Here at Thalia, fingerstyle guitar playing is a true passion. There’s nothing quite like hearing an amazing fingerstylist doing their thing, and watching someone working with their left and right hands in complete synchronicity is one of the things that keeps us pushing to play to every day.
With such a love for great fingerstyle playing, it might not surprise you to know that debates about the greatest finger stylist of all time are a frequent occurrence in the Thalia studio. And, that finding consensus amongst the staff here is a rarity!
Of course, there’s an element of futility in trying to decide the greatest fingerstyle player of all time (or any kind of guitarist for that matter). Guitar playing, like all music, is inherently subjective after all, and it’s pretty much impossible to quantify what makes someone “the best” in the first place.
But, with that caveat in mind, we thought it’d be really fun to throw it out to you, the Thalia faithful, and see where your finger picking inspirations come from. To get you thinking, here are three of the (many) names that often get mentioned here at Thalia, and why we love them so much.
As a hero of country and western music, an incredible songwriter, and the pioneer of one of the most influential picking styles in American music, Merle Robert Travis is a fitting start to this list.
Travis devotee Chet Atkins (we’ll come on to him in a minute!) once said that Travis’s style went in musical directions “never dreamt about” by his predecessors.
He certainly wasn’t wrong. 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 a radical evolution of Kentucky-style blues and country picking that profoundly influenced guitarists including Scotty Moore, Earl Hooker and Marcel Dadi.
His influence is probably greater than his renown to the masses, but for those in the know, Merle Travis is regarded as a legend. As The Bluegrass Situation rightly put it: “You may not know the name Merle Travis, but all your favorite musicians do.”
When you think of finger picking in the present day, the first name that comes to mind is inevitably Tommy Emmanuel. A phenomenal guitar player, it’s his innovative use of the guitar, as well as his dynamic and energetic playing that continues to inspire guitarists the world over.
A two-time Grammy nominee and Chet Atkins disciple, Emmanuel’s hybrid picking style and trademark virtuoso licks and cascading harmonic progressions make him a standout force in today’s instrumental guitar scene. From both a technical and melodic standpoint Emmanuel’s playing is already damned impressive. But, it’s also the unusual ways he uses his guitar that make him stand out from the crowd.
Whether he’s striking the guitar body in various places with his hands and a snare brush – effectively turning it into a percussion kit (in no small part why his guitars look so battered and worn down) – or imitating an electric guitar tremolo by putting pressure on the soundboard and headstock of his instrument, Emmanuel continually pushes the limits of what seems possible on an acoustic.
A technical marvel, and a musical innovator who never loses sight of the importance of melody and musicality; Tommy Emmanuel is as complete a fingerstylist as you’re likely to find, and always a joy to listen to.
You don’t get a nickname like “Mr. Guitar” without the Chops to back it up. Chester Burton Atkins was the man that invented the “Nashville Sound,” “rescued country music from a commercial slump" according to Rolling Stone magazine, and received nine CMA awards for Instrumentalist of the Year in the process.
And what an instrumentalist! His trademark “Atkins Style” was as important to the development of fingerpicking as “Travis picking,” and indeed, came about from Atkins obsessing over Merle Travis’s unique technique.
Listening to the records of Merle Travis on a primitive radio, Atkins concluded that this was impossible for Travis to play so articulately with just a thumb and an index finger. As it happens, that’s exactly what Travis was doing, but the technique he developed to emulate his playing – using the thumb and first two (or sometimes three fingers) of the right hand – became an institution in its own right.
While he’s an undoubted legend of the country scene, Atkins hated being called a country guitarist. He was, he would insist "a guitarist, period." His love of jazz, classical and flamenco shine through in an eclectic repertoire that shows just how willing Chet was to push the envelope.
His soft touch was masterful, his dynamics were riveting and his sense of melody was impeccable. Atkins was a true music lover, and one of finger style’s true heroes.
So there are three of our picks. But, so many great names could have made this article – Joe Pass, Michael Hedges, Antonie Dufour, Leo Kottke, Jon Gomm, Kaki King and Don Ross to name but a few – and there are still so many amazing players out there we’ve yet to discover.
This is where you come in! Who do you think is the greatest fingerstyle guitarist of all time? Vote in the survey, and share your picks, your reasons for choosing them, and any stories you have about them in the comments below the survey. And, once the results are in, we’ll compile a list featuring your choices. Until then, happy playing!