The evolution of the jazz guitar, part 1

The following series on the evolution of the jazz guitar briefly describes each era in the development of this genre, however it omits the names of several important musicians who are not guitarists and also does not go into detail about several important contributions they made. Its main objective is to educate the reader about the role played by the guitar in each stage of the history of music, as well as to introduce us to its most influential interpreters.

Before we begin, I would like to point out that the guitar played a minor role in jazz prior to the 1930s. It was not until after this period in time that the guitar began to develop its own sophisticated voice and first appeared in jazz improvisation on par with piano, brass and woodwind soloists. Instead of this fact, I have chosen to start this series with the swing era.

Many believe that the most prominent contribution of the swing era to jazz is the introduction of the “big band” orchestral format. In addition to a combination of brass, woodwind instruments, and a rhythm section, until the 1930s most dance orchestras also included a string section. String instruments were removed from the format and new orchestras rationalized for daring new swing arrangements that featured not only highly orchestrated music influenced by European traditions, but also a soloist who after taking center stage, would improvise on top of it. frame around the stage. bedroom. It was not unusual for other soloists to join in at times and engage in collective improvisation, a practice that is already common when performing Blues and Dixieland.

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, jazz was not considered a respectable form of music among the majority white public due to the fact that it was synonymous with brothel music and black culture. However, in 1930 George Gershwin was responsible for completing the assimilation of jazz into white American society by writing I have rhythm for a hit Broadway musical. One of the musicians who played in the pit orchestra at that show was a young clarinetist named Benny Goodman who became one of the most influential band leaders of the swing era. Up to this point, most of the conductors associated with jazz were black. Benny Goodman has not only been credited for being one of the first white bandleaders in the jazz world (along with Glen Miller and the Dorsey brothers), but also for introducing us to Charlie Christian, one of the first electric guitarists in history. of jazz. improvisation.


Christian was born in Bonham, Texas, on July 29, 1919, and raised in Oklahoma City. It was here that Christian learned to play the guitar as a child. As a result of his surroundings, he was influenced not only by jazz and blues, but also by country music. This hybrid amalgam of influences is evident when listening to several of his recordings such as “Seven Come Eleven”, with the Benny Goodman Sextet. Christian admitted wanting to sound like a tenor saxophone and therefore his horn fluids were influenced by saxophonists like Lester Young. While working in Oklahoma as a young musician, Christian was able to play with several big name musicians who came to town, such as Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. It was pianist Mary Lou Williams who first spoke to record producer John Hammond about the talented young guitarist. After auditioning for Christian, Hammond arranged a meeting with Benny Goodman. The first white bandleader to feature black musicians, in 1939 Goodman hired Charlie Christian to play in his newly formed sextet, also with Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and Teddy Wilson on piano. Soon after, Christian’s innovative style on guitar was captured in the studio for the first time. Unfortunately, his recording career lasted less than two years, as he died of tuberculosis on March 2, 1942 in New York.


In his autobiography, talent scout and producer John Hammond describes how he first discovered Freddy Green playing at a mob-owned venue in New York City called “The Black Cat.” He says that what impressed him the most was how Green, with his “unusually long fingers, a firm stroke, held the entire rhythm section together.” It was 1937 and bandleader Count Basie was making his orchestra debut in town when Hammond took him to the Black Cat to hear Green. Shortly after this meeting, Basie hired Green, who went on to record with his big band for the first time on March 26, 1937, and thereafter remained a member for nearly half a decade. This gave birth, along with Basie on piano, Jo Jones on drums and Walter Page on bass, to the legendary “All American Rhythm Section”. When asked why he stopped at the high register of the keyboard during his solos, Count Basie’s response was … “After all, I have the best rhythm section in the world.”

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 31, 1911, Freddy Green pioneered the way a guitar should function both rhythmically and harmonically within the big band. During one of his interviews he stated that “you should never listen to the guitar by itself. It should be part of the drums so that it sounds as if the drummer is playing chords, as if the snare is in A or the hi-hat is in D minor.” Green, who used to hold the guitar almost flat on his lap, preferred a guitar without amplification and rarely used. He was a minimalist in selecting his chord voices, which often consisted of the 3 most essential notes that each chord included (root, third, and seventh). The soundless strings were silenced by his left hand. This technique resulted in a percussion effect that not only fit tightly with the drums, but also helped avoid any interference with the rich collective harmony that the band played in general.

Freddie Green passed away on March 1, 1987 at the age of 75.


During the 1930s in Europe, another major movement known as “Gypsy Swing” emerged among jazz fans. It was inspired by Belgian-born guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt. Also known as “jazz manouche”, his orchestration consisted of guitar (usually 2), violin, accordion, clarinet and double bass. The percussive nature of the drums was replaced by a rhythm guitar technique known as “the bomb.” Another peculiar feature of this style is the use of mainly 2- and 3-finger chord structures instead of the standard barre chords on guitar. This is to emulate the unique style that Django Reinhardt developed for playing chords as a result of a hand injury. At the age of 18, Reinhard’s caravan caught fire and two of his left fingers were badly burned. Although he was able to relearn how to play his single-string solos at fiery tempos with just 2 fingers, his remaining digits were reserved for a limited physical role in chord formation. As a result, Django’s chords consisted of only the essential notes. What a coincidence that in this same period of time, thousands of miles away, guitarist Freddie Green developed a very similar harmonic concept except for different reasons!

In 1934, Reinhardt and the Parisian violinist St├ęphane Grappelli formed the “Quintette du Hot Club de France”. The guitars used by Django and the Hot Club of France, the Selmer maccaferri, are the first commercially available guitars with a cutaway. This was the first time a steel reinforced neck was used. Many luthiers consider them one of the best guitars ever made.

Django Reinhardt died on May 16, 1953 in Fountainbleu, France of a brain hemorrhage. Contemporary gypsy jazz is kept alive today thanks to many guitarists such as Bireli Lagrene, Boulou and Elios Ferre, Babik Reinhardt, Angelo DeBarre, Jimmy Rosenberg and John Jorgensen, among others.

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