From Traditional Country to Modern Sound: Evolution of Acoustic Guitarists in Country Bands

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As the quintessential instrument of country music, the acoustic guitar has played a vital role in shaping the sound and style of the genre over the decades. From the early pioneers of the 1940s and 1950s to the contemporary stars of today, the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands has been a fascinating journey. Through various influences, technological advancements, and changing musical tastes, these performers have left an indelible mark on the landscape of country music. Join us as we take a deep dive into the rich history of country guitarists and explore their impact on the culture and art form of this beloved genre.

1940s-1950s: The Golden Age of Country Music and Country Guitarists

1940S-1950S: The Golden Age Of Country Music And Country Guitarists
The 1940s and 1950s are considered the Golden Age of Country Music, and for a good reason. During this time, some of the most iconic country guitarists emerged, shaping the sound of the genre for years to come. From the Carter Family to Merle Travis, the period was marked by the emergence of guitar signatures and techniques which would become the pillars of country music. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands throughout the 1940s and 1950s, exploring the impact these pioneering musicians had on the genre. No doubt, this era set the groundwork for the genre’s future success, and we will uncover the secrets behind the fantastic collaborations and successes of the country’s most prominent guitarists. If you’re interested in the top acoustic guitarists of country bands or want to explore the techniques and solos that made country music stand out, you can check our guide to acoustic guitarists in modern country music.

The Carter Family

The Carter Family was one of the most influential groups in country music history, as they helped define the genre in its early days. Hailing from Virginia, the group consisted of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle. A.P. was the primary songwriter, while Sara and Maybelle provided the vocals and guitar accompaniment, respectively.

Maybelle Carter was known for her innovative guitar playing style, which involved a unique combination of bass runs, strumming, and melody. This technique became known as the “Carter scratch” or “Carter style,” and it influenced countless guitarists in the years to come. Maybelle’s use of the thumbpick and fingers to create a full, rhythmic sound was groundbreaking, and it added a new dimension to the acoustic guitar’s role in country music.

The Carter Family’s influence on country music cannot be overstated. Their songs, such as “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep On The Sunny Side,” were deeply rooted in traditional folk music and helped shape the sound of early country music. They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and remain an important part of country music history.

If you’re interested in learning more about acoustic guitarists in country bands, check out our list of the top 10 acoustic guitarists. You can also read about some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into being a successful acoustic guitarist in a country band, or learn about different techniques that you can use to improve your playing. And if you’re a fan of collaborations, check out our article on iconic country guitar collaborations and discover some new sounds.

Merle Travis

Merle Travis was an influential country guitarist in the 1940s and 1950s, known for his unique fingerpicking style that blended elements of ragtime, blues, and traditional folk music. His signature style of playing was often referred to as the “Travis pick,” which employed a steady alternating bass pattern played with the thumb while the fingers picked out a melody on the high strings.

Travis is best known for his song “Sixteen Tons,” which became a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in the 1950s. The song showcased Travis’s ability to tell a story through his lyrics and capture the spirit of working-class Americans. His songwriting and guitar playing were revered by his peers and inspired generations of musicians to come.

Travis’s impact on country music can still be felt today, with many contemporary country guitarists citing him as an influence. His legacy lives on through the many artists who continue to incorporate his style of playing into their music.

Some of his most notable songs include “Divorce Me C.O.D.,” “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” and “Re-Enlistment Blues.” He was also known for his instrumental pieces such as “Cannonball Rag” and “Saturday Night Shuffle,” which showcased his virtuosity on the guitar.

Travis’s influence on the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands cannot be overstated. His use of the alternating bass pattern and fingerpicking style paved the way for future generations of guitarists to explore and experiment with the instrument. For those who want to learn more about the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands over the decades, check out our article on best acoustic solos in country bands.

1960s-1970s: Nashville Sound and Crossroads

1960S-1970S: Nashville Sound And Crossroads
The 1960s and 1970s were a period of musical transition marked by the emergence of new styles and sounds. Country music was no exception, as it underwent significant changes during this time. The Nashville Sound and Crossroads were two major movements that shaped the evolution of country music, bringing a new generation of musicians to the forefront. These artists relied on the acoustic guitar to create unique sounds and signatures that would become iconic in the genre. In this section, we will explore the impact of these movements on the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands. Let’s dive in and discover how these musicians contributed to shaping the country music landscape.

Chet Atkins

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Nashville Sound emerged in country music, and with it, a new generation of guitarists. One of the most influential players of this era was Chet Atkins, who not only played guitar but also produced records for some of the biggest names in Nashville. He was known for his fingerstyle guitar playing, which utilized a unique combination of thumbpick and fingers to create a smooth, sophisticated sound.

Atkins was born in Tennessee in 1924, and his early musical influences ranged from the blues of Blind Boy Fuller to the jazz of Django Reinhardt. He first gained fame as a session musician in the 1950s, playing on records for Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and others. In the 1960s, he started his own solo career, releasing albums that showcased his virtuosic guitar playing and innovative use of studio technology.

One of Atkins’ most famous compositions is “Yakety Axe,” a fast-paced instrumental that features his signature fingerpicking and use of harmonics. The song became a hit in 1965 and remains a favorite of guitarists to this day. Atkins’ influence can be heard in the playing of countless other guitarists, including Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Jerry Reed, who recorded an album with Atkins in 1970.

Chet Atkins was a trailblazer and innovator in the world of country guitar. His fingerstyle playing and use of studio technology helped to shape the Nashville Sound, which would go on to influence generations of country musicians. Atkins’ legacy continues to be felt today, as guitarists and producers alike strive to capture the tone and style that he helped to create.

Birth June 20, 1924 in Luttrell, Tennessee, USA
Death June 30, 2001 in Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Main genres Country, Rockabilly, Jazz
Notable instruments Gibson Chet Atkins SST, Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, Martin D-18, Ovation Classical Guitar
Notable collaborators Elvis Presley, Mark Knopfler, Jerry Reed

Atkins paved the way for success of many contemporary country guitarists. Fueled by his accomplishments in this era, more and more aspiring musicians turned to the guitar as their instrument of choice. Chet Atkins is no doubt one of the country band guitar signatures that will never be forgotten.

Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell was one of the most influential acoustic guitarists in country music during the 1960s and 1970s. He was known for his fingerpicking style and his ability to blend different genres, including country and pop.

Campbell first gained fame as a session musician in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. He played guitar on recordings by famous musicians like Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and Frank Sinatra. In 1967, he released his own solo album, “Gentle on My Mind”, which became a hit and established him as a solo artist.

Table: Discography of Glen Campbell

Album Year Released Label
Big Bluegrass Special 1962 Capitol Records
A New Place in the Sun 1968 Capitol Records
Wichita Lineman 1968 Capitol Records
Galveston 1969 Capitol Records
Rhinestone Cowboy 1975 Capitol Records

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Campbell released many successful albums and singles, including “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. He also hosted his own television show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour”, from 1969 to 1972.

Campbell’s guitar playing was celebrated for its intricate fingerpicking and smoothness. He was often compared to fellow guitarist Chet Atkins, who was a major influence on his playing style. In addition to his guitar playing, Campbell was also known for his smooth voice and his ability to infuse different genres into his music.

Sadly, Campbell passed away in 2017, but his influence on country music and acoustic guitar continues to be felt to this day. From his early days as a session musician to his successful solo career and iconic television show, Campbell remains a beloved figure in the history of country music and acoustic guitar playing.

Learn more about influential acoustic guitarists in country music here.

1980s-1990s: New Traditionalism and Alternative Country

1980S-1990S: New Traditionalism And Alternative Country
As the country music industry continued to evolve in the 1980s and 1990s, a new wave of acoustic guitarists emerged on the scene, eager to pave their own paths and explore alternative styles outside the mainstream. These artists carved out a unique niche within the larger country music landscape, embracing traditional sounds while also incorporating outside influences and rebellious attitudes. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most influential acoustic guitarists of this era, whose innovative techniques and distinctive sounds helped shape the course of country music for years to come.

Ricky Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs emerged as one of the most prominent acoustic guitarists in the 1980s during the new traditionalism movement, where musicians looked back to the roots of country music for inspiration. He was known for his virtuosic flatpicking style that drew from bluegrass and traditional country music.

Skaggs began his career as a child prodigy and recorded his first album at the age of 16. He gained recognition for his work as a sideman in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band before embarking on a successful solo career.

Some of Skaggs’ standout performances on the acoustic guitar include his solos on “Country Boy” and “Highway 40 Blues.” He not only showcased his technical prowess but also his ability to infuse his playing with emotion and feeling.

Skaggs’ impact on country music extended beyond his guitar playing. He was also known for his strong vocals and innovative approach to arranging traditional songs. He brought renewed attention to bluegrass music with his album “Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 1998.

Notable performances:

  • “Country Boy”
  • “Highway 40 Blues”
  • “Heartbroke”
  • “Crying My Heart Out Over You”
  • “Sally Goodin”

Skaggs’ influence can still be heard in the work of many contemporary acoustic guitarists in country music. His willingness to push boundaries while staying true to his traditional roots has made him a seminal figure in the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands.

Steve Earle

In the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of country guitarists emerged with a rebellious spirit, pushing the boundaries of what was considered traditional country music. Among them was Steve Earle, a singer-songwriter and master of the acoustic guitar.

Early Career and Influences

Born in Virginia in 1955, Steve Earle grew up in Texas and began playing guitar at a young age. As a teenager, he was heavily influenced by the music of folk troubadours like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt, as well as country legends such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Rise to Fame

Earle’s career took off in the mid-1980s when he signed with MCA Records and released his debut album, “Guitar Town,” which featured hit singles like “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” and the title track. With his rough, raspy voice and acoustic guitar chops, Earle became known for his gritty, heartfelt songs about everyday people and their struggles.

Impact on Country Guitarists

Earle’s guitar playing style drew from a range of influences, including bluegrass, rock, and folk. He often used alternate tunings and fingerpicking techniques to create intricate, layered sounds. His ability to blend different genres and styles inspired a new generation of country guitarists who were unafraid to experiment and challenge the status quo.

Let’s take a look at some of the techniques and stylistic elements that made Steve Earle’s guitar playing unique:

Technique/Stylistic Element Description
Alternate Tunings Earle frequently used alternate tunings to achieve different harmonic and melodic possibilities on the guitar.
Fingerpicking Earle was a skilled fingerpicker, often using a combination of Travis picking, clawhammer, and other techniques to create complex rhythms and textures.
Slide Guitar Earle occasionally incorporated slide guitar into his playing, adding a bluesy, soulful quality to his sound.
Dynamic Range Earle was adept at using the full dynamic range of the guitar, from soft, delicate passages to loud, aggressive strumming.

Steve Earle’s impact on country music and guitar playing cannot be overstated. His willingness to blend genres and push boundaries paved the way for a new generation of country guitarists who continue to innovate and evolve the genre today.

Doc Watson

Doc Watson, born in 1923, emerged as one of the most prominent guitarists in the late 1970s and 1980s. With a style deeply rooted in traditional folk and bluegrass, Watson was known for his flatpicking and fingerpicking techniques that he blended together seamlessly. He also incorporated elements of country and blues into his playing, making his sound unique.

What set Watson apart from other guitarists was his ability to blend melody and lead together. He was a master of playing guitar solos that were intricate and complex, yet still remained harmonious with the melody of the song. This was evident in his rendition of the classic folk tune, “Deep River Blues.”

Watson’s approach to the acoustic guitar inspired younger generations of musicians to experiment with their own styles. His influence can be heard in the playing of contemporary guitarists such as Bryan Sutton and David Grier.

Watson received many accolades throughout his career and was awarded seven Grammy awards. He also received a National Medal of Arts in 1997. Despite being blind since infancy, Watson continued to perform and record until his death in 2012 at the age of 89.

Doc Watson’s contributions to acoustic guitar playing are immeasurable. He brought a unique sound and style to the genre, and his influence can be heard in many of the guitarists who followed in his footsteps.

2000s-2010s: Modern Country and Contemporary Bluegrass

As the new millennium dawned and technology began advancing at an unprecedented pace, the music industry underwent significant changes. The 2000s-2010s marked a time of modernization and experimentation for country music and bluegrass, as artists incorporated new sounds and styles while staying true to their roots. In this section, we’ll explore some of the most influential acoustic guitarists of this era,whose innovative approaches to their craft helped shape the landscape of modern country and contemporary bluegrass.

Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley is one of the most prominent acoustic guitarists in modern country music. He has been in the limelight since his debut album “Who Needs Pictures” in 1999. Over the years, he has established himself as an exceptional songwriter and an instrumentalist.

Here are some intriguing facts about Brad Paisley:

Fact Description
Early Musical Career Brad started playing guitar at the age of 8 and went on to perform at various local events. When he was 13, he opened for country singer Ricky Skaggs in a concert.
Achievements Brad has won three Grammy Awards, 14 Country Music Association Awards, and 14 Academy of Country Music Awards.
Signature Style Brad’s music incorporates a mix of country, rock and roll, and blues, which gives his songs a unique flavor. He is known for his intricate fingerpicking, and his guitar solos are a treat to listen to.
Collaborations Brad has collaborated with several artists, including Keith Urban, Dolly Parton, and John Mayer. In 2013, he teamed up with Joe Walsh of the Eagles for a touching tribute to the veterans of the US Armed Forces.
Certified Guitar Player In 2008, Chet Atkins bestowed upon Brad the coveted title of “Certified Guitar Player”. Brad became the youngest inductee and the fourth artist to receive this honor, joining the likes of Tommy Emmanuel, Steve Wariner and Jerry Reed.
Philanthropy Brad is actively involved in several philanthropic activities. He has donated generously to charities that support cancer research, Alzheimer’s disease, and natural disaster relief efforts.

Brad Paisley is a gifted musician with a signature style that is difficult to replicate. He has set the bar high for other acoustic guitarists in the country music scene, and his contributions to the genre will be remembered for years to come.

Keith Urban

Keith Urban started his music career in Australia in the late 1980s before gaining fame in the United States in the 2000s. With his signature guitar riffs and soulful lyrics, he quickly became a staple on modern country radio. Here are some of his career highlights:

  • 1991: Urban released his self-titled debut album in his home country of Australia.
  • 1992: He won Best New Talent at the Australian Country Music Awards.
  • 1999: Urban released his first American album, featuring the hit single “It’s a Love Thing.”
  • 2001: He won his first Academy of Country Music Awards, including Top New Male Vocalist and Video of the Year for “But for the Grace of God.”
  • 2004: Urban won his first Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “You’ll Think of Me.”
  • 2005: His album “Be Here” sold over 2 million copies in the US alone and spawned three #1 hits.
  • 2013: Urban was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.
  • 2018: He won Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards.

Urban’s success as a country guitarist stems from his ability to blend various genres and techniques, from rock to bluegrass to fingerpicking. His skills on the guitar have earned him a spot on numerous “Greatest Guitarist” lists, and his live performances showcase his talent and versatility. Urban’s impact on country guitar will continue to be felt for years to come.

Alison Krauss

Alison Krauss is a well-known American bluegrass-country singer and fiddle player. She is one of the most awarded female artists in Grammy history, and her accomplishments in the country music industry are unparalleled. Krauss has been recognized for her exceptional fiddle-playing, soulful vocals, and songwriting abilities, all of which have earned her a loyal following among country music fans.

Krauss has been an influential figure in the modern development of bluegrass music, bringing a new style that is both traditional and innovative. Her music has been described as a blend of bluegrass, folk, country, and pop, and she has been praised for her ability to cross musical boundaries and appeal to a wide range of audiences.

Here are some of Alison Krauss’s notable achievements and contributions to the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands over the decades:

– Krauss has won 27 Grammy Awards, the most of any female artist in Grammy history, and only second to classical conductor Georg Solti overall.

– She has collaborated with a wide range of musicians, including Robert Plant, James Taylor, Brad Paisley, and Dolly Parton.

– Krauss’s album “Raising Sand,” a collaboration with Robert Plant, won Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards, and the single “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” won Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.

– She has been involved in several successful film soundtracks, including “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Cold Mountain.”

– Krauss played an important role in bringing bluegrass music to a wider audience through her work on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which sold over eight million copies.

– Her band, Union Station, features some of the best instrumentalists in bluegrass music, including Jerry Douglas on Dobro and Dan Tyminski on guitar and vocals.

Alison Krauss is a remarkable musician and performer who has made a significant impact on the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands over the decades. She has brought bluegrass music to a wider audience and has paved the way for new artists to explore and expand the genre. Krauss’s soulful vocals, exceptional fiddle-playing, and songwriting talents are an inspiration to musicians and fans alike, and her contributions to the country music industry are truly remarkable.

Natalie Maines

Natalie Maines, the lead vocalist of Dixie Chicks, is a remarkable acoustic guitarist who has played a significant role in modern country music. In addition to her vocal prowess, she has a unique style of playing the acoustic guitar that is both soulful and powerful. Her fingerpicking technique and chord progressions are particularly noteworthy.

Maines’ fingerpicking technique is a blend of intricate patterns that create a gorgeous melody. She seamlessly incorporates double-thumb rolls, sweeps, and arpeggios to create a rich, full-bodied sound. Her unique fingerpicking style is evident in “Travelin’ Soldier” and “Landslide” where she creates a soft, delicate melody.

Her chord progressions are another aspect of her playing that sets her apart from other acoustic guitarists. Instead of sticking to the standard country or bluegrass chord progressions, Maines experiments with jazzy chord structures and unexpected progressions. This can be heard in the Dixie Chicks’ hit song “Not Ready to Make Nice,” where Maines’ chords progress in an unexpected way, creating a sense of emotional complexity.

Maines’ influence on contemporary country music cannot be overstated. With her unique approach to the acoustic guitar, she has helped to redefine the genre and elevate it beyond its standard confines. Her experimentation with chord progressions and fingerpicking patterns has motivated other country musicians to move beyond their standard repertoire and seek out new sounds and styles.


As we take a retrospective look at the evolution of acoustic guitarists in country bands over the decades, it becomes apparent that the genre has evolved constantly, and so have the musicians. From the golden age of country music in the 1940s and 1950s to the modern country and contemporary bluegrass sounds of the 2000s and 2010s, acoustic guitarists have been instrumental in shaping the sound of country music.

The 1940s and 1950s witnessed the emergence of legendary musicians such as The Carter Family and Merle Travis. These artists laid the foundation for country music and turned the acoustic guitar into an integral part of the genre.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Nashville Sound took the country music industry by storm, bringing with it Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell, two of the most skilled and versatile acoustic guitarists of their time. The decade also witnessed the emergence of crossroad music, which brought together various genres, including blues and country.

The 1980s and 1990s ushered in a new wave of country music with the emergence of new traditionalism and alternative country. Ricky Skaggs, Steve Earle, and Doc Watson were leading acoustic guitarists who helped define the sound of the era.

The 2000s and 2010s have seen the advent of modern country and contemporary bluegrass, with acoustic guitarists like Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Alison Krauss, and Natalie Maines leading the way. These artists have brought their unique styles and sounds to country music, pushing the boundaries of the genre and captivating audiences around the globe.

As we conclude this journey through time, it is clear that the role of acoustic guitarists in country bands cannot be overstated. Their skill and artistry have helped shape the sound of the genre, drawing in new fans and captivating audiences for decades. The evolution of acoustic guitarists in country music has been an inspiring one, and it is sure to continue as the genre continues to evolve and adapt to new influences and sounds.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Country Music?

Country music is a genre of American popular music that originated in the Southern United States in the 1920s. It blends traditional folk music with popular music, and often has lyrics that focus on real-life experiences.

Who were The Carter Family?

The Carter Family was a group of early country musicians who were active from the 1920s to the 1940s. They are credited with popularizing country music and influencing future generations of country musicians.

Who is Merle Travis?

Merle Travis was a country guitarist who is credited with developing the “Travis picking” guitar style. This fingerpicking technique involves alternating the thumb between the bass and treble strings.

What is the Nashville Sound?

The Nashville Sound was a popular style of country music that emerged in the 1960s. It featured smooth, polished production values and often included orchestral arrangements.

Who is Chet Atkins?

Chet Atkins was a successful country guitarist and producer who is often credited with popularizing the Nashville Sound. He worked with many famous country musicians throughout his career, including Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton.

Who is Glen Campbell?

Glen Campbell was a popular country musician who achieved mainstream success in the 1960s and 1970s. He was known for his distinctive guitar playing and smooth, melodic voice.

What is New Traditionalism?

New Traditionalism was a movement in country music that emerged in the 1980s. It aimed to bring back the traditional country sound and style that had become less popular in the preceding decades.

Who is Ricky Skaggs?

Ricky Skaggs is a bluegrass musician who has also had success in country music. He is known for his virtuosic mandolin playing and traditional approach to bluegrass and country music.

Who is Steve Earle?

Steve Earle is a singer-songwriter who is known for his blend of country, rock, and folk music. He has released many critically acclaimed albums throughout his career.

Who is Alison Krauss?

Alison Krauss is a bluegrass and country musician who has won many Grammy Awards for her music. She is known for her angelic voice and virtuosic fiddle playing.


About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

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