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The World’s Top 10 Best Jazz Guitarists of All Time

There can be no denying it, jazz music has shaped the course of music history like no other genre. It’s given way to some of the greatest musicians the world has ever known, and inspired some of the world’s most influential musicians.

The following is a brief list that includes some of the world’s best jazz guitarists of all time. Whether you’re an aspiring jazz musician or just someone who appreciates the music, this list is for you.

Charlie Christian

Charles “Charlie” Christian was an American jazz guitarist who lived from 1916-1942. He is credited with bringing the jazz guitar out of the rhythm section and into the world of solo instrumentals. He was called the best improvisational talent of the swing era and one of the founding fathers of bebop, while single-handedly influencing nearly every other artist on our list. He was so diverse that he eventually was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame for his early influence.

Wes Montgomery

As the jazz music world continued to gain popularity, more artists emerged. Among them was Wes Montgomery, who was greatly influenced by Charlie Christian. In fact, he learned Christian’s solo and often played them note for note. Montgomery would eventually develop powerful techniques and lines for his own solos which would make him one of the most important and best jazz guitarists of all time. He later would be imitated for generations of jazz musicians.

Jim Hall

Improvisation was Jim Hall’s preference for developing new music. Hall discovered there was more to jazz than bebop, and eventually drew the attention of some of the best musicians in the 60’s including the Sonny Rollins’ band and Bill Evans, among others. His style and technique is one of the best seen in jazz music.

Freddie Green

We couldn’t go this entire list without mentioning William “Freddie” Green. While his journey with music started with the banjo, Green went on to play in clubs throughout New York as a teenager and quickly discovered his love for jazz guitar. He is known for his complicated rhythm guitar technique that blended perfectly with Big Band music.

Joe Pass

Joe Pass also emerged in the 60’s and went down as one of the best solo jazz guitarists of all time. With his extensive knowledge of lines, he created a reputation that continues to inspire artists to this day.

B.B. King

B.B. King was an American singer and jazz guitarist, and also one of the most famous artists to ever grace the American continent. There isn’t much we can say about B.B. that hasn’t already been said, but what we can point out is that he is considered one of the most influential jazz and blues musicians of all time. And will be for the foreseeable future.

Django Reinhardt

Belgian-born French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, is thought to be one of the best jazz guitarists of all time. Reinhardt was the father of what is known today as “hot jazz” and goes down as one of the best jazz guitarists of all time.

George Benson

George Benson was born a jazz guitarist artist. He started off playing soul jazz and eventually broke onto the pop scene. He used a similar technique to that of Reinhardt, but was himself an incredible artist.

Larry Carlton

Larry Carlton, like George Benson, started playing guitar at a young age. Later in life he would play with the likes of Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and many more. His work within the jazz world is recognized the world over, and his songs continue to provide music for millions.

John Scofield

John Scofield was an American jazz-rock guitarist and composer. His work enabled him to work with everyone from Pat Metheny to Miles Davis. His talents spanned genres including funk, jazz-fusion and rock.

There you have it. Our picks for the best jazz guitarists in history.


Pat Metheny (1954- Age 61)

pat-metheny-listeningBorn August 12, 1954 and raised in Lee’s Summit (near Kansas City, Missouri), Pat Metheny is the most influential jazz guitarist of his generation. He reinvented the traditional “jazz guitar” sound for a new breed of players coming up in the 80’s, 90’s and beyond.

What’s particular about Pat’s style, is that from his deep blues, americana and bebop roots, he has the ability to express modern melodic ideas (“hip stuff” so to speak) that still resonate with millions of listeners worldwide. Of course, all the while he stays within what we can call “jazz tradition”.

His compositions (being his main improvisational vehicles) can scare so-called jazz purists in the blink of an eye. More often than not, they’ll say “it’s not real jazz”. Metheny defends his creative output by arguing that this is what jazz is all about: expression how *you* feel about something, trail blazing, news paths and constantly re-inventing oneself.

On the other hand, his *guitar* playing is deeply grounded in melody, swing and the blues. Nothing scary there! Would it NOT be for his own tunes, Pat Metheny can even be perceived as a almost traditional “straight ahead” player at the first listen.

As if an international career with hundreds of recording credits under his belt and a influence that will transcend time and genres is not enough, Pat’s has been awarded a honorary doctorate by Berklee College of Music, recorded three albums that went “Gold”, was voted “Guitarist of the Year” in Downbeat many times over

… and was awarded TWENTY Grammy’s awards! (last update February 2015)

Related: read 3 Ways Pat Metheny is using The Secret

7 Interesting Facts about Pat Metheny

Gear and Playing Style

Metheny’s virtuosity and technique are very unusual. Watch him play a little (on YouTube or DVD’s of live concerts.) You’ll notice unorthodox picking (with the round end of the pick ) and fretting techniques (thumb over the neck)

Even with strange technique habits, he can play in different styles and shine in many musical ways. Pat’s outstanding improvising skills also allow him to “blow” over basically anything… (chord progressions, time signature, style, tempo etc.) For the record, Pat admits it’s Wes Montgomery albums (especially “Smokin’ at the Half-Note”) that taught him how to play.

His spectacular soloing over jazz (and even on more pop/folk/rock oriented songs sometimes) always carry the “Metheny” trademark voice and sound. From his standards jazz trio to very large ensembles, Pat’s guitar improvisations are always breathtaking and heart-melting. Virtuosity meets bluesiness and harmonic sophistication in a way that’s uniquely his own.

Apart from his main “jazz box” axe (the Ibanez PM), Pat Metheny does all his magic on several other (potentially weird or “geeky”) instruments such a guitar synthesizers, 42-string guitar and other exotic instruments. He’s been contributing with different companies to come up with prototypes to fit his musical vision.

Metheny’s main guitar for straight-ahead jazz playing is the PM-100 manufactured by Ibanez. He also uses a variety of other guitars (that are not prototypes or “exotic”) such as acoustic and nylon-string guitars. His amp and effect rig depends largely on the musical situation.

Talking about tone… it’s interesting to note that Pat Metheny recorded one of his greateast trio album (with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes) in studio with a simple “guitar,cable and amp, no-frills” kind of setup! Tone really is in the fingers!

Pat Metheny Untold

Read or watch Pat Metheny Untold here, where we ask ourselves “What can we learn from Pat?” (other than playing amazing improvised jazz guitar lines!)

Top-5 Pat Metheny Albums (according to JazzGuitarLessons.net)

Don’t know where to start listening to the great Pat Metheny? Perhaps this little top-5 list will help you get started!

  1. Rejoicing (1984)
  2. Letter from Home (1989)
  3. Trio -> Live (2000)
  4. DeJohnette, Hancock, Holland and Metheny in Concert (live at Mellon Jazz Festival in 1990)
  5. Day Trip (2008)
  6. Pat Metheny and Jim Hall (1999)Bonus pick!

Read the complete Metheny Top-5 Albums post here.

Video, Licks and Transcriptions

This is the beginning of Pat Metheny’s solo from live version of his tune “Unity Village“. Enjoy!

More Transcriptions

Highly recommended: Pat Metheny Songbook containing accurate versions of tons of his compositions (167 tunes in the edition that I own here). This is like a “Metheny fake book” if you want. Also recommended: Pat Metheny Guitar Etudes – Warmup Exercises for Guitar. This second book is the routine that the man himself uses to warmup. This sequence of exercises was recorded then transcribed during a tour or Europe. Those are the very notes Pat played before concerts to get ready.

Article Source: JazzGuitarLessons.net

Favorite Jazz Guitarists: The Greats of Jazz Guitar

Learning about the iconic jazz guitarists is important if you want to become aware of the (still ongoing) evolution of the genre. Want to put yourself in the mood first? Start with this list of 5 Essential Jazz Guitar Albums here.

The Rhythm Days of Jazz Guitar

Freddie Green

In the late 1930’s, guitar in jazz didn’t have the same role it has today. During this era, big bands were the standard for jazz groups and guitars were an important piece of the rhythm section. Among these jazz guitarists, one that influenced the genre with his shell-voicings comping was Freddie Green (1911-1987) who was part of Count Basie’s orchestra. Nicknamed “Mr. Rhythm”, his style and sense of timing inspired many players in their comping even to this day. Freddie Green’s mastery of the rhythm was so perfect, it once made Count Basie say:

Freddie Green has been my right arm for thirty years. And if he leaves the band one day, I’ll probably leave with him.

-Count Basie, from the book “Jazz At Ronnie Scott’s” by Kitty Grime

Favorite Jazz Guitarists that Pioneered Soloing

I think there are three jazz guitarists who left an impression on the Guitar: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery.

-Joe Pass, Melody Maker April 1974

Charlie Christian

Not every guitar player was only playing as part of the rhythm section during the 1930’s. During this period, a young man named Charlie Christian played with the Benny Goodman Sextet as the lead guitar soloist. With a unique style and horn-like lines based on chord tones and chromatic ideas, Charlie Christian is seen as the founding father of bebop guitar and would influence many generations to come despite a short-lived career.

Django Reinhardt

At the same time, Europe also had a virtuoso guitar soloist: Django Reinhardt. Limited to using only two fingers on his left hand, he could play fast and impeccable lines. Django Reinhardt is the most important figure in manouche jazz and the most renowned non-American jazz artist of all time. The two players above are pioneers of the soloist role that jazz guitarists would later assume in a band.

Smaller Bands and the Influence of Charlie Christian

… the first time I heard Charlie Christian I thought he really wasn’t so much, because I felt I could play faster than that. Then after a few more times it really hit me, and I realized that speed wasn’t everything. I got quite emotional — put my guitar away and said I’d never play again. But the next day I got it out and started to tried to play like Charlie.”  –Herb Ellis

Herb Ellis

After WWII, the guitar was slowly starting to be considered a “real” jazz instruments. The popularity of big bands was slowly fading out and smaller jazz groups began surfacing. This gave the opportunity to guitarists to assume a melodic role and emphasize on their solo. Inspired by Charlie Christian, many players would learn his solos early in their career.

Tal Farlow

Such players include Tal Farlow, a pioneer of bebop guitar, who is known to play fast lines and chord melody. Tal was intrigued by the guitar in jazz after hearing Christian on the radio in the 1940’s. Charlie Christian’s legacy was also felt in Texas where Herb Ellis mixed it with his Texan country influence to create a fresh swinging feel that would define his playing style and make him recognizable.

Jazz Guitarists After Charlie Christian

Jimmy Raney

Later on, a post-Charlie Christian time opened as jazz guitarists focused on absorbing the language of bop from other instruments. Bringing forward jazz guitar bebop was popularized by player like Jimmy Raney coming up with clear bebop lines on the guitar.

Barney Kessel

Excellent players, such as Barney Kessel, emerged from this fresh flavour of jazz. Kessel’s influential efforts in trio settings made him a very requested player. He has landed opportunities of sitting on the guitar chair with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Lester Young and Sonny Rollins.

The Hard Workers of the Late 1950’s and 1960’s

Being a hard worker in jazz guitar doesn’t always mean to play very fast lines (but we still love to hear it). In the late 1950’s, Jim Hall gained popularity while playing with the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

I don’t really play fast — speed has never come easy for me.

-Jim Hall

Jim Hall

Hall knew his limits and would use them to work on different aspects. Jim Hall was known to be able to put himself in the place of the listener and come up with fresh ideas that would be reflected in his improvisation. This led him to explore jazz beyond bebop. He quickly gained the respect of fellow jazz guitarists (and musicians) which lead him to play as a sideman in Sonny Rollins’ band, collaborate with Bill Evans and many more albumsthat were released over the span of 50 years.

Ed Bickert

Jim Hall is also responsible for launching the career of Canadian jazz guitarist Ed Bickertby recommending him to Paul Desmond for his Quartet. Bickert quickly gained popularity through the 1960’s and 1970’s with his clear and round sound and endless creativity (Thank you for recommending him Mr. Jim Hall!)

Wes Montgomery

In the 1960’s, jazz guitar had some more game changers and hard workers. The influence of Charlie Christian was still present. A great example is Wes Montgomery, who first learned Christian’s solo and would play them note for note during shows. Throughexplorations, researches and hard work, Montgomery came up with powerful techniques such as his legendary octave playing and exquisite lines in his solos that would make him one of the most influential bebop guitarist of all time. His style and tone would be studied and imitated for many generations.

Learn everything you know in all keys.

-Joe Pass

Joe Pass

Another hard worker that appeared during the 60’s is Joe Pass. Being considered as the best solo jazz guitar player of all time is the result of relentless practice and deep understanding of lines. Joe Pass built himself a reputation with his Virtuoso album series that still inspires jazz guitarists venturing into the solo route (find a Joe Pass transcription here).

Fusion of Bebop with Other Styles

I strive for honesty in playing what I feel.

-Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell

With styles crossover (as other music genre getting more and more popular), creative guitar players began fusing different style with jazz to bring never heard before lines and different feels. The fusion of blues and jazz was quite natural as the two always shared many elements. Kenny Burrell is the prime example of a musician who brought the electric blues influence to jazz with influences of Charlie Christian and B.B. King. The mix of both style in the hands of Burrell creates a sound that is intense and eloquent.

Grant Green

Having a deep sense of bluesiness in jazz means playing with self-expression. Grant Green was far from a virtuoso but let his self-expression lead the music he played. Using the bebop language with ideas emerging from a background of blues, soul and funk and lots of silence, Green brought some of the most expressive lines in jazz.

George Benson

Other guitarists such as George Benson liked to groove. While mastering the language of bebop, Benson’s primary interest is to entertain. By following a “pop” career, George Benson reached a wider audience but is still tremendously respected by his jazz peers by alternating between jazz standards, funky pieces and vocal performances.

Modern Jazz Guitarists

Lenny Breau

Modern and contemporary in jazz are synonyms of post-bop. While some guitarists still used the traditional and sacred bebop language even in the mid-60’s, others explored where few men have been before. One of those adventurer was Lenny Breau, who is known to be the most harmonic player that ever lived.

Similar to Joe Pass with his chord melody style of playing, Lenny Breau played, in his own words, “impossible stuff” that he figured out after years of practice.

Martin Taylor

The piano-like chord melody approach of Breau would later influence more recent guitarists like Martin Taylor.

Pat Martino

The post-bop era for jazz guitarist is when techniques and abilities were one of the main interest in playing. Some players preferred to remain in the single-line soloing spectrum. This lead to new approaches and lines that distanced themselves from bebop. The best example of such players is Pat Martino whose technical abilities and inventiveness are ammunitions for his machine-gun solos since the late 1960’s.

John Scofield And Wayne Krantz

With the fusion of jazz with other styles, players like John Scofield and Wayne Krantz came up with a very harsh and unique sound served with impeccable techniques and abilities while never compromising the music.

Vic Juris and Ben Monder

The focus on technical abilities brought never-heard before chords voicings à la Vic Juris and Ben Monder who are two of the most respected contemporary jazz guitar players.

For me, let’s keep jazz as folk music. Let’s not make jazz classical music. Let’s keep it as street music, as people’s everyday-life music. Let’s see jazz musicians continue to use the materials, the tools, the spirit of the actual time that they’re living in, as what they build their lives as musicians around.

-Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny

One of the modern jazz guitarists that sticks out is Pat Metheny who learned from the greats that came before him (he collaborated with Jim Hall and the two even recorded an album) but learned to listen. The way Metheny approaches music give his compositions and albums a personal touch that has little to do with the traditional way of simply relying on scales. When Metheny improvises, he puts self-expression up front.

Article Source: JazzGuitarLessons.net