Making a list of the top country guitarists is obviously pretty subjective, but I'm also positive that the names on this list would be on most people's lists of the best country guitar players. Feel free to comment at the bottom of the page and let us know who you would include (or exclude) from this list.
You know that you've made an influence as a guitarist when you have an entire technique named in your honor. Born in 1917, Merle Travis was synonmous with country guitar during his lifetime. Travis popularized (though by his own admission did not invent) the style of picking (now known as Travis picking) where you use your thumb to pluck the bass strings (usually on every beat) and first finger (or more) to play the treble strings. Though primarily known for his eponymous picking style, Travis was well known for his versatility in not only the emerging style of country music, but he was also known for his facility in blues, boogie woogie, swing, and jazz, which makes him first on our list of top country guitarists.
Known for his work with Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, Hank Garland was a larger-than-life legend on country guitar, though he was equally adept at jazz. Partly responsible for the Gibson Byrdland guitar, Garland was both an ace studio musician and talented composer (composing his famous "Sugarfoot Rag" when he was just 18 years old). A car accident in 1961 and his subsequent electro-shock recovery signaled the end of Garland's professional music career, but he will forever be remembered as a master of country, jazz, and popular guitar styles and one of the top country guitarists of all time.
Few guitar players are as synonymous with country music as the great Chet Atkins. Inspired by Merle Travis's picking style, he developed his own picking technique, which came to be known, of course, as "Atkins Style" picking. Whereas Travis used his thumb and first finger to play the bass line and melody respectively, Atkins used his thumb and first two (or occasionaly three) fingers. Although celebrated by guitarists for his innovative and masterful fingerstyle technique, Atkins was a first-class producer and helped shaped what came to be known as the "Nashville Sound." Regardless of his producing prowess, Atkins will always be remembered as one of the top country guitarists due to his world-class technique and style.
Not many guitarists have influenced as many country and rock guitarists as James Burton, himself a master of country, rockabilly, and traditional rock and roll styles. Burton has recorded and performed with a virtual who's who of rock and country music, including Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison, and Vince Gill, among others. He was also a founding member of Emmylou Harris's "Hot Band." A master of hybrid picking, Burton is as renowned for his charitable giving (The James Burton Foundation) as his talent, which makes him an easy addition to our list of top country guitarists.
A versatile entertainer known to many for his movie roles more than his guitar playing, Jerry Reed was nevertheless one of the finest country guitar players around, rightly earning the moniker "The Guitar Man." Reed's guitar mentor Chet Atkins took note of Reed's exceptional fingerpicking facility and became both his producer and sometime collaborator. Reed was highly proficient at hybrid picking, as heard in his signature tunes "Guitar Man" and "The Claw." Though he often played electric guitars, he primarily played a nylong string acoustic and favored very low action.
Perhaps known best for his years on the country variety show "Hee Haw" where he became a household name due to his jovial good humor and banter with his on-screen co-host Buck Owens (a fine player in his own right), Roy Clark was still a world-class country guitarist and banjoist (having won several banjo competitions while still in his teens). He has shown great facility as both a musician and entertainer, appearing on many TV shows as a guest over the years. He has been honored by ACM and CMA as both entertainer and musician of the year numerous times. He is noted for his incredible right-hand technique and wide versatility.
Generally, when you think of country music, you don't think of the country being the UK. Still, one of the finest country pickers of all time grew up in London, quite a few miles away from coal country. Albert Lee took his musical cues from Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Burton, and Scotty Moore. Moving to the states in the mid 1970s and made a name for himself as a member of Emmylou Harris's so-called "Hot Band," replacing one of his own guitar heroes, James Burton. He also spent a good deal of time working with Eric Clapton and the Everyly Brothers. Lee is known for an incredibly fast right-hand technique and pure, clean tone with lines played at breakneck speed with incredibly accuracy. Though he currently favors Music Man instruments (including a signature guitar), Lee is still known as "Mr. Telecaster" due to his mastery of the instrument. He easily make the top of anyone's list of top country guitarists.
Due to his work as a studio musician, Brent Mason may not be a "household name" like others on this list, but anyone familiar with the current country music scene knows that Mason is simply one of the finest guitarists working today. Known for his highly modified Fender Telecaster, Brent currently also plays a signature guitar from Paul Reed Smith. A Grammy-award winner, Mason is also a skilled songwriter and producer and one of the top country guitarists in Nashville.
Born in West Virginia, Paisley was a local town guitar hero until he moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University, receiving a degree in music business in 1995. Putting his degree to good use, Paisely became a professional songwriter soon after graduation and would eventually make a name for himself as a singer, songwriter, and, of course, guitar player. Paisely is noted for his advanced technique, mixing wide intervallic jumps with chromaticism, wicked fast pull-offs/hammer-ons, and hybrid picking mastery.
Easily one of the finest guitarists on this list (or any list), Danny Gatton was renowned for his world-class technique, tone, and versatility. Equally comfortable playing jazz, blues, country, rock, and rockabilly, Gatton rightly earned the name "Telemaster," due to his preference for a modified Fender Telecaster (outfitted with Barden pickups). He was good friends and former roommate with fellow guitarist Roy Buchanan. A talented banjo player as well, Gatton incorporated banjo picking techniques into his style to achieve his blinding speed. Sadly, Gatton took his own life at the apex of his career.
Although born legally blind (due to a disease known as nystagmus), Johnny Hiland took to the guitar at an early age and grew up playing country, blues, and rock guitar at a very high level, though he's made a name for himself primarily as a country player. Proficient in banjo and mandolin as well, Johnny has called Nashville home since the mid 1990s. He procurred a record contract with Steve Vai's label Favored Nations and has since signed with Mike Varney's label. Once a PRS endorser (the Johnny Hiland model was a highly recommended instrument for many years), Johnny currently favors Music Man guitars. He has graced the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and appeared on albums by such artists as Randy Travis, Ricky Scaggs, and Toby Keith.
Though he might not be as common a name to many on this list, Redd Volkaert is nevertheless one of the finest country guitar players to ever wield a Telecaster. Currently based out of Austin, TX where he plays on a weekly basis, Volkaert won a Grammy (along with several other country elites for playing on) in 2009 for the Brad Paisley tune "Cluster Pluck." A noted instructor as well, Redd has established himself as a country guitar tour de force and is one of the top country guitarists on the scene today.
Known primarily for his guitar work with country artist Dwight Yoakam, Pete Anderson is not only a first-rate country guitarist, but an acclaimed songwriter and producer as well. In addition to his facility as a country player, Anderson is equally at home in rockabilly, blues, roots, honky tonk, and rock styles. Hailing from Detroit, Anderson has worked in recent years to establish a name from himself apart from country music, focusing on more blues and R&B. But he will always be remembered a first-rate country guitarist in addition to his many other talents.