Rock Out at Home: The 10 Most Legendary Country Guitarists of all Time
Published on 20 October 2020
Everybody has their own tastes when it comes to music and the same is true for playing the guitar. Not everyone will appreciate the bone rushing majesty of a bit metal riff or the subtlety of some smooth jazz. However, that doesn't mean there aren't techniques involved that you could apply to your own playing. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a guitarist, causing you to think about the neck in a different way and break the old bad habits you may have picked up (c'mon, we all have!). So we thought we'd take a little time to run through some key players from different genres to give you a flavour of something potentially a little different. We decided we'd start with country music, a style which from its very roots pioneered tricky, infectious guitar playing with swagger and charm. So get your boots up on the table and settle in, you're about to take a journey through some of our favourite pickers!
Easily among the most influential country players to ever pick up a guitar, or a big chunky Gretsch at that, Chet Atkins is true country royalty. As a pioneer of the Nashville sound, Chet saw it all and his expert picking earned him a reputation as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, period. Hailing from Tenessee he grew up in a musical family, initially learning to play the ukelele and fiddle before bargaining with all he had (some chores and a pistol), to swap for his brother's guitar when he was only 9. Due to severe asthma, he spent much of his youth sitting in an upright chair and played the guitar until he fell asleep, a habit he carried on for his entire life. Part of what made Chet such a special player was his ability to draw inspiration from almost anything he heard and you can pick out touches of rock 'n' roll, blues and jazz in his sound, despite it being about as country as possible. There will never be another quite as smooth, fast and stylish as The Country Gentleman.
Another bonafide legend, Albert Lee's distinctive style earns him a place as one of country music's leading men. If you've ever listened to Albert, you'll know that his charm lies in the unexpected, throwing in notes you'd never expect to work but somehow pulling it off every time. His hybrid fingerpicking style is totally unique and impossible to imitate, inspiring countless players who followed. Backing everyone from Emmylou Harris to the Everly Brothers, Lee's playing could be understated and overstated at the same time, quickly taking things from a subtle lick to a runaway train of a solo. Chaotic yet in control, Lee has received Grammies for his contribution to country and is about as legendary as they come. If you're feeling adventurous, take a little while to try and learn something of his, we can practically guarantee it'll be interesting, infuriating and totally worth it!
Taking it down a notch from the players who could rattle out a million notes a minute, let's take a look at the self-taught king of the country groove, Luther Perkins. Luther was the guitarist for the Tenessee Three, best known for being the backing band of a certain Mr Cash. Although now well used, the band's slow but rhythmic sound was quite groundbreaking among country artists who at the time were focused on playing faster and faster. He came up with his rhythmic style by playing on an old Fender Esquire - a model with only one pickup. Since he had limited control over its volume, he adopted Merle Travis' palm muting technique to create the distinctive plucked sound of his bass notes. As he grew as a player he developed this further, using ghost notes in between to create the shuffling rhythm that the band were known for. It's not always the flashy players that go down in history and Luther created his own sound that's as memorable today as ever.
As a relative latecomer to country music compared to others on our list, Marty Stuart may be known for his incredible voice and fantastic songwriting but oh boy can he pick... Adopting a traditional country style, his playing is absolutely hypnotising to witness and it can't hurt that he's got the style to match! His live performances are captivating with Marty picking up several instruments throughout his shows and absolutely shredding them, well, if you call lightning fast country picking on a mandolin shredding... Working in Nashville when he was young he had the opportunity to pick the brains of many of his favourite guitarists and he credits his distinctive style to their influence. Since then he has recorded plenty of solo material and worked with everyone from Tom Petty to Johnny Cash. We love Marty for keeping the more traditional side of the genre alive and have always been fascinated by the way he plays.
An expert in both flatpicking and fingerstyle guitar playing, Vince Gill is another favourite of ours. It seems as though we aren't the only ones who hold him in such high regard either since he has no less than 20 Grammy Awards to his name! Growing up, his father played in a country band and encouraged him to learn to play the guitar. Not just satisfied at that, he also tried his hand at bass, mandolin, Dobro and fiddle and as we're sure you can guess, became pretty damn good! Looking back over his career, there aren't many legends who he hasn't come into contact with at one time or another, recording with contemporary artists as well as more traditional country stars. His playing is always extremely tasteful and he has a unique ability to throw down just enough to light a track up without trying to show off, with particularly lovely fingerstyle work. Vince is still playing today and we're always hyped to hear what he's working on. Check him out, you might learn a trick or two!
Session guys often seem to get left in the dark but with country music, in particular, they can be the real stars of the show and none more than Brent Mason. Initially discovered by none other than Chet Atkins, who took Brent under his wing, the now legendary guitarist for hire started playing when he was only 5 years old and learned by ear. Moving to Nashville shortly after leaving high school he soaked up everything he could playing alongside bar bands before being picked up by Chet and asked to play on his album Stay Tuned. Since then Brent has played on over a THOUSAND albums with just about all of the country heroes you could rhyme off. Everyone from Shania Twain to Neil Diamond has played alongside Mason and there's no better player to point to for that classic Nashville country sound. Also a Grammy winner for his own releases and a producer in his own right, Brent Mason lives and breathes country music. If you haven't heard him play, do yourself a favour and get lost in some of his work.
The man behind some of the coolest Fender Signature Teles of all time surely deserves a mention, the one and only James Burton! James is another hero of the genre who's backed up some of the most prolific names ever to grace a stage. He got his start playing alongside Dale Hawkins on the rock 'n' roll classic Suzie Q before stepping up alongside Rick Nelson in what went on to be a long term position, backing him for no less than 11 years. After turning down offers to work with both Bob Dylan and the King himself, Elvis Presley, Burton was in high demand but eventually gave in and accepted hte guitarist position in Elvis' show in Vegas the following year. What followed were some of the most iconic, memorable and game-changing shows of all time, with Elvis coming to rely on Burton's undeniably cool solos throughout. When listening to the records you'll even hear the King ordering, 'Play it James' as a war cry to let loose on the audience! As if that wasn't enough, the rest of Burton's career is every bit as impressive, playing alongside Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Merle Haggard and more. This dude is one of the coolest characters to ever pick up a Tele and that's saying something. Earning a place in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame seems too small an accolade for such an influential player but we're glad to see him there nonetheless!
Now Merle Haggard is a name we could've easily thrown into this list but instead, we thought we'd turn your attention to the man that kept up with him all those years - Roy Nichols. With an extremely distinctive style that combines loads of country influences, Roy was the lead guitarist of The Strangers and backed Merle for over two decades. Starting to play when he was barely into his teens, Roy quickly moved on to bars and clubs after being inspired by his father's playing as a youth. As something of a child prodigy, he started to get attention from some of the genre's most well-known guitarists who were amazed by his ability to learn and adapt quickly, playing nearly anything proficiently with apparent ease. This got Merle interested in him as he assembled his backing band and although he couldn't offer as much as Roy was used to getting paid, Roy agreed under his own terms - "I don't drive, I carry my own amplifier, and I know where my bed is every night". The rest is history with Merle and the Strangers going on to record no less than 38 hit songs and Roy developing a one of a kind style by incorporating almost pedal steel sounding bends as part of his fingerpicking technique. Before tragically losing the use of his left hand in later life, Nichols helped to shape what we know as country guitar today and left his mark on the genre forever.
If you've read this list and are worried the days of Tele slinging, fingerpicking country stars are behind us then fear not, we're getting to the modern guys! The genre is rich with killer guitarists at the moment but we've gone for the all-stars, beginning with Brad Paisley. Quite possibly the most recognisable name in the modern scene, the West Virginian has sold over 11 million albums since his debut in 1999, combining his classic country influences and playing style with a more modern Nashville sound. Brad learned to play at only 8 years old after being gifted a guitar by his grandfather who he credits for getting him interested in the genre. Playing throughout school in various bands, his success story is one of true natural talent so raw and obvious that he was signed to EMI within a week of leaving high school. Since then his music has made him nothing short of a megastar worldwide, touring extensively but always maintaining his roots. Paisley always keeps the guitarists among his fans sweet with a number of instrumental collections including the awesome Play which includes collaborations with a ton of our favourite pickers including a few names from this list. With a talent bigger than his hat, there's no looking past Paisley when it comes to modern country.
The final name on this list is one we're sure you're going to recognise, the unlikely Australian country hero that is Keith Urban. Where do we even start with Keith? Bringing a sense of pop swagger to everything he touches without ever sacrificing on stunning picking and the glorious country bends to match, he truly is one of a kind. Believe it or not, his big break came from competing in an Australian talent show which got him attention throughout the country for his playing, earning him spots on several other music TV shows and alongside other up and coming country artists. Following on from that he went on to release his debut, demonstrating his incredible flatpicking abilities from day one which added a bite to his otherwise charming country sound. Everything since has been the result of sheer determination, talent and hard work, writing and gigging relentlessly to make himself a household name worldwide. In the same vein as Brad Paisley, Keith has never strayed from his roots, still satisfying country die-hards despite stepping up to take roles on shows such as the Voice and American Idol. We're glad to see that the spotlight hasn't taken away from his guitar playing because we absolutely love listening to him rip on the Strat! When it comes to modern icons, they don't get much bigger than this.
If you're currently listening to some of these guys play and wondering how on earth they keep up, don't worry, we're in the same boat. While country may be more of a niche genre than it once was, the biggest names in the game are still proudly flying the flag for their idols and that's a pretty special thing. We love guitar playing that stands the test of time and the legacy of this genre really is incredible when you stop and think about it. The influence of everyone on this list is still very much present and most likely will be forever. Even die-hard rockers better take note, there are some amazing techniques that will help you unlock the neck of your guitar if you study what these guys created - have a go and let us know how you get on!