Who is considered the best acoustic guitar player? Currently, there’s probably no better acoustic guitar player than Tommy Emmanuel. He can play multiple genres on the acoustic guitar, but his fingerstyle playing is what really earned him the top spot. Nonetheless, there are other names that are worth mentioning as well.
Perhaps the most common, most played, and most recognizable instrument in the world today is the acoustic guitar. Countless musicians began their journey by learning how to play the acoustic guitar before moving on to other instruments like the electric guitar, bass guitar, and piano, among others.
On the other hand, some artists never abandoned the instrument. Instead, they kept on improving their skills of playing the acoustic guitar before finally making a name in the musical landscape.
If you are to ask us who is the best acoustic guitar player of all time, a lot of names come to mind. Of course, there is one artist that we can confidently say has the best acoustic guitar-playing skills.
Tommy Emmanuel, The Best Acoustic Guitar Player
Who is Tommy Emmanuel? How did he become the world’s greatest acoustic guitar player? If you haven’t heard about him before, it’s high time that you do. Here’s what you need to know about this musician.
William Thomas Emmanuel, otherwise known as Tommy Emmanuel, was born on May 31, 1955, in Australia. As early as the age of four, he received his first-ever acoustic guitar. His mother taught him how to play the instrument, but apart from that, he never took any formal lessons.
Instead, he listened to the radio and tried to play the guitar. At the age of six, he heard another guitar legend on the radio, Chet Atkins. He was immediately fascinated by Atkins’s playing style. From then on, Emmanuel focused on learning how to play the guitar using the fingerstyle technique.
Emmanuel, even at a young age, wrote to Atkins about how he saw him as his guitar hero. Eventually, Atkins replied and encouraged Emmanuel to keep on practicing and perfecting his craft. They say the student often surpasses his teacher, and that’s exactly what happened.
Emmanuel incorporated a wide array of genres and musical influences into his playing style. He played jazz, folk, rock, blues, and bluegrass pieces on the acoustic guitar, inevitably earning him millions of fans and followers all over the globe.
He often carries three acoustic guitars when he tours. One is a Maton EBG808 in the standard tuning, while the other is the same model but tuned to D-G-D-G-B-E, otherwise known as G6 tuning. The third guitar is a TE1 which is tuned to C#-F#-B-E-G#-C#.
He is one of the most famous guitarists to popularize using the thumb not just as leverage against the back of the fretboard but also as a playing finger. He curls it around the fretboard and plays notes on the lowest string.
He also uses a thumb pick and a flat pick to play, and he’s most famous for quick virtuoso licks and harmonic progressions. Despite using an acoustic guitar, you can somehow akin his playing style to an electric guitar’s tremolo system.
He won thrice in the Australian Recording Industry Music Awards, otherwise known as ARIA Awards. His works “Stevie’s Blues,” Determination, and The Journey won Jazz Composition of the Year in 1992, Best Adult Contemporary Album in 1992, and Best Adult Contemporary Album in 1994, respectively.
Tommy Emmanuel is also an inductee in the Australian Roll of Renown, and he won four times in the Country Music Awards of Australia or CMAA. His works “Tall Fiddler,” “Gameshow Rag,” and “Wheelin’ and Dealin’” won Instrumental of the Year in 2005, 2007, and 2019 respectively. Additionally, his “Finger Picking Good” also won Bluegrass Recording of the Year in 2021.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t won a Grammy Award yet, but he was nominated twice. His works “Smokey Mountain Lullaby” and “Gameshow Rag” were both nominated as Best Country Instrumental Performance in 1998 and 2006, respectively.
Other Influential Acoustic Guitarists
Aside from Tommy Emmanuel, there are, of course, other acoustic guitarists who should be mentioned when talking about the instrument. They are just as legendary as Emmanuel, and who knows, maybe you’ll even appreciate their music more.
Another self-taught artist, Andy McKee, is an American guitarist known for his fingerstyle playing. His road to fame began when his videos went viral on YouTube in 2006. He went on to develop his technique and soon released two EPs, one live album, and six studio albums.
What really made McKee a popular musician is his way of making an acoustic, steel-string guitar sound like a whole orchestra.
Although he’s more famously known for being a prolific electric guitarist and an overall great musician, no one can deny that John Mayer is also a legendary acoustic guitarist. Perhaps what really appeals to the listeners is how Mayer incorporates his guitar-playing skills into his songs.
Despite the riffs and melodies being tremendously difficult to play on the acoustic guitar, Mayer does this perfectly, even while he’s singing.
If you’re an avid fan of guitarists, you should’ve heard the name James Taylor before. He became popular in the 1970s and has won five Grammy awards with his hits. Additionally, Taylor was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
He also received the National Medal of Arts in 2011. On top of that, the French government, as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame, named him Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which is one of the highest recognitions in arts and literature one could receive in France.
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without Emmanuel’s hero. Chet Atkins began his musical journey by learning how to play the ukulele. He then switched to the acoustic guitar, which inevitably became his obsession. As legend has it, Atkins regularly falls asleep while holding his guitar.
He’s also a prolific songwriter, and he has won 14 Grammy Awards, 9 Country Music Association Awards, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Countless artists began their journey by playing the acoustic guitar. However, it takes lifelong dedication to really be recognized as the best acoustic guitar player in the world. There are numerous musicians who are amazing at playing the instrument, but Tommy Emmanuel probably does it like no other.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.