Bluegrass flatpicking guitar music is what first inspired me to pick up the acoustic guitar so many years ago. This genre has so many incredible players (many of whom are criminally underrated), that I thought I’d write a full guide post to give them the attention they deserve.
With so much talent in one place, how does one decide on ranking? Well – I’ve always been a bit skeptical about ranking the “best” music or musicians to be honest. So even though there are 30 bluegrass guitarists on this list, please understand that the rankings are arranged in no particular order.
To get a feel for each guitarist’s style, I’ve included a sample of their music from YouTube. But if you really want to enjoy the full catalogue of their music, I recommend listening to their body of work with Amazon Music Unlimited. With Amazon Music’s free trial, you get access to over 60 million songs completely free – and you can listen anytime, anywhere. You can check it out here (link to Amazon).
Need help learning bluegrass guitar? I recommend picking up my crash course guide for beginner bluegrass guitar, where I break down all the licks, chords, techniques and gear you need to get started, all as simply as possible:
Now without further ado, let’s discover the 30 best bluegrass flatpicking guitarists of all time:
Doc Watson is not only a masterful flatpicker, but an incredible fingerpicker as well. And the kicker: he was also blind, making his guitar mastery that much more impressive. Doc actually started out on the electric guitar before moving into bluegrass, folk and appalachian music, which are the genres he’s now famous for. He frequently played with his son, Merle, a talented musician in his own right.
Norman Blake is an amazing flatpicker, but he’s also probably my favorite songwriter on this list. Blake has written many of the best bluegrass songs to have emerged from the past century, classics like “Ginseng Sullivan”, “Slow Train through Georgia”, “Billy Gray”, and “Church Street Blues.”
The song above, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane, blurs the lines between folk, blues, and bluegrass. In Norman Blake’s version, he imparts a lot of bluegrass flavor to this old tune that dates all the way back to 1800s.
In addition to inspiring a host of today’s finest bluegrass guitar players, Clarence White is one of the main influences of Tony Rice. If you listen to the two bluegrass masters, you can clearly hear the influence. White employs fantastic crosspicking and an excellent use of melody to form complex but memorable bluegrass leads.
While he’s most well known as a bluegrass flatpicking master on the acoustic guitar, Bryan Sutton also plays the mandolin, banjo, ukulele, and electric guitar. Influenced primarily by Clarence White and Tony Rice, Sutton has done everything from working as a Nashville session guitarist to playing in some of the best bluegrass bands on the scene.
Bryan is also passionate about teaching his craft to other guitarists. With Bryan Suttons’ ArtistWorks bluegrass guitar course you get access to one of the very best bluegrass guitarists ever, as he walks you through his playing step by step.
This is my #1 recommendation if you really want to cut your learning curve and become great at playing bluegrass guitar.
You can read more about Bryan’s excellent course here.
Billy Strings is one of the young up and comers of the bluegrass flatpicking guitar world. But make no mistake – he has the talent to roll and play with the best of them. Billy has a unique, fast-paced style that is an amalgam of many of the bluegrass greats named elsewhere on this list. In particular, key influences for him were Doc Watson and Tony Rice.
If you don’t play acoustic guitar yourself, or aren’t a bluegrass music fan, you may not have heard of Tony Rice. That’s one reason I feel I have to mention him – his incredible acoustic guitar playing is somehow still relatively ignored outside of guitarists’ circles.
In Church Street Blues (on Amazon), Tony’s mastery of the acoustic guitar is really in the spotlight. He’s a great singer, and the songs he chose are excellent, but after listening to this album so many times, it’s still the guitar playing that continues to shine through and inspire me.
Church Street Blues, One More Night and Orphan Annie are some of my favorites from this album – if you’re unfamiliar with Tony, you owe it to yourself to at least give those songs a listen and soak in some awesome acoustic guitar playing.
If you want a deeper look at Tony’s music, check out my guides to his 5 best albums or his 8 best songs.
Dan Tyminski’s singing and guitar playing on the classic “Man of Constant Sorrow” brought bluegrass music to a much wider audience when the song was featured prominently in the classic movie O Brother Where Art Thou?, starring George Clooney. Tyminski is one of my favorite singers and players in the “newer wave” of bluegrass music, with great albums like Wheels and Carry Me Across the Mountain.
Ron Block has accompanied Dan Tyminski and many other premier bluegrass musicians. The video above gives a great in depth look at both players’ approach to bluegrass rhythm guitar. Block has very clean flatpicking technique and an excellent voice. My favorite song of his is his interpretation of the gospel classic “Be Assured,” from his Doorway album.
Having influenced everyone from Tony Rice, to Doc Watson, to Dan Tyminski, it would be a sin to leave Jimmy Martin out of this list. With his high-driving rhythm playing, Jimmy was one of the original bluegrass guitar heroes.
David Grier is one of the most accomplished flatpicker guitarists playing today. Grier was immensely influenced by Bill Monroe, and moved to Nashville in the mid 80s to begin touring and recording. He has formed his own record label and started many bluegrass bands throughout his many years of playing the instrument.
Molly Tuttle is a talented guitarist and songwriter deeply rooted in the bluegrass tradition. She waswas the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award – both in 2017 and then again in 2018. She’s also been named the Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year.
Bill Monroe wrote some of the biggest classics in the bluegrass genre – songs like Blue Moon of Kentucky, Jerusalem’s Ridge, etc. He played both the mandolin and the acoustic guitar. Bill Monroe was one of the driving forces behind bringing bluegrass to a much larger audience. He had a profound interest on players like Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs.
Chris Eldridge, sometimes called “Critter” – is one of the best bluegrass players of the newer generation. He’s played with the Punch Brothers, Julian Lage, and many others. He also helped found the bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters.
Julian Lage often plays with Chris Eldridge as a duo. Lage was a child prodigy on the guitar, and performed at the 2000 Grammy Awards at the young age of 12. Today, he plays across several genres, including jazz, but the bluegrass work he’s done with Chris Eldridge shows his mastery of the bluegrass flatpicking canon.
Andy Falco plays in the Infamous Stringdusters, a “newgrass” (newer generation bluegrass) jam band that won a 2018 grammy for best bluegrass album. Falco specializes in bluegrass and American Roots music.
Tim stafford started playing guitar in the 70s, eventually playing with Alison Krauss & Union Station, before forming the bluegrass band Blue Highway. Stafford is a prolific songwriter, with over 250 songs recorded. He is also one of the most academically accomplished bluegrass players, having taught courses on the subject at several different universities.
Crary is a skilled bluegrass flatpicker, usually playing solo or in recordings with other pickers. Like Stafford above, Crary actually has an academic background, and is a Speech Communications professor at California State University in Fullerton.
George Shuffler was one of the earliest guitarist’s to develop a proficiency in crosspicking – a form of picking and rhythm playing unique to the bluegrass style. Shuffler is in The Bluegrass Hall of Fame, and even played with the legendary Stanley Brothers.
Larry Sparks is a master of bluegrass music and gospel music – two musical traditions that often intermix with each other. In addition to his skill on the guitar, Sparks is one of the most talent vocalists in bluegrass. He won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year Award in both 2004 and 2005.
Jordan Tice is a versatile guitarist and prolific composer of some of the most thoughtful and well-crafted tunes of his generation. He is a skilled flat picker, fingerpicker, and singer-songwriter.
Josh Williams has played with bluegrass greats like Rhonda Vincent, and now shares his flatpicking skills with the world through his group the Josh Williams Band. He was profoundly influenced by Tony Rice, and country legend Keith Whitley.
Ricky Skaggs is typically thought of more as a singer and performer than a guitarist. But he is a talented multi-instrumentalist, proficient on both the mandolin and the guitar. Skaggs wrote some of the biggest hits in country and bluegrass music, songs like Highway 40 Blues.
Russ Barenberg is an American bluegrass flatpicking guitarist. Like many others on this list, Barenberg’s own style was heavily influenced by players like Clarence White. He is one of the most melodic instrumentalists and composers playing today, and has been nominated for a grammy award.
Technically, Jerry Douglas is a dobro player. But I still felt he deserved including on this list of bluegrass guitar masters. Douglas has played with legends like Tony Rice, Tommy Emmanuel, and many others, and his dobro playing is featured in many of the most popular bluegrass songs ever made.
Wyatt Rice is the brother of legendary guitarist Tony Rice. But while Tony’s strongest skills are certainly in the lead playing department, Wyatt has distinguished himself as a master of rhythm guitar. In addition to his work with his brother Tony, Wyatt has released several solo albums of his own.
You may not associate Tommy Emmanuel with bluegrass music – even if it’s only because his fingerstyle playing is so incredible as to overshadow his flatpicking slightly. But he’s done a number of songs and performances in this style – certainly enough to demonstrate his profound skill in the genre, even if it’s not his most well known.
Peter Rowan was at one point a guitarist and singer in Bill Monroe’s band. He also played and sang in the classic bluegrass group Old and In The Way – which famously featured the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on banjo. Today, his record group Rebel Records features his own music and much more in the bluegrass and roots tradition.
Jerry Garcia is most well known as the frontman of the legendary jam band the Grateful Dead. But what’s less known is that Garcia got his start in the bluegrass tradition, playing banjo for Old & In the Way. Later, Garcia returned to his fondness for the bluegrass flatpicking style, releasing The Pizza Tapes, which featured him playing with longtime friend David Grisman and bluegrass legend Tony Rice.
Tim O’Brien is an American country and bluegrass musician. In addition to singing, he plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki and mandocello. O’Brien’s flavor of bluegrass has heavy Irish and Scottish roots. He played with the legendary bluegrass band Hot Rize as well as playing duets with his sister Molly.
Adam Aijala is the guitarist for the Yonder Mountain String Band – one of the best new bluegrass bands on the scene. The group calls themselves a “progressive bluegrass group” and they’ve released 5 studio albums so far, while doing many live performances and tours as well.
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