Bluegrass is about as traditional as it gets when it comes to American music. Yet, an incredible amount of skill is required to truly elevate that classic bluegrass sound.
The guitar is used both as a rhythm section, as well as a prominent lead instrument in the bluegrass setting. You’ll often see these guitarists employing a flatpicking technique, along with the occasional thumb pick.
Wondering who some of the most iconic bluegrass guitarists of all time are? The following guitarists are some of the most widely-respected names in the genre.
You’ve probably heard the name, Richard Bennett, even if you aren’t versed in bluegrass music. This guitarist has lent his hand to a number of successful music artists, including Billy Joel and Neil Diamond.
While his near-20-year career with Neil Diamond is his claim to fame, he’s a highly accomplished bluegrass guitarist. As of 2023, he is still quite active and releasing new music.
Every once in a while, a European guitarist masters a genre native to a country halfway around the world. Such is the case with Beppe Gambetta, who hails from Italy, but is an insane bluegrass player.
His flatpicking technique is generally considered one of the best in the world. Needless to say, he’d fit right in with any family band from the hills of Appalachia.
Bluegrass might be one of the oldest genres still going strong while maintaining musical tradition. Sierra Hull is one of the finest examples of the next generation carrying the torch for generations to follow.
Her first album was released as a teenager and managed to become quite successful according to chart metrics. She is quite a songwriter, as well as a guitarist, but the mandolin is where she really shines.
One thing you’ll notice in bluegrass music is that many prominent musicians come from families with musical backgrounds. This allows them to become extremely proficient at a young age, due to consistently playing with other musicians.
Such is the case with Wyatt Rice, who began playing the guitar at 6 years old. He’s predominantly known for his excellent rhythm playing and supporting his brother, Tony.
Although he joined Tony’s band as a teenager, Wyatt has a catalog of his own music that deserves individual recognition.
Ricky Skaggs is another guitarist that comes from a family with a musical background. It seems as if Ricky’s musical life was destined for greatness from the very beginning.
Just a year after he picked up the mandolin, he shared the stage with the legendary bluegrass musician, Bill Monroe. On the guitar, Ricky can shred bluegrass with the best of them, sometimes venturing into country music territory.
One thing is for certain: if you want to catch some world-class musicianship, check out Ricky’s band. He seems to be a magnet for extreme talent.
It’s not often that the sideman gets the recognition and credit that they deserve. The greatest talent usually needs accompaniment, and that’s precisely Jack Lawrence’s specialty.
Jack’s career blossomed as he made a name for himself by supporting Doc Watson in the 1980s. Aside from that, Jack has held many positions with some of the biggest names in bluegrass music.
Bryan Sutton is a name that has become synonymous with cutting-edge guitar work within the bluegrass genre. Sutton was another product of a prodigious musical family, eventually making his own name a household name.
Remember how we said Ricky Skaggs attracts some of the best talents in the world? Bryan began to show the world what he was capable of by playing in Ricky’s band in the late 1990s.
Many people don’t really hold too much weight in awards given by official associations. However, Bryan has been named the IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year 10 different times over 16 years since 2000.
Looking to study somebody with traditional roots combined with evolutions suited for modern times? Norman Blake is a bluegrass guitarist who is perhaps one of the best to fulfill this role.
Blake has a very traditional sound, employing flatpicking techniques to musical lines typically heard on the fiddle. Aside from bluegrass, Blake has contributed guitar work to both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
You’ve seen the name Doc Watson mentioned here a few times by now. And, as you could guess, this name is one of the biggest names in bluegrass throughout the last century.
Doc Watson was blind, but that certainly didn’t hold him back any. He was playing until his death in 2012, leaving behind a legacy that will be studied for centuries to come.
With his iconic mustache, Tony Rice is extremely recognizable in both physical and musical forms. He’s also one of the most widely-respected flatpickers to ever play bluegrass over the last century.
In a way, Rice found a way to blend jazz and improvisational aspects into the bluegrass sound. This helped to spark a massive revival in respect for the bluegrass sound, influencing and inspiring generations to follow.
Chris Eldridge is a member of the current generation that is continually pushing the boundaries of bluegrass. Eldridge has made a name for himself as a master of the guitar, gaining attention with The Infamous Stringdusters.
Of course, when you’ve studied under the tutelage of Tony Rice, good things are bound to happen. Be sure to check out Chris’s work with Julian Lage for some insanely exciting collaborative guitar work.
As you’ve seen a number of times by now, some bluegrass guitarists were destined for greatness. From an early age, Trey Hensley began making himself known, appearing on the Grand Ole Opry at 11.
Hensley has worked alongside some of the biggest names in country and bluegrass. However, his solo career continues to gather more attention with each release that he puts out.
Clay Hess is yet another bluegrass guitarist that made a name for themselves in Ricky Skaggs’s band. Hess hails from the hills of southern Ohio, coming from a musical family that helped him to develop his chops.
When Hess began working on his debut solo album, his single, Rain, ended up topping the bluegrass charts. Since 2012, Hess has held the role of frontman in The Clay Hess Band.
Sometimes, the mustache is just as iconic as the music being played. David Grier is an excellent example of world-class flatpicking accompanied by a signature mustache.
Grier is yet another product of immersion into music from a young age. His dad held down banjo duties for Bill Monroe, which is sure to have rubbed off on his playing instincts.
The 1980s and 1990s were truly a time when Grier was on top of the world musically. He’s been recognized as one of the most influential acoustic guitar players of all time.
If you’ve been paying attention to modern bluegrass, you’ve likely come across Molly Tuttle. Though she is still fairly young, Tuttle has had an immaculate career and is only gaining attention.
Molly employs a number of traditional techniques that take years of practice to truly master. Her family had a band, which allowed Tuttle to perfect her craft to a world-class level of artistry.
Billy Strings is one of the hottest musicians blazing a trail in the music industry today. Much of what he plays is rooted in traditional bluegrass, but Strings has had massive crossover success.
It’s a fair statement that younger generations discovering bluegrass have likely been led by the music of Billy Strings. He’s still quite young, but he’s proved himself to be one of the best flatpickers the world has ever seen.
You only need to be vaguely familiar with guitar music to recognize the name, Tommy Emmanuel. This fingerstyle guitarist possesses a skill that is only best described as expert-level.
Though he comes from Australia, it didn’t take long for Tommy’s skills to be recognized around the world. He is by far one of the most virtuosic acoustic guitar players to ever play the instrument.
He might not have the exposure that other guitarists have had, by Scott Nygaard is one of the best. For over 30 years, Nygaard’s precise and mind-boggling performances have won over audiences with awestruck wonder.
Nygaard has also worked with some of the biggest names in recent bluegrass history. Chris Thile and Peter Rowan are just some of the names that Nygaard has worked with over the years.
In recent years, Nygaard has devoted his attention more to informational teaching. He even held an editor role for some time with Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Some guitarists have such virtuosic skills that they can pull off the most ridiculous stunts and still be musical. Roy Clark was such a guitarist, often injecting a hearty dose of comedy into his television performances.
While seeing him on Hee Haw was sure to provide a laugh, the skill required for his gags is astonishing. Clark no doubt has influenced generations who could only hope to be 1/10th as good as he was.
If you didn't know any better, you might not associate Glen Campbell with bluegrass music. Glen is mostly known for his solo career that leans a bit more into the country music side of things.
Though his voice and songwriting were exceptional, his guitar playing was nothing to sneeze at. Glen had the chops to show that he was one of the best acoustic guitar players of his day.
The Scruggs family name has been one of the most predominant names in bluegrass music over the last century. Though his parents helped to set the standard, Randy quickly made his own name amongst bluegrass audiences.
Perhaps the golden period for Randy Scruggs was during the 1970s. Some of the names he worked with include Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings.
Del McCoury is a name you’ll quickly come across if you’re new to the sound of bluegrass. McCoury’s career has become a legacy that is just as iconic as his signature hairstyle.
Countless artists have been influenced by Del’s massive career, which is still going strong today. He’s also considered one of the best bandleaders to ever front a band, for what it’s worth.
It seems that most of the great guitar players began developing their skills at a very young age. J.P. Cormier was 5 years old when he picked up the guitar, winning awards just a few years later.
Cormier has a style that has a hint of Celtic influence. In a way, he is able to craft guitar parts that sound like bagpipes and fiddles.
Bluegrass has always had an element of improvisation, but it's only recently that bands have begun to stretch boundaries. Typically, jam bands are known for stretching things out, often jamming into completely different progressions.
The Yonder Mountain String Band has been doing this since the late 1990s. Check out any of their performances and you’ll hear Adam Aijala on the guitar.
Clarence White is a name that isn’t exactly as well-known as it probably should be outside of country and bluegrass. Any rock fan is likely to be unknowingly familiar with White’s playing in the Byrds during the 1960s.
White was a very successful studio session player, along with holding a role in The Kentucky Colonels. He was also instrumental in developing the B-Bender guitar, frequently heard in country music.
Need proof of the aforementioned Clarence White’s massive influence? Be sure to check out Russ Barenberg, who is a sort of musical disciple of Clarence White.
Since the 1970s, Barenberg has had a career decorated with many accolades. He is best known as a session player, appearing on a massive list of recorded works by many famous artists.
You’ve already seen The Infamous Stringdusters having been mentioned in this article once before. However, Chris Eldridge isn’t the only guitarist to have made a name for themselves with the band.
Andy Falco joined the group in 2007 and has since helped the group release 9 different records. Falco also has an accomplished solo career that is worth checking out for any bluegrass fan.
Just about every genre has had its “king”, and the one to reign supreme in bluegrass was Jimmy Martin. Just about every bluegrass guitarist from the last 70 years has been influenced by Martin in some manner.
Martin established a name for himself by performing with Bill Monroe in the late 1940s. He then went on to have a massively successful solo career during the 1960s and 1970s.
Throughout this entire article, you’ve had to encounter the name Bill Monroe without much explanation. While he was traditionally a mandolinist, he was also known to play guitar, and his importance must be recognized.
Many consider Monroe to be responsible for bluegrass music as we know it today. He began recording bluegrass and gospel hits in the 1930s, performing frequently until his death in 1996.
Larry Sparks is yet another bluegrass guitarist to come from the great state of Ohio. Sparks’s career started honestly by playing around the state during the 1960s.
By 1970, his recording career had officially begun, spanning 30 albums in 51 years. Aside from his guitar playing, Larry’s voice has been widely recognized as one of the best in bluegrass.
Jerry Garcia is known for his role in the Grateful Dead, but you’ll often see him mentioned in other places. Some people know of him for his pedal steel playing, and others for his work in bluegrass.
During the 1990s, Garcia worked quite frequently with legendary mandolin player, David Grisman, and the legendary Tony Rice. The albums released from this collaboration have been hailed as some of the best modern bluegrass of all time.
Interestingly enough, Garcia’s musical influences seem to be rooted in bluegrass and americana. He even gave banjo and acoustic guitar lessons before his long career with the Grateful Dead began.
Sure, he might not be the first thought when thinking of bluegrass guitarists. However, his work has certainly influenced those who infuse jam band elements into the bluegrass setting.
Top Bluegrass Guitarists, Final Thoughts
It’s safe to say that bluegrass will never go away. And, while it’s highly traditional, it has an element of ever-evolving relevance to every generation of humanity.
If you’re considering learning some bluegrass playing styles, you’ll no doubt be spending time studying the aforementioned guitarists. Who knows, perhaps someday your own name might be included amongst those who are considered the “greats”.
Focus and achieve your goals, and who knows where you’ll end up. Show up for life, prepared at every step, and it’s bound to take you somewhere.