Fingerstyle or fingerpicking guitar is one of the most iconic and distinct styles of acoustic guitar playing. The 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 the fingerstyle guitarists on this list are numbered, please understand that this list goes 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).
If you’re a guitarist yourself and wondering what guitars or other gear I recommend, head on over to my recommended gear page to gets started.
Now without further ado, let’s discover the 30 best fingerstyle / fingerpicking guitarists of all time.
Martin Taylor is a British jazz musician who has had a long career working both solo and with groups. His early playing was with Stéphane Grappelli doing gypsy jazz. His most recent work has been in solo/small ensemble fingerstyle guitar, like on his duet album with Tommy Emmanuel.
Martin is also passionate about teaching fingerstyle guitar. If you’re looking to learn fingerstyle guitar from a true master then I highly recommend his ArtistWorks course:
In the course, Martin Taylor shares his expertise in hundreds of fingerstyle guitar lessons including several original tunes.
Students can also submit a video for review using the ArtistWorks Video Exchange Learning® platform. Martin reviews each submission and records a video response, offering specific guidance.
That’s why Martin’s course is my #1 recommendation for learning fingerstyle guitar.
The country western icon is not often praised for his guitar playing, but Willie Nelson regularly blends jazz and blues into his country songs for a delightful mix of genres that few other fingerstyle guitar players can pull off successfully.
Tommy Emmanuel is one of the best fingerstyle players to ever live, but what may be even more impressive are his composing skills. Though most of his songs feature just Emmanuel and his guitar, they are extremely captivating and moving, showing off the emotional depth that is possible with this style of guitar playing.
Known for his percussive style and his frequent use of a 12 string acoustic, John Butler and his John Butler Trio have one of the most unique acoustic sounds on the scene today. His song Ocean is one of the most famous acoustic guitar instrumental songs of all time – just watch the video above to see and hear why!
John Mayer is one of the most versatile guitarists in mainstream music – able to play catchy pop riffs, blazing blues guitar solos, Grateful Dead covers ala Dead & Company, and of course, rhythmic fingerstyle guitar. His song “Why Georgia” is perhaps his best known songs featuring Mayer’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing.
Anyone who’s tried to cover James Taylor’s fingerpicking songs on the acoustic knows how hard his individual style is to emulate. James Taylor makes prominent use of hammer ons, pull offs, walk ups and walk downs, and other advanced techniques, blending in perfectly with his melodic fingerstyle guitar playing.
Chet Atkins was one of the first players to bring fingerstyle playing to the electric guitar. He was instrumental in bringing fingerstyle and fingerpicking guitar to a much wider audience and influencing many younger players that would later come on the music scene.
Jerry Reed was a transformational player in the country and bluegrass genre, probably best known for his song “East Bound and Down.” Many don’t know that Reed was a skilled fingerstyle player as well, as you can hear in the song above.
Pat Metheny is known as a skilled fusion and jazz player – mostly on the electric guitar. But he’s also an incredible composer and fingerstyle player. One of his acoustic albums where you can really hear this side of his playing is “A Map of the World” – the title track is featured above.
Eric Clapton is most well known for his blazing electric blues and rock guitar playing. However, his Unplugged album shows off his skills with fingerstyle playing on the acoustic guitar. Check it out to see a more mellow soulful side of Clapton’s playing.
Mississippi John Hurt
Speaking of Clapton, it’d be a huge mistake not to throw in some of the old school acoustic blues players here – and Mississippi John Hurt is easily one of the most influential, with songs like Spike Driver Blues, Lay Me Down a Pallet (On Your Floor), You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley, etc. He was known for his huge thumb, which created a thundering downstroke in his fingerpicking.
Doc Watson was not only a masterful fingerpicker and fingerstyle player, but he was 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.
Andy McKee is another acoustic guitarist, who like John Butler, makes heavy use of percussive techniques and 12 string guitars. Tommy Emmanuel had a big influence on Andy McKee – and McKee was actually the first artist to be signed CGP Sounds, the record label founded by Emmanuel himself.
Paul Simon was half of the powerhouse duo Simon & Garfunkel. You can hear his fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing on many of the beautiful songs that Simon wrote the lyrics for, such as April Come She Will (featured above).
Merle Travis has to be included on this list, as he even has his own style of fingerpicking named after him! Travis picking is one of the most popular fingerstyle approaches used on the acoustic guitar to this day. You can see Merle using this style in the video clip above.
Michael Hedges is known for the creative innovation that he brought to his music, and to his fingerstyle approach in particular. He was a one of a kind acoustic guitarist – truly a genius in both performing and composing on the instrument.
Mark Knopfler was the lead guitarist of the classic rock group Dire Straits. Few people know, however, that many of Knopfler’s most incredible solos and riffs for the group were actually played using his bare fingers. Using fingerpicking on an electric stratocaster is one of the many things gave Knopfler his characteristic sound on the instrument.
Joe Pass was one of Jazz guitar’s greatest innovators. One thing that helped him achieve this was his use of fingerstyle playing. In Jazz, many guitarists opt to use heavy picks. Pass was one of the few players who opted for fingerpicking instead.
Don Ross is a fingerstyle guitarist from Canada. He is the only person to win the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship twice (once in 1988 and then again in 1996). His album “Huron Street” even reached the top ten on the Billboard New-age chart.
Antoine Dufour is a French-Canadian acoustic guitarist currently signed to CandyRat Records. Dufour started playing guitar at the age of fifteen. He went on to study at the CEGEP in Joliette, where he listened to the music of Leo Kottke, Don Ross, and Michael Hedges at the behest of his teacher.
Sungha Jung may be the most “YouTube famous” guitarist on this list. The 21-year-old is a real guitar virtuoso, incorporating elements of many famous fingerstyle guitarists. He’s uploaded more than 1,000 YouTube videos, many of which have millions of views. From a young age, he played with master guitarists and songwriters such as Trace Bundy, Tommy Emmanuel, and Jason Mraz.
Sergio creates with the acoustic guitar what perhaps no other fingerstyle guitarist is capable of – he is a true master of incorporating percussive rhythm into his fingerstyle playing. Throughout the course of a song, he adds layer after layer with a looping pedal, magically bringing each composition to life. This makes so many of his tracks beautifully haunting and impossible to ignore.
Eric Johnson is most famous for his incredible instrumental song “Cliffs of Dover.” He’s not often thought of as a fingerstyle player, but if you listen to his instrumental albums in full, there is always a small dose of fingerstyle acoustic guitar performed by Eric himself. Furthermore, many of his solos on the electric guitar still make use of fingerstyle playing, like his live intro to Cliffs of Dover above.
A French-Algerian guitarist famous for his use of DADGAD tuning in a dazzling display of modern fingerstyle guitar. While his playing throughout his career has spanned a variety of formats, his recent solo acoustic playing has won awards and made it’s way into multiple soundtracks.
Ed Gerhard is an exceptional fingerstyle player, and a master across the steel string acoustic, dobro, and weissenborn. It’s rare to find such an accomplished multi-instrumentalist.
Gomm blends many complicated techniques: harmonics, over-the-neck fretboard work, percussive slapping, singing, AND using tuners to change note values mid-riff…and manages to make it sounds like a compelling song.
Calum is a young player coming out of Canada who has already gotten the attention of the fingerstyle community with tunes like “Tabula Rasa.” He’s already had the chance to work with movie soundtracks, the Olympics, and famous guitarists on this list like Antoine Dufour.
Keaggy’s contributions to solo acoustic guitar, including the use of loopers, e-Bows, and avante garde technology, are often overlooked due to his pre-YouTube aesthetic and off-the-grid personality.
Thomas Leeb is an Austrian-born guitarist, now living in California, who takes percussive acoustic guitar playing to the next level. Check out his album, “Desert Pirate”, and specifically his rendition of “No Woman No Cry” to put yourself on that fine line between inspiration and jealousy.
Adrian Legg spent a number of years as a guitar technician, wrote for guitar publications, helped design and launch acoustic guitar amps, but now is largely known as a genre-bending, technically acute composer and performer.
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