With so many great guitarists out there, who are some of the top bluegrass guitarists you should listen to? I’m giving you a list of some of my favorites. There are lots of others, but these are some of my favorites and what I consider essential for a BLUEGRASS Guitar playlist.
Most are well known in bluegrass music, but maybe a few of them will be new to you? Be sure to check them out.
Top Bluegrass Guitarists
- David Grier
- Bryan Sutton
- Roy Curry
- Cody Kilby
- Tony Rice
- Russ Barenberg
- Doc Watson
- Norman Blake
- George Shuffler
- Tim Stafford
- Larry Sparks
- Kenny Smith
Okay, so I’ll preface by saying David Grier is my favorite bluegrass guitarist. I just think his creativity and ideas are out of this world. The man’s mind ain’t right, haha.
Storytime-I once had the pleasure of jamming alone with Grier for about 3 hours. I was at a party in Nashville. There was this cabin where no one was in, so I went in there to watch TV and noodle on my banjo (I had my fill of the noisy and inebriated crowd, haha). In walks this guy with a guitar….long story short, it ended up being Grier. Just the two of us played and it was a blast. One of my top musical highlights.
I’m quite fond of the Hootenany album he did with Tim O’Brein. I really dig the acoustic tones he got on that one. Here he is doing King Wilkie’s Run.
Bryan Sutton hit the bluegrass world by storm when he performed with Ricky Scaggs. Known for his blazing fast, clear, snappy lines. Check out his breaks on Scagg’s Rawhide or Pig in a Pen for some incredibly fast guitar playing.
Funny story-I was really young (18-19 probably) and a buddy of mine was playing on a track at a local studio. I was just there for support. Anyways, we heard this crazy good electric country guitarist on the track and asked, “Who is that?” Turns out it was Bryan Sutton. This was before he started playing with Scaggs and I had even heard of him.
What a career Sutton has had. Scaggs, Fleck, and loads of Nashville studio albums.
Roy Curry was one of my biggest bluegrass guitar influences. I probably stole more ideas and licks from him than anyone at the beginning of my bluegrass guitar journey. I love the way he phrases; it’s not a string of 8th notes all the time. He does a lot of sweet bending licks (almost tele-picking influenced at times). Here he is doing BIG SCIOTA.
He played at local festivals in Georgia and Tennessee and I would go watch him with the Lone Mountain Band quite often. Roy is a three-time national guitar champion. Who knows how many guitars he has won at guitar contests at this point; a pile of them!
What can I say, Cody Kilby is one of the most talented people in bluegrass. I was fortunate enough to see him when he was younger at fiddle contests. The very first flatpick guitar contest I entered at 16 years old, I got last place. Guess who got first? Cody Kilby! He also played with Ricky Scaggs and now has moved on to the Travelin McCoury’s. One of the fastest and cleanest guitar players you’ll ever hear.
I’m not dumb enough to do a bluegrass guitar list without Tony Rice. Probably THE most influential bluegrass guitarist of all time. He played with everyone from JD Crowe, David Grisman to Bela Fleck. Some suggested listening: Acoustics album or any of the David Grisman Quartet stuff.
I dare say- there are more guitar players trying to sound and play like Tony Rice in bluegrass than any other guitar player.
Russ might be less familiar to some; he played on a lot of albums in the 70’s-80’s. I’m quite fond of his phrasing and tone as well. He plays a cool old Gibson J-45. I used his pick approach for a few years (Fender Medium playing with the round end instead of the sharp end). Suggested listening is the Barenberg, Meyer, Jerry Douglas recording Skip, Hop, and Wobble.
Once again, no bluegrass list is complete without Doc Watson. Talk about a long career. I got to see him numerous times over the years and he was always quite the entertainer. From bluegrass, blues, to old-time music. Doc Watson’s “Beaumont Rag” was the first bluegrass guitar song I ever tried to play. Not only was he a great flatpicker, but he was a great fingerpicker as well.
Norman Blake is another one of those quintessential bluegrass guitar players. Not only is he a great guitar player, but a great songwriter as well. Some suggested listening-“Ginseng Sullivan.” He did a great duet album with Tony Rice that is essential acoustic guitar listening.
George Shuffler was one of those first generation bluegrass guitar players (There weren’t many!) He was primarily known for his unique crosspicking playing style with Ralph Stanley. Here is a version of him playing Big Tilda.
He later was a big influence on another of Ralph Stanley’s guitar players, the late James Alan Shelton.
Tim Stafford was a member of Alison Kraus’ Union Station and then later moved on to Blue Highway. What can I say, Blue Highway is one of my favorite bands of all time. I’ve heard Tim play in a few bluegrass jams over the years-great tone and execution. He uses a mixture of ‘floaties” and crosspicking; totally dig his stuff.
Known primarily as a singer and songwriter, Larry Sparks is a monster guitar player as well. Larry loves to bend those HEAVY GAUGE strings on his old guitar. Check out his version of DARK HOLLER for a heavy dose of blues and string bending!
Kenny is another one of my favorite bluegrass guitarists. He uses lots of ‘floaties’ mixed in with crosspicking as well. Similar to Stafford, but very different at the same time. He said he came up with some of his unique sounds because he was inspired by his brothers’ banjo runs. Kenny was in the Lonesome River Band, but currently plays with his wife in the Kenny & Amanda Smith Band. I recommend you check these folks out, swell people! His original piece entitled STUDEBAKER is a killer song.
Well, there you have it, some incredible bluegrass guitarists. I hope you discovered a few new ones today. Go give these fellows some plays on Spotify, Amazon, Apple music and the like. It helps their music!
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