Especially for acoustic players, few things inspire greater awe than watching and hearing a great finger-stylist at work. Oftentimes the best finger-pickers seem to incorporate music from a multitude of genres--country, jazz, blues … you name it. Below we’ve profiled ten of the very best. Please let us know, in the comments section, which great finger stylists we missed.
The man for whom “Travis picking” was named inspired legions of players, most notably Chet Atkins, but also such greats as Scotty Moore and Earl Hooker. At its richest, his style incorporated elements of ragtime, blues, jazz and Western swing. Equally adept on both acoustic and electric, he famously favored a Gibson Super 400 hollow body as his main guitar. The instrument is currently on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Had he done nothing other than introduce the DADGAD tuning (in 1964), Graham’s place in fingerstyle history would be assured. “I could go on for hours about Davy,” fellow great John Renbourn once told Guitar Player. “When I first heard him he was playing blues with John Mayall … playing on an old Gibson J-50 with a DeArmond pickup like I used to use. Instead of just chunking along doing Jimmy Reed lines, he was playing 6ths and 10ths, but still great blues. It was just a different fingerstyle approach and it was lovely.”
Brilliantly eccentric, Fahey forged a style that drew from a wide spectrum of genres, including blues, Native American music, Indian ragas and classical. The dissonant and experimental nature of his work profoundly influenced the likes of Sonic Youth. Fahey’s friend, Dr. Demento, once hailed him as “the first [artist] to demonstrate that the finger-picking techniques of traditional country and blues could be used to express a world of non-traditional musical ideas.”
The ‘60s folk revival had no greater father than British guitarist Martin Carthy. Three important English folk-rock bands to later emerge -- Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band -- were formed in part due to his direct help or guidance. His impact on Paul Simon and Bob Dylan was profound as well. Ravi Shankar and Davy Graham were among those who influenced Carthy’s distinctive style.
Although he’s probably better-known for his acting career and for penning the Elvis Presley hit, “Guitar Man,” Jerry Reed was in fact a phenomenal finger stylist. “Jerry Reed, in my opinion, is as innovative as anybody in history,” guitar great Tommy Emmanuel told Guitar Player, in 2008. “When he came along there was nobody like him, and his legacy is the single greatest body of work for fingerstyle guitar players. Jerry had it all: great melodies, great ideas and a great innovation in his playing.”
Reverend Gary Davis
South Carolina native Rev. Gary Davis helped forge the “Piedmont fingerstyle tradition” along with such peers as Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell. Using his thumb and index finger, he churned out intricate melodies, complex rhythm licks and lightning fast single-string runs. Countless musicians – including Roy Book Binder, David Bromberg and Stephan Grossman -- sought Davis out for private lessons during his later years, after he had migrated to New York. A Gibson J-200 was his steady companion.
One could reasonably argue that Tommy Emmanuel is the rightful heir to the throne left behind by Chet Atkins. Known for his complex technique, energetic live shows and the use of percussive effects on the guitar, the Australian native has been a working professional musician since age 6. He recently told M Music & Musicians: “[Atkins’ finger-picking] was something I loved from the get-go. When I heard George Benson and Django Reinhardt and people like that, I wanted to play their music as well -- but that music didn’t fall into my hands in the same way Chet Atkins and Merle Travis and Jerry Reed’s music did.”
Jorma Kaukonen’s prowess as a fingerpicker surfaced often in the Jefferson Airplane, but it was during his tenure with Hot Tuna that he began to truly showcase his remarkable technique. The veteran talked about his approach with Guitar International in 2002. “I’m what they call a three finger picker,” he said. “I use a thumb pick and metal picks for my first two fingers. Reverend Gary Davis only used a thumb and one finger. So there’s a lot of ways to do it.” Among the guitars Kaukonen has favored are a Gibson 1936 Advanced Jumbo Acoustic Guitar Reissue and a Gibson J-190 acoustic/electric.
For 40-plus years Leo Kottke has showcased his phenomenal skills as a finger picker, drawing from blues, jazz and folk to produce sophisticated, polyphonic melodies. Along the way he’s overcome injury and partial hearing loss, even reconfiguring his technique to accommodate tendon damage in his right hand. Through the years, Kottke has collaborated with such musical giants as Chet Atkins, Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones – and his mentor, John Fahey.
No finger-stylist had a greater impact on his peers than Chet Atkins did. The most honored finger-picker in history, Atkins received 14 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, nine Country Music Association “Instrumentalist of the Year” awards, and was inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s often been said that he, along with Merle Travis, “taught America how to play finger-style guitar.”