The Story of Jazz Guitar

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While in its early days, jazz guitar was considered a rhythm instrument alongside the banjo of Dixieland. In 1940, Charlie Christian and his Gibson ES-150 changed that and elevated guitar to lead instrument status alongside the saxophone and trumpet—instruments that could acoustically cut through the sound of a piano-bass-drums rhythm section. Here, we encapsulate some of the progenitors of jazz guitar and their contributions to the music.

The Beginnings: Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson played the blues, the early blues in the 1920s and later, but he played long intricate solo lines to accompany his singing. These lines inspired his teenage guide of the time, T-Bone Walker (later famous in the '40s as a jump/R&B player/singer) and, through him, Bobby King. If he was heard by jazz players, he must have had an influence. It is also likely that the "Spanish tinge" (a term used by Jelly Roll Morton to help explain the jazz of New Orleans) included Spanish guitar, with all its soloing: see for example the Spanish guitar composer Tarrega, active into the early 20th Century. Tarrega himself had been prone to running away from school as a child to hear gypsy music, so a possible gypsy element (pre-Django Reinhardt) may also have had an influence on the early jazz guitar.

Eddie Lang / Eddie Durham / Lonnie Johnson

In any event, by the late-1920s-early-'30s two guitarists had become well known in jazz. The first was Eddie Lang, famous for accompanying/playing with violinist Joe Venuti. Lang was also was an accompanist for Bing Crosby. Although he died in 1933, his fame didn't and he is a jazz legend.

The American/Italian Lang also played with the black Lonnie Johnson under a blues pseudonym, Blind Willie Dunn: Lonnie Johnson transcended genres, playing blues, folk blues and jazz, including a session with the early Duke Ellington Orchestra, where he is the featured soloist. Eddie Durham was a little later: he was an arranger with Count Basie in the mid and late '30s. However, he is also known as the first utilizer of an electric guitar, though he did not solo to any extent. That was left to the incomparable Charlie Christian.

Django Reinhardt / Charlie Christian / Tiny Grimes

In France in the early-'30s there was a young gypsy guitarist who had burnt two fingers of his fretting hand to the state of useless (?) appendages, in a caravan fire; Django Reinhardt. Possibly still the most extraordinary guitarist to ever live, Reinhardt played American jazz tunes, with a few of his own also, such as "Swing 39" and the very famous slow tune "Nuages" ("Clouds").

While every person of intelligence who knows music knows Django Reinhardt, every jazz musician knows Charlie Christian. Possibly the inventor of modern jazz (because he was on record, in 1939 with Benny Goodman, before any of the others), his guitar style is very fluent and essentially not duplicable. It's too fluent. Despite his revolutionary music, like Eddie Lang he also died very young, in 1942 at the age of 25. This was when his great (eventual) successor, Wes Montgomery (see below), heard him as a nineteen year old and decided to play guitar.

Tiny Grimes was not a very famous guitarist, but he backed/partnered Charlie Parker on his earliest ("indie") recordings in 1944. Soon many other guitarists also adopted the bebop style.

Herb Ellis / Barney Kessel / Charlie Byrd

As bebop came to be replaced by cool jazz (Miles Davis in New York and West Coast jazz), jazz guitar broadened into the musical mainstream. Herb Ellis, for example, was in the Oscar Peterson Trio from 1952-'58 (replacing the Trio's earlier guitarist Barney Kessel). Charlie Byrd, (after studying with classical guitar maestro Andre Segovia, brought bossa nova to the world with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz on their 1962 album, Jazz Samba (Verve).

Later, all three of these guitarists would perform and record live at the Concord Jazz Festival and elsewhere as the Great Guitars unit, making many flowing recordings of classic jazz tunes.

A great Charlie Byrd album is Blue Byrd (Concord Jazz, 1978). He also recorded intricate solo versions of tunes including"Moonlight Serenade" and "Something."

Tal Farlow was a very fast and fluid modern jazz guitarist who rose in the 1950s. In the clip below he talks about his influences and how jazz guitar existed in the earlier days.

Wes Montgomery / Kenny Burrell / Joe Pass / Jim Hall

By the end of January in 1960, Wes Montgomery had recorded his second album. Discovered a few months earlier at the age of 36, he changed jazz guitar by simply being extraordinary. For some people he is jazz guitar.

Almost as famous, and almost as laid back, is Kenny Burrell. A favorite guitarist of Jimi Hendrix, his Midnight Blue (Blue Note, 1960) is a midnight jazz classic, and much imitated. I still have to identify and levy deserved justice on the UCLA student organizer who did not schedule an accurate time listing of performers at a UCLA jazz and reggae festival in 2006, so that I and a Hollywood film editor I met at the festival both missed Burrell (he hardly ever plays).

Joe Pass was a follow-on from the guitarists in group IV. Most famous as a solo performer, melody and chords blending in his brilliant style, he was an even bigger household name than Ellis, Byrd and Kessel. Indeed, he even physically resembled both Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt.

Jim Hall came to prominence in the late-'50s-early-'60s playing with Jimmy Giuffre, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans.

George Benson

Apparently discovered by Quincy Jones when he was eight, George Benson is, of course, a huge mainstream popular music star. However, his jazz albums (including his singing) of the late-'60s and early- '70s are swinging.

John McLaughlin / John Scofield / Mike Stern

Fusion, no tunes and... feedback. The legacy of Jimi Hendrix on jazz is John McLaughlin and his angular successors. His first album, recorded in England, was the exotic Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969). Soon he was on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (Legacy) and Bitches Brew (Legacy) in the same year, later making the two excellent Mahavishnu Orchestra albums The Inner Mounting Flame (Legacy, 1971) and Birds of Fire (Legacy, 1972). Bye bye Gershwin, hello Shakti (his Indian world music group of the mid- '70s). The 1960s resulted in fully electric jazz (electric pianos, sometimes trumpets, and more) and fusion jazz everywhere.

John Scofield is in the fusion mold, perhaps a breath of fresh air compared to the current laid back commercial jazz guitarists. Mike Stern was part of Miles Davis' comeback band in 1981, with Scofield joining in 1982.

Search our Musician Center for more player profiles: guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, 12-string guitar, 8-string guitar, slide guitar, steel guitar.

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