Instrument Profile

Jazz Guitar

The guitar made a late entry into the world of jazz music, the bulk of its contributions coming only after the 1940s. The preferred string instrument in early jazz bands was the banjo, a loud percussive instrument with roots in Africa. The banjo’s sound was ideally suited to the New Orleans style of music produced by the bands of the 1910s and early 20s.

History of the Jazz Guitar

The first guitarist to emerge within the jazz field was Eddie Lang (1902-1933), a Philadelphia native of Italian descent. Lang’s most important impact came between 1928 and 1932 when he recorded prolifically with some of the top jazzmen of the era, including Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, the Dorsey Brothers, and Paul Whiteman’s Band. After 1932, Lang began collaborating with Bing Crosby, but died suddenly after complications from a tonsillectomy.

Another early jazz great was Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970), who collaborated with Eddie Lang in a series of classic duos. Although primarily a blues guitarist, Johnson was able to leave a rich legacy of early jazz guitar styles. Guitarists who followed in the footsteps of Lang and Johnson included Dick McDonough (1904-1939), George Barns and Teddy Bunn (1909-1978). George Van Eps (1913-1998) was instrumental in the development of chordal guitar playing.

As the guitar was beginning to gain a foothold in American jazz bands, Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), a gypsy musician in Paris, established himself and his group, the Hot Club of France, as a small but powerful exponent of European jazz making. Reinhardt was one of the most original and gifted guitarists of all time. Injured in a caravan fire, he only was able to use the thumb, index, and middle finger of his left hand. Reinhardt, along with his equally ingenious collaborator, Stephane Grappelli, made numerous recordings of jazz standards and ballads.

More Jazz Guitar Pioneers

Django, Lang, and the other jazz guitarists of this time played on acoustic, un-amplified instruments. The first jazzman that successfully bridged the gap into amplified guitar playing was Charlie Christian (1916-1942). Born in Texas, Christian developed an early talent for music in pick-up jazz groups. A meeting with Eddie Durham (1908-1987), who played with the Count Basie Band and was one of the earliest exponents of electric guitar playing, encouraged Christian to experiment with playing on the electric guitar. He was discovered in Kansas City by John Hammond and became an overnight sensation with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and Quintet. Christian also played a pivotal part in the founding of Be-Bop with late night improv sessions with Thelonius Monk and the other young boppers at Minton’s club.

Christian’s melodic invention and turns of phrase became the basis for modern jazz guitar playing. After his early death in 1942, many young guitarists developed Christian’s approach and style, amongst whom were Barney Kessel (1923-2004), Herb Ellis (b. 1921), and Tal Farlow (1921-1998). During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the guitar established itself as an innovative instrument within the jazz community with several outstanding players. Wes Montgomery (1923-1968) developed an unusual technique and style of playing melodies in octaves and using only the right-hand thumb, giving his sound a mellow and sweet character. Jim Hall (b. 1930) and Joe Pass (1929-1994) emerged from the Northwest as post-bop guitarists equally at home in solo and accompanying roles. Hall made exceptional records throughout his career. but the highpoint of his playing can be heard on several discs recorded live with bassist Ron Carter. Joe Pass also was featured in some heavyweight duos with jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald. George Benson (b. 1943) was influenced by Christian and Montgomery, and brought innovative ideas into his album programs, including covering a whole Beatles record, Abbey Road. Since then, Benson has found success as a pop and soft-jazz musician.

During the late 1970s and 80s, jazz guitarists were leading members of the jazz-fusion movement. English-born guitarists John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and Pat Metheny explored the effects of feedback and other non-conventional methods of guitar playing in their music.

Django Reinhardt

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