Jazz Guitar History

Early Jazz Guitar History

The early days of jazz guitar history involved the instrument "fighting" for its role, since the banjo had proven to be a more common instrument, if for no other reason that its volume was more ensemble-friendly compared to the acoustic guitar. It was guitarist Eddie Lang who helped promote the guitar as a viable solo instrument. Blues and jazz guitarist Lonnie Johnson was also a significant jazz guitar pioneer, with a much more refined tone and style that was common amongst blues players, helping make the guitar a "respectable" jazz instrument.

Swing and Big Band

The three guitarists who helped cement the guitar as a signifiant solo and ensemble instrument are without a doubt Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Freddie Green, all of whom benefited from the rise of the electric guitar. The gypsy jazz guitarist Reinhard was an incredible soloist, especially considering that he could only use the first two fingers of his fretting hand to play his complex, fast solo lines. 

Charlie Christian, who spent most of his career with Benny Goodman, helped define not only jazz guitar soloing but helped set the stage for bebop jazz guitar. And though he only very rarely ever emerged as a solist, the Count Basie guitarist Freddie Green is synonymous with jazz rhythm guitar and is still its standard bearer.


Bebop, known for its intriciate chord changes (and key changes), fast tempo, and improvisational complexity saw many guitarists ris to the challenge. The aforementioned Charlie Christian is seen by many as a bridge between the world of swing/big band and bebop. Since the latter was focused on musicality rather than dancing, the tempos could truly be dizzying (if not terrifying). It's worth noting that some players often associated with bebop (e.g. Wes Montgomery) fall into the period of "cool jazz" and "hard bop" as well as traditional bebop. 

Post Bop/Fusion

Jazz music's reaction to bebop is the post-bop and fusion era, the former involving freer tempos and extended modal improvisation, which paved the way for the fusion of jazz and rock in the late 60s/early 70s. Important bridge figures during this time (and who were also capable of playing traditional and bebop style) were players like Pat Martino, Joe Pass, and Jim Hall.

The most significant jazz musician of the post-bop era was Miles Davis, whose album "Bitches Brew" helped serve as a bridge between bebop and jazz fusion. John McLaughlin served as Davis's guitarist on this album before launching his own well-respected fusion career. Other significant guitarists who launched their careers in the new era of jazz fusion include Larry Coryell, Pat Metheny, Al Di Meola, and Larry Carlton. 

1980s to Current

The fusion of jazz with rock and latin styles in the 1970s led the way for a new generation of players who are unafraid to experiment not only with new elements of jazz fusion, but who also embrace technological advancements, from advanced guitar effects to guitar synthesis. Players such as John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, and John Scofield build upon the traditions of the past while embracing new sounds and technology of the future.

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