Notice that the title doesn't ask 'who is the best blues guitarist', or the 'best acoustic guitarist', but 'fingerstyle guitarist'. I've adapted this because, of course, I'm a fingerstyle Blues guitarist and I also play an acoustic guitar, so obviously I'm biased.
This is an important question, the question about the genre, because so many people are interested in a certain style of playing a certain kind of music. My preference, as you've already guessed, is for blues, and the acoustic blues at that. In fact the older the blues, the happier I am with it.
What I was started out to play acoustic guitar I was very intrigued by the idea of a playing fingerstyle. The very first song that I learned was in fact 'Don't think twice' by Bob Dylan. The idea of one man on an acoustic guitar singing a very simple song was extremely attractive to me.
They was simply nowhere to hide. You can either play or you can't play. If you played in the band then there's a place to hide. If you made a mistake it could be covered up by the fact that four to five musicians were playing at the same time.
Although I did try to strum when I was a kid, when I was learning Bob Dylan songs, I was never very good at it. I preferred to play fingerstyle and in those days it was quite a difficult style to learn. There were no really good tabs or tuition videos as there are nowadays. It wasn't until the seventies that I found Stefan Grossman's idea of putting the guitar finger strokes down onto tablature. This made a massive difference and accelerated my learning to a great extent.
I love the idea that you could take one phone and one finger, and using special patterns of playing you could create music that sounded as though it was coming from two or even three guitars. I started out with a very simple song in the folk idiom such as Don't Think Twice by Bob Dylan, before moving on to play Don McClean, Tom Paxton and the styles of many of the old folk artists that we know so well.
It wasn't until about twenty years later that I first heard a complex rhythm, a fingerstyle pattern called ragtime. I became hooked on Ragtime Blues, the more complex the better. For the next 10 years I play nothing but ragtime guitar, mostly in the old blue style, from artists such as blind boy Fuller and blind Blake, but also later on, Scott Joplin piano Rags as well . Pieces such as The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag were fascinating to me and I spent many hours each day transposing these pieces of music.
Much later in the late eighties, I heard blues music maybe for the first time. Of course I'd always being aware of blues music but I've never really listened. I listened to The Ragtime Blues, because I wanted to play those complex rhythms, because it was such a great challenge. Thinking back now, I think it was more the challenge in the technical complexity of the music that attracted me, rather than the blues.
When I heard people like big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin Hopkins play, it completely changed my idea of what the blues actually was. At that time I was still playing ragtime blues. I was also making up my own pieces of music in open D and open G. I heard Lightnin' Hopkins play a very simple Blues in E with many spaces between the notes.
I was amazed to find that a blues man could create such a wonderful feeling, an emotional feeling, just by using three or four bass notes. It sent a tingle down my spine. I found my new direction - to try and capture the old feeling of the the roots of acoustic blues guitar in the fingerstyle format.
So, Who is the best acoustic fingerstyle guitarist in the world?
In those days people like Stefan Grossman and Duck Baker were the kings of this kind of playing. Naturally Chet Atkins was the king of finger picking in styles, the style of jazz swing and Country Music, although of course he could play anything. Meanwhile in Australia, there was a guitar player whose name was (and still is!) Tommy Emmanuel. Tommy came from a musical family, his brother plays guitar also. Basically he travelled around in a musical show with his family all over Australia, and never getting a really good education.
However, this didn't stop Tommy from developing formidable fingerstyle expertise. Chet Atkins was his hero and he listened to his many of his records on the radio whenever he could, trying to copy what jet was doing just by listening to this music.
This cause great problems of the time because, according to Tommy, he was using a plectrum. When he realised Chet was using a thumb pick and that his thumb moved between the base nose and also over to the high strings, it was a revelation.
Once he learned the basics of the alternating bass and Travis style picking, there was no holding him back. It soon became probably the best finger-picking guitarist that ever lived, and this is no mean feat, because he is in the company of people like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.
Then why Tommy Emmanuel is the the best acoustic fingerstyle guitarist on the planet at the moment? It takes into account two things. First of all, his technical ability is par excellence. He is incredibly accurate and inventive. It's often said that a master guitarist plays around 10,000 in his life, during his lifetime. It's estimated that Tommy Emmanuel has played around 100,000. So how does he do this?
Tommy himself has said that if he's not eating or sleeping, then he's playing guitar. The man lives and breathes the music, and his interest in musical styles is very broad. Even though he loves the Travis picking Style, country music, jazz and swing, he also plays jazz Manouche in a plectrum style in a very inventive way.
Is a is a great testimony to Tommy Emmanuel's skill and expertise that he can play along with the very best jazz guitarists around today. This is one very good reason why he can be considered as the best in the world.
The second thing is the feeling. It's simply not good enough for a guitarist to be technically excellent. Myself, I have watched the very best guitarists leave an audience cold because everything is technique. Everything is technique without that special feeling. Tommy Emmanuel loves the music on the guitar so much. The emotion and that passion come out, and the audience feel this.
Tommy is am itinerant musician, which means that it doesn't really have a permanent home. He lives to play the guitar. He travels to do the thing that he loves the best, which is playing guitar to audiences worldwide and sharing his love of guitar music.
My own very special love is old acoustic blues and there are many, many blues guitarist who could carry the title of best blues guitarist in the world, as far as I'm concerned. Everyone has heard of the well-known guitarists, people like Robert Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, but there are a host of other so-called minor blues men that created wonderful songs.
The music created by these early Blues Man laid the groundwork, the foundation for everything that followed. The roots of Blues is actually the foundation of all rock and pop music in the world today. Even 70s dance music, disco music, and rap comes from the same blues roots, which of course came from Africa, the roots of all humanity and old music.
I like to explore and share the styles of Blues men that are very little known, Artists such as Floyd Council, or Pink Anderson, Scrapper Blackwell and Robert Brown, also known as Smokey Babe. Often these guys present challenges in understanding and reinterpreting their music, deciphering their guitar styles. Very often the styles are very idiosyncratic and don't follow regular patterns.
Imagine creating this kind of music and also inventing new ways of playing when everything around you is mostly misery. These guys lived in the days of slavery or just after the days of slavery, and life was hard, very hard in fact. Even a very competent musician could hardly make a living at his craft, playing on the streets often, and in bars and speakeasies, just for a meal or a place to sleep for the night.
Even so, some amazing music came out to these times and we must tip our hats to the original blues man who gave us some marvellous blues music, and also the foundations of all popular music today. It's quite a modern trait to want to know who is the best at this, and who is the best at that, but this really is besides the point. Every single guitar player that has played has given something to the craft. In the case of the old blues guitar players, people such as Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Blake laid down the challenges for modern guitarists to copy and try to improve.
Masters like Tommy Emmanuel I've taken the art of fingerstyle guitar to a new level. It's difficult to see how another guitarist now or in the future can improve upon Tommy's technique, but we will see.