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Who Is The Best Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitarist Of All Time? Michael Hedges? Tommy Emmanuel? Don Ross? Preston Reed?

Updated on May 6, 2014
Michael Hedges with a Harp Guitar
Michael Hedges with a Harp Guitar

Introduction

I was inspired to write this hub after going to a concert this week and seeing two of my favourite guitarists play a gig together. Andy McKee and Preston Reed were performing in Leeds in the UK on their Guitar Masters tour. I have seen them both a few times separately and have always been impressed, but to see them play on a stage together each playing off the other was truly mind blowing. It really made me question how the likes of Justin Bieber can fill stadiums when two incredibly talented musicians are trawling small theatres, playing to an enthusiastic and dedicated, but ultimately quite small crowd.

I guess that’s what you get with not being commercial. Acoustic fingerstyle guitar has never really been truly mainstream, the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page for instance are both magnificent guitarists who play great fingerstyle guitar, but they have bands, electric guitars and the acoustic fingerstyle element of their reportoire is relatively small compared to everything they do. I am a bit of a purist I guess but to me acoustic fingerstyle guitar is all about a man and a guitar and nothing else. The money really isn’t there for these performers but without exception I haven’t seen a gig where the performer hasn’t enjoyed the experience of simply being there and having the opportunity to do their thing for their fans and in this day and age that is a refreshing approach.

Anyway, I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight some of the other acoustic fingerstyle guitarists who have influenced me and many others. Obviously this is a purely subjective list and I welcome comments, but these 5 guitarists are what I would call true pioneers of the guitar, each one has done things that no one has done before and in a truly musical style. Some guitarists can be perceived as showy or having tricks, but all these guys are very musical and write great compositions of music. Enough of all that, let’s get started.

Aerial Boundaries

A fantastic live album...

Michael Hedges

The first and probably my favourite acoustic guitarist of all time is Michael hedges. This guy really changed the game when it came to guitar. He had the ability to play in a way that made it sound like there were several guitars there. I know many guitar styles such as classical guitar play 2 separate harmonies and melodies on the same guitar, but Michael Hedges would be fretting the neck with his right hand and playing the higher strings with his left hand to get an amazing sound. Michael Hedges has influenced musicians across the board from Pete Townsend, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Cosby, Stills and Nash. There are numerous guitarists who use these techniques nowadays but Michael was doing this in the early 80’s and influenced the music of all of the others in my list.

Tragically Michael hedged was killed in a car accident in 1997 at the peak of his powers. Michael Hedges is the only name on this list who I have not had the opportunity to see live and I regret the fact that I never will, but this is where YouTube comes in as there is a great amount of archive material showing Michael doing his thing. The attached YouTube clip is one of my favourite pieces of acoustic fingerstyle music of all time and really shows how the guitar can be used in new and interesting ways. This song is called “Aerial Boundaries”, if you like it also check out “Because It’s There” or “The Double Planet” which are also great tunes.

Tribes

Preston Reed's latest album...

Preston Reed

Preston Reed is another true pioneer of the guitar who complete reinvented how the guitar can be played. He has a very percussive style where he uses the body of the guitar as a drum to provide a beat for his music. He also uses his right hand over the top of the neck to fret the notes. These percussive techniques allow him to play simultaneous rhythm and melody lines giving him a really unique sound. All the names on the list cite Preston as a great influence and you see his style and techniques used by many guitarists nowadays, but Preston points out that they are all using the "Preston Reed style". I have attached a video of a song called “Tribes”, where he uses the body of the guitar to provide a beat for the song he is playing. Other songs worth checking out are “Love in the Old Country” which he describes as the soundtrack to a Fellini film that was never made and “Rainmaker”, which although not to me the most musical of his compositions, really shows the extent of his skill and how far he has pushed the boundaries of guitar.


Zarzuela

Don Ross

Don Ross is a Canadian guitarist who uses many techniques to play a fantastic medley of tunes on the guitar. He has the auspicious accolade of being the only person ever to have won the U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship twice, in 1988 and 1996. He is a true one instrument one man band and uses every technique under the sun including his trademark harmonics and percussive rhythms to wow concert goers the world over. He has recorded duet album with the next artist Andy McKee called “The thing that came from somewhere”, which is a great testament to both of their styles. I’ve picked a video called “Zarzuela” which is one of my favourite tunes; other tunes to check out are “Trite Trite Night” and “Michael, Michael, Michael” (a dedication to Michael Hedges).


Into The Ocean

Andy McKee

Andy McKee is a newcomer to the scene in comparison to some of the other names on this list, but at 30 years of age he already held the top three highest rated YouTube videos of all time, an incredible feat. I’ve watched Andy a few times and he’s an incredibly humble and lighthearted individual but an incredible musician. He grew up in a small town in Kansas and says there was so little to do in the town all he could do was practice guitar. He started off playing Metallica and Iron Maiden, but after seeing a guitar workshop by Preston Reed moved over to acoustic fingerstyle guitar. The video I have chosen here is “Into The Ocean”, which Andy plays on a Harp Guitar, which is a strange looking beast that has a series of bass strings over the normal neck of an acoustic guitar. It really it adds depth to the song as the bass notes are played at a much lower register giving the feel that you are playing with a bassist. Other tunes you should check out are “Drifting” and “Ebon Coast”.


Classical Gas

A great Tommy Emmanuel concert on DVD

Tommy Emmanuel

Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel is a true legend of the acoustic fingerstyle guitar scene. Although probably not as big in the States as he is in Europe and Australia he has a very ambitious touring schedule across the world. He is most noted for his fast finger style runs and battering and scratching the body of his guitar to generate new elements to the music. He is probably the closest to what you could call a fingerstyle virtuoso on my list. The video I have chosen here is one of the songs he is most famous for, “Classical Gas” originally by Mason Williams. He has played many versions of this song, but this is one of my favourites. Other tunes to check out are “Angelina” or “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.


I hope you’ve enjoyed my summary of the 5 Greatest Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitarists of all time, if you’ve never heard of these guys hopefully you will realise why I like them so much. Please let me know if you think there is anyone else who should be on the list.

One of the best guides to fingerstyle guitar...

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    • Rain Defence profile image

      Rain Defence 4 years ago from UK

      There were some great examples of men doing their thing in these videos. Is it possible for guitar players to play and have their eyes open, or do they just feel it more with their eyes clamped shut?

    • dommcg profile image
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      dommcg 4 years ago

      It's known as the inverse thing rule, the better the guitarist the less they have to look at what their fingers are doing so close their eyes. Clapton often seems to drop into a trance for 5 minutes or so, play an incredible solo and then wake up looking slightly confused.

    • Rain Defence profile image

      Rain Defence 4 years ago from UK

      So which guitarist would you say has the deepest level of thing going on while playing?

      Stevie Wonder should technically have a lot of thing going on as his eyes are always closed while playing instruments, but it just doesn't seem the same without a guitar in his hands. Maybe guitars and thing are intrinsically linked.

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Thanks rain Defence, I saw a concert of Miles Davis playing trumpet last week, he hardly opened his eyes at all, also if you watch Hendrix at Woodstock his eyes are closed throughout the whole event, especially tight during the National Anthem and improvisation section, where everybody else has stopped playing and everybody is just watching Jimi do his thing. From my list though i'd say Don Ross probably just tops the list. it's worth chercking out some of his other videos as he does his thing a lot.

    • profile image

      Mark 3 years ago

      None of the above. Jerry Reed plays with more feel, is more natural and doesn't pull out every lick in every song. Its still about the song and not just the endless riffs. He has it all

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 3 years ago

      Thanks for the comment, it's always good to hear what other people think. To be honest Jerry Reed is not someone I'd listened to that much before, I have now checked him out though and you're right he is a great musician. From a technical perspective he is not in the same league as Tommy or Don, but you are right when it comes to song writing he really does have some crackers and is probably more of a rounded offering whereas the guys above are more about just the guitar rather than singing. I will certainly continue to listen to Jerry though as what I've heard sounds great. Thanks.

    • profile image

      Matt 2 years ago

      No complaints about what's here, but there are a lot of other names that could easily be included. Philly Keaggy (especially Beyond Nature) and Stephen Bennett (especially Ten), to name a couple, should be on any such list. But otherwise no complaints.

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