget the name) that was so sweet that I have a boner right now just writing about it.
    link no1
    johnyguitar wrote: Joe-Floyd-lover wrote: It should be required for every guitarist to listen to these people... This isn't your usual Drop-D Powerchord crap... I hope you could see that the electric guitar is a whole different instrument. I hope you see that there is more to plaing guitar than plugging into an amp.....
    I hope you see that your quoting skills failed... I hope you also see that you are very high up on that chair of 'I play classical guitar so worship me' that if you jumped of you would be falling for days.
    fenderstrattele
    This is actually a really good article. I was kinda hoping for Paco de Lucia to be in this list but I guess he's to flamenco to be classical. UG should do more of these articles about genre's that aren't very popular but still have some insane guitar playing in it.everybody seems to be intrested!(exept for the bunch of morons who can't play when they can't hide behind a wall of distorcion so they slam the genre)
    LIVEtoROCK86 : No C.C. DEVILLE???!!!!!
    hahahahaha
    MelvilleStudios
    This list needs serious amending or at the very least lengthening to include such talent as: Paco de Lucia Or Al Di Meola John McLaughlin Paco de Lucia needs to be near the top of any list of classical guitarist. If you've ever seen this guy live he defies description. His playing is so of the charts amazing! See him play once and it's guaranteed to make you want to play classical guitar!!!
    BearCaveEcho
    ultimatelefty wrote: That Spatter the Dew song played by David Rusell almost sounded a bit like Shipping Up To Boston by The Dropkick Murphys in my opinion. Was That song inspired by Spatter the Dew?
    It's a traditional Celtic song. He was inspired to play what they were inspired to transform.
    thebigredjj10
    Enjoyed reading about different guitarists in a pretty cool article. Also loved all the Metapocalypse references in the comments. "They aren't crappy guitars Tokki, you CAN STAND on them."
    danielflasher95
    Like I Is wrote: I know Django Reinhardt is jazz, but I almost feel like he should be at least mentioned somewhere in this article. It's a tragedy so few musicians know who he is and what he's done.
    Damn, i know, Django's way of playing is just amazing, and i find it very nice to the ear, its just amazing.
    sk8m8trix
    Mad props to these guys, I always favor folk acoustic guitar more, like Dylan and The Tallest Man On Earth. Not exactly classical, but it's still amazing what they can do.
    YetAnotherMuso
    Woo John Williams! Front page should have more players like him. Although that's a pretty short list.
    Reighnart
    Classical guitar does not mean Flamenco. So Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola aren't on this list and rightfully so. Al's style is rooted in classical/flamenco but it's so wildly different from Classical. I mean, come on, it's Jazz Fusion.
    b_flo
    How bout CHARO? Yes, the one that says 'goochie-goochie'. Her guitar teacher was Andres Segovia. She was also voted Best Flamenco Guitarist in the World twice. She teaches flamenco/classical guitar to kids for free. Have worked with her several times, and it's always great to see her play the guitar....no picks!...and she's always filing her nails! Rodrigo y Gabriela is also worth mentioning, even though they're younger.
    shwilly
    RoboHendrix wrote: No Paco de Lucia? Or Al Di Meola? Or John McLuaghlin? Or Tomatito? Some list. /:
    Well, I have to agree with you > this is indeed some list Not only because it's spot on but also because Paco + Tomatito: flamenco (and a bit of jazz in Paco's case) while Al + John: jazz/fusion. Not only because of their repertoire (check the discography of any of these guys and you'll primarily find interpretations of baroque and Spanish classical music, which is NOT the same as flamenco) but also because of their technique which is significantly different: in classical it's all about tonal accuracy (you try to let all the notes ring out while keeping your right hand attack as silent as possible). Meanwhile in flamenco you'll find a much bigger emphasis on improvisation and letting a ton of percussiveness slip into your rhythm playing. Flamenco guitarists therefore prefer using a different kind of nylon string guitar which is made from other tonewoods and carries (if I'm not mistaken) higher tension strings Sometimes, these differences make for great combinations > some 20 years ago Paco de Luca took a stab at a contemporary piece by Juan Rodrigo titled Concierto de Aranjuez (who absolutely loved it by the way because it sounded very fresh to him), but the fact that de Luca -who had already achieved worldwide fame by then- hadn't even learned how to read musical notation at that stage just goes to show what kind of difference there is between the classical school (a term which should perhaps be taken literally because most if not all of these guys actually studied at a conservatory or something) and the world of flamenco, which is deeply rooted in (Spanish) Gypsy culture... Trust me, if those guys you mentioned had been on this list the number of people complaining would've been way higher. Of course, they're all highly accomplished players and I doubt they can't play some Bourre without fooling an inexperienced listener into thinking that they're actually listening to someone like Narciso Yepes, who should've been on that list too, imho. The reason why he wasn't included probably has something to do with the fact that classical guitar has hundreds of accomplished players, but little to no "superstars" (hell, I don't know if I could name even 10 of them to be honest). At the end of the day, it's not like they're playing a lot of new material, so there really isn't any reason to remember their names after they're gone unless their playing was truly exceptional
    shaqm
    Hey UG you forgot one of the bests in the portuguese guitar, i know its not classical guitar but so isnt Julian Bream. I'm talking about the great Master, Carlos Paredes, if you havent heard, here is one of his best pieces:
    RC52190
    johnyguitar wrote: Joe-Floyd-lover wrote: It should be required for every guitarist to listen to these people... This isn't your usual Drop-D Powerchord crap... I hope you could see that the electric guitar is a whole different instrument. I hope you see that there is more to plaing guitar than plugging into an amp.....
    forgottenlife wrote: why are people saying that the electric guitar is different? anything you could play on an electric you could play on an acoustic and vica versa
    Yea and anything you play on a piano can be played on an electric or acoustic guitar. That doesn't make them the same instrument. Different techniques and styles involved. If you start playing one you don't automatically know everything about the other. Granted playing one will give you a foundation to play the other, but again, not the same.
    G-Sage
    just remember skill and talent doesnt make well written songs....proven above lol also playing acoustic is totally lame and not metal XD
    ultimateshreddr
    I've been playing and listening to heavy music for over eight years, and i think these guys are genius.
    TwistClock
    Can't listen to the videos on the article and have to open youtube due to the ads UG plays. For shame. At least make it able for us to pause it.
    maximumrocker
    ^stupid spam but Classical guitar is great! I have been playing it for about a year now. every guitarist (and musician) should try to listen to every style of music. why limit your self when you can expand yourself
    CrawlingHorror
    "I don't care how many people try to tell me playing classical guitar will make me better, the only type of guitar music ill ever love enough to play is classic rock and the blues. Besides i wouldnt have the feel for it like half the other people here." Richie Blackmore and Uli Roth both started out taking classical guitar lessons and they credit those studies with giving them a solid technical foundation. Both men continue to be fascinated by the classical idiom. Musical preferences are what they are. Everyone has a different mindset, so it all you like is electric classic rock and blues then it's your life, enjoy. I like those things, too, but also like classical, flamenco, jazz, old R&B, bluegrass and American and UK folk music. The feel issue is an interesting one. When rock players generally try to play real classical music or with orchestras it really falls flat. But the opposite is also true, when classical musicians try to play rock or jazz there is just no funk there and so it doesn't work. Horses for courses.
    Kear Bear
    nailsarecruel wrote: That's 5 guitaritsts I never heard of before, and this fits under the whole "you learn something new every day" gig. As an additional reccomend for UGers to check out, I'd suggest 7-string guitar master George Van Eps. He motivated me to get into 7-strings for other reasons than getting heavy.
    hell yeah dude, i'm using my 7-string almost exclusively for jazz band now!
    TasoGuitar
    What a great article, extremely well written! UG needs to have this guy write more often, it would be great to have a series on classical guitar for the community to read up on. If you look carefully at the title before you read the article then it won't be a surprise Paco de Lucia and Chet Atkins are not mentioned.
    Purcell
    MonkeyLink07 wrote: To me, what they do here is a whole new meaning on the word polyphonic. They are playing complex melodies in different registers on occasion that not only takes physical dexterity, it is a whole different mindset.
    I completely agree with what you are saying, I just don't think that polyphony can be applied to (or it would be hard to apply to) a solo guitar act, as there is no counter-melody. Excellent Monophony and Homophony though!
    guitarrios
    for the last time dudes! paco de lucia and Rodrigo y Gabriela ain't classical! they're flamenco (with a bit of jazz on top, but that's not the point) so stop asking for them, for as talented as they are (very) the don't belong in this lit anymore than shawn lane or eric clapton do. Just so you know, flamenco guitars aren't build the same way as classicals. Great list for people who want to start to listen to this music, Bream and Russell are my absolute favorite guitarists THEY'RE FUCKIN' AWESOME!!! Now, i don't have anything against Parkening, but i'd trade his spot on the list with Manuel Barrueco. And some other guys people should be paying attention to are: Narciso Yepes, Alirio Diaz, Costas Cotsiolis, Leo Brouwer, Roland Dyens, Nikita Koshkin, Aniello Desiderio, Denis Azabagic, Goran Schlser, Judicael Perroy, Thomas Viloteau, Ana Vidovic, Marcyn Dylla, David Starobin, Xuefei Yang, Wang Yameng and Jorge Caballero, just to name a few. And for those who still think this is your grampa's guitar, you should listen to Contemporary Classical Guitar music, so i'm just gonna leave this link around here...
    and see what happens... Classical guitar FTW!!!
    pineaple expres
    Jyrgen wrote: RC52190 wrote: johnyguitar wrote: Joe-Floyd-lover wrote: It should be required for every guitarist to listen to these people... This isn't your usual Drop-D Powerchord crap... I hope you could see that the electric guitar is a whole different instrument. I hope you see that there is more to plaing guitar than plugging into an amp..... forgottenlife wrote: why are people saying that the electric guitar is different? anything you could play on an electric you could play on an acoustic and vica versa Yea and anything you play on a piano can be played on an electric or acoustic guitar. That doesn't make them the same instrument. Different techniques and styles involved. If you start playing one you don't automatically know everything about the other. Granted playing one will give you a foundation to play the other, but again, not the same. Yeah that was kind of my point, thx. Still I agree that implementing stuff from classical guitar playing to you electric playing can be a great idea/source of inspiration
    i personally like playing acoustic guitar compared to electric when i try to write a song. i just feel it sounds better. if i plug in my electric and try to play it without distortion i keep getting too much of the e string in it and it drowns out all of the other notes. i cant seem to get it fixed either. its weird. idk tho it mite b my playing tho. but i havnt noticed it wen i play acoustic. idk. but i think this was a very well put together list. all very good guitarists and whether you like what style they play or not they should be respected.
    pottedsalad
    Jyrgen wrote: Joe-Floyd-lover wrote: It should be required for every guitarist to listen to these people... This isn't your usual Drop-D Powerchord crap... I hope you could see that the electric guitar is a whole different instrument.
    Its also funny how he thinks that in drop d you'd use a powerchord.
    ethansj1
    ima just add to the drop d thing. ts very useful for the quick open power chord thats always there good for fierce rythmic playing. i couldnt imagine Tool without that type of tuning. thats all i have to say i dont like classical guitar 0_o