Our quarantine music binge is still going full-speed here at GuitarHead! And there’s been more than a hint of rural Americana drifting out of the office speakers this week...
Country music doesn't get a massive amount of press outside of America, despite long-time fans of this amazing style living throughout the world. But for any guitarists that have never thought about the genre much beyond listening to a bit of Johnny Cash or Steve Earl (both of whom we love), there are sooooo many good reasons to explore the wealth of material that’s drifted out of Nashville over the past hundred years. Some of the greatest developments in solo and rhythm playing came from country music, which itself was one of the main driving forces behind the emergence of Rock’n’Roll...
So once again it’s time to make the most of lockdown, break out your chosen music streaming platform, and get to know these ten amazing players...
Merle Travis (1917-1983)
If you’ve ever wondered where the term “Travis picking” came from then look no further. Merle Travis is the man responsible for some of the greatest early songs in country & western (‘Sixteen Tons’ is a particular favourite around the GuitarHead office), many of which are regarded as standards in the genre. But it’s his syncopated fingerpicking style, thumbing through bass notes and chords whilst the index finger covered the melody, that’s inspired pretty much every great country guitarist since. Which makes him one of the most influential guitarists ever, and certainly someone you NEED to listen to.
Chet Atkins (1924-2001)
Probably Merle Travis’s most famous disciple, ranked #21 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list, and officially the most recorded guitarist in the history of country music. Chet Atkins expanded Travis picking into a legendary fingerstyle technique that used three fingers along with the thumb to create some of the most exquisite guitar music ever produced, which frequently incorporates jazz, blues, and rock’n’roll styles into the mix. The ‘Country Gent’ (a nickname based on his fondness for the Gretsch 6122) also proved a huge influence on players beyond the country genre, including George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Mark Knopfler amongst many others.
Luther Perkins (1928-1968)
Luther Perkins guitar playing existed at the polar opposite end of the complexity spectrum from Chet Atkins, but it’s the wonderful simplicity of his style that makes him so important to the history of country guitar playing. The raw, crisp tone of his Fender Esquire (on which neither the tone or volume control actually worked!) was nearly always played with light palm muting in his hugely distinctive “Boom-chicka-boom” pattern, backing Johnny Cash throughout most of his recordings, and coincidentally acting as a great influence on the development of rockabilly. Perkins was also famed for an unflinchingly terse stage demeanour, frequently mocked by Cash – i.e. “Luther's been dead for years, but he just doesn't know it".
Hank Garland (1930-2004)
We’ve already covered the genius of Hank Garland in our "9 Guitarists You've Listened To But Never Heard Of" article about session musicians, and his contributions to country music definitely earn him a pivotal position in this list. Best known for his studio work with Elvis Presley, Garlands position within the “A-Team” of Nashville session players saw him working with Don Gibson, Patsy Cline and numerous other country greats during the 1950s. And his reputation went beyond guitar playing and songwriting - it was Gibson who approached Hank when it came to design ideas for the Byrdland guitar, not the other way around!
Roy Clark (1933-2018)
Despite his substantial talents on guitar, banjo, violin and vocals, it was his showmanship (more specifically, in his own words, the ability to “clown around”) that unequivocally earn Roy Clark a position of importance in this article. His abilities as an entertainer, comic, singer, writer, and instrumentalist combined were key to his long and illustrious television career - most notably as host of Hee Haw between 1969-1997 – which probably did more to popularise the country music genre with young Americans than every mainstream TV music show combined. Check out any of the many clips of his playing on YouTube and you’ll immediately see why.
Willie Nelson (1933-present)
At 87 years old and still rockin’, albeit in his idiosyncratically laid-back way, Willie Nelson definitely ranks as the top ‘living legend’ in this list. Primarily a rhythm guitar strummer and vocalist, he’s been churning out country hits since the mid 1950’s (usually incorporating a subtle dose of folks, blues and jazz), many of which are viewed as standards today. He’s also practically unique within the country music genre for favouring a gut-string guitar rather than a steel-strung instrument. His Martin N-20 classical, named “Trigger”, is nearly as legendary as its owner for being possibly the most patched-up working instrument in music, and has defined Nelson’s signature sound since 1969.
Glenn Campbell (1936-2017)
Another session playing legend, but this time from the LA “Wrecking Crew” collective of musical geniuses, Glen Campbell didn’t take long to move from being a hired studio gun to becoming a huge solo artist in his own right. His 6-string skills shone out along with his vocals, frequently and skilfully blurring the lines between country and mainstream pop music. And with 64 albums released over five decades (one double platinum, four platinum, twelve gold), four Grammys (including lifetime achievement in 2012), and a number of various country music awards, it’s fair to regard him as one of the most visible successes ever to work in the genre.
Albert Lee (1943-present)
Flying the flag for Great Britain on our list is hybrid picking and fingerstyle genius Albert Lee – 5-time recipient of Guitar Player magazine’s “Best Country Guitarist” award. In a career spanning a number of genres since 1959, he’s worked with country giants including Emmylou Harris, Carlene Carter, and The Everley Brothers - who were, incidentally, one of his own early musical influences - generally in a session or musical direction role rather than as a frontman. This hasn’t stopped him being known as “the guitar player’s guitar player”, or dissuaded Ernie Ball Music Man from producing an Albert Lee signature model electric – one of the coolest-shaped instruments ever made.
Keith Urban (1967-present)
A native of New Zealand, multi-instrumentalist and singer Keith Urban began his music career as one of the leading lights within the Australian country scene, signing to EMI there in 1990. His subsequent move to Nashville unleashed his phenomenal skills on Americas country music heartland, since when he’s been unstoppable. Alongside some blistering guitar work on his own and other people’s releases, he’s picked up numerous awards (Grammy’s, ARIA’s, Country Music Association, you name it), judging positions on The Voice and American Idol, and the actress Nicole Kidman – who he married in 2006.
Brad Paisley (1972-present)
Fantastically progressive, but retaining a feel of tradition that harks all the way back to Merle Travis, we end our list with the jaw-dropping guitar and vocal talent of Brad Paisley. His 22-year career has so far involved 12 studio albums, 46 singles (all but two of which have made the Billboard Hot Country top 20, and 19 of which hit #1), a White House performance for President Obama, a number of songs for the Disney/Pixar Cars films, and more Grammy’s/CMA’s/AMA’s and other awards than we’ve got space to print here. Paisley himself lays the thanks for all this at the feet of his grandfather, from who he received his first guitar and lessons at the tender age of eight. I’m typing this whilst listening to his solo on She’s Her Own Woman, and have to say that I’d like to thank Brad’s grandfather as well!
Wrapping it up
That’s your lot – just a brief glimpse at a fascinating musical landscape that’s churned out some mind-blowing talent. Country music can be as simple or as complicated as you want, but it tends to involve some brilliant guitar work at either end of that scale. So, unless you can genuinely think of something better to do whilst in lockdown, go and check it out! Until next time......Peace out!