Taking advantage of the upcoming birthday of our beloved Bert Jansch, we are going to make a short list of great acoustic guitarists. We will choose guitarists whose main instrument was/is the acoustic, so we will leave aside people as apt as Jimmy Page and Richard Thompson, who are related or close to the world of rock or similar genres (blues, folk, country…), and leaving out jazz giants or flamenco greats (if not, Paco de Lucia and Django Reinhardt would be here).
Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911 - August 16, 1938)
Robert Leroy Johnson (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) was a young fellow who used to hang around the great Mississippi bluesmen like Charley Patton and Son House, nobody paid him any attention, nor did he ask for much, so nobody gave it any importance when he disappeared for a few months. When he came back, all eyes and mainly ears were on him. Who could believe that this kid went from being a novice to an absolute guitar master. It seemed so supernatural that a rumour began to spread that he had made a pact with the devil, giving up his soul in exchange for becoming simply the best blues musician. With a grin, Johnson didn’t bother to dispel these rumours and began to record things like Crossroads Blues, Me and the Devil’s Blues, and Hellbound on My Trail. His impact between the rest of bluesmen was similar to what Jimi Hendrix would have on rock some decades later. He took something old and created a whole new thing. After his death under suspicious circumstances (it all seems to point to a jealous husband that did the devil’s work), a young Keith Richards still thought that there were 2 guitarists that appeared on his 27 legendary songs. And Johnson’s music is so good, it’s hard to disentangle it from the legend.
Guitars: In the 2 only photographs of him, possibly a 3rd, Robert Johnson has what appears to be a Kalamazoo KG-14 and a Gibson L-1 from 1929, from which the brand started making the L-1 Robert Johnson Signature in 1994.
Recommended Discography: King of the Delta Blues: The Complete Recordings (1997)
John Fahey (February 28, 1939 – February 22, 2001)
John Fahey is one of the most complex personalities in music, and possibly the most important figure in acoustic guitar in the 2nd half of the 20th century. When asked why he took up the guitar he answered that in his neighbourhood there were older boys who got to flirt with girls thanks to their playing the guitar, so he decided to give it a try. According to him, he never got the girls, nevertheless, he learned how to play the guitar. Indeed he did, his personal style which lifted many things from the original acoustic blues, such as open and special tunings, mixing it with dissonant elements more from classic and avant-garde composers, it was named by himself as ‘American primitivism’, and with hardly any commercial repercussions, he managed to get anyone who decided to play an acoustic guitar half seriously to have an obligatory ‘stop over’ at his extensive work. His work took him to many fields, always worth it due to his special sensibilities. He was one of the biggest innovators of acoustic guitar getting back to rescuing traditional forms but adding a modern layer on top. His legacy has only but grown since his death, an irony not overlooked by the man who introduced himself at times as Blind Joe Death to make fun of those snobs who were looking for obscure old ‘bluesmen’, those for whom the word ‘dead’ made them dispose of money.
Guitars: Fahey never had a guitar fetish, but his most remembered instrument was the Gibson Recording King from the 30s, used on many recordings from the late 60s. He also used others like a Bacon, and Day Senorita, or a Martin D-28.
Recommended discography: The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965), The Voice of the Turtle (1968), The Yellow Princess (1969), Return of the Repressed; The John Fahey Anthology
Bert Jansch (November 3, 1943 - October 5, 2011)
To a certain extent Bert Jansch is the English equivalent of John Fahey, although this guy enjoyed much bigger a life of recognition than the American. When talking about him 2 things always came up, the first was that Jimmy Page took his arrangement to the traditional folk song Blackwaterside, and turned it into an instrumental on Led Zeppelin’s first album, called Black Mountain Side. The second was when they asked Neil Young who his favourite guitarist was and he said without hesitation, “Bert Jansch is the best acoustic guitarist, and certainly my favourite. On electric I would say Jimi Hendrix. (...) But Bert Jansch is at the same level as Jimi”. Those are the 2 stories that the whole world brings up (and I just did) but what we mustn’t forget is that Jansch is much more than an exceptional guitar player, he is also a magnificent composer. A guy who has written such moving songs as Needle of Death or Poison; besides being an influence in the careers of others including Nick Drake, Donovan, Paul Simon, Johnny Marr, or the 2 fellows mentioned at the top of this piece. However, without a doubt, his deepest fingerprint was left on the 6-string acoustic.
Guitars: His essential first album was recorded with a borrowed Martin 000-28. Others were, a John Bailey Custom, a Yamaha FG 1500, and Yamaha LL11.
Recommended discography: Bert Jansch (1965), Birthday Blues (1969), L.A. Turnaround (1974), When the Circus Comes to Town (1995), The Dazzling Stranger (2002). Con Pentangle: Sweet Child (1968), Basket Of Light (1969)
Joni Mitchell (November 7, 1943)
Apart from excellent musicians and guitarists, the 10 people selected to be on this list are excellent artists on their own account, but Joni Mitchell is the biggest of them all. An excellent singer and prodigious composer, her work is among the most illustrious in the 20th century (her album Blue was chosen as the best album ever by a female artist by NPR). But this doesn’t mean we can’t highlight Joni as an innovative guitarist by her own account, using different tunings (some 50, many of them her own), which she herself baptised as “Joni’s weird chords”. Her expertise is such that, in the late 70s, she collaborated closely with jazz giants like Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and the very Charles Mingus. Of course her style also served as an inspiration for players as varied as Led Zeppelin (who dedicated her the song Going to California), and Prince.
Guitars: Joni has always said that her favourite guitar was the Martin D-28 from 1956, which she got in 1966 through a veteran on the Vietnam war. With it, she cut her first records until Court and Spark, when it was stolen.
Recommended discography: Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972), Court And Spark (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976)
John Renbourn (August 8, 1945 - March 26, 2015)
The soul twin of Bert Jansch, with whom he shared the band in the Pentangle seminars. If the Americans have Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, The English have the rich medieval folklore and Renbourn was the most capable when it came to rescuing it. Of course his interest went beyond that, with a nod to the blues, classical and jazz. Not surprisingly, he was one of the first English musicians to play the sitar. Pure class, his work with Jansch are a mandatory study for those interested in the acoustic world.
Guitars: The guitar most associated to him was the Gibson J-50, used with Pentangle (where he also played a Gibson ES-335 electric). Others, a Guild D-55, a Franklin OM.
Recommended discography: There You Go (1965), The Black Balloon (1979), The Essential: The Best of John Renbourn.
Leo Kottke (September 11, 1945)
Kottke is John Fahey’s most outstanding student, for whose label Takoma he recorded the album which made him well known, the fundamental 6 and 12 String Guitar, released in 1971. His style, mainly with a 12-string, it based on the blues and folk, but adding polyphonic and syncopated melodies. A master of his instrument that serves to unite the ‘primitivism’ of Fahey to the ethereal explorations of Michael Hedges.
Guitars: His favourite was a 12-string Gibson B-45. He has a custom model of his own, the Taylor Leo Kottke 12-string.
Recommended discography: 6 and 12 String Guitar (1971), My Feet Are Smiling (1973), The Best (1976)
Nick Drake (June 19, 1948 - November 24, 1974)
At times it’s hard to separate the sad story of Nick Drake from his music. If Drake had triumphed in life and wouldn’t have taken his own life at 26, his music would keep touching people anyway, being the perfect soundtrack to the melancholy. To this day where hundreds of bands and performers have tried to sound like him, it’s hard to imagine that his 3 masterful albums were completely ignored when they were released. It had it all, some memorable songs, a perfect performer for them, some incredible musicians (luminaries of British folk/rock such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle), and a dream of a producer, Joe Boyd. As a guitarist, he was in the Jansch school but his chord progressions were closer to the Beatles, and his tone was absolutely personal, an extension of his tortured personality. Just like his voice, and his strumming, his songs are brief puffs of sadness and melancholy capable of touching and soothing the soul.
Guitars: On the cover of Bryter Layter he appears with a Guild M20, but, as in his whole life, his guitar interest remains a mystery. The most likely were a Martin D28, or a 000-28, a Guild M20 (different from the one on the cover) and a Yamaha classical.
Recommended discography: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), Pink Moon (1972)
John Martyn (September 11, 1948 – January 29, 2009)
Although reduced to the label of singer/songwriter, the reach of John Martyn’s music is vast, he was one of the first to combine the electric bass and drums with the acoustic guitar, giving his folk a strong jazzy character, as can be heard on his masterpiece Solid Air, a song dedicated to his mate Nick Drake. But he also opened himself to other genres, like combing Celtic licks with techniques close to Jamaican dub with a wink to Brazilian and Flamenco music. As a guitarist, he was equally innovative with his acoustic guitar always willing to experiment with pickups, and amps, using a pedalboard fitted with a Big Muff, a Mutron III or a Phase 100. Or his well-known use of the Echoplex which allowed him to add original effects like the ones he used in his cover of Devil Got My Woman by Skip James.
Guitars: In an interview in the 70s he admitted he only had a Martin D-28, with a DeArmond pickup for electric effects, and a Barcus-Berry for the acoustics, and a Les Paul.
Recommended discography: Bless the Weather (1971), Solid Air (1973), One World (1977)
Michael Hedges (December 31, 1953 - December 2, 1997)
If Michael Hedges had only released Aerial Boundaries, that would be enough to get on this list. It’s incredible how one man with one guitar managed to do this, but beyond the technical exhibition, it is a wonderfully beautiful song. His entire work revolves around alternative tunings and his guitar technique was absolutely brilliant with all kinds of innovative tricks, from his strumming methods to including ‘slap harmonics’. His music was influenced by John Martyn and the Beatles, but also by classic composers like Stravinsky and Varèse. Stars such as Pete Townshend, Steve Vai and Alvin Lee have sung their praises.
Guitars: His Martin D-28 from ’71, nicknamed Barbara, had a magnetic Sunrise S-1 pickup and a FRAP pickup. Others: A Ken DuBourg 1978 Custom, a Martin J-65M, a Lowden L-250, a Takamine custom…
Recommended discography: Breakfast in the Field (1981), Aerial Boundaries (1984), Best of Michael Hedges (2000)
Kaki King (August 24, 1979)
The youngest on the list caused a whole revolution in the acoustic world with the release of her first album, Everybody Loves You in 2003, where the lovely Night After Sidewalk appears, with little more than her Ovation acoustic. Her career has been growing and expanding with time, even daring to sing, coming to be included in Rolling Stone’s list of ‘new Guitar Gods’ (where she was the only woman and the youngest). Her style is as emotional as Fahey’s, as energetic as Kottke’s, and has nothing to envy to Hedges’ technique. One of the most brilliant living guitarists.
Guitars: Her own model, the Ovation Adamas Kaki King Signature 1581-KK. Others: Veillette Guitars Gryphon 12-string.
Recommended discography: Everybody Loves You (2003), Until We Felt Red (2006)