Beyond the unmistakable twangy vocals, rolling rhythms, and smooth harmonies, the backbone of country music is the guitar. And behind many of the innovations in modern guitar rhythm, strumming, and fingerpicking styles across genres—including rock ‘n’ roll—is a cast of legendary country guitarists.
While the roots of country music extend far beyond the United States, with influences ranging from Celtic ballads and fiddle songs to the introduction of the banjo from West Africa, the distinct sound of the genre has been shaped by several American musicians, many of whom are some of the most influential guitarists across the world.
Even if country music isn’t your style, it’s likely that a guitar technique you’re trying to master or a riff from your favorite song owes at least a nod to one of these nine renowned country guitarists. Let’s get to know them.
Famous Country Guitarists
While there are a number of notable instruments that give country music its distinct sound—such as the banjo and lap steel—the guitar has always been the focal point. And in general, country songs are primarily played in a major key using a technique called “double stops.” This involves playing two notes together, creating a larger, full-chord sound.
So who is the best country guitarist of all time? The answer to that question will always be subjective. Some are known for their raucous and expressive rhythms, while others have mastered soft, subtly complex acoustic styles. Since each musician added their mark to modern guitar standards, let’s take a look at the nine famous country guitarists who have struck the loudest chords.
1. Dolly Parton
A multi-hyphenate icon who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, Dolly Parton has written around 3,000 songs, mastered something like 20 instruments, sold over 100 million records worldwide, won numerous Grammy Awards, and starred in films.
It’s hard to overstate the stature Parton holds in the larger story of country music—and pop culture in general—but it’s especially important to note her finesse as a guitar player. Part of her expertise lies in her ability to accompany her own complicated fingerpicking styles and hammer-ons with the perfect vocal performances she is most known for.
Parton was born in 1946 in East Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Her parents were poor, and she grew up in a one room house alongside 11 other siblings. At age seven, Parton started learning to play guitar on a homemade guitar until her uncle gave her first Martin guitar. By age 13, she was being introduced on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry by Johnny Cash. Eventually, she moved to Nashville and was hired by Porter Wagoner to be his duet partner on his variety show.
Throughout her career, Parton has drawn from many sources of inspiration—her upbringing in Appalachia and her mother, who sang English, Irish, and Welsh folk songs. Besides being a talented multi-instrumentalist, Parton still to this day doesn’t read sheet music. She’s also famously known for using her long fingernails as an instrument, creating the iconic clacking beat in the intro of her hit song “9 to 5.”
2. Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash is one musician who hardly needs an introduction. Known for songs chronicling themes of sorrow and redemption, his steady and deep baritone register, and his ability to toe the line seamlessly between genres—from rockabilly to blues to gospel—Cash became one of the best-selling music artists of all time. Even if you don’t consider yourself well-versed in country music, it’s likely you can name (and learn) at least one of “The Man in Black’s” songs.
Though now a common style of strumming, Cash popularized the “boom chuck” rhythm. The “boom” is the playing of a bass note, followed by a downstroke on the rest of the chord (the “chuck”). While a relatively simple method, this rhythm was part of Cash’s signature sounds. He was also known for more unconventional styles of playing, like strumming up the neck of his guitar to achieve certain sounds he liked.
Cash was born in 1932 to a family of poor cotton farmers in Arkansas, where he lived until he joined the Air Force in 1950. After being honorably discharged in 1954, he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he began his career as a musician, playing with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. In 1968, he gave his first of many free prison concerts, performing his song “Folsom Prison Blues” at Folsom State Prison. He married June Carter—the sister of pioneering guitarist Maybelle Carter—in 1968. Cash’s many influences included the gospel music he grew up hearing as well as Irish music.
3. Willie Nelson
Known as a slightly more idiosyncratic character among country guitar musicians, Willie Nelson carved his own path to become a living legend.
Since the 1950s, Nelson has been producing some of the most recognizable country songs laden with his signature rhythmic guitar strumming. Part of his signature sound is due to his Martin N-20 guitar, which he nicknamed “Trigger” after Roy Rogers’ horse. When his Baldwin guitar was damaged in 1969, Nelson attached components of his old guitar to his new Martin, enabling the guitar to emulate the sounds of jazz musician Django Reinhardt. In fact, Nelson himself attests the distinct flavor of his sound to this one guitar.
Born in Texas in 1933, Nelson began playing guitar at the age of six. Since rising to musical fame after getting his start in Washington in the 1950s, this country legend has become known for many things beyond his musical ingenuity. He’s cited as a critical figure of outlaw country, a subgenre of country music born out of the counterculture of the 1960s, and has frequently been associated with his pursuits in activism related to the environment and the legalization of marijuana.
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4. Glen Campbell
Part session musician, part television host, part successful solo artist, Glen Campbell carved a clear mark for himself among country guitar legends. The Arkansas-born musician rose to acclaim as a studio musician in Los Angeles, where he spent many formative years playing with The Wrecking Crew, a collective of session musicians who came to back several hundred Top 40 hits. During his career as a solo artist, Campbell went on to chart 80 hits and win four Grammy Awards, among other prestigious recognitions.
Campbell began playing guitar when he was only four years old, and by the time he was six, he was performing for local radio stations. While he never received any formal training, he attributed much of his early learning to listening to the radio and records, citing Django Reinhardt as one of his greatest inspirations. After his death related to Alzheimer’s in 2017, there was an outpouring of tributes from living country legends, including Dolly Parton, exalting Campbell for his unparalleled skill as a country guitarist.
5. Emmylou Harris
Often closely associated with Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris is a musical force in her own right. Gliding easily between folk, pop-rock, and country styles, she’s known for her singular vocal talent and sophisticated brand of country music. After being discovered singing folk music in a club, Harris went on to form musical partnerships with prominent country musicians, notably Gram Parsons. Her hit song “From Boulder to Birmingham” was a tribute to her longtime musical collaborator.
Her virtuosity as a guitarist and vocalist lead to a fruitful career, earning her 14 Grammy Awards and appearances on the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? A versatile musician, Harris is known for her prolific solo career in tandem with her ability to interpret the composition of other musicians with great nuance.
6. Jerry Reed
While some may recognize Jerry Reed as an actor, notably for his role in the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit, Reed is considered one of the most talented country guitarists among the greats. Born in Georgia in 1937, Reed launched his career as a rockabilly musician early when he was just 18 when he was signed by Capitol Records and dubbed a “teenage sensation” after his composition of “When I Found You.” In 1967, Reed wrote the song “Guitar Man” which garnered him more fame when Elvis Presley covered it.
As a guitarist, Reed was known for his unique syncopation and intricate picking techniques that have become somewhat of an apex of technical skill for fingerpickers to this day. Alongside his predecessor and collaborator Chet Atkins, Reed developed his signature guitar style known as “claw style” in reference to the shape his right hand made. While most fingerpickers use their thumb for the bass line, Reed made use of his entire hand and fingers.
7. Charley Pride
Among the musicians on this list, Charley Pride holds a number of unique accolades, along with a history of breaking down racial and cultural barriers. Charley Pride was born in the segregated South in 1934, 50 miles from Memphis. When he was 14, he bought his first guitar with the money he earned from picking cotton. But being a musician wasn’t his only dream. When he was 16, he left home to play baseball. After playing for various teams professionally for nearly 10 years (while simultaneously performing in clubs), Pride caught his break in music when Chet Atkins heard his tape and got him a contract at RCA Records.
In 1967, Pride performed at the Grand Ole Opry, making him one of only three Black members to play on that stage. The peak of his career as a musician came in the 1970s when he became the best-selling performer for his record label since Elvis Presley and had 52 Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. He died in 2020 due to complications related to COVID-19.
8. Chet Atkins
In the ranks of Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list, Chet Atkins is a monolith among country musicians. As a disciple of country legend Merle Travis, Atkins expanded upon Travis’ fingerpicking style, using three fingers for the melody, and his thumb for the base. This method allowed him to create complicated arrangements that influenced musicians well beyond the country sphere, including Eric Clapton and George Harrison.
Born in Tennessee in 1924, Atkins rose to fame after getting the attention of RCA Victor and eventually going on to be a part of the famous Carter Family, an act that included pioneering guitarist and autoharpist Maybelle Carter. Atkins is often credited for pioneering the Nashville Sound, a movement that revitalized country music. Beyond his recognition as a solo artist, Atkins spent much of his career producing records for other significant country musicians, including Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, Elvis Presley, and many more.
9. Maybelle Carter
A list of this nature wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of “Mother” Maybelle Carter, who was perhaps the matriarch of country music and arguably the most emulated guitarist of all time.
Born in Virginia in 1909, by the time she was 12, Carter—née Addington until she married E.J. Carter when she was 17—was both a skilled guitarist and autoharpist, honing her craft early on the traditional hill-country songs of the region. In 1927, the Carter Family was formed, a group of musicians that included A.P. Carter, her brother-in-law, and Sara Carter, her cousin and A.P. Carter’s wife. As the first commercial group to popularize rural country music, the group became widely respected in the Grand Ole Opry community.
But what really made the group stand out, and what would solidify Carter’s pioneering legacy, was Carter’s style of playing known as the “Carter Scratch.” Up until then, the guitar had been used as a rhythm instrument. Carter’s method involved using her thumb to play a melody on the three bass strings while simultaneously using her index finger to strum the rhythm on the three treble strings. This technique—using the instrument to play rhythm, melody, and bass—shifted the guitar onto center stage as a lead instrument in country music and genres beyond.
Who Inspires You?
When learning a new skill, especially an instrument with a rich legacy and well-documented history, it can be useful to study the masters whose unique talents propelled the craft. It’s impossible to imagine the journey of fingerpicking without Maybelle Carter or Jerry Reed, rock ‘n’ roll rhythm without Johnny Cash, and songwriting with Dolly Parton. Studying the techniques of the greats not only can advance your level of playing, but inspire you as you find your own groove.
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