While the guitar was used in jazz groups from the very beginning (New Orleans in the 1890s), it took some time for it to be accepted as an important instrument in jazz. It is ironic, considering how loud it can be played, that prior to the late 1930s its main problem was its lack of volume.
Before the development of the electric guitar, the acoustic guitar always had difficulty being heard. In fact, it was considered so inaudible, particularly on recording dates, that the banjo was utilized in most jazz bands up until the late 1920s/early ‘30s. There were a few exceptions with the pioneering jazz guitarists on record including Nick Lucas, the virtuosic Eddie Lang (considered the top jazz guitarist of the 1920s), Lonnie Johnson (who crossed over between blues and jazz), Carl Kress, and Dick McDonough. As recording techniques improved, the guitar gradually replaced the banjo but was still primarily utilized in the background as a chordal instrument, playing a four-to-the-bar rhythm. Other than short breaks, or occasional features in string groups, duets or trios, the guitar was rarely heard as a solo instrument on jazz records.
That began to change with the rise of the remarkable Django Reinhardt.
#1 – Django Reinhardt – First Recordings (Original Jazz Classics, 1934-35)
Django Reinhardt (1910-53) was a larger than life figure who overcame a major disability to become the top jazz guitarist of the 1930s and, in some people’s estimation, of all time. Born to a family of gypsies in Belgium, he was always a free spirit who, it is fair to say, was not always 100% reliable. However, from an early age he was a very skilled guitarist, violinist and banjoist. In 1928 a disastrous fire in his caravan resulted in permanent damage to his left hand with two fingers becoming largely completely unusable. Doctors wanted to amputate his hand but he was snuck out of the hospital by friends and went through a long recovery.
By 1930 Django had developed a new way of fingering chords with his left hand that allowed him to resume playing guitar. He discovered jazz through the recordings of Louis Armstrong and in 1933 met violinist Stephane Grappelli. The following year they joined forces as the co-leaders of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, a group consisting of three acoustic guitars, violin, and bass. It was the perfect outlet for Reinhardt’s very original and exciting playing. The Quintet stayed together into 1939 when, during a visit to England, Reinhardt spontaneously left the group to return to France. Little was heard from him during the four years when France was occupied by Nazi Germany but somehow he continued playing and recording with a variety of groups including a big band. After the country’s liberation, he had reunions with Grappelli while continuing to lead his own groups. He explored bebop, visited the U.S. (for a tour with Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and switched to the electric guitar by 1947 which he soon mastered. His life was cut short at the age of 43 by a stroke.
Many decades later the style of Django Reinhardt, which was rarely emulated during his lifetime, suddenly re-emerged in Europe with the rise of “Gypsy Jazz.” From the 1980s on there have been a countless number of “Hot Club” groups that have brought back the sound and influence of Django.
There are many reissues of Django Reinhardt’s recordings available including some massive box sets. First Recordings, a single CD, is an excellent place to start in exploring his music. It features Reinhardt and Grappelli with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France mostly playing standards during 1934-35. These recordings show why the Quintet was considered one of the great swing bands, and just how advanced the gypsy guitarist was early in his career.
#2 – Charlie Christian – The Genius Of The Electric Guitar (Legacy, 1939-41)
During the 1930s, several jazz musicians did whatever they could to try to get more volume out of their guitar. While George Beauchamp in 1931 patented an amplified guitar, it proved to not be very efficient. Andy Iona used an amplified Hawaiian guitar to play Hawaiian music in 1933. Les Paul tried his best to invent one, but it was not until 1938 when George Barnes (on Mar. 1) and Eddie Durham (Mar. 16) made recordings that the electric guitar was heard on record in jazz for the first time.
The following year, the first great jazz electric guitarist, Charlie Christian (1916-42) was discovered by producer John Hammond. Christian soon became a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet where he performed, appeared on the radio, and made recordings on a regular basis. Never having to strain to be heard, Christian’s single-note lines were inspired by saxophonists (particularly Lester Young) and he could take turns playing solos with the very best jazz horn players. Unfortunately, tuberculosis cut short his life at the age of 25 and his recording career lasted only around two years, but in that time he permanently changed the role of the guitar in jazz In fact, nearly every jazz guitarist to emerge until the late 1960s sounded like a relative of Christian’s, and all cited him as one of their main influences.
The four-CD set The Genius Of The Electric Guitar has nearly all of Christian’s studio recordings, most of which were made with Benny Goodman-led small groups. Those sessions feature Christian playing next to clarinetist Goodman, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and sometimes pianist Count Basie, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and tenor-saxophonist Georgie Auld. The catchy melodies of the riff tunes and standards are uplifted by Christian’s consistently inventive playing. Many of his phrases became quickly adopted by other up-and-coming guitarists.
For those who want to hear more Charlie Christian, his radio appearances with Goodman are available on the four-CD set First Master Of The Electric Guitar (JSP).
#3 – Tal Farlow – The Swinging Guitar Of Tal Farlow (Verve, 1956)
After Charlie Christian’s passing, his influence seemed to grow every year as could be heard in the playing of such fine guitarists as Tiny Grimes, Oscar Moore (with the Nat King Cole Trio), Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, the cool-toned Jimmy Raney, Kenny Burrell, and even Charlie Byrd (who became known in the 1960s for his bossa nova playing).
One of the very best of those who were strongly touched by Christian’s playing was Tal Farlow (1921-98). He was tall, had huge hands, and could articulate clearly every note he played even at rapid tempos, a bit like Art Tatum. Farlow was a master of the bebop guitar vocabulary that Christian had helped found and became quite well known in the 1950s. Oddly enough, Farlow was not all that interested in fame and money. In fact, he spent long periods off the national scene, just playing locally in New England and enjoying being a sign painter.
The Swinging Guitar Of Tal Farlow teams Farlow in a drumless trio with pianist Eddie Costa and bassist Vinnie Burke. They perform standards often at fast tempos and with flawless unisons played by Farlow and Costa.
#4 – Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery (Original Jazz Classics, 1960)
Still one of the most famous of all jazz guitarists, Wes Montgomery (1923-68) had a signature sound with his octaves, could play straight ahead bebop with the very best, and had some commercial successes late in his life.
Montgomery’s career began slow. He did not teach himself how to play until he was 20 and an association with the Lionel Hampton big band during 1948-49 was followed by a long period playing in his native Indianapolis while also working a day job. It was not until 1957-58 that he started to make recordings of his own, resulting in him being discovered and considered a major phenomenon, an overnight success after 15 years. His work for the Riverside label found Montgomery as the pacesetter of straight ahead jazz guitarists, his recordings for Verve balanced bebop and more commercial settings, and his three recordings for A&M were concise melody statements that became staples of AM radio. But before he could fully enjoy his success, he died of a heart attack at age 43.
The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery lives up to its name, featuring the guitarist on such originals as “West Coast Blues,” “Four On Six” and “D Natural Blues,” cooking on the uptempo pieces like “Airegin” while playing beautifully on the ballad “Polka Dots And Moonbeams.”
#5 – Grant Green – Idle Moments (Blue Note, 1963)
Grant Green (1931-79) was an unusual guitarist in that he very rarely ever played chords, sticking almost exclusively to single-note hornlike lines. Rather than occasionally functioning as part of the rhythm section, he was essentially a horn soloist on guitar.
During the first half of the 1960s after he was discovered, Green was the house guitarist for the Blue Note label, leading a strong series of sessions and being the first call sideman for organ groups, piano quartets, and such major artists as Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Hancock, Yusef Lateef, and Lou Donaldson. In the late 1960s, Green went in another direction. Feeling that he was overshadowed by Wes Montgomery, George Benson and other guitarists of the Charlie Christian “school,” he switched to playing r&bish funk. Green’s last decade found him losing much of his jazz audience while trying unsuccessfully to become a hit in the funk world.
Idle Moments from 1963 features Grant Green in prime form playing in an adventurous sextet with tenor-saxophonist Joe Henderson, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Duke Pearson, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Al Harewood. Throughout this creative set, Green shows that the guitar, when played by someone of his caliber, had won its place among the greats of modern jazz.
#6 – Joe Pass – Virtuoso (Pablo, 1973)
Joe Pass (1929-94) showed early potential, spent a decade of being off the scene due to his drug use, and then kicked the habit. In the 1960s he was a busy guitarist in the jazz scene of Los Angeles, playing with pianist Les McCann, organists, the Gerald Wilson Big Band, and in his own groups. He recorded the classic For Django in 1964 with a pianoless quartet.
Pass’ career drastically changed for the better when he impressed producer Norman Granz and signed with the Pablo label. While Pass could match wits with the most swinging jazz performers (most notably pianist Oscar Peterson), his real musical genius was in playing sets of unaccompanied guitar solos. While most jazz guitarists, if they perform a solo number, tend to focus on a melodic ballad, Pass was able to play uptempo pieces (such as “Cherokee” and “All The Things You Are”) as a solo showcase with ease. Somehow, while using conventional technique, Pass could play the melody, chords, basslines, and harmony at the same time without listeners missing any other instruments. When he soloed, there was never any gap in his accompaniment. He was very much a one-man band without sounding gimmicky, and he constantly challenged himself.
Virtuoso was the first in Joe Pass’ long series of solo guitar recordings to be released and it includes such barnburners as “Cherokee,” “The Song Is You,” and “How High The Moon.” No other solo jazz guitarist before Joe Pass (and few since) ever sounded like this.
#7 – George Benson – White Rabbit (Columbia/CTI, 1971)
One of the last major jazz guitarists to initially be strongly influenced by Charlie Christian, George Benson (1943 – ) developed his own soulful approach. His technique and flexibility resulted in him becoming one of the great jazz guitarists. Yet, like Nat King Cole 20 years earlier, it was his singing that made him a household name, starting with his giant hit “This Masquerade” from the Breezin’ album in 1976. After that, Benson was a singer who played guitar instead of the other way around although he is still capable of amazing his fellow guitarists on a moment’s notice.
White Rabbit was recorded for the CTI label five years before “This Masquerade.” While Benson had recorded already some notable combo dates along with more commercial material, White Rabbit was a bit unique in that the Don Sebesky arrangements put the guitarist in a Spanish-oriented setting. He was given some unusual material including the title cut, “California Dreamin’,” “El Mar,” and the theme from “The Summer Of ’42.” Assisted by such notables as Hubert Laws on flute and piccolo, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, and the young guitarist Earl Klugh (making his recording debut), Benson rises to the occasion.
#8 – John McLaughlin – The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971)
While the 1939-68 period could be considered the Charlie Christian years as far as the short-lived guitarist being a dominant influence, that all changed by the end of the 1960s. There had already been instances of jazz guitarists breaking away from the Christian model to form their own styles including the harmonically advanced Jim Hall, avant-gardist Derek Bailey, the Brazilian-inspired Charlie Byrd, Larry Coryell pioneering infusing jazz with electric blues and some rock, and a few others. But when John McLaughlin (1942 – ) burst upon the scene, there was no turning back.
Born and raised in England, McLaughlin had played swing, blues and some avant-garde jazz earlier in his career. However, by the time he moved to the U.S. to play with Tony Williams’ Lifetime and to have an association with Miles Davis (including recording the trumpeter’s groundbreaking Bitches Brew album), McLaughlin’s playing was quite original. He brought the power, volume and furious sounds of rock into his jazz improvising and set the standard for both fusion and instrumental rock. While Jimi Hendrix had passed away too early to explore jazz, McLaughlin has since had a long career filled with many highlights and plenty of explorative music.
John McLaughlin became world famous as the leader of the Mahavishnu Orchestra despite the group’s brief (two-year) existence. The original band with violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham, was a virtuosic wonderland with complex time signatures, explosive playing, and a sound of its own. Its first recording, The Inner Mounting Flame rarely lets up in volume, intensity, or fiery creativity.
#9 – Al Di Meola – Land Of The Midnight Sun (Columbia, 1976)
While John McLaughlin set a very high standard for fusion guitar, Al Di Meola (1954 – ) often came close and in his own voice. DiMeola was just 20 when he debuted with Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, and only 22 when he recorded his first album as a leader, Land Of The Midnight Sun.
Di Meola excels throughout this complex set which includes an acoustic duet with Chick Corea on “Short Tales Of The Black Forest,” a Bach violin sonata, and the three-part “Suite Golden Dawn.” The supporting cast includes bassists Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, and drummers Alphonse Mouzon and Steve Gadd.
Both Di Meola and McLaughlin would have wide ranging careers including touring together with Paco DeLucia as an acoustic guitar trio during 1980-83. As Land Of The Midnight Sun shows, Al Di Meola was brilliant from the start.
#10 – Stanley Jordan – Standards Volume One (Blue Note, 1986)
Stanley Jordan (1959 – ) is the master of the tapping technique on the guitar. He can play a guitar literally one-handed and has sometimes played both a guitar and a piano at the same time. He is capable of playing two separate guitars at once, but is most frequently heard on a single guitar, sounding like two or three musicians simultaneously. To simplify matters, Jordan plays the guitar like a piano and he makes it all look effortless.
Jordan who debuted on record in 1982, has not been as big an influence as one would expect, perhaps because few others can utilize the tapping technique on such a high level, but he is still a marvel to see and hear. While he has occasionally played pop and rock tunes, his most lasting work has been in jazz.
Standards Volume 1 (there never was a volume two) has Jordan digging into such songs as “Moon River,” “Sunny,” “My Favorite Things” and even “Silent Night” in his own unique fashion. While he has recorded with groups, it is obvious that he really does not need any other musicians around him in order to sound like a very complete band.
#11 – John Scofield – Meant To Be (Blue Note, 1990)
One of the most distinctive guitarists on the scene today, a musician who can usually be easily identified within two or three notes, John Scofield (1951 – ) can always be relied upon to play creative jazz. While his sound can be pretty rockish at times, his solos are never predictable yet are always quite logical. His early background included playing with Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, the Billy Cobham-George Duke funk band, Gary Burton, and Miles Davis, but he has led his own bands for decades.
Meant To Be features Scofield leading a quartet that also includes tenor-saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Bill Stewart. The guitarist’s originals range from the New Orleans parade rhythms of “Some Nerve” and the tongue-in-cheek “Eisenhower” to the Ornette Coleman tribute “Mr. Coleman To You.” No matter what the style, John Scofield is heard throughout in top form.
#12 – Pat Metheny – Question And Answer (Geffen, 1991)
Since the late 1960s, many different guitarists made an impact on jazz with their original conceptions and musical personalities. No list of jazz guitarists would be complete without Pat Martino, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Frisell, Mike Stern, Russell Malone, Howard Alden, John Abercrombie, Bireli Lagrene, Charlie Hunter and Kurt Rosenwinkel to name just ten very different stylists.
Pat Metheny (1954 – ), while saying that Wes Montgomery was an early influence, sounded unlike anyone else by the time he first recorded in the early 1970s. He has arguably been the top jazz guitarist ever since. Metheny’s band with keyboardist Lyle Mays, the Pat Metheny Group, mixed together a feeling of the wide open spaces from his childhood in the Midwest with elements of rock, World Music (particularly Brazilian), and modern jazz to create unclassifiable new music.
Apart from the Group and his later Unity Band, Metheny has often engaged in all-star projects.
Question And Answer, recorded in the same year as his Group’s highly-rated Letter From Home, is a spontaneous and freewheeling affair that teams the influential guitarist in a trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes. The musicians had not originally planned to release the music since they were just jamming together for the fun of it, but the results were too rewarding to go unheard. Metheny, Holland and Haynes perform five of the guitarist’s originals, Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years” and the standards “Solar,” “All The Things You Are” and “Old Folks.” The results are swinging, inventive, and frequently exquisite.
This list of 12 guitar albums just scratches the surface but serves as an introduction to some of the many jazz guitar greats.
Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of 12 books including Life Through A Life Of A Jazz Journalist (My Musical Memoirs), The Jazz Singers, The Great Jazz Guitarists, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film, and Jazz On Record 1917-76
12 Essential Jazz Guitar Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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