Essential Modern Jazz Guitarists (Guide)

Looking to expand your knowledge of the contemporary music scene? Here’s our pick of some of the most famous modern jazz guitarists you should check out…

From the very origins of the music firstly the banjo and then the guitar have been a feature in jazz. More portable than piano for travelling bands, and easier to record in some early jazz.

Since then, the guitar has retained his position as one of the leading instruments, whether as accompanist or solo instrument the guitar has proved to be remarkably versatile.

From Freddie Green with the Count Basie Orchestra providing a throbbing vibrant pulse within the rhythm section, to performing an accompanists role placing the piano, and providing a more spacious setting for the soloists. 

The instrument has also had its fair share of star soloists from Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow and Wes Montgomery to name just a few, and with the continued advances in electric guitars and electronic instruments, a whole new sound world has opened up for guitarists in all fields of music.

These advances in technology have been thoroughly embraced by jazz guitarists the world over and some of the most creative exponents are discussed in this article.

Bill Frisell (b. 1951)

In a career that spans more than 40 years, Bill Frisell has been one of the most prolific and imitated guitarists of recent years. He does not play with a pure jazz sound but has a fondness for colouring his sound with the use of pedals and electronic effects. This has always been done with consummate mastery and good taste.

Getting his big break making a series of sideman appearances on ECM Records with Jan Garbarek and Paul Motian (with who he formed a trio with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano). He has recorded for the imprint under his own name, most recently with bassist Thomas Morgan.

Other important associations have been with John Zorn, the Gnostic Trio and Naked City. Frisell always has something interesting to contribute to any context and has over the last few years has been recording for the Blue Note label.

Recommended Listening: Valentine (Blue Note)

John Scofield (b. 1951)

Coming to prominence in the band of Miles Davis in the early eighties, Scofield had indeed been musically active and making records for a few prior. Undoubtably his association with the trumpeter catapulted him into the major league this is no less than his considerable talent deserved. 

Since then, he has been in demand as sideman in numerous recordings by Tommy smith, Joe Henderson, Marc Johnson, Jim Pepper, George Adams, and Paul Bley among others. He has a highly developed harmonic sense and his solos and accompaniment have a logical if at times ambiguous logic.

He has an extensive discography as leader having recorded for Verve, Blue Note, Impulse! Records and ECM, and his fusion of jazz, rock and blues has led to pone of the most unique and original guitar voices of the last fifty years. A recent all solo record for ECM finds the guitarist distilling everything he has processed in half a century of playing in a superbly conceived recording.

Recommended Listening: John Scofield (ECM)

Pat Metheny (b. 1954)

The Missouri born guitarist has perhaps done more than anyone else to ensure that his instrument remains at the forefront of contemporary jazz. He has the accolade of being the youngest ever teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston while he was still a teenager. 

Not only is he in possession of an instantly identifiable sound on the guitar he is also renowned as a pioneer of technology with his use of the synclavier, guitar synthesizer. He also developed the 42-string Pikasso guitar.

With keyboard player Lyle Mays he led the Pat Metheny Group with the Metheny/Mays axis creating a distinctive compositional style. The PMG would go through several different formations from quartet to octet throughout it existence but he quality of the compositions and the playing never wavered.

Since the demise of the PMG, Metheny has continued to pursue his love of jazz guitar and the use of electronics with several ambitious large scale projects as well a more conventional trio, and 2012 formed a band with saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and Antonio Sánchez on drums.

Recommended Listening: Dream Box (Modern Recordings)

Peter Bernstein (b.1967)

A mainstay of the New York jazz scene for more than thirty years, and perhaps can be seen as the link between the mainstream and the contemporary players to follow. After being invited to play in an event alongside Jim Hall (who extended the invite), Pat Metheny and John Scofield, Bernstein has gone on to carve a career that has seen him playing in some pretty fast company. 

The early 1990s found him playing in the bands of musicians such as saxophonist Lou Donaldson as well as drummer Jimmy Cobb and was also part of a highly regarded trio with organist Larry Young and Bill Stewart on drums.  

In addition to leading his own groups, he spent 2 years as a member of Joshua Redman’s band between 1995 and 1997, and in 1999 began another two-year association, this time with singer/pianist Diana Krall.

Firmly in the tradition of the great guitarists of the 1950s and 60s, Bernstein is able to adapt his playing to ensure that he is at home in most settings, and his melodic and swinging guitar playing has graced albums by Eric Alexander, Melvin Rhyne, Dr Lonnie Smith, as well on a small but significant discography of his own.

Recommended Listening: Toy Tunes with Larry Goldings, Bill Stewart (Pirouet)

Kurt Rosenwinkel (b. 1970)

One of the most individual guitarists of his generation, Kurt Rosenwinkel shares much of the harmonic ingenuity of John Scofield and Bill Frisell and blends this with his fluid yet rhythmically free style has evolved into a unique sonic sound that incorporates electronics to fine effect.

With other musicians of his generation the guitarist has helped shape a new way of taking the music forward. With his contributions to the albums of saxophonists Mark Turner and Joshua Redman respectively, Rosenwinkel brought a harmonic slant that help lift the music.

Determined also to work on his own recordings and music, he has recorded for Verve, Fresh Sound and Criss Cross, and in 2016 formed his own label Heartcore Records to help promote new artists as well as release his own material.

Recommended Listening: The Remedy (WOMMUSIC))

Lionel Loueke (b. 1973)

The Benin born guitarist has made quite an impact on the international jazz scene in a short period of time with his infectious blend of West African music and jazz. Loueke took up at the guitar at the relatively late age of seventeen, after having started out on vocals and percussion. 

Mentored by none other than Herbie Hancock and playing in the pianist’s band for more than a decade, Loueke made his major label debut in 2008 for Blue Note with his album Karibu that featured both Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter as guests.

Loueke’s melding of African music and jazz, coupled with his use of both conventional and extended guitar techniques has seen his services sought after by Terence Blanchard, Gretchen Parlato, Jeff Ballard and the co-led group with Gilfema with Ferenc Nemeth and Massimo Biolcati.

Recommended Listening: HH (Edition Records)

Mary Halvorson (b. 1980)

Initially beginning her musical studies on violin, Halvorson switched to the guitar at the age of 11. Her progressive on the instrument was rapid and after deciding that she wanted to be a rock musician, she was swayed by her first guitar teacher who introduced her to jazz.

Halvorson cites her influences as Jimi Hendrix and later Anthony Braxton. It was while playing with Braxton that she realised that she did not have to be restricted to any one particular genre and that it was okay to move between different idioms and styles, and it is this freedom of musical movement that has characterised her musical development.

Sitting somewhat outside of the mainstream, or perceived jazz norm, Halvorson has steadfastly continued on her own musical path. She has a significant presence as side woman on the recordings of likeminded musicians including Tom Rainey, Ingrid Laubrock, Kirk Knuffke and Marc Ribot. In addition, she is proactive in continuing to produce her own music.

Recommended Listening: Amaryllis (Nonesuch)

Julian Lage (b. 1987)

A child prodigy, Lage started to learn to play the guitar at the age of five, he progressed quickly and just a year later gave his first public performance. Studying under Jim Hall, the guitarist is now based in New York and boasts a resumé that includes Gary Burton, John Zorn and Fred Hersch among others.

Making his recording debut in 2009, he gave notice that a major new player had arrived on the scene. This auspicious debut, Sounding Point was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.  

After recording several acclaimed albums for Mack Avenue, Lage has now found a home with Blue Note Records and has released three albums for the imprint, including the highly impressive View with a Room with his regular trio of bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King alongside fellow guitarist Bill Frisell.

Recommended Listening: Squint (Blue Note)

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