A lot of innovative techniques for the guitar came out of genres like the blues, jazz, rock and roll, and even country music. While guitarists from some of the other genres tend to get more recognition, the guitar players who pioneered country music were some of the best of the best. In this article, we’ll go over the 21 best country guitarists of all time.
1. Chet Atkins
Perhaps the best guitarist to work in country music, Chet Atkins would go on to invent the Nashville sound and earn the nickname Mr. Guitar. His career saw him produce records with other country legends like Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, and even Elvis Presley. Rolling Stone ranked him at number 21 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. A star-studded career earned Chet Atkins 14 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and inductions into the Rock and Roll, Country Music, and Musicians Halls of Fame.
2. Brad Paisley
Every single one of Brad Paisley’s 11 studio albums has been certified gold or higher by the RIAA, and he’s released 20 singles that reached the top spot of the Billboard Country Airplay chart. He’s as close to a living legend as you can get in country music today, thanks to his excellent singing, songwriting, and guitar playing. In addition to topping charts, Paisley has sold over 11 million records worldwide, won three Grammy Awards, and become a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
3. Vince Gill
One of the greatest songwriters and guitarists of country music, Vince Gill, has earned more Grammy Awards than any other male country musician, with 22. He originally rose to prominence as the frontman for the country rock band Pure Prairie League and started a solo career in the 1980s. Gill is one of the few country artists to be included in the Guitar Center RockWalk, an honor he received in 2016.
4. Keith Urban
Australian Keith Urban is such a dedicated guitarist that he’s released his own signature line of guitars and accessories. His country music career took off in 1999 after moving to Nashville, where he would go on to win four Grammy Awards, receive 15 Academy of Country Music Awards, and 13 CMA awards. Urban’s work extends beyond the country music scene, playing the score, For You, from the movie Act of Valor and earning nominations at the 70th Golden Globe Awards and 18th Critics’ Choice Awards.
5. Merle Travis
Merle Travis developed a signature style of guitar playing called “Travis Picking,” which involved playing chords and bass notes with the thumb while simultaneously strumming melodies with the index finger. He’s best known for songs like Sixteen Tons and Dark As A Dungeon. As one of the pioneers of country music, he’s been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters and Country Music Halls of Fame.
6. Maybelle Carter
Maybelle Carter is partially responsible for turning the guitar into a lead instrument in country music, thanks in large part to her development of the Carter Scratch, a picking style that used the bass strings to play the melody of the song. She was the matriarch of the Carter Family, one of country music’s first families and her legacy has left a profound impact on bluegrass, country, and southern gospel music.
7. Jerry Reed
Jerry Reed was one of those country music artists that could do it all. He could sing, write songs, compose music, act, and was one hell of a guitar player. Reed was one of the most in-demand session artists in Nashville, including working with Elvis Presley who would go on to cover Reed’s single Guitar Man. His acting career saw him work alongside Burt Reynolds in all three Smokey and the Bandit movies and he was behind the hit song, East Bound and Down.
8. Brent Mason
Mentored by Chet Atkins and described by Guitar World Magazine as a Top Ten Session Guitarists of All Time, Brent Mason was one of the best guitarists to work in country music. He’s been named Guitarist of the Year 14 times by the Academy of Country Music and would go on to release a Brent Mason line of guitar models. Mason’s accredited guitar instrumentals have been included on over a thousand albums, working with artists like Shania Twain, Neil Diamond, George Strait, and Alan Jackson.
9. Glen Campbell
A very successful country artist, Glen Campbell, would release 64 albums and sell over 45 million records worldwide. He’s best known for his time hosting The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on CBS, but he landed over 80 songs on the Billboard charts during his music career. If you’ve ever seen the film, True Grit, starring John Wayne, you’ll have heard Campbell play as he sang and produced the title song for the movie.
10. Roy Clark
The expert guitar playing of Roy Clark made him one of the most important people in bringing country music into the mainstream spotlight. The secret to his unique sound was blending elements of jazz, pop, blues, and country together. Clark would also have a great TV career, hosting the Hee Haw variety show that pushed out country music on the airwaves and eventually going on to guest host The Tonight Show.
11. James Burton
James Burton’s work on the guitar earned him an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and ranked him number 19 on a Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest Guitarists of All Time. He worked alongside names like John Denver, Joni Mitchell, Vince Gill, and Merle Haggard.
12. Merle Haggard
While Merle Haggard would go on to become one of the best-known names in country music, Roy Nichols was the lead guitarist of the band that backed him for over two decades. A bit of a child prodigy, Nichols could learn and play music at lightning speed and would record at least 38 hit songs alongside Haggard. His legacy on the guitar helped shape how country music would be played forever, thanks to being able to incorporate an almost steel pedal sound in his picking.
13. Albert Lee
While most country artists tend to be Americans, Albert Lee is a rare exception to British excellence in country music. He had a spectacular solo career and inspired generations of guitar players with his hybrid, almost out-of-control picking style. Lee would become one of the most sought-after backing musicians in country music, spending time playing with big names like Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, and the Everly Brothers. A five-time Best Country Guitarist from Guitar Player magazine and a couple of Grammy Awards have cemented his legacy as a legendary guitarist.
14. Luther Perkins
As a member of The Tennessee Three, Luther Perkins would spend much of his career backing the iconic Johnny Cash. He was integral in developing the thumping, train-like sound that Cash’s music was famous for. That sound might get used a lot now, but the slow, rhythmic style of the Tennessee Three was a groundbreaking technique for the time, and it dug out a place in history for Luther Perkins.
15. Hank Garland
Hank Garland is one of the most versatile musicians to enter the country music scene. He started as a country artist, then moved to rock and roll in the 50s when it rose in popularity, and finally moved into the incredibly demanding role of a jazz guitarist. Garland worked as one of the best session musicians in Nashville, playing on tracks like Big Hunk O’ Love with Elvis Presley and working with others like Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline, and The Everly Brothers.
16. Ricky Skaggs
While Ricky Skaggs plays the mandolin as his primary instrument, he’s still one of the greatest country musicians to pick up the guitar. He’s one of the pioneers of the neotraditional country genre and at the time of induction, he was the youngest-ever member of the Grand Ole Opry. One of his most notable songs is singing alongside Vince Gill on Go Rest High on That Mountain.
17. Dolly Parton
Dolly might be better known for her work as a singer and songwriter, but she was also an excellent guitarist. She picked up the instrument at the age of eight but can also play the banjo, piano, violin, and several other instruments. Her career was at its peak during the 70s and 80s, with songs like 9 to 5 and Jolene.
18. Willie Nelson
Willie is one of the most legendary names in country music with songs like On The Road Again and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. He was an integral part of developing the Nashville sound as one of the main figures of the outlaw country scene that would move country music out of the restrictive style it had stagnated in during the 1960s.
19. Hank Williams Sr.
Hank Williams Sr. was one of the most important musicians in country music history. His songwriting, guitar playing, and singing have landed him inductions into the Country Music, Songwriters, Rock and Roll, and Native American Music Halls of Fame.
20. Danny Gatton
Danny Gatton was a master of the telecaster guitar and developed a signature style that mixed country, jazz, and blues together to create the redneck jazz sound. He’s been ranked on lists of the greatest guitarists of all time by both Rolling Stone and Gibson and would go on to release the Danny Gatton Signature Telecaster guitar line.
21. Johnny Cash
Alongside his backing band, The Tennessee Three, Johnny Cash pioneered the slow rhythmic sound that would go on to be used by musicians for decades. Songs like Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk The Line, and Ring of Fire are a testament to his guitar skills and cemented his legacy as an icon of the music world.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.