The best acoustic guitarists of all time
1. Bert Jansch
Folk-blues pioneer Wizz Jones shares his memories of and reflections of the influential virtuoso
In the mid-60s, it was Jansch’s folk and blues contemporaries in London, such as Roy Harper, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Ralph McTell and Long John Baldry who were the first to be mesmerised by this outrageously talented young troubadour from Edinburgh.
Then Paul Simon, Pete Townshend, Nick Drake, Jimmy Page and Neil Young all latched on to Bert’s genius during the remainder of the 60s. In more recent decades, Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Beth Orton, Graham Coxon, Pete Doherty and Jonathan Wilson have all heralded the enduring influence of Jansch’s timeless music on their own work.
Quite the legacy, then! Back in 2011, shortly after Bert’s death, Wizz Jones, who was one of the first guitarists on the early 60s English scene to tackle acoustic blues, related to TG his vivid memories of the evening he saw a 20-year-old Jansch take the floor at a London folk club in 1964.
“I had been hanging around, busking with people such as Long John Baldry and Davey Graham, and in those days there weren’t many people around doing fingerstyle blues-based guitar,” recalls Wizz. “And the ones who were playing it thought they were the bee’s knees. Well, I did anyway! But when Bert arrived, it sort of knocked us all off of our perch, because he was completely from another planet, really.
“He’d been listening to all the stuff we’d been listening to, such as Davey Graham and Big Bill Broonzy, but he’d gone further and developed it, and wrote his own material using that style. And at the same time, he was very charismatic. He was just like dynamite the first time I saw him play. It was a classic cliché thing – how he didn’t have a guitar and he borrowed one from the audience... But when he got up there, he was just this amazing charismatic player and singer.”
One of Bert’s long-lasting impressions on British acoustic music was the way he approached traditional material in such a modern manner, says Jones.
“I think the big thing that he did more than anything was to bring traditional Scottish, Irish and English music into the modern world,” Wizz enthuses. “Bert had this wonderful stark way of doing it, and it was so revolutionary at the time. And, later on, he very much influenced the American scene somehow.
“There must have been an American release of a sampler record later on, and it really influenced all of them. We all thought that they were playing American music, but in fact it had a real English/Scottish slant to it.”
Incorporating jazz inflections into his arrangements was another innovation that Bert Jansch wowed admirers with, both in his solo work and his years with jazz-folk- blues group Pentangle, who formed in 1967.
The five-piece consisted of bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Terry Cox, vocalist Jacqui McShee and the twin guitars of Jansch and John Renbourn, with whom Bert had already recorded extensively.
“Davey [Graham] to some extent had started the idea of infusing jazz guitar into acoustic folk guitar, but Bert took it a step further,” explains Jones. “He used to spend hours and hours working out amazingly complex arrangements of a song using inverted chords that he’d discover and invent himself.
“He invented a whole way of playing that, as far as I know, had never really been done before... Then, of course, he went on with John and Danny and did Pentangle. I remember Bert used to say, ‘I just went along for the ride and for the beer,’ but that’s not true. It came out of his great collaborations with John Renbourn.
“[Pentangle] were groundbreaking in their own way. I think it was the first time that acoustic guitars were married with jazz-type drumming and bass. I admired him immensely. I always remember thinking, ‘Oh God, Bert is so brilliant! Why am I bothering?’ It’s easy to get depressed, but it passes and it inspires you. Bert inspired us all because he was so good.”
2. Richard Thompson
Fingerstyle guidance from a true great
“If you just strum chords, there’s a whole world that you’re missing. Fingerpicking is a great way to develop your fingers. I think one of the best places to start is with what’s called ‘clawhammer’ style. A good basic example is Peter, Paul and Mary playing Puff The Magic Dragon.
“The guitar part is a clawhammer guitar part, so you’re playing the bass strings in a kind of alternating pattern and putting a melody over the top, and there’s a certain syncopation between the two. It’s like many things that you learn that sound hard at first, but you just slow it way down and slowly build it up to speed. In a few months, you’ve expanded your horizons and you’ve got a whole new set of possibilities.”
3. Joni Mitchell
Interested in open tunings? Check out Joni Mitchell...
Few guitarists have made open tunings such an integral part of their playing style as the Alberta, Canada-born singer-songwriter. Joni is reported to have used over 50 different tunings over the course of her career.
Coupled with regular use of a capo, Joni always manages to make her guitar parts sound creative and, well, difficult. Not necessarily difficult to play, but by ditching the well-known chord shapes and stock phrases of standard tuning it's tough to get your ear around those magical sounds.
Try out these tunings from some of Joni's biggest songs.
1. Open E (E B E G# B E)
Open E with a capo on the 2nd fret will give you the tuning for Joni’s big hits, Big Yellow Taxi and Both Sides Now
2. B F# B E A E
The strings are tuned to a B7sus4 chord here. It’s also the tuning Joni uses to play The Magdalene Laundries.
3. C G D F G C
Another unusual tuning outlining a sus chord, this time Csus2sus4. Dial this one in to play Joni’s Hejira.
4. Nick Drake
Emotive and sombre, Drake’s chords were as poetic as his words
Critics praise Drake for his somber and beautiful lyrics, influenced by his love of poets like William Blake and W.B. Yeats. But according to his friend and collaborator Robert Kirby, these lyrics were crafted to fit the moods dictated by his music.
It wasn’t that Drake found the perfect musical accompaniments for his feelings; those haunting and heartbreaking sounds were his feelings.
He wrote guitar parts that sounded like loneliness, and they speak directly to his listeners. His unique sounds came from tunings he discovered himself, allowing chord voicings with multiple adjacent notes, impossible in most common tunings.
Crafting Fingerstyle parts that propelled his songs with Art Garfunkel to greatness, Paul Simon has since become a magpie to folk music of all cultures.
Collaborating with Bert Jansch and Pentangle, the UK solo acoustic guitar pioneer opened up new tunings alongside medieval and jazz influences.
Boosting acoustic guitar sales everywhere, Sheeran has made loopers an essential accessory and confirmed the guitar’s continuing relevance.
With his unusual pick-and-go technique, eclectic tunings and partial capo, Howard has a distinctive sound that is deservedly acclaimed.
Enormously inventive musician whose two-handed, percussive approach transformed modern acoustic technique. His star fans include Pete Townshend and Steve Vai.