The Most Famous Jazz Guitarists Of All Time

In this article we dive into the history of some of the best jazz guitarists of all time. Who were they, what did they play and how did they change the course of the music for future generations?

The importance of the guitar in the development of jazz cannot be underestimated, and as the music continued to evolve so has the role of the guitar. From its near cousin, the banjo, the stringed instrument has often provided a vital role as a chordal backbone of the music where it has not been possible to incorporate a piano.

The list of important guitarists takes a snapshot of the evolution of the guitar in jazz from early use of the electric guitar to the fleet fingered free flowing lines of the bebop and hard bop era.

Charlie Christian

Primarily regarded as a swing guitarist, Charlie Christian was one of the first to use the electric guitar as major solo voice.

His harmonic language was at times bordering towards a more sophisticated and complex approach and he is credited as being one of the early pioneers of the music developed in the early forties. His participation in this exciting time in jazz was however fleeting, but nevertheless his legacy has been long lasting.

Born in Bonham, Texas on July 29, 1916 to musical parents. The family relocated to Oklahoma when Christian was a small child. One of three children, all of whom learned to play instruments with a young Charlie picking up the guitar.

Christian’s big break came in in 1939 when he auditioned for producer John Hammond.

So impressed was he with Christian that he recommended him to Benny Goodman. At first non-plussed by the idea Goodman dismissed the notion, but when he found that Christian was on stage at the commencement of a concert, he could do nothing but hear the guitarist play.

He famously called ‘Rose Room’, a tune that he felt Christian would not know. The guitarist took a solo and played one chorus after another, each one different from the last. Goodman was greatly impressed, and Christian was in the band. When the clarinettist formed one of his small groups from within the big band, he immediately used Christian and many of these recordings would become classics.

Christian’s solos would be melodic and often sounding more like a horn from being influenced by saxophonist’s Lester Young and Herschel Evans. Developing this style still further, Charlie Christian would become a regular at Minton’s Playhouse where the beginning of bebop where being worked out.

Christian’s impact on the jazz scene was made even greater by its brevity. He was taken ill with tuberculosis in the late thirties and after several bouts of hospitalisation and recuperation he would resume playing. From this point his health would fluctuate, and he succumbed to the disease, and passed away on March 2, 1942.

Recommended album: Solo Flight, The Genius of Charlie Christian

Freddie Green

Of all the guitarists in jazz no one helped develop the role of the rhythm guitar more than Freddie Green. Joining Count Basie’s Orchestra in 1937.

Green would remain with Basie for fifty years, and in that time dedicated himself to making the band sound good. With Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass and drummer Jo Jones, Green would make one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz history. Such was the power and vitality of the rhythm section the whole orchestra would swing mightily.

If this seemed like magic to the audience, behind the scenes Basie would rehearse for hours with the rhythm section to ensure the engine of the band was functioning at the highest level.

Born on March 31, 1911, in South Carolina, Green’s parents died when he very young and he moved to New York City to live with his aunt. Ere he continued his education and interest in music and playing guitar.

By the time he reached his teens he was playing in local clubs. It was while working the clubs and also intensely with Basie that he developed his unique style and sound, muting certain strings so that only one or two notes in the chord seemed to be clearly heard.

With his interest was always in playing rhythm guitar he rarely took solos, but as part of the band that played at the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, he did indeed take a solo that has been recorded for posterity when at the invitation of Benny Goodman, he followed Johnny Hodges’s alto solo on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’.

However, this was an unusual occurrence and Green would continue to confine himself to a role of accompanist and be inextricably linked with the music of Count Basie. Freddie Green recorded countless albums with Basie, but only one under his name, Mr. Rhythm on RCA in 1955.

Recommended album: April In Paris (with the Count Basis Orchestra)

Kenny Burrell

Born in Detroit on 31 July, 1931, Kenny Burrell took up the guitar at the age of twelve and was initially influenced by Charlie Christian. Other early influences were Oscar Moore who was the guitarist in Nat King Cole’s trio and Django Reinhardt.

It was Reinhardt that Burrell credited with demonstrating “that you could get your own individuality on an instrument”.

The guitarist went on to study at Wayne State University in Detroit, also studying composition and theory with Louis Cabara along with classical guitar with Joe Fava, as well as recording with Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in 1951.

Graduating four years later he toured with Oscar Peterson and in 1956 relocated to New York City, along with fellow Detroit musician, Tommy Flanagan. It was not long before he had recorded his debut album, Introducing Kenny Burrell for Blue Note Records with pianist Flanagan, Paul Chambers on bass, drummer Kenny Clarke and Candido Camero on percussion.

He would go on to record prolifically as leader for the Blue Note, Prestige, Verve and Fantasy imprints as well as being much in demand as a sideman. Notable associations were with John Coltrane, Johnny Hodges, Donald Byrd, and especially the partnership with organ maestro, Jimmy Smith.

Burrell’s playing style is firmly rooted in the hard bop tradition of the day, and throughout the fifties and sixties was the preeminent guitarists of his generation.

With a reputation for always being at the service of the music, Burrell was more than just a solid and dependable musician but one of consummate skill and imagination. He could always be called upon to produce solos packed with interesting ideas.

As well as being well versed in the hard bop vernacular, the guitarist had not forgotten his early influences and between 1957 and 1959 Burrell occupied the guitar chair in Benny Goodman’s band that had once been taken by Charlie Christian.

In addition, while the two had never performed together, Duke Ellington is on record as saying that Kenny Burrell was his favourite guitarist, and Burrell returned the compliment in 1975 with his album Ellington Is Forever Vol.1 which is cited in The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD (Seventh Edition) as one of their Core Collection recordings.

Recommended album: Midnight Blue

Barney Kessel

One a host of iconic jazz musicians who straddled the eras between swing and bebop, Kessel is revered for his blues inflected playing and deep knowledge of chords and inversions.

Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on October 17, 1923 Kessel appears to be a natural musician having little formal education apart from 3 months of lesson at the age of twelve. As a teenager he would perform with local dance bands, and by the age of sixteen was reportedly practicing up to sixteen hours a day.

Moving to Los Angeles in early forties he was featured on the film Jammin’ The Blues and work also work regularly as part of Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic. In 1947 he also recorded with Charlie Parker on the saxophonist’s sessions on the West Coast for Ross Russell’s Dial Records.

The fifties were a highly productive time for Kessel as first call guitarist for many bandleaders and studio sessions as well as recording prolifically under his own name. The sixties found the guitarist busy in the recording studios as part of a group of session players known as The Wrecking Crew working for Columbia Pictures.

Leaving the studios behind to concentrate on his own solo career, Kessel’s swing brand of guitar playing would go on to be hugely successful with his Poll Winners trio with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelley Manne, as well as the three-guitar trio with Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis known as Great Guitars.

Kessel continued to perform his own inimitable style of jazz guitar until ill health took a hold in 1992, and the guitarist died from a brain tumour on May 6, 2004.

Recommended album: Red Hot And Blues

Jim Hall

Born into a musical family on December 4, 1930, the young Jim Hall took u the guitar at the age of ten.

Hearing Charlie Christian as a teenager Hall described this as his “spiritual awakening”. The guitarist has also listed saxophonists Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Thompson and Paul Gonsalves, and this is borne out in his flowing horn like lines on the guitar. Also taking up the double bass, Hall majored in composition and theory while also studying bass and piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

In 1955 he was playing in drummer Chico Hamilton’s quintet and a year later moved to Los Angeles. After establishing his reputation with Hamilton, he left the quintet and joined the Jimmy Giuffre Three, moving from the cool jazz of Hamilton to a more abstract and free form jazz with the clarinettist and saxophonist.

Leaving Guiffre in 1960, after a three year tenure, Hall moved to New York.

His reputation was by now firmly established and he began associations with Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins (playing on Rollins ‘comeback’ album The Bridge after one of the saxophonist’s sabbaticals), and Art Farmer. Another important association that would yield some classic recordings were with the pianist Bill Evans.

Only working together in the studio, Hall and Evans made a compelling partnership on recordings under the pianist’s leadership on the quintet albums, Interplay and Loose Blues; but it is on the duet album Undercurrent that the depth of the playing of the two musicians is completely realised.

Busy as a sideman and also spending much time in the studios and TV work throughout the sixties, Hall became dissatisfied and by the end of the decade decided to concentrate on his solo career.

He was frequently to be found touring and recording around Europe and Asia. Recording under his own name for MPS, Milestones and CTI Records the guitarist recorded at regular intervals and in a variety of contexts that also revealed his skills as an arranger.

With his delicate touch on the guitar and lyrical solos, Hall was a firm favourite with fellow musicians and audiences, He continued to record and tour until 2012, promoting the album Conversations in a duo with pianist, Kenny Baron.

Recommended album: Concierto

Joe Pass

Born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua on January 13, 1929, guitarist Joe Pass is regarded as one of the greatest post war exponents of his instrument.

He had a virtuoso technique with a creative imagination to match, and a style of playing that incorporated the innovations of Charlie Christian through to Wes Montgomery with a sound and delivery that was unmistakably his own.

Pass was given his first guitar at the age of nine after being impressed by seeing the actor and musician Gene Autry in the film ‘Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride’. From then on, he would attend weekly guitar lessons for a number months and was said to practice diligently.

By the age of fourteen he was proficient enough to play in the bands of Charlie Barnett and Tony Pastor, and travelling widely with small bands, making his way to New York.

The city that was to make the young guitarist’s career nearly broke him, as he quickly became addicted to heroin. The fifties were not a good time for Pass as addiction took hold interspersed with spells in prison for drug related offences.

By the beginning of the next decade, Pass was clean and back playing and recoding for Pacific Jazz and picking u the Downbeat award for New Star I 1963. He would spend much time in the recording studios as a session player and was also signed by Norman Granz for his Pablo imprint.

Pass would make many fine albums for Pablo as leader and also play on recordings with Benny Carter, Milt Jackson, Zoot Sims and form important associations with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, recording six essential jazz albums with Ella.

Pass would continue to perform and record in various permutations up until his death in May 1994. Often he would give over part of each set to a playing solo guitar, and it is hugely rewarding to hear Pass in this manner. With fast moving chords and fleet single note lines it is impossible not to be swept along by the sheer warmth and dynamism of his playing.

Recommended album: Virtuoso

Herb Ellis

Of the same generation as Joe Pass, Jim Hall and Barney Kessel, (he was born on August 4, 1921) Herb Ellis also learned his craft bridging the gap between swing and bebop.

Firstly, taking up the guitar and gaining some proficiency he went on to study at North Texas State University majoring in music. The University did not have guitar program so Ellis switched to double bass. Running out of funds to continue his education, Ellis was soon back playing guitar and joining Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.

From here he joined Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra and was able to record some of his early solos.

When the Dorsey band had a gap in their schedule, Ellis used the time to team up with pianist Lou Carter and violinist John Frigo forming the trio that became known as Soft Winds for what would become a six month engagement at the Peter Stuyvesant Hotel in Buffalo.

In 1953, Ellis’s career received a further boost when he replaced Barney Kessel in Oscar Peterson’s trio with bassist Ray Brown. This is probably Herb Ellis’s best known gig and he stayed with Peterson for five years.

In addition to work as a trio, the unit complete with drummer would act as the house band for Verve Records accompanying Ben Wester, Stan Getz, Roy Eldridge, and Harry “Sweets” Edison among others. They would also form the band to accompany Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on several acclaimed albums for the label.

Ellis was also part of the guitar supergroup Great Guitars with Barney Kessel and Chalie Byrd and would continue to record and perform until his death in March 2010.

Recommended album: Nothin’ But The Blues

Wes Montgomery

Of all the artists discussed above, Wes Montgomery is probably today regarded as the most influential jazz guitarist of all time.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 6, 1925, Montgomery’s career was tragically short with the guitarist suffering a fatal heart attack at the age of just 43 in June 1968.

Influencing players such as George Benson, Larry Coryell, John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Russell Malone among countless others, Montgomery’s career is all the more remarkable for its brevity and the fact it can be said that he had two careers. Firstly, as a jazz guitarist and also as a crossover artist recording intrumental versions of contemporary pop hits that brought him great commercial success.

It is as jazz musician that arguably Montgomery made his greatest contribution.

A self-taught musician and influenced by the innovations of Charlie Christian, Montgomery was a late starter on the guitar at the age of nineteen and learned by imitating Christian. He learned quickly and developed the rather unusual technique of plucking or striking the strings with his thumb.

This use of the fingers on the strings gave a softer and warmer sound than using a pick, and with his technique of playing in octaves give him an instantly identifiable sound. He would also incorporate subtle chord substitutions in his solos so that the was playing a different set of chords to the rhythm section.

Coupled with his harmonic sophistication and inherent lyricism this was a devasting combination producing some of the most fluid and inventive guitar playing of the late fifties and early sixties.

Recordings for Pacific Jazz and Riverside capture the guitarist at the height of his powers, while his later albums for Verve and A&M Records, from 1964 to 68) under producer Creed Taylor were more commercially orientated.

It is generally regarded that by the middle of the 1960’s Montgomery had done enough to secure his place in jazz history as one of the pioneers of the guitar.

Recommended album: Incredible Jazz Guitar 

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Looking for more? Check out our round up some of the most important modern jazz guitarists to check out.

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