The world of acoustic guitar players has never been more dynamic, eclectic and virtuosic than it is right now.
Spurred on by viral YouTube success and the evolution of percussive playing – not to mention acoustic design – acoustic players are flourishing, whether they're new to the scene or continuing champions of the instrument.
Now, from bluegrass virtuoso to fun-loving fingerstylist, from one-man band to dynamic duo, from YouTuber to string-slapper – Total Guitar salutes some of the best acoustic players in the world right now...
With an undeniable ear for a hit and unfailing rhythmic accuracy, Gabriella delivers some of the most crowd‑pleasing repertoire of any acoustic YouTuber.
Unsurprisingly for a Swede, she’s done a number of reworked ABBA tunes, but her arrangements of Nothing Else Matters, Another Brick In The Wall, and Here Comes The Sun have all done big numbers. She got chosen to play on stage with Tommy Emmanuel when she was just 15, and was not upstaged. Like Emmanuel, she has a gift for sounding like several guitarists playing at once.
Although she’s famous for covers, her gift for interpretation makes her an artist in her own right, and she nails dynamics and nuances. Her timing is killer – metronomic without being robotic – but it’s the way she keeps focus on the melody that makes her so effective.
She’ll choose chord voicings that keep the melody note at the top, so it doesn’t get buried. Her talent for arrangement shows an original musical mind at work. In late 2019, she released Remember and Last Time, her first two original compositions. Although she’s been on the scene for 10 years, she’s still only 24, and she is still reaching her potential.
TG TIP: Focus on the melody when tackling classic covers – it’s the most important part for most listeners and you can build the harmony around it.
To think of Kaki King as just an acoustic guitar player is to sell her art short. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her soundtrack to Sean Penn’s Into The Wild.
King’s groundbreaking theatre production The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body took her technically gifted playing style to the stage, using visual arts to elevate the acoustic’s possibilities.
She is also an entrepreneur/inventor, creating the Passerelle, a metallic, moveable second bridge that can be used to wholly rethink what’s possible from the guitar. When armed only with her signature Ovation 1581‑KK acoustic and her imagination, she epitomises the contemporary acoustic player, using a cornucopia of alternate tunings, percussive rhythms and a keen ear for dynamics.
Yet, speaking to Guitar Player, King says she still sees herself as a traditionalist: “I’m actually not reinventing the wheel in terms of my guitar playing right now. In fact, I’m being almost conservative... While the visual component informs my creativity, I still have a very traditional view of composition.”
TG TIP: Kaki has used acrylic overlays on her fingernails for greater picking clarity. Greats like John Renbourn and Clive Carroll have done the same.
Molly Tuttle’s picking hand is terrifying. She’s mastered clawhammer technique, but it’s her flatpicking that leaves us most breathless. Her string crossing is effortless. Dizzying lines that would have anyone else stumbling for pace or catching unwanted strings escape Molly’s fingers easily and with great tone.
If she’d chosen a different direction she could’ve been a Steve Morse or an Yngwie Malmsteen. But where high-gain shred can scream look at me in an off-putting way, Molly’s Americana and bluegrass stylings always sound inviting and musical. Yes, she’s phenomenal, but she always retains that campfire feeling that you’re being welcomed to join in.
Molly’s gift is making subtle rotations of her forearm to change the trajectory of her pick. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of footage of her doing this – although even when you see how it’s done, replicating it is another matter. Where most of us would strike an unwanted open string,
Molly’s pick dances over the strings like a gazelle. She delivers her melodies with dynamics and great rhythmic feel, and even playing blazing single-note lines she creates a full sound all by herself. The fact she does it all while singing – and that her songwriting is so effective – is frankly unfair.
TG TIP: You’ll live or die by the angle and trajectory of your pick. Slight adjustments will help you skip over idle strings.
Clive Carroll is arguably the most accomplished fingerstylist in the world today – not a statement we make lightly. Our pals on Guitar Techniques magazine even call him the ‘acoustic Guthrie Govan’, which gives you some idea of the Essex-born virtuoso’s incredible skills.
Where countless acoustic players adopt a percussive approach, by eschewing tippy-tappy body-beating antics, Clive is able to focus more on complex melodic lines throughout the bass, midrange and treble. Traditional Irish pieces, John Dowland compositions and the occasional blues tune all get the Carroll treatment, but the majority of his music is self-penned.
With such virtuosity on display, it ought to be impossible to distill Clive’s genius into practical, bite-sized advice, but there is a key fact you should know. Clive often writes straight to manuscript without a guitar in his hands. What sounds like a massive pain in the backside for most of us actually frees Clive from his own technical limitations (not that he has many!).
Write on paper first and figure out how to play it on guitar afterwards – that’s the idea. The culmination of this method came in 2016’s A Winter Carol – a truly unsettling track, comprising two melodies in different keys and tempos, but arranged for solo guitar. We can’t think of anyone else who could – or would – do this!
TG TIP: Recreate Clive’s ‘no guitar’ approach, by writing music on a different instrument before bringing the piece to guitar.
What were you up to when you were four? Tommy Emmanuel was busying himself learning to play guitar, accompanying his mother who played lap steel. By age six, he was playing in his touring family band delivering rhythm parts with basslines included.
Young Tommy didn’t know what a bass guitar was and had duly worked out how to play both parts on six-string, assuming this was how it should be done. And so, with more than the basics of fingerstyle already under his belt at a tender age, Tommy had started out on the road to becoming the absolute guv’nor of fingerstyle guitar we know today.
At the core of Tommy’s considerable arsenal of techniques is Travis picking (named after pioneer Merle Travis) – a technique he was inspired to develop by Chet Atkins at age seven. At its most basic, the idea is to fingerpick chord and melody lines over an alternating bassline.
Typically, you’ll thumb-pick two notes from a chord shape, one at a time, ‘alternating’ between them. Practise for six decades to get up to Tommy’s level!
TG TIP: Build up Travis picking technique by practising alternating bass notes before introducing other chord tones.
Equally at home on nylon or steel strings, Will has a total command of classical and modern techniques, which allows him to blend traditional and innovative sounds. Since winning Acoustic Guitarist of the Year in 2011, he has fulfilled his early promise.
His use of harmonics is stunning, producing a rich, harp-like tone. He is prolifically active, releasing an original solo single and two collaborations with string quartet Innotet in the first three months of 2021.
The solo single, Sasquatch cleverly uses a capo on just five of the strings and has been described as ‘Rodrigo y Gabriella meets George Benson’. It’s rare to hear such a strong groove on a track without drums or even guitarslapping pseudo percussion.
With Innotet, he released Eric’s Duet, a commissioned piece which develops improvised ideas taken from recordings of the late, great Eric Roche. Will’s vision for the guitar extends into multi-layered guitar compositions like Emma as well as orchestral compositions.
Will’s solo compositions display absolute mastery, though, and he’s in demand as a guitar demonstrator because amazing ideas seem to fall out of every guitar he touches. As his first two albums sold out, so anticipation is high for the next one.
At a time when many acoustic soloists have abandoned standard tuning, Toronto’s Dylan Ryche has found an abundance of fresh material in it. It’s not all he uses, but a number of highlights from his 2021 release Two Tigers make use of the tuning we all know best.
It gives some chord voicings a welcome familiarity, but because it’s rarely used in this genre now, it ironically helps him sound original. Ryche tends to create brighter textures than his peers, partly because of the absence of massive downtuned bass notes.
He’s largely not into treating his guitar like a cajon, but he is an excellent exponent of the Nuno Bettencourt ‘slap the strings on 2 & 4’ technique. This means many of his tunes come with a nearirresistible urge to nod your head. Titles like It’s A Good Day and Baby I Don’t Mind underscore his feelgood vibe.
This chipper Canadian’s Twitter bio describes him as a “Songwriter, musician, producer, dad & KISS Fan”, and while he rarely rock and rolls all night, he will make you want to party every day.
TG TIP: Sometime simple is most effective. Standard tuning with a ‘beats 2 and 4’ backbeat can produce ear-catching tunes.
Having lived in Iran, Belarus, Germany, the US and Canada, Maneli Jamal has not had a shortage of musical traditions to explore. At their best, his compositions have a globe trotting expansiveness of their own, running the gamut of modern techniques, tunings, and rhythms.
An early success of his, Awakening, skips gracefully between bars of 3/4 and 4/4, moves through massive‑sounding chord voicing, and builds to a climax of guitar percussion. Daft Funk, meanwhile, hints at what might happen if Nile Rodgers dedicated himself to mastering fingerstyle acoustic.
Jamal is known for his entertaining on‑stage delivery as well as his playing, and this ability to tell a story pervades his compositions. He has a gift for finding sounds to conjure images, whether he is evoking the Iranian revolution in Awakening or summer in the American South on Southern Magnolia.
His 2012 opus The Lamaj Movement makes use of this gift by telling the story of his nomadic childhood over 12 instrumental tracks. It evokes all the drama of his early life but is considerably less arduous than spending your childhood in exile. So far in 2021, he’s passed 50 million Spotify streams and 5 million YouTube views, and Maneli’s star is still rising.
TG TIP: Try using exotic scales such as the Phrygian Dominant mode to broaden your musical palette.
Surrey-born Mike Dawes is currently the guitar foil for the Moody Blues’ legendary singer‑songwriter Justin Hayward, lending his modern style to classic tunes such as Nights In White Satin.
Now 31, Dawes started out playing the clubs solo, and knows how to develop a quirky, fun rapport with audiences as he metes out his daunting technique, which he has described as ‘the bastard son of fingerstyle guitar’.
Influenced by everyone from Michael Hedges to Pierre Bensusan, Dawes is a leading exponent of the new school of virtuoso acoustic guitar. He peppers his work with percussive hits of the instrument’s body – emulating kick drum, snare and hi‑hat – and uses a raft of open tunings, from DADGAD to an open C#m9 (C# G# D# E B E).
Hammering on chords over the top of the guitar neck is a theatrical flourish, but it also gives those notes a more even attack. Dawes’ signature guitar, made by German Luthier Andreas Cuntz, comes loaded with four pickups to capture all these nuances, and his effects 'board adds distortion, pitch shift, delay and reverb as needed.
TG TIP: Get comfy with your guitar when using percussive techniques. You need to ensure your percussive strikes are on target, with no accidental knocks!
At only 20 years old, Polish prodigy Marcin Patrzalek has already built up an impressively sizable profile online, thanks to his genre-crossing rearrangements of classical masterpieces including Moonlight Sonata.
He started out on classical at 10 years old, winning his first competitions only months later, before moving onto flamenco and percussive fingerstyle. In 2019, he appeared in front of Simon Cowell and his co-judges on America’s Got Talent, splicing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with parts of Toxicity by Armenian-American metallers System Of A Down on mainstream television. The clip soon went viral across the world.
More recently, he’s struck a deal with Sony – who have given him the budget to bring his ideas to life, each tallying millions of views on YouTube and hundreds of thousands elsewhere, blending elements of hip-hop and electronica with more guitar-led influences.
His latest video sees him tackling Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir as a one-man band, exploring every inch of his Ibanez acoustic melodically and rhythmically with some truly mind-blowing results. “My goal is to show the world – not only musicians and guitarists – that percussive acoustic should be the next big thing,” he told Guitar World. Whatever he’s doing, it definitely seems to be working.
TG TIP: Don’t neglect playing dynamics and showmanship. Marcin’s live delivery is full of energy!
Jon Gomm takes us through the looking glass when he performs one of his anatomically complex acoustic guitar arrangements. He is a figurehead for a generation of players who chafe against the natural limitations of the instrument, challenging it to be something more.
In Gomm’s hands, the acoustic guitar is something more. He will augment his headstock with banjo tuners, offering a sort of pseudo-Floyd Rose level of expression. He will tap out a tattoo on the soundboard that conjures a rhythm section from the ether. He will change who we look at what’s possible.
But looking beyond the technicality, which Gomm explains is just a natural outgrowth of his restless creativity and search for whichever sound is in his head, there’s an audacious songcraft, too. You don’t need to be guitar player to get down to it. Indeed, perhaps it’s better you don’t play; it’ll save you the existential angst, wondering why you can’t play like that.
Gomm’s influence on acoustic guitar culture can also be felt in his Ibanez signature JGM10 acoustic, which he hopes will do for the acoustic what Eddie Van Halen and others did for the electric guitar – making something new that will help guitarists play something new. That, after all, is the gist of creating.
TG TIP: Ignore the textbooks and try some experimental techniques that you have made up yourself. Keep a diary and note down what works, what doesn’t, and what you might like to try next.
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Moving 5,000-odd miles from Mexico to Dublin could very well be the best decision Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero ever made. It is, after all, where the guitar-playing duo were first discovered – busking on the streets and building a buzz that eventually materialized into record label and management interest.
“When we arrived, it was pretty scary!” Gabriela Quintero told TG in 2019. “It was April and freezing, we couldn’t speak English and ran out of money in one week.”
Five studio albums, three live albums and one EP later, it would be fair to say they overcame the odds. The pair have also delved into the world of film soundtracks, collaborating with the likes of Hans Zimmer on Pirates Of The Caribbean, and became Grammy winners last year for most recent album Mettavolution.
As individuals, both have excelled in their own avenues of technique and phrasing, but together their noise is even greater than the sum of its parts – Gabriela’s rhythmic fingerstyle every bit as mind-boggling as Rodrigo’s machine-gun alternate picking.
TG TIP: Recording two guitar parts? Vary your tone by using different picking techniques, changing your strings or even using another guitar.
John Smith is often associated with the acoustic guitar experimentalists camp for his use of open tunings and percussive techniques. Here was this guy with the ear for the song and the hands to play with a John Martyn-esque level of virtuosity.
There’s a lot of sense in that. But it’s important we don’t overlook his sensibility as a songwriter. There are few better. Smith's latest album, The Fray, finds the English singer-songwriter totally exposed as he works through his troubles in deeply humane verse.
Smith extends the acoustic guitar’s sonic imprint with a variety of effects pedals, just as his hero Martyn once did with tape echo and delay.
“I love a soft chorus or a rotary,” says Smith. “I am forever playing around with them. Strymon? My go-to is the Deco, for the saturation, and I use the slap-back as a delay. I think the combination of pedals is endless. That is the next wormhole. My thing is a TimeLine through a Big Muff – very Martyn-inspired.”
TG TIP: Do as Smith does and get yourself an effects pedal that inspires you. A high-end delay such as a Strymon TimeLine could present you with some musical possibilities you never dreamed of before.
Ben Howard is one of acoustic guitar’s great storytellers. He has a keen eye for the human condition. Like Smith, he too sees the acoustic guitar’s future beyond the limits of technique, and is similarly a reluctant virtuoso who is taking inspiration from a growing complement of effects pedals.
Howard has been known to play through a Moogerfooger and a number of delay pedals. ultimately, he enjoys leaning into alternate tunings for teasing out the fundamentals of acoustic tone. “Whenever I can hear a low C on an acoustic guitar, I just get this nice feeling” he says. “Finding drop tunings at an early age, I realised that I would never go back to standard tunings.“
TG TIP: Why not ask the man himself? “There is no point in trying to be anyone else,“ says Howard. “It is about doing something that is either serving the song or your own satisfaction. The best piece of advice I ever got was when I had guitar lessons. I was about 20. I was learning scales and my teacher just said, ‘Make sure that every note sounds like music.’”
Yasmin Williams is forever staking out new frontiers for solo guitar. Yeah, okay sure, Yasmin Williams is just a guitar player, but that’s like saying Buzz Aldrin was just an aviator.
As she told GW, it’s important we look at the instrument as the multi-dimensional instrument it is. Weaned on grunge and shredders, maybe it is little wonder that Williams would tear at the fabric of conventional technique, using dual-necked harp guitars to reach more frequencies, to blow more minds.
But techniques such as lap-tapping are not simply for show, or to endow her performance with a sense of spectacle. Williams is just trying to find the shortest route from a musical idea to a finished song.
“I find writing songs a lot easier that way, because on acoustic I’m not trying to emulate anyone or anything,” she says. “I wasn’t playing covers or in anyone else’s style – I was just playing what I wanted to play.”
TG TIP: Stuck in a rut? Try playing the guitar upright or place it on your lap to see how a different angle offers a fresh perspective on the instrument and your technique.
Andy McKee’s much-anticipated return with Symbol, his first studio EP in a decade, serves as a reminder of his mind-boggling fingerstyle and two-handed abilities, and his talent for making the acoustic guitar groove with percussive rhythms.
In a Guitar World exclusive, the first single from the EP saw McKee cover Michael Hedges’ Ragamuffin and make it all his own. That said, McKee and Hedges both approach the craft from similar angles.
“Michael was not only a revolutionary guitarist on the technical side, his ability to compose for solo guitar was also genius,” says McKee. “Most importantly though, he was able to search inside of himself and consistently pull up very human and evocative themes that made him a true artist. I’ll always be grateful for his music.”
McKee draws from across the pop-cultural spectrum. Indeed, Symbol includes a cover of Prince’s Purple Rain. And there’s a lesson in that, too. We might be acoustic guitar players in the sense that this is our instrument, but there are no rules governing what you can play on the thing. That, folks, is all up for grabs, and players such as McKee have opened that door for us all.
TG Tip: Arrange a track from outside of the world of acoustic guitar to see how it pulls your style in a different direction. You could start with a melody or a beat on the soundboard and take it from there. Who knows where you’ll end up?
Alex recently put his own unique stamp on percussive acoustic guitar with an album of cover versions. It’s fair to say these are outside the traditional canon of fingerstyle guitar – Dick Dale’s Misirlou, Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This all appear. Keep ’em coming, Alex. We just want to hear more!
Acoustic Guitarist of the Year 2019 champion Christie Lenée impresses with spirited fingerstyle performances and a bit of pedalboard dance as she incorporates live looping with a foot-mounted tambourine and Kopf Percussion ToeKicker for rhythm. She’s not really a new kid on the block though, with five albums to her name to date.
We can’t begin to describe the depth of skill Alan possesses. Tracks like Chime and Otter Rain feature his trademark artificial harmonic technique, with beautiful bell-like tones coming from Alan’s Åstrand A-OMC guitar. No one-trick pony, Alan is a fantastic fingerstylist with several albums to his name.