A Brief History of the Jazz Guitar

The following excerpt is taken from "The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide" by Scott Yanow. You can buy the entire book on Backbeat.com.

The history of the guitar in jazz can be divided into three separate struggles: the battle to become part of jazz, to be audible, and to find its own role in the music. It took some time, but the jazz guitar won all three battles and is now in its golden age.

New Orleans Jazz

While it is tempting to say that the jazz guitar began with Eddie Lang in 1925, the guitar was used in jazz groups from the very beginning. Most early New Orleans bands had a guitarist, and in fact, one of the first bands to be considered a bit jazz-oriented was led by guitarist Charlie Galloway as early as 1889. Galloway led a string band that by the mid-1890s also had brass and woodwind players, including pioneer cornetist Buddy Bolden, shortly before Bolden put together his own group in 1895. Bolden’s bands of 1895–1906 usually had a guitarist, including Galloway, Brock Mumford (who was with Bolden during 1897–1905 and is in the only photograph ever taken of the cornetist) and Lorenzo Staulz. Other early jazz guitarists (none of whom had the chance to record) include Dominick Barocco, Joe Guiffre, Coochie Martin and Rene Baptiste. Louis Keppard (1888–1986), cornetist Freddie Keppard’s older brother, led the Magnolia Orchestra (his sidemen included King Oliver, trombonist Honoré Dutrey and bassist Pops Foster) around 1910. While he worked with other New Orleans bands and visited Chicago as early as 1917, Keppard spent his life in New Orleans, and his only recordings were with Wooden Joe Nicholas in 1949.

A feature on the New Orleans music scene from around 1890–1920 was string bands that usually consisted of guitar, bass, and mandolin or violin. String bands played for dances and parties in which quieter and more polite music was desired rather than brass bands. While several string bands recorded, none of the ones that appeared on record before 1917 could be considered jazz groups. Eventually cornets, clarinets and other instruments were added, and by the mid-1920s, this type of string band had passed into history. Although the guitar preceded the banjo into jazz groups, by the time jazz was starting to be recorded, the guitar (which was considered inaudible by recording engineers) was largely absent in favor of the louder banjo.

Battlin' the Banjo

Prior to 1925, not only was Nick Lucas the most significant jazz guitarist, but, at least on records, he was practically the only one. Lucas, who recorded test cylinders as early as 1912, began making records in 1921. His “Pickin’ The Guitar” and “Teasing The Frets” from 1922 are the earliest examples of unaccompanied solo guitar. Lucas fought to record on guitar with studio orchestras at a time when banjos were becoming commonplace. But due to the popularity of his singing, by the mid- 1920s his guitar playing had become secondary to his vocals. Eddie Lang played both guitar and banjo with Red McKenzie’s Mound City Blue Blowers during 1924–25 and then became a very significant New York studio musician. Due to the sophistication and versatility of his playing and the steady improvement in recording techniques, during 1925–29 the guitar won its battle over the banjo to be accepted in jazz.

The guitar was found to be a much more flexible instrument, and while still felt more than heard in dense ensembles, it gradually became an indispensable instrument in larger ensembles and big bands, keeping the rhythm steady and stating chords. While guitar soloists were very common in blues recordings from the mid-1920s on, they were a rarity in jazz for quite some time. Although the acoustic guitar could now at least be heard, it rarely had the commanding presence needed to be a solo instrument. Even Lang was mostly featured as a supportive player who took very brief solo breaks on most recordings on which he appeared. There were some special occasions, including dates where he was accompanied by just a pianist, and brilliant duet guitar sessions with Lonnie Johnson and Carl Kress, but even sessions that he co-led with violinist Joe Venuti mostly had Lang supplying the accompaniment. The same was true of such superb late 1920s/early ’30s studio guitarists as Carl Kress, Dick McDonough and George Van Eps.

Going Electric

The top guitar soloist of the 1930s (and possibly of all time) was Django Reinhardt. He overcame the difficulty in being heard by performing with the premiere swing string group, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, which featured him joined by violinist Stéphane Grappelli, two rhythm guitars and string bass. A strong influence in Europe during the era, Reinhardt was overshadowed by the arrival in 1939 of Charlie Christian and the electric guitar, and few today realize that by the late 1940s he had developed into one of the top bop-oriented guitarists.

Django Reinhardt aside, few jazz guitarists of the 1930s had much solo space and, due to their instrument being so quiet, were restricted to keeping the rhythm behind other soloists. While the rhythm guitar is an art form in itself, and nearly every big band of the swing era included a rhythm guitarist in its lineup (Freddie Green with Count Basie and Allan Reuss with Benny Goodman were among the best), it was a frustrating role for those who wanted to solo and be on an equal footing with horn players. As early as the 1920s, there were experiments that sought to amplify the guitar, including those by Les Paul and George Barnes in the early-to-mid- 1930s. An amplified guitar was patented by George Beauchamp as early as 1931, and some were built the following year, but they were not considered very efficient. An amplified Hawaiian guitar was used by musicians who played Hawaiian music, including Andy Iona as early as 1933. But it was not until March 1, 1938, when George Barnes recorded two songs on an electric Spanish guitar on a date with Big Bill Broonzy, that the electric guitar made its debut in jazz.

Getting Louder

Fifteen days later, Eddie Durham recorded on electric guitar with the Kansas City Five (a group of Count Basie–associated musicians). That year, several acoustic guitarists began to experiment with the electric guitar, including Charlie Christian.When Christian was discovered by producer John Hammond and joined Benny Goodman in 1939, it changed the history of the guitar. For the first time, a guitarist could compete on the same level (both artistically and in volume) with a horn player. Christian was influenced not so much by Lang and Reinhardt as by Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong. His phrases and catchy riffs became the main source of the vocabulary of guitar soloists for the next 25 years. His influence on guitarists was similar to that of Charlie Parker on horn players a few years later. In fact, the early history of the guitar can be divided into two periods: before Charlie Christian and after Charlie Christian. Christian’s early death in 1942 kept him from exploring bebop, but he set the stage for what was to come on his instrument. With only a few exceptions, the jazz guitarists who emerged during the 1940s, ’50s and at least the first half of the ’60s were following closely in Charlie Christian’s footsteps. Even the ones who developed their own approach to bebop sounded like close relatives. Tiny Grimes, Al Casey, Oscar Moore and Slim Gaillard were among the first to be influenced by Christian.

Going Solo

The bop era included some fine guitarists (including Barney Kessel, Remo Palmieri, Chuck Wayne, Billy Bauer and Bill DeArango) but none had the impact of a Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. In the 1950s, Jimmy Raney was the best of the cool jazz guitarists, Johnny Smith was greatly admired, Tal Farlow could not be beat at fast tempos, Herb Ellis avoided being buried by Oscar Peterson (a difficult feat), and Kenny Burrell pioneered the guitar-bass-drums trio. The Chico Hamilton Quintet featured such guitarists as Jim Hall, John Pisano and Dennis Budimir. The guitar became an integral part of soul-jazz organ groups, interacting with organ, drums and sometimes a tenor-sax. The 1960s brought to fame Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and George Benson. But still to a large extent, nearly all of the jazz guitarists of the time were strongly influenced by Charlie Christian. Even Montgomery, whose mastery of octaves and brilliance put him on the level of the very best ever, and Green, who stuck exclusively to single-note lines and considered his main influences to be horn players, were followers of Christian even as they developed their own individual voices within that style. Joe Pass brought the solo bop guitar to an unprecedented level in the 1970s. But few, other than the Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida and Charlie Byrd (inspired by Django Reinhardt, classical music and Brazilian players), were able to forge new paths for the instrument.

While the guitar had succeeded in being part of jazz, and it was very audible, there was no equivalent to John Coltrane or Miles Davis. No guitarist was blazing a new path in jazz, much less influencing players of other instruments, at least not yet. That all changed by the end of the 1960s. First there were some new individualists who were much less influenced by Christian. Larry Coryell, who can be considered the first fusion guitarist, brought the influence of mid-1960s rock and electric blues into jazz. Gabor Szabo, playing with Chico Hamilton and his own groups, brought in his Eastern European heritage. Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock came up with two very different ways of playing avantgarde jazz. But it was the arrival of John McLaughlin, who brought the sound, power and energy of rock along with a superb technique and a constantly fertile imagination, that opened up infinite possibilities for jazz guitarists. No longer did guitarists have to compete with or play a subservient role to horn players. They could be the leaders and the main stars, and they could play in any style that they desired, or have an approach beyond any style.

Evolution of Jazz Guitar

Since the early 1970s, the evolution of the jazz guitar has gone in many different directions. John McLaughlin went in several directions by himself, playing fusion, Indian music, straight-ahead jazz and unclassifiable post-bop. Al Di Meola went from fusion to other forms of creative jazz strongly influenced by world music. Larry Coryell has covered fusion and bop, and all three of these guitarists have spent a lot of time exploring the acoustic guitar. Other adventurous guitar greats of the past 40 years have included Pat Martino (who slightly preceded McLaughlin), John Abercrombie, Philip Catherine, Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, Steve Khan, Terje Rypdal, Ralph Towner (mostly on acoustic guitar) and Mike Stern. That only scratches the surface of the present state of the jazz guitar. The “big three” of modern jazz guitar—Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell—while all saying that they were inspired to a degree by the still very active Jim Hall, each have their own sounds and musical personalities, playing music beyond any simple classification.

There are also many guitarists around who play mainstream jazz or creatively in historic styles, including Marty Grosz, Howard Alden, Peter Bernstein, Joe Cohn, Russell Malone and Duke Robillard. Pop/jazz is well represented by Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, both Stanley Jordan and Charlie Hunter have come up with new techniques to express themselves in straight-ahead and funky jazz, and Earl Klugh shows how pretty a guitar can sound. In addition, the rise of “gypsy jazz,” first in Europe and more recently in the United States, has resulted in many guitarists exploring the musical legacy of Django Reinhardt, often on acoustic guitar. These include Biréli Lagrène, Stochelo Rosenberg, Jimmy Rosenberg, Dorado Schmitt, and Angelo Debarre among many others. Whether played by Kurt Rosenwinkel or Julian xiv Introduction to the Jazz Guitarists Lage, Anthony Wilson or Eugene Chadbourne, the potential of the jazz guitar is limitless and the current scene is full of giants.

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