The Five Greatest Fingerstyle Guitarists… as Chosen by the Thalia Community

In the last edition of this blog, we asked for your thoughts on the greatest fingerstyle players of all time. You guys responded in droves, and now the results are in.

These are – by the reckoning of the Thalia community – the five greatest fingerstyle guitarists of all time. And, it’s fair to say that you’ve all chosen wisely! Every one of these players is an undisputed legend, a master of their craft, and a true inspiration to everyone who’s ever foregone a pick in favor of using their fingers. 

But, enough of our yacking, let’s get on with the results!

Coming in at number 5…

  1. Joe Pass (2.67%)

“[Joe Pass] weaves his own fast-moving chords and filigree work so nimbly that it is hard to believe fingers can physically shift so quickly. Slight moustached, fairly balding, he frowns over his fretwork like a worried head waiter with more guests than tables but the sound that comes out could only be the confident product of years of devotion to the instrument...”

Miles Kington, The Times, 1974

His appearance was unassuming - "[he] looks like somebody's uncle,” New York magazine once noted – but Joe Pass was one of the greatest jazz guitarists of the 20th century. A regular collaborator with Oscar Petersen and Ella Fitzgerald, he started off playing with a pick. But, finding that plectrums couldn’t stand up to the rigor of his fast, single note lines, he switched to fingerstyle as his solo career took off.

With a sophisticated harmonic sense, Pass’s mastery was epitomized in his counterpoint between improvised lead lines, walking bass figures and chords, as well as spontaneous modulations. Through these techniques, Pass created new possibilities for jazz guitar, and became a legend in the process.

  1. Merle Travis (3.74%)

“Merle Travis is one of the greatest country musicians of all time. His renown does not match his influence.”

The Bluegrass Situation

As this quote from the folks at The Bluegrass Situation suggests, Merle Travis is something of an unsung guitar hero. But to dismiss Travis as merely a footnote in the Chet Atkins story is a fool’s errand, as he’s one of the most influential country guitarists of all time.

Fortunately, that’s something that the Thalia community is all too aware of, and why Merle makes the cut on this list. Merle’s signature “Travis picking” – a syncopated style rooted in ragtime where alternating chords and bass notes are plucked by the thumb while melodies are simultaneously plucked by the index finger – was one of the most important innovations in country guitar in the 20th century. A radical evolution of Kentucky-style blues picking, it took the genre in a new direction, and inspired a generation of guitarists in the process.

  1. Leo Kottke (9.63%)

“[The guitar] chose me. I know that because I played violin, then trombone. I loved them. But they were goofy marriages. The guitar is some kind of surprise, all the time. It’s home.”

Leo Kottke 

With 9.63 percent of the vote, it’s the legendary Leo Kottke that takes the number three spot on this list.

For many guitarists, a painful bout with tendonitis and nerve damage could mean the end of a career. But, for Leo Kottke, it was the catalyst that transformed his guitar playing.

After making a name for himself on the international folk festival circuit in the late 1970s for his unconventional picking style, Kottke began suffering from the condition in the early 1980s as a result of his vigorous, aggressive technique.

Not to be beaten, however, he switched to a classical picking style that used fingertips and small amounts of fingernail rather than fingerpicks, changed the position of his right hand to place less stress on the tendons and studied the playing techniques of jazz and classical guitarists.

A creative renaissance ensued, with a string of classic albums throughout the mid-1980s and early 1991s that cemented Kottke as a bona-fide guitar legend.

His simultaneous bass and lead lines are masterful. His music, which draws from folk, country, bluegrass, blues and ragtime – but with a thorny, modernist composer edge – is sometimes unconventional, but always utterly compelling. And, his syncopated, polyphonic melodies are instantly recognizable.

A true original, he’s undeniably a deserving inclusion on this countdown.

  1. Chet Atkins (37.43%)

""Someone told Chet Atkins, "Man, that guitar sure sounds good!" 

Chet set the guitar down on a chair and asked him, "Ok, how does it sound now?"'

In at number two, with a substantial 37.43 percent is “Mr. Guitar” himself, the phenomenal Chester Burton Atkins. Like Merle Travis, he invented a picking style – his trademark “Atkins style” using the thumb and first two fingers – and

“rescued country music from a commercial slump” by pioneering what we now know as the “Nashville Sound.”

You want to know how profound Chet’s influence is? Ask pretty much any fingerstylist of note out there today and they’ll almost certainly cite him as a major inspiration. Why? Because Chet was a musician’s musician; a true lover of music in all its forms. His refusal to be pigeonholed as a country guitarist – “I’m a guitarist, period” – and his embracing of jazz, classical, flamenco and everything else in between, led to one of the richest and most eclectic back catalogues in the history of instrumental guitar.

Without Chet, country wouldn’t be what it is today, and the world of fingerstyle guitar would be a very different place. In short, the man was a true pioneer and worthy of every accolade that comes his way.

  1. Tommy Emmanuel (44.92%)

Was there ever any doubt? Don’t get us wrong, we knew that the Thalia community loved the legendary Mr. Emmanuel, but we were still blown away by the whopping 44.92 percent of you that voted him into first place.

It’s Emmanuel’s completeness as a guitar player that’s earned him a spot on this list. He’s a technical marvel, yes, and his hybrid picking style – complete with percussive strikes and tremolo imitation – is a sight to behold. But, it’s his sheer musicality, not just his flair, that gains him points here.

His trademark licks and cascading melodic lines continue to push the current generation of fingerstylists to the next level, and his output is never anything less than spectacular. In the previous article, we noted that Emmanuel is always a joy to listen to. We’re glad that so many of you agree.

So that’s the list folks! But that doesn’t mean to say the discussion is over. Share your thoughts on the great and the good of fingerstyle guitar in the comments section, and tell us what those players mean to you.