The genius of the electric guitar

By Sergio Ariza

On August 16, 1939, an unknown guitarist stood in front of Benny Goodman, the man who had led the swing revolution and had the most popular band of the time, dressed in a garish green suit, purple shirt, pointy yellow shoes and a cowboy hat. He had won his audience with the ‘king of swing’ thanks to Mary Lou Williams' recommendation to John Hammond, the man who had discovered Goodman himself, Billie Holiday and Count Basie. Hammond had gone all the way to Oklahoma City and was dazzled by the musician, thinking that he could be the perfect foil for Goodman's small group, following the departure of pianist Teddy Wilson.    

However Goodman did not feel satisfied with the man in the flashy outfit and reluctantly pulled out his clarinet and started playing Tea For Two. Charlie Christian, the boy's name, couldn't even plug in his rudimentary electric guitar, but he started accompanying him. Goodman decided to cut his losses and left unimpressed. But Hammond had a good nose and didn't give up. That night his brother-in-law's quintet (Goodman) was playing in a Beverly Hills club and Hammond took Christian there without Goodman knowing anything. Before the performance began he told Christian to go upstairs and plug in his guitar. Goodman gave him a killer look and decided to end the affair by choosing Rose Room, a song he thought Christian didn't know. He was wrong, it was one of the three songs he had started playing the guitar with and as soon as his turn came, everyone was left stunned.


His first solo brought the audience to its feet, Goodman's musicians looked at each other in amazement, their leader decided to do another round and Christian again delighted everyone, the piece stretched on for over half an hour, at which point everyone was at the guitarist's feet. Goodman signed him up at that very moment and the electric guitar moved from its second row place to become as respectable a solo instrument as the saxophone or the trumpet.    

The history of the electric guitar had found its first great hero, the importance of that day and of Christian in that history is gigantic, shining enormously for less than three years and leaving a mark on jazz and rock (Christian is in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame) that very few have been able to match.  


Charles Henry Christian was born on July 29, 1916 in Bonham, Texas, but his family moved to Oklahoma City shortly after his birth. They were poor but their father was a musician and taught his children music. When he died, when Charlie was 12 years old, he inherited his father's guitar. His first influence was the blues but his brother Edward led a jazz band and the guitarist of the band taught him the secrets of the new music. When he was 15, he played in his first jam session and caused such a stir that before he arrived home his mother had already heard about her son's performance.

In the 1930s he became the local sensation in Oklahoma; everyone who passed by was amazed by him. In 1938, Les Paul himself came to see Bob Wills & His Texan Playboys and began playing his guitar with them. On a break Christian approached him and asked for his autograph. Christian told him that he was also a guitarist and Les Paul decided to lend him his guitar to see what he was capable of. He would never forget that day: "you just play one fucking note, and you kill me!" he said. He had never heard anyone so good and soon he invited him and Wills on stage. It wasn't long before Mary Lou Williams discovered him and sold him to Hammond saying he was the best electric guitarist she'd ever seen.


After signing with Goodman, Christian got the guitar he is always associated with, a Gibson ES-150, the ES was for Electric Spanish and the 150 was for the dollars it cost. The guitar came with a single pickup in the neck that would become universally known as the Charlie Christian pickup. He wasn't the first jazz soloist but he was the first great amplified soloist. Until the arrival of the electric guitar, guitarists were part of the rhythm section and barely played chords to keep up with the rhythm. However all this changed with the arrival of Christian, as he someone who put the electric guitar in the foreground with a style that had a lot of swing; but he was also open to new styles.     

And the impact it had was immediate, on August 19, 1939, just five days after leaving Oklahoma for New York, Christian was making his debut as a member of the renowned Goodman sextet playing Flying Home at the Hollywood Bowl, which was broadcast on the radio. When they finally recorded it, on October 2 of that same year, it would become one of Goodman's and the year's biggest hits. Christian was Goodman's new star, the man with whom some of the biggest musicians of the swing era had started their career; people like Gene Kruppa, Teddy Wilson, Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday herself. Many of them were leading their own orchestras, the future couldn't be brighter.


The classics continued to come along with Goodman, Rose Room, Seven Come Eleven, Gone With 'What' Wind, plus he was able to play at New York's Carnegie Hall or play with the likes of Lester Young. Listen to both of them on Good Morning Blues and you'll see the imprint of both on the 'cool' movement that would become popular in the early 1950s. Before the end of the year, with only three months of recording for Goodman, he was already chosen as the best guitarist of the year by Down Beat magazine, the Bible of the genre, and on 1 December they had already warned the other guitarists from their pages with an article that said, "Guitarists, wake up and plucked in!”

But the frenetic rhythm of concerts and recordings, together with a lifestyle in which women and alcohol were never absent, and were deteriorating his health. On February 23, 1940, he had to be hospitalized in Chicago with exhaustion. Much more worrying, while in hospital doctors discovered that he had signs of tuberculosis in his lungs.   


Even so, as soon as he was able to play again he returned to the rhythm of his previous life. In March he was in Los Angeles playing with Goodman but taking advantage of the long nights to play with the cream of the local scene, people like Charles Mingus, Jimmy Blanton, Don Byas, Illinois Jacquet, Art Tatum or Ben Webster. On April 19, 1940 he bought a brand new Gibson ES-250, it would be the model he would play until his early death, although shortly before he would receive a special Gibson L-5 with the P-90 pickup replaced by a Charlie Christian.

The new guitar was put to good use in the recording of Six Appeal. His position in Goodman's band was so important that when on July 15, 1940 the group was dissolved due to surgery on its leader, Christian continued to receive his salary as if the band were still active. In October of that year he played once again with Goodman and on the 28th of that same month they rehearsed with the sextet expanded to an octet, with the brief incorporation of Lester Young and Freddie Green. That day they would rehearse Wholly Cats, Ad Lib Blues and Dickie's Dream, a song that would have two different takes with solos by Young and Christian.


November 7, 1940 would be the most important recording date of his career, that day Wholly Cats, Royal Garden Blues, As Long As I Live and Benny's Buggle were recorded. Nobody could deny anymore that he was the most important guitarist in jazz. In December of that year, when Down Beat published its annual survey of the best instrumentalists of the year, Christian won the title again; winning four times more votes than the person in second place.

In January 1941 Goodman's sextet played for the inauguration party of Franklin D. Roosevelt's new term, and the guitarist was introduced to the president; the kid had travelled a long way from the suburbs of Oklahoma City. In March, in a late session, Christian improvises a riff and melody on a track they call, temporarily, Waitin For Benny. When the band's leader appears he is delighted with the result but changes the name to A Smo-O-Oth One, and edits it as if it were his own. Here you can see that Christian is at the forefront of the new style that will later be known as bebop.


In May he began to regularly visit Minton's Playhouse, a Harlem club where the leading musicians gathered to improvise long 'jams' that stretched out until the early hours of the morning; including regulars like pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. His improvisations at Minton became part of the legend, with many placing him as one of the fathers of bebop alongside Charlie Parker, Monk and Gillespie. His Swing To Bop proves that he had learned to fly with his instrument well beyond the three minutes he was allowed on recordings with Goodman. Clarke declared that the origins of Epistrophy and Rhythm-a-Ning, two of Monk's compositions, began with Christian.

But nights at Minton were accompanied by excessive alcohol and marijuana. During the day he continued to record and play with Goodman, but in the end his health suffered again. In July 1941 he was hospitalized again, but fans and admirers kept bringing him alcohol and marijuana to the hospital. One day he left to go on a bender and his health deteriorated further, and he contracted pneumonia. On March 2, 1942, he died in Staten Island of complications from tuberculosis.   


His legacy has endured, as there is not a single jazz guitarist who is not indebted to him, from Wes Montgomery to George Benson, through Grant Green, Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel. However his mark is not only noticeable in jazz, as the great electric blues guitarists also cite him as an influence, like T-Bone Walker or B.B. King. More evident is his mark on rock & roll, and that is that his melodic lines on a swing rhythm are similar in tempo to the rock n roll shuffle. The influence he (and Goodman himself) had on the development of rock & roll is undeniable, with disciples like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. Although perhaps his two greatest contributions are his deep imprint on the development of bebop and the fact that he gave a place to the electric guitar as a solo instrument. From the Guitars Exchange webpage we cannot be more indebted to him; in fact we could say that from the moment he got up from his chair to do his first solo with Goodman in that distant August of 39, the electric guitar found its privileged position forever.