There are lots of lists of great guitar players out there, but they are usually compiled by fans, editors or amateur players based on their own exposure and perhaps sales. Let me see if I can put my own list together along with the reasons for my choices. First, some great classical guitarists. Then, another day, I will talk about some great electric guitarists.
Great Classical Guitarists
Andres Segovia is the great master, of course, though he was not alone in the early part of the century. His two rivals were Miguel Llobet and Agustin Barrios, both great guitarists whose fame was overshadowed by Segovia's very successful career. Segovia had a concert career that stretched from 1909 to 1987. He played his last concert just a few months before passing away, at age 94. Here is a clip of a lovely piece by Tarrega, Capricho Arabe that captures his sound better than most of the clips on YouTube:
After Segovia there are really four great 20th and now 21st century guitarists. The oldest of them is Julian Bream, now in his late 70s and retired. His father was a jazz guitarist. Julian Bream, apart from being an extraordinary virtuoso, is responsible for a whole generation of composers writing for the guitar as a serious instrument. We owe music by Britten, Walton, Berkeley, Henze and a number of others to his efforts. Here he is playing two bagatelles by William Walton:
John Williams has strictly limited his touring for a long time now as he found it did not agree with him. But his occasional concerts and long list of recordings demonstrates that he is one of the great guitarists of the century. His father, Len Williams, ran a guitar school in London and young John played from an early age and studied with Segovia from his early teens. He was perhaps the first guitarist to demonstrate truly effortless technical mastery as we can hear in this performance of Un sueño en la Floresta by Agustin Barrios. This kills two birds with one stone as it gives you an idea of what Barrios' own playing might have sounded like. There are a few recordings of Barrios, but the sound quality is poor. John Williams was responsible for the rediscovery of a lot of Barrios' music.
Coming from a purely Spanish tradition, Pepe Romero studied with his father who studied with a student of Francisco Tarrega and thereby continues a tradition that stretches back well into the 19th century. Pepe's playing is characterized by a warm, rich sound, a lyrical gift for phrasing, and technical mastery. Here he is playing the Serenata by Malats as an encore after a concerto performance in Bogota, Columbia. He tells the story about how his father met his mother at the beginning. The piece starts at around the 2:30 mark. Late in the piece is a very tricky chromatic scale. I doubt you will ever hear it played with more grace and ease than here.
The youngest member of this exclusive club is Manuel Barrueco, born in Cuba, but moved to the US with his parents as a teenager. He studied with Aaron Shearer at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. His technique is absolutely extraordinary with a precision no-one else seems to match. But it is always in service to his musical vision which is powerful and expressive. His first recording was of some Villa-Lobos etudes and they were played with such authority that when John Williams heard the recording, the first thing he did was take it out to Julian Bream's place in the country and play it for him. The older generation are very much aware of these young guys coming up! Alas, none of his Villa-Lobos is available on YouTube, but here is a pretty spectacular Asturias by Albeniz:
There is a host of younger artists, some of them with extraordinary promise like Ana Vidovic, Jerome Ducharme, Scott Tennant, Tilman Hoppstock and Timo Korhonen, who will carry the guitar far into the 21st century.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get on with writing some music for them...