Today, we’re going unplugged to explore the talent of ten of Australia’s greatest acoustic players of all time, checking out their technique and contributions to the gutiar canon that have helped to establish their status both at home and abroad.
A longstanding hero in the world of classical guitar, John Williams is celebrated for his mind-blowing technical virtuosity, with his zippy fretwork being praised by many of his contemporaries as some of the best they’ve ever seen. Born in Melbourne in 1941 to a highly musical lineage, Williams later embarked overseas to study guitar and ended up starting his own guitar department at London’s Royal College of Music as a freshly-graduated 19 year old before going on to wow the music world with his playing. On top of his work as a classical guitarist, Williams has collaborated with The Who guitarist Pete Townshend for a fusion version of ‘Won’t Be Fooled Again’, broadcasting his amazing talent to rock audiences in the late ‘70s.
Possibly one of the most gifted acoustic players in the world and undeniably the best Australian guitarist of all time, there’s few acoustic players out there who can amount to the pedigree of Tommy Emmanuel. After starting out in a family band and later emerging as a revered session talent in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Emmanuel’s focus on establishing himself as a solo artist through his tireless touring ethic paid immediate dividends, resulting in the Australian guitarist being recognised as one of the most impressive players of his kind. Best known for his dynamic, percussive use of the soundboard and his inimitable fingerstyle technique, there’s few out there who can hold a flame to Tommy.
John Butler’s been at the pinnacle of Australia’s guitar world for the better part of 20 years, amassing a fervent international following from his dynamic live sets with the John Butler Trio and being recognised as one of the most successful independent Australian artists of all time. Blending aspects of blues, roots and folk into his playing, Butler’s playing is typically defined by his penchant for resonant open tunings, soulful slide work and a unique fingerpicking style, often opting for twelve-string Maton guitars as well as resonators and Weissenborns to squeeze out his slippery playing. Of course, ‘Ocean’ is his magnum opus, but you’d be crazy to sleep on cuts like ‘Fire In The Sky’ and ‘Pickapart’, with both tracks showcasing his nature as both a virtuoso and a master of melody.
Doug de Vries
Best known for his passionate approach towards the Brazilian guitar repertoire and celebrated for his commitment towards education in Australia, Doug de Vries is a bit of a silent mastermind in Australia’s musical landscape. Studying jazz guitar under the legendary Bruce Clarke, de Vries developed quite an impressive right-hand technique that allows him to play lightning fast fretboard runs while maintaining rhythmic nuance, making him a formidable Bossa nova and chorro player. Along with fellow academic powerhouse and frequent collaborator Ken Murray, de Vries has played a vital role in the education of guitar to Australian university students in the 21st century, helping to cultivate a new generation of virtuosic acoustic players down under.
The Grigoryan Brothers
Of course, both brothers are both established solo giants in their own right, but there’s few ensembles more exciting than Slava and Leonard performing together under The Grigoryan Brothers. Celebrated for maintaining the integrity of classical guitar while adding in their own contemporary spin on counterpoint and harmony, Slava and Leonard emerged as child prodigies and took out a number of internationally recognised competitions before they hit their twenties, with each brother also enjoying considerable solo success along the way, netting several ARIA Awards and cultivating a fervent following on the live circuit.
A true trailblazer for fingerstyle playing in Australia, Nick Charles can make a steel string sing like no other Aussie player of his ilk. Fusing aspects of country, blues, ragtime and jazz, Charles draws upon that of Django Reinhardt, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Duke Ellington, and is a master of both footstompin’, lickety-split melodic lines and drifting slow-burner ballads alike. Charles also makes sublime use of a thumbpick to accompany his lead lines with a punchy sounding bass in many of his arrangements, helping his playing really cut through the mix to make an impact on listeners.
Born and raised in Western Australia, Craig Ogden would move to London in 1990 to pursue a career as a classical guitarist, and has since been recognised as one of the best players of his generation, with some even comparing him to the late, great Julian Bream. Acclaimed for his discipline and talent as a purveyor of classical stylings, Ogden has had several records top the UK Classical Charts and is revered as both a soloist and chamber musician, with his version of the Rodrigio concertos with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra asserting his status as one of the finest talents of the modern age. He’s also quite an established academic, and currently resides as the Primary Lecturer in Guitar at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, UK.
What makes Michael Fix such an exciting acoustic player is his mastery of feeling and groove – an often overlooked and sorely missed aspect in fingerstyle guitar. Born in Wollongong and mentored by Tommy Emmanuel in his early twenties, Fix has since emerged as one of Australia’s foremost acoustic talents, with his mastery of the fretboard seeing him being able to easily cover myriad of blues, country, folk and jazz styles. With three Golden Guitar Awards for Best Instrumental Performance under his belt and a ripper Maton signature acoustic to enshrine his status as an acoustic hero, Fix is a bona fide talent that simply needs to be seen to be believed.
Emerging as a gun talent with Innocent Bystanders in the pub rock scene of the 1980s, Mark Lizotte, or as we best know him, Diesel, has gone on to assert himself as one of Australia’s most prolific artists of the last 30 years, releasing 15 studio albums since 1989 and netting a cool six ARIA Awards in the process on top of his work as an in-demand studio guitarist. Primarily dabbling in blues rock, Diesel is one of the country’s most understated guitar heroes, with his acoustic work on his signature Mini Maton twelve-string proving to dazzle audiences time and time again. Of course, Diesel’s no stranger to distorted electric guitars and long-winding solos, but his prowess with the acoustic is nonetheless worthy of all recognition.
Whether he’s accompanied with a band or performing as a soloist, you’d be hard pressed to find a player who’ll drop your jaw to the floor faster than Bruce Mathiske does. A master of transposing standards to suit his own eclectic playing style, Mathiske is acclaimed for his astounding left hand dexterity, contorting his digits to form some rather gnarly shapes in order to bust out his chops, with a killer example being his rendition of jazz classic ‘Caravan’. Drawing as much from the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix as he does from Django Reinhardt and Chet Atkins, there’s no arguing that Mathiske is a true acoustic maverick down under.
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