The Guitarists & Gear of Folk Rock

Neil Young (1976). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer. Getty Images.
Joni Mitchell (1976). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer. Getty Images.
Bob Dylan (1971). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer. Getty Images.

The folk rock movement generally refers to the development and evolution of the American folk music revival in the mid 1960s. The revival began in the '40s and over a few decades, transformed into something else, as technological advancements made new and more exciting musical instruments, like electric guitars and amps, more readily available.

Folk musicians were "going electric" in America, Britain, and Europe in the mid-to-late '60s, merging the driving, exciting elements of rock with more traditional folk music. Whilst "folk rock" is a term the American press came up with to describe the sound of The Byrds, the scope of rock and folk music being produced at the time was so wide that the sound of folk rock can vary quite a bit.

There are some key guitarists that helped push the movement forward, many of whom are still very active today. The gear used is also fairly eclectic—there were just as many acoustic guitars in the bunch as there were electric. That said, you’ll see a lot of Martin dreadnoughts below! Here are just a few of the great players and the gear they used to help define the sound of folk rock.

Neil Young

Weaving between fully blown rock, Americana (though he’s Canadian), country, and of course folk rock, Neil Young’s career is varied and prolific. His involvement with Crosby, Stills and Nash plus classic solo albums such as Harvest and After The Gold Rush, released at the height of the folk rock movement, all helped place him as one of the most important guitarists of the genre.

Over the span of his long and successful career, Neil Young has used lots of different guitars, pedals and amps, but there is some standout gear that he’s closely associated with. Firstly, there’s Old Black. This is a 1953 Les Paul that’s been heavily modified. It started out life as a Goldtop with P-90s and a trapeze tailpiece, as per the spec of the time. The bridge pickup was changed to a mini humbucker taken from a Firebird, it was painted black, and given different hardware—most notably, a Bigsby tremolo unit.

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TPP Neil Young "Old Black" Gibson USA Les Paul Goldtop Tribute. Photo by The Painted Player Guitar Co.

There have been some other important guitars used too, including a Gretsch White Falcon, Gibson Les Paul Junior, and a 1958 Gibson Flying V. Young was a big acoustic player too, and like many other players within folk rock, he tended to gravitate towards Martin dreadnoughts, playing the D-18, D-28, and D-45 at various times. A lot of Harvest was recorded using a 1968 D-45.

Neil Young is mostly known for using Fender amps, namely a ‘59 Fender Deluxe, modded to take 6L6 tubes. But, any big Fender amp is going to get you about there, such as a Fender Twin (he used a ’71 model), or a Super Reverb (’74). In more recent times, Young has taken to Magnatone amps as well, including a Custom 280 and Twilighter Mono and Stereo. There have also been some effects that have featured heavily in Young’s rig, namely an Echoplex, Boss Flanger and Mu-Tron Octave Divider.

Joni Mitchell

One of the most prominent players within the folk rock movement is Joni Mitchell. Known for fusing parts of folk, blues, and rock, Mitchell enjoyed success in the early '70s with albums such as Ladies of the Canyon and Blue. The mid-'70s saw Mitchell delve into more of a jazz-infused sound, but to this day, she remains one of the cornerstones and driving forces of folk rock.

A large part of Joni’s sound was the alternate tunings and interesting chord inversions that she used, but for her acoustic stuff she would rely mostly on Martin dreadnoughts—specifically a D-28, which is a popular choice for many players in folk rock.

Later, when Mitchel was using electrics, she would often play an Ibanez George Benson (or a few of them, all in different tunings) through a Roland Jazz Chorus amp. There are also more recent pictures of Mitchell playing a Parker Fly with a built-in piezo pickup (so she can essentially get an acoustic sound via an electric guitar) through a Roland VG-88 pedal.

Richard Thompson

Often ranked as not only one of the best guitar players in folk rock, but one of the best guitar players in the world, Richard Thompson’s playing style is unique and has helped lend the genre a certain level of virtuosity. Making use of both a pick and his fingers, Thompson's deft playing can give the impression that you're hearing more than one guitar. There’s also the clever and unique use of vibrato, along with drones, pull-offs, and hammer-ons that make his playing style instantly recognizable.

Richard Thompson is most well-known for playing guitar with English folk rock legends Fairport Convention, having helped them form in 1967. Thompson left the band in 1971 and embarked on what was to become a prolific and successful solo career, though still regularly performs with them as a special guest at their annual Cropredy Convention festival (alongside many other legendary folk rock acts). He also got into session work around that time, playing for the likes of Nick Drake, John Martyn, and more.

Thompson usually favours single coil pickups. In the early days with Fairport, he often used a Goldtop Les Paul fitted with P-90s, though there is footage of him playing a Gibson ES-175 through a Marshall. It’s possible that he used this big hollowbody on the first Fairport album. From about 1968, he switched using Fenders—some Teles but mostly Strats. During the Fairport years, he’s seen playing a big headstock Strat—likely a late '60s model. Once he’d left the band, his main guitar became a 1959 Strat (that now has a maple neck from 1955), and has since grown fond of custom-built guitars made by Danny Ferrington.

In terms of amps used, he’s a fan of a Princeton-style amp, opting for a Headstrong Lil King where possible. Any good clean tube amp with controls for dialing in at least bass and treble (and ideally a Celestion speaker) will help you get in the ballpark of his tone. You’ll often hear tremolo used—this can be done on an amp like the Princeton, though he has been known to use pedals like the Fulltone Supa-Trem (as well as an OCD). More recently he has also been using a Divided by 13 FTR 37.

Thompson is also an outstanding acoustic player. He used Martin guitars early on, particularly a 000-18M but now relies on Lowden guitars. He’s even got his own signature Lowden that allows him to cover all of his acoustic material.

Bob Dylan

With a career spanning as long as Bob Dylan’s, you’d expect him to have used a lot of gear, and you’d be right. One of the driving forces of acoustic folk music in the 1960s, Dylan shocked fans with his ‘Judas’ moment in 1965 when he went electric. Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde released in 1965 and 1966, respectively, are considered some of the most pivotal folk rock records to be produced.

Before he rocked his sound up—and even throughout it—Dylan still played acoustic guitars. There have been many, but some notable acoustic guitars include the Gibson Nick Lucas model (these tend to be harder to come by and expensive, but a Gibson L-00 will get you a similar sound).

In the early days, he used a Martin 00-17 from 1949. He’d often use a Gibson J-50, and also a Gibson J-200 that had been gifted to him by none other than George Harrison and also features on the cover of Nashville Skyline. Like many other folk rock players, Dylan was a fan of the Martin D-45 as well. If you’re looking for one acoustic to cover a wide selection of Dylan’s acoustic tones, then a Gibson J-45, or even its more affordable Epiphone counterpart would serve you well.

During Dylan’s electric moment at the Newport Folk Festival, he was armed with a '64 Strat (an American Original '60s Strat or Vintera '60s Strat would be a great replica without dropping some crazy money). However, on a lot of the tours and recordings around that time, he was actually using a ’65 Tele. It started as a regular Tele, but was later modded to feature a humbucker in the neck position and a Bigsby tailpiece.

Like many other folk rock guitarists of the time, Fender amps were a go-to, including the Bassman and a Band Master, as well as the lesser-known Ampeg Gemini.


There isn’t too much online about Odetta’s gear, but she was a formidable force in folk and the formation of folk rock. Combining aspects of folk, blues, and gospel, Odetta began her solo career in the 1950s and acted as inspiration to the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and more.

Her fans even included Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., with the latter referring to her as "the queen of American folk music." Fast forward to 1970, and Odetta recorded an outstanding folk/blues/rock album featuring session players such as Elton John, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, and James Taylor.

Pictures and videos from her live performances show Odetta using an acoustic guitar. Judging from a quote that Bob Dylan made where he says that after hearing Odetta, he went out and swapped his electric guitar for a flat-top Gibson—"the same model as hers,"—we could assume that it might be a Gibson J-50.

David Crosby

A huge name in the world of folk rock—and indeed '60s music in general—David Crosby has played on a lot of songs. He found fame in the mid-'60s with The Byrds, a band that melded the vocal harmonies and guitar jangle of bands like The Beatles with traditional folk music. He then went on to form one of the most pioneering folk rock acts of all time: Crosby, Stills, and Nash (later joined by Neil Young).

Crosby was often playing an acoustic guitar, usually a Martin. He has played many over the years, but he’s probably most well known for using a Martin D-45. There has even been a signature model—the Martin D-18DC. He wasn’t shy about using modified guitars either, having played a Martin D-18 that had been converted to a 12-string. A Guild Duane Eddy 400 Thinline also received a similar treatment. During his time with The Byrds and other outfits, Crosby can be seen playing a Gibson L-5, an ES-335, and a Gretsch Country Gent.

If you’re after his sound but you’re conscious of the budget, then acoustic-wise, any spruce top Martin dreadnought should get you in the right ballpark—something like a D-X1e or D-10e. The Gretsch G5422G-12 is a great 12-string electric option if you’re looking at covering some of the Byrds-era stuff won't cost you and arm and a leg.

In terms of amps, Crosby was normally playing an acoustic, so didn’t need one all the time, but you’d often see Fender amps on stage. More recently, he turned to Magnatone amps, including the Twilighter and Varsity Reverb.

Ashley Hutchings

Okay, so, not a six-string guitarist, but it’s difficult to ignore one of the most important players in folk rock. Ashley Hutchings was one of the founding members of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and the Albion Band. He’d also jam with the likes of John Martin and Nick Drake back in the day. Bob Dylan even refers to him as "the single most important figure in English folk rock"—not a bad accolade!

Hutchings’ basslines often added a driving, rocky edge to what may have otherwise been softer, folkier tracks. Tracks like "Percy" by Fairport and "Lowlands of Holland" by Steeleys Span showcase some incredible, weaving bass-playing. You can hear echoes of Paul McCartney in there, but also it’s fairly ahead of its time.

Hutchings used different basses over the years, including a Rickenbacker 1999 / 4001, Fender P-Bass, and in the early Fairport days, a Danelectro Longhorn. In the '70s, you might also see him using a Fender Jazz and Mustang bass.

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