12 Bluegrass Guitar Players with a Signature Tone

The grass is always greener on the other side, a quite common cliche phrase that is oh so true when it comes to acoustic guitar tone. As guitarists we always seem to envy another guitarists instrument and or tone. I am pretty sure at whatever level you find yourself at this is a pretty common scenario, so that being the case, I went ahead and bit the bullet and composed a list of pro bluegrass flat pickers who’s tone is out of this world. I am sure these pickers have had more than one player thinking of starting bon fire with their instruments… ok I am not recommending that by any means, and really what I mean to say is that these players are a true inspiration and they are folks you should really listen to and learn their approach. Enjoy this list of 12 hot pickers that may as well be mayors, or at least the city council of toneland.

1. Tony Rice

There is just something about a 1935 D28… and that something is multiplied into the stratosphere when in the hands of a flat picking master like Tony Rice. The tone that Mr. Rice pulls out of that old herringbone is something of an acoustic lover’s dream. It is crispy with sharp attack, yet smooth and silky… dare I equate it to melted caramel. An inspiring player on an incredible guitar. Essential Listening – Blackberry Blossom

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2. David Grier

He seems to have a right hand tone generator, but all I can tell is that he is holding a pick. Here is a player that shows incredible dynamic range, control, and overall right hand prowess. The tone he pulls from his dread is distinct, clear and fat. Almost like the notes are dripping with the musical equivalent of bacon grease… those notes happen to have that same bacon crunch too. Detailed, detailed, detailed a phenomenal player to listen to. Essential Listening – Angeline the Baker

3. Kenny Smith

A very tasteful player, with some really intricate, but not overpowering licks. Kenny’s softer right hand approach pulls some really amazing nuances out of any instrument he holds. He has wonderful power, but also great restraint, he bobs and weaves his licks in and out of tunes like a heavy weight champion. Kenny uses some really inventive chord voicings and pairs that with outstanding right hand control. Essential Listening – Song for Emily

4. Norman Blake

Talk about right hand prowess… Norman Blake possesses the ability to hold down chord shapes and within them pick out melodies with the precision a brain surgeon would need. He has wonderful tone and really brings out the woodiness and warmth in any guitar that he holds. He always plays just the right amount and is always so tasteful and complimentary to the musical situation. When he plays solo it seems like an orchestra is backing him… but upon further review, it’s just him. Essential Listening

5. Clarence White

So that whole 1935 D28 that Tony Rice now plays… well here is the original owner. Yep Clarence owned what is now Tony Rice’s D28 and man did he make it sing. Clarence really helped define and outline what i snow modern flatpicking. His infusion of the blues and his ease of play is what bluegrass dreams are made of. A must know bluegrass guitarist that sometimes goes unnoticed. Essential Listening

6. Bryan Sutton

Wow… all I can say is wow… Bryan is extremely precise, extremely exact, extremely musical, extremely tasteful, and just plain extremely good. Bryan has the right hand technique that is like a bluegrass vision quest and his note selection and speed with which he does so is unmatched, but really most importantly is that he plays too the song so well… never over plays just does the song justice. A player you must know for sure. Essential Listening

7. Dan Tyminski

Known mostly for his involvement with Alison Kraus and Union Station, Dan is quite the musician. With a killer bluegrass voice, incredible chops, and a smile that just makes you want to go have a beer with him Dan is one hell of a musician. His old Martin is a cannon and he does it justice; his use of drop D tuning and his smooth picking make him a guitarist that you should definitely be aware of… and his tone is ridiculously amazing… Essential Listening

8. Courtney Hartman

Guitarist in the band Dell Mae, Courtney can literally not only melt hearts but faces as well… She is a phenomenal young flatpicker. listening to her you can hear the influence of Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Doc Waton, Russ Barenberg and pretty much all of the usual suspects. The wonderful thing though is that she puts her spin on everything, although influenced by the greats she has a style and tone all of her own that you must hear. Essential Listening

9. Chris Eldridge

Smooth chops and always inventive… a mad scientist of the bluegrass guitar if you will. Chris has played with the Infamous Stringdusters as well as the Punch Brothers. As a part of the latter group he really creates wonderful textures and is the type of player that elevates any band. He is a ninja of sorts… a bluegrass guitar ninja… maybe he will coin the term bluginja??? Whatever you want to call him he is a ridiculously good flat picker and someone you need to hear!!! Essential Listening

10.) Lester Flatt

…G run… that’s it, that’s all you need. Lester is the ultimate rhythm guy in terms of tone, timing, taste, and technique. He wore a thumbpick, but played a pivotal role in bluegrass rhythm guitar, a must know, a must hear… and one more time for good measure… the G run… enough said. Essential Listening

11. Russ Barenberg 

Whatever style Russ is plying in he does it well. His J45 although not a first call for many flat pickers has the tone, the punch, the volume, and the thing that all flat pickers look for in the perfect guitar. His inventive solos along with immaculately perfect technique propel him into the flat picking hall of greats. If he were a knight he would be at the round table for sure. Often an unsung hero, but someone that needs to be known. Essential Listening

12. Doc Watson

Two notes into a Doc Watson solo you just know that it is him. His timing, his licks are all uniquely Doc. I love his use of chromatics and his wonderful reverence for the melody. A bluegrass guitar class act for certain and a carrier of the torch. His repertoire of classic tunes seems unending as does his inventive solo ideas. If you haven’t heard Doc you need to, if you have heard Doc you still need to. Enjoy this icon!!! Essential Listening


  1. Profile photo of michael b
    michael b

    Uwe Kruger is another guitar great, and for eye & ear candy Molly Tuttle is a sure bet!

    1. Profile photo of Tony P
      Tony P Post author


      Great additions right here!!! Nice!!!


  2. Nick McLean

    My personal favorite: Clay Jones. Guy as an absolute monster on the flattop. I think he’s more precise, technical, faster, and plays with better tone than even Bryan Sutton.

  3. Slim Smith

    Merle Travis. Paging Merle Travis.

    1. Profile photo of Tony P
      Tony P Post author


      LOL Stay tuned for the next lineup 🙂


  4. Larry M Clark

    My favorite Bluegrass Rhythm Guitarist is Red Smiley. His runs behind Don Reno’s banjo were always the best.

    1. Profile photo of Tony P
      Tony P Post author


      Don’t worry all… this isn’t the definitive list… just one of many to come… stay tuned 🙂


  5. John

    Where’s Red Allen, Tim Stafford, Earl Scruggs, Ron Block, Del McCoury, Pete Rowan, Jimmy Martin, Dale Sledd, Dave Dillion, and Edd Mayfield?? just seems odd to leave them off….I’m sure there are more.

    1. Profile photo of Tony P
      Tony P Post author


      Wait, wait, wait…. who says this wasn’t going to be a series of lists… hehe 🙂 Stay tuned


  6. Mike

    Good list. I’d say Dan Crary belongs in the first tier.

  7. Profile photo of James G
    James G

    This is a great list, and a real “value added” benefit of TAC. Thanks.

  8. Profile photo of Thaddeus W
    Thaddeus W

    This was excellent and a inspiration! I’ll be watching it again. Thank you for putting it together .

  9. Profile photo of Dennis J M
    Dennis J M

    Excellent job putting this list together, Tony. I recently heard a recording of Blackberry Blossom with Tony Rice, Norman Blake, AND Doc Watson playing together. Best version ever.

  10. Profile photo of Lou Q
    Lou Q

    Thank you for putting this together. It is an awesome musical lesson and inspiration.

  11. Profile photo of Vic G
    Vic G

    Great list Tony. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of the artists live and to your point, they’re unique in their own rights, and are phenomenal. I’d like to add Molly Tuttle to your list, and of course, Nathan Moody :-D.

  12. Profile photo of Tony P
    Tony P Post author

    Thank you every one who has commented so far!!! I am glad you all dig this list and are finding some old favorites as well as some new ones on here as well. You havea ll inspired me to give fingerpickers the same treatment 🙂 Coming soon for sure!!!


  13. Profile photo of Greg W
    Greg W

    Great list! Ive put Kenny Smith playing Angeline the Baker on repeat many times driving home.

  14. Profile photo of Daryl M
    Daryl M

    I’m basking in Bluegrass heaven right now!!! 🙂 Great lineup, Tony… I enjoyed seeing some of my favorites, as well as learning of some I’ve never heard of.

  15. Profile photo of Heidi H
    Heidi H

    12 “must know” musicians for sure! 😀

    Became a fan of Courtney Hartman from the first time I saw a video of Della Mae performing! 😀 She has so much versatility in her playing (and singing), and not “just” about how fast/how many notes to squeeze in, but rather what sounds best for the SONG! 😀

    Had forgotten about Dan Tyminski, but what an enjoyable musician to listen to! 😀 Would love to listen to full concerts/albums of his. 😀

    Kenny Smith and Russ Barenburg would be my other two “favorites” from this “lucky dozen”! 😀 I know Tony Rice is an amazing “picker”, and enjoy some of his stuff a lot too. However, while I can admire and appreciate the dexterity, speed, and other skills exhibited in some of the other artists, whether due to the particular song, the “singer” or whatever, a lot of that loud, twangy, everything played as fast as possible and super heavy on the banjo stuff is NOT something I enjoy listening to. That’s why it’s great to have so MANY CHOICES of artists, songs, arrangements, styles and instruments to accommodate different people’s tastes! 😀 And even if something isn’t my “favorite”, or something I’d choose to listen to more than once, the “exposure” to other styles, songs, techniques is still a learning tool, and helps broaden my music “palate”! 😀

  16. Profile photo of Charlie D
    Charlie D

    Thanks, Tony. This is great. I am not very familiar with bluegrass, but this is a great survey of some amazing players. Great tone and technique. It also gives me an idea of some of the songs to work on from the list of songs we have available. Hearing them play just steepened the learning curve to about a 90 degree angle…

  17. Profile photo of James Smith@kwic.com
  18. Profile photo of Tony

    Tony – this was a really interesting and informative topic. I’d heard of several of these players, but I was not familiar with others. I have lots of homework to do in terms of watching youtube videos and iTunes purchases! I liked this topic a lot, and would also like to see a similar topic on some of your recommended fingerpickers. Really appreciate the chance to expand my knowledge of great guitar players! Excellent topic!!!

  19. Profile photo of TomD

    Thank you for putting videos with the players!!!

    BTW- I love Tony Rice, but his comment of ‘let’s look at this real slow,’… I guess “slow” has a little different meaning for everyone.

    Great page!!

    1. Profile photo of Tony

      I’m glad you said that Tom. I laughed when I watched him play it “real slow” too. I could only hope to work up to his “real slow” tempo! I was hoping I wasn’t the only one.

  20. Profile photo of Rich C
    Rich C

    This is great Tony. All of these people are truly guitar picking bluegrass virtuosos in their own right. Glad you shared them with us. I am not sitting here in absolute amazement, wondering how they ever got their left and right hands to move so fast and still hit all the right notes. Mind boggling. Thinking my guitar practice time needs to double or triple up if I am ever going to get anywhere with it relative to these talented musicians. My single biggest barrier is memory. With all of those notes strung together, how the heck do you get all of that into memory? Is it memorizing and then repeating specific patterns?

  21. Profile photo of James H
    James H

    Thanks for putting this informative feature up.This will really help getting more familiar with different styles of Bluegrass playing based upon your recommendations,and help us develop our own Bluegrass tone.
    There is a nice plaque honoring Lester Flatt in Sparta Tennessee,his hometown.I see it every year when I am in the area,and it always brings a smile to my face.Cheers!!

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