Folk Music Guitar Greats

A Look at Ten of the Best Folk Guitarists

The guitar is probably the most used instrument in American folk music. It's portability and diverse range of styles and sounds makes it a great accompaniment for artists working in myriad musical genres. Every now and then, though, a guitarist comes along that so innovatively attacks their instrument, that they manage to inspire and influence legions of other guitar players. Here's a list of five such contemporary artists who have helped to revolutionize the way the instrument is played.

John Fahey

John Fahey - Friends of Fahey Tribute CD Cover
© Slackertone

John Fahey was one of the best guitarists in contemporary history. His innovative arrangements and narrative melodic lines told stories on their own. His instrumental pieces are some of the most emotive pieces in contemporary Americana, incorporating elements of blues, jazz, country and pop style guitar playing.

Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco
© Danny Clinch

Ani DiFranco has helped to innovate contemporary music in a number of ways, one of which is, undeniably, her inimitable guitar work. To ensure that each string is plucked with equal, natural-sounding articulation, DiFranco wears extra thick fake fingernails on her right hand, reinforcing them with electrical tape so they don't pop off in the middle of her show. Her guitar arrangements are hugely percussive and dynamic, taking her rhythm and lead guitar lines from soft and tender to forceful and evocative.

Doc Watson

Doc Watson Live at the Bottom Line in NYC
© Otto Bost

Doc Watson is probably one of the greatest flatpickers of all time. His style is so influential that it's almost easy to pick out which artists have spent a lot of time listening to Doc in their formative years. Together with his son Merle—a talented picker in his own right—Watson made some of the best in old time and traditional folk music. Seven Grammys and an induction into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame don't lie.

Martin Sexton

Martin Sexton Live in Concert
© Kim Ruehl, licensed to

Through the cunning use of looping technology, and his funky, percussive arrangements, Martin Sexton's guitar work is as impressive live as it is on disc. Managing a library of looped tracks can be tricky, particularly in a live show. It can be tempting to build and build a song with more and more loops, eventually developing every song into a cookie cutter of the last. Sexton, however, uses his looped tracks sparingly, developing his songs into arrangements just as dynamic as they would be with a full band backing him.

Kaki King

Kaki King - Until We Felt Red CD Cover
© Velour Records

Kaki King's emotive, experimental melodies depict hugely intricate guitar skills. Infusing elements of jazz, blues, and folk guitar, King's instrumentals can jump from far-flung staccato to smooth, haunting legato and back again. Working in a similar, yet more experimental, vein as John Fahey, King's instrumental melodies are emotive narratives that speak for themselves.

Jerry Garcia

Jery Garcia - Garcia Plays Dylan CD Cover
© Rhino/WEA

Jerry Garcia started out as a bluegrass picker and later evolved his little bluegrass band into one of the most influential folk rock bands of all time. His folk and country-infused guitar work expanded into experimental rock and jam solos, and became some of the most well-known and well-loved folk rock songs from contemporary history.