The guitar as an instrument was originally designed between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but it didn’t appear in the historical record until the fifteenth century in Spain. Looking at the masters of the classical guitar is difficult because of how popular the instrument has been; throughout most of history and the enormous amount of time, it’s been used.
In this article, we’ll delve deep into the history of the guitar to find the 31 best classical guitarists of all time, making sure to look at both modern players and those from yesteryear.
1. Andrés Segovia
Andrés Segovia is credited with moving the guitar out of the parlor and into its rightful place as a legitimate concert instrument. While he was a virtuoso of the instrument, many who have come after have surpassed him, though his influence alone places him as the best classical guitarist in modern times.
Our next two guitarists acknowledge Segovia as their influence and believe they owe him a debt for his works. Segovia’s work has earned him honorary degrees from ten music schools, an ennoblement, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Perhaps just as important as his solo career was his teaching one. He gave guitar master classes at Accademia Musicale Chigiana and Musica en Compostela, though his authoritarian style was off-putting for some students. Outside the classroom, he also published teaching works and influenced far more guitar students than he taught in person.
2. John Williams
Perhaps the most technically accomplished guitar player of all time, John Williams, would study under Andres Segovia at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Sienna, Italy. After studying at the Royal College of Music in London, he became the founder of its guitar section and ran the program for a few years.
Winner of multiple Brit Awards in Classical Recordings, John Williams, prefers teaching and playing in ensembles rather than banging out guitar solos because he believes it teaches much more than just technique and notes. Alongside Julian Bream, Williams would win a 1973 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for Together. He isn’t just a classical guitarist, though, working with Pete Townsend of The Who on a fusion album, working on film scores, and has spent time as a composer, arranger, and member of the band Sky.
3. Julian Bream
Julian Bream played a major role in improving public opinion of the guitar and was integral in cementing it as a respected instrument in classical circles. His skill as both a guitarist and lutenist helped revive interest in the lute as an instrument as well. Bream founded the Julian Bream Consort in 1960, a period-instrument ensemble that revived interest in the music of the Tudor and Elizabethan eras.
His music ranged greatly in style, rearranging pieces of Bach for guitar, leaning on 17th-century works, and playing on popular Spanish pieces. He would go on to become a tutor at the music summer school in Dartington and taught master classes around England. Bream’s fifty-plus-year career saw him become one of the most revered figures in the British music scene.
4. Fernando Sor
A classical guitarist and composer of the early Romantic Era, Fernando Sor was considered the best guitar player of his time by his peers. His virtuoso talent for playing and writing for the instrument led to his works still being played by classical guitarists today. He was among the first to play the guitar as a concert instrument and one of the first to write instructional works for the guitar. These writings employed didactic musical styles to ensure the lessons were accessible for musicians of all skill levels. During his time, Sor was dubbed The Beethoven of Guitar by French critics.
5. Francisco Tarrega
One of the fathers of classical guitar, Francisco Tarrega was one of the best guitarists and composers of the late Romantic Period. Alongside a few earlier contemporaries like Fernando Sor, Tarrega was one of the first to play the guitar in a concert setting instead of as an accompanying instrument. Recuerdos de la Alhambra is still one of the most critically acclaimed and played pieces ever for classical guitar. Aside from producing over 80 original works, he transcribed over 100 pieces of classical music for the guitar, including works from Beethoven and Chopin.
6. Pepe Romero
Pepe Romero is a classical and flamenco guitarist who has been knighted in Spain and received a President’s Merit Award from the Recording Academy. While he is one of the most accomplished living classical guitarists, much of his life has been dedicated to teaching. Romero served as a guitar professor at USC, Southern Methodist, University of San Diego, and USC at San Diego, before taking a position at the USC Thornton School of Music.
In 2012, Romero published a guitar method “La Guitarra” and his career has seen the release of over 60 full albums, while his live performances have been in front of high-profile audiences, including US Presidents and Pope John Paul II.
7. Ferdinando Carulli
Carulli’s 1810 Méthode complète pour Guitare ou lyre, Op. 27 is still used by guitar students today and is one of the first complete guitar methods ever composed. One of the greatest classical guitarists of his time, he was also a prolific writer and composed over 400 works for the guitar and accompanying instruments. His most popular work has to be the Duo In G, Op. 34 which has been recorded numerous times though most famously by John Williams and Julian Bream.
8. Jason Vieaux
As the youngest-ever winner of the Guitar Foundation of America’s International Guitar First Prize, Jason Vieaux is simply one of the best classical guitarists of the modern age. He’s performed with over 100 different orchestras and worked with some of the top conductors alive. Vieaux has taught at or headed the guitar department at the Cleveland Institute of Music since 1997 and was a co-founder of the guitar department at the Curtis Institute of Music. Much of his self-composed works are also self-published. His album Play won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo in 2015.
9. Craig Ogden
Craig Ogden’s success has seen him top the UK Classical Charts on six separate occasions with album releases. After studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in England, he now serves as the Principle Lecturer in Guitar at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. In 2004, Ogden was awarded a Fellowship from the school, making him the youngest person ever to be granted that honor. His repertoire allows him to play various chamber music within orchestras and as a soloist.
10. Sharon Isbin
Sharon Isbin’s place as the founding director of the guitar department at the Juilliard School should speak for itself, but it isn’t her only success as a classical guitarist. Her study began in Italy under Aldo Minella, but she would go on to learn under greats like Andres Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Rosalyn Tureck. Alongside Tureck, Isbin prepared landmark performances of the Bach lute suites for guitar. Isbin’s style ranges from Baroque to Spanish and Latin music and jazz fusion. Her 35 recordings have sold over one million copies, with Guitar Player magazine naming her their Best Classical Guitarist. She won two Grammy Awards and received four other nominations while earning titles from other institutions like the Concert Artists Guild Virtuoso Award in 2013.
11. Xuefei Yang
Xuefei Yang is the first Chinese guitarist to establish an international career and started playing the guitar right as restrictions on Western instruments were lifted in China. By 14, she had debuted in both Tokyo and Madrid, then moved to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Her scholarship to the school was the first given by the program to a guitarist. Yang has performed in numerous countries and won competitions like the International Guitar Competition and the Young Concert Artist International Competition.
12. Mauro Giuliani
Mauro Giuliani was the most skilled and recognized guitar player in the early 1800s, an Italian guitarist, cellist, and composer. He spent his time as a teacher, composer, and performer, influencing the advancement of the guitar from his seat in Vienna. Giuliani’s career saw him collaborate with other great musicians of his time, like Beethoven and Rossini. He was renowned across Europe as one of the biggest music celebrities of the time.
13. Giovanni Paolo Foscarini
We’re going way back for this one. Giovanni Paolo Foscarini lived from around 1600 until 1647 and was one of the most influential guitarists of the period. His instruction books are among the earliest surviving guitar books today and include detailed notes and annotations for students. The works encompassed the Italian guitar repertoire of that time and described three distinct styles of playing: strumming, plucking, and a mixture of the two. Foscarini’s manuals are still used today in classical music instruction.
14. Gaspar Sanz
Sanz would learn to play guitar under Lelio Colista and was influenced by Italian greats like Foscarini and Corbetta. After studying music, theology, and philosophy at the University of Salamanca, Gaspar Sanz became a prominent composer, guitarist, and priest. For a time, he was the appointed guitar instructor for Don Juan, the only recognized son of King Philip IV and Maria Calderon. He served at the school as a professor of music and wrote three teaching works for the Baroque guitar. Those techniques and sounds are of the utmost importance for the classical guitar and are the surviving documents that have allowed scholars to study the Baroque style.
15. Matteo Carcassi
Another of the virtuoso concert guitarists of the 1800s, Carcassi, initially played the piano before transitioning to the guitar. His career saw him tour across Europe and teach students guitar and piano. His most popular performances came in Paris and London, with his best works rearranging pieces originally intended for the piano. Like many other historical greats on the list, Carcassi published a method for the guitar, with his most famous works included in 25 Etudes, Op. 60, a collection still played today.
16. Narciso Yepes
Yepes was one of the best classical guitarists of the 20th century, usually only ranked behind Andrés Segovia. He was incredibly important in reviving the Baroque styles of the Spanish guitar and he was the first person to record the complete lute works of Bach on period instruments. Other than his own composed works, Yepes worked on numerous film scores including the theme of the film Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits).
17. Dusan Bogdanović
Dusan Bogdanović manages to blend classical, jazz, and ethnic music with his style of classical guitar playing. His career has seen him publish over 200 compositions, with recording credits on more than 20 albums. As a professor at the University of Southern California, San Francisco, and the Geneva University of Music, he’s put together multidisciplinary projects on music, psychology, philosophy, and the arts while publishing theoretical work and manuals.
18. Eliot Fisk
Eliot Fisk was the final pupil of the great teacher Andrés Segovia and the holder of all reproduction rights to Segovia’s music. He took those works and turned them into a bestseller album on Billboard Classical Album chart. Much of his work outside of touring has been transcribing music designed for other instruments to the guitar, including works from Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. A Guitar Player reader poll named him the best classical guitarist and he has received a Grammy Nomination as well.
19. Miguel Llobet
The birth of classical guitar was in Spain, hence why so many of the best early classical guitarists came from the region. Miguel Llobet is another of these, famous for arranging popular Catalan folk songs for the solo guitar and transcribing many of the works that would later be made famous by Andrés Segovia. Though he only attempted one recording session, which was rejected, Llobet toured across Europe and the Americas, leaving his original works to be played by his students and records later on.
20. Alirio Diaz
After studying with Andres Segovia, Alirio Diaz became one of the most prominent South American classical musicians alive. The Venezuelan government even gave him a scholarship to continue his studies in Europe, allowing him to study under Segovia and continue his studies toward a post-graduate degree. Concurso Internacional de Guitarra Alirio Díaz is a guitar competition held in Caracas in his honor. He would go on to perform all over the world, blending Baroque classical music with the works of Latin American composers, which distinguished him in classical circles and proved his prolific skill with the guitar.
21. Liona Boyd
Any woman carrying the nickname First Lady of Guitar for their work in classical guitar music deserves a spot on this list. After graduating from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Music, Boyd performed at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City. Her career has seen her release 26 studio albums and produced three compilations. Boyd’s illustrious recording career has seen her work alongside Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, Yo-Yo Ma, and Olivia Newton-John. She’s a five-time winner of Classical Guitar Musician of the Year from Guitar Player Magazine, a National Guitar Museum Lifetime Achiever, and a member of New Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.
22. Ana Vidović
Ana Vidović, widely regarded as a child prodigy, was born in 1980. By the age of 13, she was an international performer and became the youngest student to attend the Academy of Music in Zagreb. By the time she finished there, her reputation had grown to the point that world-renowned classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco invited her to study at the Peabody Conservatory. Vidovic is known as an immaculate guitar player, and her frequent appearances include work from Johann Sebastian Bach, Francisco Tarrega, and Joaquin Rodrigo.
23. Agustin Barrios
Best known for his virtuoso talent and incredible live performances, Augustin Barrios, is regarded as one of the greatest classical guitar performers and composers. Barrios has composed over 100 original works and arranged over 200 works from other composers for the guitar. He’s credited as the first classical guitarist to make recordings around 1909, but two artists did so before him. His greatest work was the Bach-inspired La Catedral which is widely acclaimed as one of the most excellent classical guitar compositions. His style was based on the folk music of his home country of Paraguay and served as a template for many of his later arrangements.
24. Manuel Barrueco
At the age of 22, Manuel Barrueco became the first classical guitarist to win the Concert Artist Guild Award and he would later be named a Fontanais Fellow of United States Artists. He originally immigrated to the US with his parents as a refugee from Cuba and would eventually go on to attend the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2007, Barrueco received a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance.
25. Christopher Parkening
Christopher Parkening is the current Chair of Classical guitar at Pepperdine University and has been called one of the most brilliant guitarists in the world by Andrés Segovia. His 20 album releases have earned him two Grammy nominations, and Parkening has been an important part of legitimizing the guitar in academic circles. His astounding list of performances includes appearances at the White House and on various television programs, including The Grammy Awards.
26. David Tanenbaum
At the age of 16, David Tanenbaum made his concert debut. Later on, he would go on to study under Rolando Valdes-Blain and become one of the most important promoters of new classical guitarists. Since then, he’s premiered Peter Maxwell Davies’s Sonata and released music by John Adams, Michael Tippett, and Steve Reich. His catalog of music stretches across the ages, touching on historical works from earlier periods as well as modern compositions. Tanenbaum has recorded two versions of Henze’s Royal Winter Music and the complete works of Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Transcriptions of Bach, de Milano, and Weiss are also in his known repertoire.
27. Kazuhito Yamashita
Both the expression and technique of Kazuhito Yamashita are highly regarded. By 32, he had released 52 albums with works, including pieces for solo guitars, concertos, and collaborations with celebrated musicians like James Galway. His entire discography is over eighty albums. Yamashita’s talent has seen him tour worldwide, performing in North America, Asia, and Europe. He also works as a transcription composer and pens his original works alongside his composer wife Keiko Fujiie.
28. Robert de Viseé
Originally a player at the court of kings Louis XIV and Louis XV, Robert de Visee was a celebrated lutenist, guitarist, singer, and composer. He would publish two guitar music books covering 12 suites and a few extra pieces of work. His Baroque works saw him appointed Guitar Master of the King to Louis XV and the singer of the royal chamber.
29. Antoine de L’Hoyer
Outside of music, Lhoyer had a stunning military career that saw him become a member of the Garde du Corps du Roi, a Knight of the Order of St. Louis, and a Knight of the Order of St. John. During the early romantic era, he was known as a virtuoso classical guitarist and composer who excelled in writing chamber music for the guitar. Around 50 of his five- and six-string guitar works survive today, mainly featuring trios and duets. While he released more, his first 11 Opus numbers have never been identified despite academic research and renewed interest in his musical stylings.
30. Miloš Karadaglić
Drawing comparisons to the likes of Julian Bream and earning nicknames like Classical Music’s Guitar Hero, Miloš Karadaglić is one of the greatest modern classical guitarists. After attending the Royal Academy of Music, he would go on to debut in London at Wigmore Hall in 2009 and averaged over 120 concerts per year. Karadaglić’s range is wide, playing arrangements from the Beatles and newer composers while also being able to handle any of the older classical compositions thrown his way. His debut album Mediterráneo was a chart-topper, and he’s one of the most exciting people to keep an eye on in classical music circles today.
31. Thibaut Garcia
Another of the most promising young classical guitarists, according to Classical Guitar, Thibaut Garcia has two major album releases to his name. By the age of 16, he was admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris. He would go on to win international competitions, including the Guitar Foundation of America (USA) competition in 2015 and the BBC New Generation Artist (2017-2019).
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