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This article was originally published in August 2005.
To pick the Top 10 of anything is a tough task. When it comes to the subject of jazz guitar, the task is enormously difficult. However, these are the ten most influential guitarists (in my opinion), arranged in somewhat chronological order. Each recording listed is the one that either put them on the map or serves as an excellent example of their style. Because of the guitar's highly individualized nature, there are dozens of talented players who also brought something new to it, but unfortunately, we cannot include them here. I urge you to explore on your own. These ten recordings will be a good start.
Note: for some solid progressive jazz guitar suggestions, you may also wish to visit our modern jazz guitar collection.
Reissued dates included.
Eddie Lang: Jazz Guitar Virtuoso (Yazoo, 1990) Eddie was the first jazz guitar virtuoso. Playing for Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby, Eddie paved the way for every guitar soloist in the future. "Feeling My Way" is one of his greatest solo recordings.
Django Reinhardt: The Best of Django Reinhardt (Blue Note, 1996) Django was Europe's greatest contribution to jazz guitar. He also brought the highly unique Gypsy sound in the the instrument's lexicon. His technical prowess despite a deformed left hand was astounding.
Charlie Christian: Genius of the Electric Guitar (Sony, 1990) Charlie came to fame in the Benny Goodman Sextet. He was the first modern jazz guitarist and the one who popularized the use of amplifiers. His sound can be heard in almost every guitarist who came after him.
Johnny Smith: Moonlight in Vermont (Blue Note, 2004) While he could be called the first Cool Jazz gutiarist, Johnny is more known for the tightly arranged chord voicings he played so effortlessly. He also brought a high level of technique and artistic sensibility to the jazz guitar.
Tal Farlow: The Return of Tal Farlow (Fantasy, 1991) The tall, quiet North Carolina sign painter turned New York on its ear with his blistering solo runs and sophisticated Hard Bop sound. Tal was a marvelous guitarist who breathed new life into the jazz guitar tradition.
Wes Montgomery: Incredible Jazz Guitar (Fantasy, 1991) The Indianapolis native changed the whole landscape when he came on the scene. Not since Charlie Christian had anyone so redefined what the instrument could do. From silky octaves to warm thumb plucked chordal passages, Wes' sound is fresh and modern to this day.
Kenny Burrell: Midnight Blue (Blue Note, 1999) The sound of smoky late night clubs in the great cities of the Industrial Midwest can be heard in this Detroit native's playing. His urban lyricism and blues inflected tone has inspired generations of players.
Joe Pass: Virtuoso (Pablo, 2001) Certainly, guitarists before him had played unaccompanied solo jazz guitar. But no one ever did it like Joe. With his melodic sense and endless repertoire the guitar was a complete big band in his hands. And we could listen for hours .
Jim Hall: Concierto (Sony, 1997) Jim was and is an explorer. He brought an Impressionist ethic and a composer's instinct to his playing. His tone sought to break boundaries and broaden horizons while his technique was at all times subservient to the music.
Pat Metheny: American Garage (ECM, 1999) Both a modern attitude and a bluesy Midwestern vibe are equally present in Pat's music. In some ways heir to Jim Hall's explorer mindset, Pat is wholly his own player, having redefined the nature of what jazz guitar can be.