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If you’re new to bluegrass guitar, one of the best things you can do is listen.
But what to listen to?
It’s a common problem for folks who are new to the genre. You want to school yourself by listening to the best, but you’re not familiar with all the acts. And bluegrass artists aren’t exactly household names. It’s not like you can just send out an email to everyone at work asking for their best bluegrass flatpicking guitar albums.
Hopefully, I can help. I’ve already been through this, and after spending the better part of a decade gathering all the bluegrass guitar music I could find, I definitely have some favorites. Of course opinions vary, and my list below certainly isn’t the last word. But I have made an effort to include the essential recordings and all the groundbreaking artists who ought to be part of anyone’s flatpicking education.
I paid special attention to albums you can learn something from—where the sonic clutter is minimal and you can really hear what the guitar is doing. You’re bound to pick up something you can use in your own playing.
Here are my best albums for bluegrass guitar players to absorb.
17 best bluegrass flatpicking guitar albums
Appalachian Swing!, The Kentucky Colonels
The Kentucky Colonels’ sophomore effort is legendary. While it’s not strictly a guitar album, it’s the first all-instrumental bluegrass album I know of to feature guitar so prominently as a lead instrument. And of course, the man behind the box is none other than the late, great Clarence White. You’ll hear Clarence sizzle on “Nine Pound Hammer” and “I Am a Pilgrim” (his signature tune), but equally instructive is his rhythm playing behind his bandmates on tracks like “Clinch Mountain Backstep.”
58957: The Bluegrass Guitar Collection, Tony Rice
This quintessential Tony Rice primer is a tantalizing tour of recordings Rice made with The Tony Rice Unit, Norman Blake, Béla Fleck, the Bluegrass Album Band and The Rice Brothers. You’ll hear Tony trading licks with other legends on some of the more guitar-forward tracks, taking the genre in new directions with his Unit, and driving a full bluegrass band like nobody else ever has.
Foundation: The Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection 1964-1998
This one kicks off with Doc blazing through his signature instrumental, “Black Mountain Rag,” and checks in on him at various points during a 35-year span. Every track features his tasty flatpicking, on quite a few bluegrass and old-time jam standards as well several ragtime tunes that were among his favorites. Doc’s son Merle Watson plays guitar and banjo on a number of tracks. Everything that made Doc a legend can be heard here—except for that smooth, baritone voice.
I’ve Got the House to Myself, David Grier
You can’t beat David Grier for sheer inventiveness. You can learn a lot by trying to imitate the guitarists on this list, but I don’t recommend trying to imitate Grier. He finds ways to play things that nobody else would ever think of. I was at a workshop once where somebody asked Grier, “Is it OK to do this? Is it OK do to that?” Grier seemed puzzled by the questions: “There aren’t any rules. If it sounds good, it’s OK.” That ethos shines through on this record, which is just one man and his guitar—although there are moments when it sounds like three.
The Kitchen Tapes, Red Allen and Frank Wakefield
Allen and Wakefield literally recorded this mandolin-and-guitar album in a kitchen, and there are moments when you can hear a baby crying in the next room. Nonetheless, if you want to learn the foundations of bluegrass rhythm guitar, this is the only album you need. Allen can be heard loud and clear backing Wakefield’s mandolin, and provides enough tasty bass runs to keep you going for years.
Tone Poems, David Grisman and Tony Rice
This is one of my desert island discs. Grisman and Rice demonstrate that any instrument can sound great in the right hands. They choose different vintage mandolins and guitars for every track on this album of instrumental duets. Some are budget instruments, some are priceless, but every track is exquisite.
Not Too Far From the Tree, Bryan Sutton
Bryan Sutton has provided the guitar groove for Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Hot Rize and countless Nashville recordings as a high-demand session musician. On this super fun album, he goes back and forth with other great flatpickers on a long roster of jam standards. Russ Barenberg joins him for a scintillating “Big Sciota,” David Grier for “The Old Spinning Wheel,” and Doc Watson for pretty much the best guitar duet version of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” you’ll ever hear. Yes, there are a lot of great pickers on this album.
33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals, Clarence White
If you want to hear Clarence White with very little else getting in the way, this is the album for you. It comes from a cassette tape they found in Clarence’s collection after he was killed by a drunk driver in 1973. It’s really just him showing off his unique, syncopated interpretations of classic tunes, backed by Kentucky Colonels bandmate Roger Bush on rhythm guitar. The style is all Clarence.
Jammed if I Do, Dan Crary
If you want to go back to basics, there’s always Crary’s 1970 album Bluegrass Guitar which was one of the first bluegrass albums built around lead guitar. But if you want to hear how much a musician can grow over a quarter-century, follow that up with 1994’s Jammed If I Do. On this one, Crary invites fellow flatpickers Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Beppe Gambetta and Norman Blake to join him for some fantastic duets. Crary’s solo debut was great, but his picking here is on another level.
The Essential Old-Time Country Duet Recordings, Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice
Did I say Tone Poems was my desert island disc? How many of those do I get? Because this one is definitely coming along for the trip. Like Allen and Wakefield’s album, it’s all mandolin-and-guitar duets, but considerably more polished and featuring one of bluegrass’s all-time great vocal duos. Skaggs and Rice recorded this album in the prime of their careers, a few years after wrapping up their steady six-nights-a-week gig with J.D. Crowe and The New South at the Holiday Inn in Lexington, Ky. The chemistry they built up on that stage at the Red Slipper Lounge is undeniable and really turns this album into something special.
Cross Picking, George Shuffler
Longtime Stanley Brothers sideman George Shuffler pretty much invented crosspicking as a way to fill out the Clinch Mountain Boys’ sound when personnel was thin. I love this album because Shuffler lays bare exactly how the down-down-up style of crosspicking is supposed to sound, and he chooses tunes for which it is very well-suited. This album is pretty much just George and his guitar with nothing else getting in the way, so it’s great for schooling yourself in this style.
The Golden Guitar of Don Reno
Most of us know Don Reno as a banjo player and one half of Reno and Smiley, stalwarts of bluegrass’s first generation. However, he was also an incredible flatpicker. Even Doc Watson said Reno was the first person he heard picking fiddle tunes on the guitar. Listen to Reno blaze through “Turkey in the Straw” here and you can certainly imagine Doc getting some ideas. What’s really impressive about Reno’s playing is that acoustic guitars had really high action in those days. His strings sound like they’re about a quarter-inch off the fretboard.
Markology, Mark O’Connor
Mark O’Connor released this astonishing flatpicking album in 1978 as a teenager, and then just kind of stopped flatpicking for 40 years or so. He’s better known for his fiddle playing, but can play just about any instrument. It’s quite ridiculous, actually. Seriously, listen to his version of “Banks of the Ohio.” Dude was 17. Come on.
Norman Blake & Tony Rice 2
You can really take your pick here (no pun intended), because this album is actually a sequel to Blake & Rice, the first of two albums these flatpicking legends recorded together. The albums are quite similar, and they’re both fantastic. I’m putting this one on the list primarily because it’s a little heavier on the jam standards, offering up great versions of “Lost Indian,” “Blackberry Blossom” and “Salt Creek.” You’ll hear Doc Watson on all of those as well.
From Fathers to Sons, Dix Bruce and Jim Nunally
Dix Bruce and Jim Nunally (formerly of John Reischman and the Jaybirds) are long-time picking partners from the West Coast. They’ve put out a bunch of guitar duet albums. This one is my favorite. This level of guitar interplay is only possible when guys have played together long enough to develop a sort of telepathy. But the bonus here is the great harmony vocals on timeless tracks like “The Bluebirds are Singing for Me” and “Rosalee of Old Kentucky.”
Road to Coeburn, James Alan Shelton
James Alan Shelton is the only guitarist I can think of who did Shuffler-style crosspicking almost as well as Shuffler himself. After following in Shuffler’s footsteps as a guitarist for the Clinch Mountain Boys, Shelton released several albums showcasing his own flatpicking. This one provides a nice contrast to the lone guitar of Shuffler’s album, as Shelton’s crosspicking is heard in the context of a full bluegrass lineup.
Lonesome Guitar, Larry Sparks
I find that the audio quality is always a little sub-par on these old Larry Sparks albums, but I couldn’t create a list of great bluegrass guitar albums without including Sparks. Sparks is one of a kind, with a picking style as unique as his vocals. Sparks doesn’t dance across the high strings like most flatpickers, he digs into the low strings with all his heart and soul. The sound is a bit like Don Reno’s, but with a more bluesy bent.
So those are my picks. And you might be wondering, “Where are the women?” I’d like to have included some, but the reality is that dynamite women flatpickers have come onto the scene only relatively recently. Pickers like Rebecca Frazier or Molly Tuttle might one day make an album that belongs on this list. Until now, though, they’ve recorded mostly with ensembles on albums that don’t put the guitar front and center in the same way that these ones do. But by all means, give them a listen!