Top Jazz Guitarists

Who are the Top Jazz Guitarists?

Let's be clear from the outset - my list of top jazz guitarists is a subjective list, but it's a list that's based on some hardcore facts - all of these players are not only well respected jazz players, but they have been proven time and time again to be influential to entire generations of jazz guitar players. What do you think of the list? Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below!

Wes Montgomery

Wes Montgomery is on anyone's list of top jazz guitarists. His album "Smokin' at the Half Note" is required listening and even beginning jazz guitarists instantly recognize Wes's characteristic use of octaves. His characteristic sound is due partly to his playing without a pick, relying primarily on his thumb, a technique he developed out of necessity (his wife and neighbors complained about the volume created with a pick).

Charlie Christian

If anyone can be considered the "father" of jazz guitar, it's the great Charlie Christian, whose sax-inspired solos set the standard for fluidity and swing for years to come. He was the first major jazz guitarist to be featured in a solo capacity and elevated the electric guitar to a prominent role. Along with Freddie Green, Christian helped define the standards of jazz guitar and is easily on anyone's list of top jazz guitarists.

John Scofield

Known for his work with Miles Davis as well as his solo work, the Berklee-educated John Scofield combines elements of blues, rock, funk, and, of course, jazz into his highly eclectic style. Favoring Ibanez semi-hollowbody guitars, Scofield has an amp and effects rig that hints more at rock and blues styles than traditional jazz, though his command of jazz certainly places him at the top of contemporary jazz guitarists, along with such players as Pat Methany and Bill Frisell.

Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell, currently the director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, has had a celebrated career of playing with a virtual who's who of the jazz world - Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Kenny Dorham, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman. His mastery of bebop and jazz blues have cemented his status as a top jazz guitarist.

Pat Martino

Known for his minor scale-based approached to improvisation as well as his fluid and precise picking technique, Pat Martino came to prominence in the 1960s, but is perhaps most well known in recent years for having to re-learn the instrument after brain surger robbed him of his memory, including his ability to play the guitar. Incredibly, Martino not only re-learned how to play but recovered his previous skills (if not surpassing them). His book "Linear Expressions" is a well-known text on jazz guitar improvisation and cements his status as a first-rate jazz educator as well as a top jazz guitarist.

Allan Holdsworth

It might be a stretch to call Allan Holdsworth a pure jazz guitarist, but he certainly falls into jazz fusion and jazz-rock categories, given his fast command of chord and scale theory. His legato technique is legendary, as are his unique (and often unplayable) chord voicings.

Al Di Meola

Known for his work with Chick Corea as well as his lighting-fast alternative picking technique, Al Di Meola is well regarded as a latin jazz and jazz fusion guitarist who has played with a number of fellow jazz luminaries such as Stanley Clark, Jean-Luc Ponty, John McLaughlin, and Jan Hammer. He is highly respected for both his solo work as well as his work with Return to Forever. His mastery of the fretboard as well as his incredible technique have earned him a spot on our list of top jazz guitarists.

Bill Frisell

While highly celebrated as one of most influential jazz guitarists of the last half century, Bill Frisell has successfully fused jazz, blues, rock, and classical influences into an eclectic musicality without peer. He studied with Dale Burning, Johnny Smith, and Jim Hall as part of his formal music education. Usually armed with a Fender Telecaster and an array of effects, Frisell is rightly considered a true master of the genre and one of the top jazz guitarists in the world.

Django Reinhardt

When he was only 18 years old, the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt lost the use of two fingers on his left hand, an injury that would have discouraged most musicians from continuing to play. Not only did Reinhardt continue to play the guitar, but he developed a unique style of soloing that established as one of the most significant top jazz guitarists of all time, known for his fluent gypsy jazz solos and original compositions.

Freddie Green

While jazz guitarists are often celebrated by their solo style and improvisational ability, one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time virtually never took a solo, the great Freddie Green. As the guitarist in Count Basie's orchestra, Freddie Green is widely remembered for his "4 to the bar" rhythm guitar style, where he would often change voicings on every beat, establishing the guitar as an essential rhythm section instrument.

Emily Remler

Although the world lost Emily Remler at the young age, in her short time on the jazz scene she made an incredible impact. Heralded by many as a future superstar, the Berklee graduate recorded seven albums before she died of a heart attack at the age of 32. She was well-respected for her hard bop and fusion styles and earned the status of a top jazz guitarist despite her youth.

Grant Green

Primarily influenced by horn players such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Grant Green is remembered for his blues-influenced lines, simplicity, and linear improvisation mastery. Green also had a tone that challenged the preconception that all jazz tones are "crystal clean," with a greasy, bluesy tone that makes his sound instantly recognizable.

Herb Ellis

Jazz great Herb Ellis studied string bass at the University of North Texas (then North Texas State), before dropping out to pursue a career in music. Ellis's style contains elements of bebop, blues, and even a bit of country (he was from Texas, after all). He made a name for himself playing with jazz great Oscar Peterson and was also a fixture on the West Coast studio scene for a number of years. 

Howard Roberts

Known as much for his educational contributions as his musicality (he was one of the founders of Musician's Institute, originally the Guitar Institute of Technology) Howard Roberts was not only a talented top jazz guitarist (check out Color Him Funky and H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player for confirmation) he was a member of the celebrated "Wrecking Crew" in the 1960s and appeared on countless TV and movie recordings.

Jim Hall

A noted composer and arranger as well as guitarist (he studied composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music), Jim Hall is generally considered one of the most influential and highly accomplished top jazz guitarists in history. Playing with other highler regarded musicians such as Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Pat Methany as well as a solo artist, Hall's strengths as a composer were evident in his playing, with his improvisation displaying the complex elements of jazz harmony, melody, and rhythm. He influenced an entire generation of jazz guitarists, including Pat Methany, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, and John Abercrombie.

Pat Metheny

A jazz guitar prodigy (he taught at the University of Miami while still in his teens and later at the Berklee School of Music), Pat Metheny came to prominence in the 1970s (recording and playing with such noted players as Jaco Pastorius, Mick Goodrick, Gary Burton, and Lyle Mays), first with Gary Burton and later with his own Pat Metheny Group. Known for his distinctive tone (unlike many jazz players, he doesn't shy away from signal processing), Metheny is known for his deep respect for the tradition of jazz, but he has never shyed away from musical or instrumental experimentation.

Joe Pass

It's fitting that Joe Pass recorded a series of albums entitled Virtuouso because he is universally recognized as a consummate top jazz guitarist and virtuouso. Few guitarists have ever been as comfortable playing solo or with a group as was Pass. He could play jazz standards unaccompanied and sound like he was an entire orchestra. He could play dizzying fast single-note lines as well as lay down a blues groove or play an improvised chord melody. He was a master of counterpoint which he regularly incorporated into his compositions and improvisations. 

Larry Carlton

Larry Carlton initially made a name for himself as a first-call session musician in Los Angeles in the 1970s, playing on albums for a wide array of artists, including Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell, and Quincy Jones. Known as "Mr. 335" due to his favoring the Gibson semi-hollowbody, he left the studio scene behind him and began his solo career in the late 70s. Known for his smooth lead sound, Carlton is a pioneer of both jazz fusion and smooth jazz, though he is well-recognized for his facility in blues and rock as well.

Larry Coryell

Larry Coryell is generally considered one of the main pioneers of jazz rock fusion, and began his career in the late 1960s, recording with noted vibrophonist Gary Burton. He went through an acoustic phase during the 1970s but eventually returned to the electric as his primary instrument. He has performed with many of his respected contempories (and successors) such as John Scofield, Steve Kahn, John McLaughlin, and Emily Remler.

Mike Stern

Originally interested in rock and blues, guitarist Mike Stern turned his attention to jazz while attending the Berklee School of Music. He joined Blood, Sweat, and Tears while only 22 years old and eventually joined Miles Davis with whom he played for several years. He also toured with jazz bass legend Jaco Pastorius before striking out on his own in the mid 1980s. Stern has played with a wide variety of different players, from jazz musicians like Bob Berg and Michael Brecker to more traditional rock players like Eric Johnson and Steve Vai. 

Les Paul

Few names are as iconic to the music industry - regardless of genre - than that of Les Paul (born Lester William Polsfuss). Though he is - perhaps rightly - remembered for his technological contributions, from the solidbody electric guitar to multitrack recording, Les Paul was a first-rate jazz guitar player who influenced everyone from George Benson to Al Di Meola with his fast, fluid jazz lines that demonstrated his own influences from the great Django Reinhardt and country and swing music.

Tal Farlow

The great Tal Farlow was a sporadic jazz genius, often putting his professional music career on hold to pursue his other professional passion, sign painting. He was known for his expansive and masterful chord melodies and his fast single note work, in part facilitated by his large hands, which earned him the nickname "Octopus." Like fellow bebop legend Wes Montgomey, Farlow was heavily influences by Charlie Christian, though it's safe to say that Farlow assimilated Christian's influence to become a jazz guitar legend in his own right.

Ted Greene

Unlike the other names on this list, Ted Greene did not leave behind a huge, or even significant, body of recorded work. In fact, Greene's legacy is in the influential teaching materials he produced during his tenure. Fortunately, thanks to sites such as YouTube and a large number of independent recordings, Greene's brilliant, often improvised, performances have finally found a broader audience. Greene could masterfuly perform an improvised chord melody that would take most players months to master. Of all his works, it was Chord Chemistry that cemented his status as a guitar genius, and his work influenced everyone from Steve Vai to Eric Johnson.

Barney Kessel

Few guitarists - jazz or otherwise - enjoyed a career as versatile and wide-ranging as Barney Kessel. A skilled bebop player, Kessel was also a highly in-demand session musician and onetime member of the notorious LA "Wrecking Crew." A friend and frequent jam partner with Charlie Christian, Kessel played also with Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Artie Shaw, and Oscar Peterson.

George Benson

Known almost as much for his beautiful singing voice as he his for his smooth jazz guitar lines, George Benson is a powerful contemporary jazz guitarist whose jazz stylings are obviously influenced by the great Wes Montgomery, but whereas Montomgery stayed focused on the jazz world, Benson is equally comfortable in straight-ahead jazz, soft jazz, soul, and R&B. While he had already established himself as a genuine jazz talent while still in his teens, it was his 1976 crossover album "Breezin'" that put Benson on the map and the charts. Still active well into his 70s, George Benson is easily one of the top jazz guitarists of all time.

Add Your Comments Here!

I'd love for you to be a contributor to!

Just fill out the information below to add to this page. I'll be in touch about your submission soon!

› Top Jazz Guitarists