Listening to more music than usual during quarantine? Yeah, so are we. And this week we've been feeling particularly jazzy...
Of all the musical styles enjoyed by guitarists, both rookies and buffs, jazz seems to exist as the undiscovered country for many. Sometimes this is due to simple taste, occasionally due to fear of exploring the unknown, and all-too-frequently due to not understanding what the hell is happening! But it's a fascinating musical world, a language that has shaped so much of our contemporary sounds beyond imagination. And guitarists have played a pivotal role in the way jazz has developed over the years, which is why we highly recommend dipping at least your toe into this ocean of epic-ness.
So why not make the most of lockdown, fire up your Spotify, Amazon or Apple Music account, and get to know these ten amazing players...
Freddie Green (1911-1987)
You won’t find any solo albums (or probably even any actual guitar solos) attributed to this particular pioneer, for it was within the backline that Freddie Greens legacy shall remain. His use of chord voicings, strummed in a superbly tight 4-on-the-floor groove, set the standard for swing rhythm guitar playing, predominantly through his nearly 50 year tenure with the incredible Count Basie Orchestra. Green himself said that the guitar “should be part of the drums so it sounds like the drummer is playing chords”, whilst Basie referred to him as “my right arm” – praise indeed from the biggest and bestest big band master ever.
Django Reinhardt (1910-1953)
Swing wasn’t a uniquely American phenomenon, with European hot jazz exploding in popularity on the other side of the Atlantic during the 1930s. At the forefront of this movement was the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France, led by the insanely talented gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, who used the Selmer Maccaferri guitar to create a completely new sound and feel to jazz alongside the similarly incredible violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Have a listen to some of Django’s solos, and reflect that he managed this with only two fully functioning fingers on his fretting hand. Utterly incredible.
Charlie Christian (1916-1942)
Charlie Christian’s playing marked two pivotal points for jazz guitar – the use of an electric instrument for starters, which then naturally allowed for guitar solos to be heard over the rest of the band. And what solos! Trying to sound more like a tenor sax than a guitar, his single-line work is generally regarded as laying the foundations for bebop jazz, not to mention influencing later players in other styles – including Hendrix.
Wes Montgomery (1923-1968)
Can’t read a note of music? Neither could Wes Montgomery, but that certainly didn’t slow him down. Taking Charlie Christian’s soloing lead, but adding harmonic elements (including his trademark octaves), resulted in what can reasonably be described as the birth of modern jazz guitar style – just about every player since has cited his work as a principal influence. Oh, and he managed all this whilst picking only with his thumb, both up-strokes and down-strokes, originally as a result of practising more quietly for his neighbours’ benefit. What a thoughtful guy!
Barney Kessell (1923-2004)
Not just an ordinary session musician but privileged to belong to the legendary LA ‘Wrecking Crew’, Barney Kessell has lent his phenomenal skill to recordings by everyone from jazz greats (Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson), to pop stars (Cher) and any amount of film soundtracks, not to mention his own incredible recordings. Known for practising up to 16 hours a day at one point, his level of talent inspired Gibson to produce a twin-cutaway artist signature guitar bearing his name between 1961-1974.
Joe Pass (1929-1994)
Even in a list mainly comprised of guitar virtuosos, the name Joe Pass will always stand out. We’ll rely on quotes to describe this man, with the Times saying “He weaves his own fast-moving chords and filigree work so nimbly that it is hard to believe fingers can physically shift so quickly”, and New York magazine stating that “Joe Pass looks like somebody’s uncle and plays guitar like nobody’s business”. It’s difficult to pick a stand-out example of his playing since it’s all mind-blowingly good. But for some truly jaw-dropping sounds, check out his work with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Or, to put it more simply, a double bassist that's doubling Pass's solos, at full speed, note-for-note. Unbelievable...
João Gilberto (1931-2019)
Referred to as “O Mito” (“The Legend”) in his native Brazil, João Gilberto was responsible for that beautiful minimalist guitar line that drives The Girl From Ipanema, which also features vocals by his wife Astrud. This was the only single from the Grammy-award-winning Getz/Gilberto album of 1964, widely considered to be the record that popularized Bossa Nova throughout the world, and which remains one of the best selling jazz albums ever. Proof positive of just how wonderful a nylon-string classical acoustic can sound, and evidence that – even in jazz – less can definitely be more.
George Benson (1943-present)
It’s hard to figure out whether George Benson was mixing soul into jazz, or jazz into soul, but one word that can definitely be used to describe his contribution to music is ‘groove’. A virtuosic, bebop-influenced style, merged with a heathy dose of funk, pushed much of his output into the highly visible pop realm and resulted in his superstar status. He’s managed collaborations with everyone from Miles Davis to Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, yet still retained a huge amount of respect from jazz peers – no easy feat considering how conservative many were even as recently as the ‘70s. Performing scat vocals doubling the guitar line is a particularly kick-ass trademark technique!
John Scofield (1951-present)
Not many Berklee Music College students decide to quit school, but John Scofield had a reasonable excuse – he was off to do recording with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker (something that even his tutors probably couldn’t argue with). A true musical chameleon, and possibly the ultimate embodiment of jazz fusion when it comes to the guitar, Scofield’s distinctively penetrating jazz sound takes a distinct blues influence, wading through funk, rock and soul to great effect. Notwithstanding his live playing and albums with various pure jazz legends (Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock to name just three), other collaborations within his sizeable catalogue of recorded work have included artists as diverse as Jaco Pastorius, John Mayer and even Gov’t Mule.
Pat Metheny (1954-present)
Anyone who doesn’t associate jazz guitar with extensive use of technology has probably never encountered the work of Pat Metheny, who was one of the earliest players to use Roland guitar synths within the genre. He’s also one of the few jazz players to venture beyond conventional 6-stringed instruments, having variously employed 12-string guitars, baritone guitars, sitar guitars, and even a custom 42-string Pikasso guitar (which also interfaces with Metheny’s Synclavier synthesizer). But don’t think this man is all tricks and no talent – he’s worked with everyone from Ornette Coleman to David Bowie, has earned 20 Grammy awards across 10 categories, has taught at Berklee, and remains probably the most progressive jazz guitarist working today.
Wrapping it up
And there you have it – a brief but hopefully inspiring jog through just some of the names that have shaped jazz guitar playing over the past century. We must warn you that working through the back catalogue of these masters can be seriously addictive! But hey, right now we’ve got all the time in the world, and broadening our musical horizons seems like a sensible way to make quarantine more bearable. So, until next time...