Jazz, the best guitarists

By Tom MacIntosh

Jazz has often been described as America's ‘classical’ music, having originated in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it grew out of blues and ragtime roots, became a major form of musical expression, characterised by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythm and improvisation. Our interest here is normally in guitarists such as rockers (hard and metal), blues/folk, and country/rockabilly, but today we want to expose some of the best jazz guitarists ever to play, and the instruments they used.

The field of players is so vast, we decided to list a ‘top 10’ and let’s see what you think.

#1Joe Pass, born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua (January 13, 1929 - May 23, 1994)

Starting off with whom many considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists of the 20th century, Sicilian-American Joe Pass. He was known for his heavy use of walking bass lines, melodic counterpoints on improvisation, and chord-melody style, through his extensive knowledge of inversions and progressions, he opened the jazz world to guitarists, and had a solid influence on guitarists for generations. He got his first guitar, a Harmony model at age 9, and by 14 he was playing gigs with the likes of Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet, began touring with small jazz groups and was exposed to the ‘forbidden fruit’, heroin. He spent much of the 50s in jail because of it, and finally shook the addiction and got a Gibson ES-175 as a gift and began a lofty career. In the early 60s he recorded notable classics such as, Catch Me, 12-String Guitar, For Django, and Simplicity. His collaborations with others is immense, people like Louis Bellson, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Della Reese, and Johnny Mathis. Some of his most outstanding albums include Northsea Nights with Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Tudo Bem with Paulinho Da Costa, and Easy Living with Ella Fitzgerald to name just a few. Not just an ensemble player, he was considered an amazing soloist. New York Magazine claimed, “Joe Pass looks like somebody’s uncle and plays like nobody's business. He’s called ‘the world’s greatest’ and often compared to Paganini for his virtuosity. There is a certain purity to his sound that makes him stand out easily from other first-rate jazz guitarists.

#2John Leslie ‘Wes’ Montgomery  (March 6, 1923 - June 15, 1968)

A giant among jazz guitarists, he was considered a founder of the ‘smooth jazz’ school with multi-influences like R&B, funk, rock and roll, and pop and is still the mold that moves many of today’s styles and sounds. His technique was his famous use of octaves, (playing the same note on 2 strings an octave apart) and his ‘single line’ style leading to what is known as ‘block chords’ in his solos. He never used a pick. He would use his meaty thumb for plucking or downstrokes and an up-down combo for chords and octaves. He developed this style, they say, out of consideration for his neighbours, whom he didn’t want to disturb. Some of his best work can be found on albums such as The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Boss Guitar, Bags Meets Wes, with Milt Jackson, and Bumpin’, for starters. His influence has touched greats like George Benson, Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Burrell, David Brecker, Stevie Wonder and Randy Napoleon, to name but a few. And he earned his place among the immortals with his Gibson L-5CES, and an ES-175, plugged into a Fender tube amp, then later with a Standel amp and a 15’’ speaker.  

#3. Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt (January 23, 1910 - May 16, 1953)

Django Reinhardt is regarded as one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. His mountain of work (recorded over 900 sides, mostly 78-RPM), from 1953 - 2008 there have been 22 records, starting with Django Reinhardt et Ses Rythmes (‘53) to Django On the Radio, radio broadcasts 1945-53. Born in a caravan to a nomadic Romani family, he excelled at his playing at an early age, and almost had his illustrious career nipped in the bud when he lost his 3rd and 4th fingers on his left hand in a fire. Doctors said that was the end of his playing but he kept at it, and developed a unique style of his own by using the index and middle finger on his fretting hand. The ‘father of gypsy jazz’ got more done with those 3 fingers than an army of players could achieve, and his style emboldened legions of guitarists to pay him tribute the world over. Jeff Beck called him “by far the most astonishing guitar player ever, Jerry Garcia and Tony Iommi, who both lost fingers too, were inspired by his masterful discipline, Garcia offered this praise, “ His technique is awesome! ...a lot of guys play fast, and a lot of guys play clean,...but nobody plays with the full expression that Django has...the combination of incredible speed - all the speed you could possibly want - but also the thing of every note has a specific personality...I haven’t heard it anywhere but with Django.Other devoted admirers include, Joe Bonamassa who wrote Django, an instrumental in his honour, jazz composer John Lewis wrote the jazz standard Django after him and has been recorded by Miles Davis, The Lost Fingers, a Canadian gypsy group owe their name to him. In addition to his beloved Selmer gypsy guitars, it’s easy to find images of Django Reinhardt with a 1937-39 Levin De Luxe, a Gretsch Synchromatic 400, an Epiphone Zephyr #3442, and a Gibson ES-300.

#4. George Benson ( March 22, 1943)

Ten-time Grammy Award winner George Benson, from Pittsburgh, is a guitarist singer/songwriter of amazing style, similar to Django with his ‘rest-stroke’ picking, and an energy in his performances and voice that make him a God in several genres such as jazz, pop, R&B singing, and scat singing. He has had a long sparkling career alongside his GB Signature Ibanez guitars (30 years), they even commemorated him with a limited GB30TH, with a gold foil finish inspired by the Japanese Garahaku art tradition. Of his 10 Grammy’s, 5 were for instrumental albums Theme from Good King Bad, Breezin’, Off Broadway, Being with You and Mornin’. The others were for his soulful, powerful voice, The Masquerade, Moody’s Mood, and Give me the Night; true testaments to his enormous talents.

#5. Kenneth ’Kenny’ Earl Burrell ( July 31, 1931)

American jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell makes the list not for his accolades, but for his beautiful, clean, simple style, and massive list of records and collaborators. A child born into a musical family, he started playing guitar at age 12, studying composition and theory with Louis Cabara, and classical training with Joe Fava. He has mentioned Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian as his biggest jazz influences, and bluesmen Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, so he crafted a style grounded in bop and blues. He was a much sought-after sideman and session player as well, and had sat in on records with such luminaries as, Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane (The Cats) and Stanley Turrentine (Midnight Blue) and on albums with Nat Adderley (Little Big Horn), Chet Baker (Chet and Baby Breeze) just to scratch the surface. To check out his delicious bluesy touch, try Chitlins Con Carne from the Midnight Blue classic 1963 album.

#6. Charlie Lee Byrd ( September 16, 1925 - December 2. 1999)

Charlie Byrd is renowned for his push into Brazilian music, namely the Bossa Nova, no doubt swayed by his most inspirational idol Django Reinhardt, the ‘father of gypsy jazz’. He teamed up with Stan Getz in the early 60s on the classic album Jazz Samba, which lifted the lid on this style of jazz to North American audiences. The album reached #1 on the charts and remained on those charts for 70 weeks, on the back of the hit Desafinado.  His discography stretches from 1957 to 2005, and 22 albums to show for it.  He was knighted by the Brazilian government in 1999 as a Knight of the Rio Branco. Si señor.

#7.  Pat Metheny ( August 12, 1954)

This guy Pat Metheny has cut 3 Gold albums, has won 20 Grammy’s, and is the only mortal to win in 10 different categories! So that’s that. His big hero was none other than Wes Montgomery, and from there went on to brew up ingredients from progressive to contemporary jazz, latin jazz, jazz fusion and post-bop to a magnificent end. Some of his best albums, by popular opinion, are Still Life (Talking), Offramp, Letter From Home, and Secret Story. Part of his sound comes from his fondness for the Roland GR-300 Guitar Synthesizer, with which he can make sound like a horn phrase, and that’s just what he wants. He was also early on the electric 12-string jazz guitar expression. His approach has attracted collaborators like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, and Bill Frisell, again, just to name a few.  He could easily top anyone’s list for most outstanding and prolific jazzman, he’s certainly in a category of his own.

#8. Lenny Breau ( August 5, 1941 - August 12, 1984)

 Modern and contemporary jazz, or post-bop (some call ‘smooth jazz’) came about because of adventurers like Lenny Breau, regarded as one of the most harmonic players in history. His chord-melody style, like that of Joe Pass, allowed him to blend many styles of music including jazz, country, classical and flamenco. His biggest influence was Chet Atkins, and Sabicas-style flamenco. Talking about his 7-string guitar he said, “I approach the guitar like a piano. I’ve reached the point where I transcend the instrument. A lot of the stuff I play on the 7-string guitar is supposed to be technically impossible, but I spent over 20 years trying to figure it out. Playing the guitar like the piano, there’s always two things going on at once. I’m thinking melody, but I’m also thinking of a background”.

#9. Eddie Lang ( October 25, 1902 - March 26, 1933)

American jazzman Eddie Lang is considered by some the ‘father’ of jazz guitar. He put the guitar squarely into the lights as a solo instrument with his Gibson L-4 and L-5. He was the first single-string soloist, playing one string while strumming others for background, something unique for that time. Joe Pass regarded him as one of the 3 essential innovators of jazz guitar playing, along with Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt.

#10. Grant Green ( June 6, 1935 - January 31, 1979)

American composer and jazz guitarist Grant Green was likely the most unsung jazz giant of the 20th century. He recorded a ton of work both alone and as a sideman, performing soul-jazz, bebop, hard-bop and latin jazz in his repertoire. Critic Dave Hunter called is music “lithe, loose, slightly bluesy and righteously groovy...”. He became the leading star for Blue Note Records during the 60s, making more appearances on the label, both as leader and sideman, than anyone else.

So there’s a round-up of just a few of the great jazz guitarists both here and gone. We’ve tried to cover a blend of styles and trust that the import of their body of work will enthuse guitarists to look more closely into jazz as guitar expression.