Jazz Guitarists: Top 5 of All Time

Guest post by Marc-Andre Seguin

Jazz guitar is an odd topic. Trust me, I know: I started one of the most popular jazz guitar websites (JazzGuitarLessons.net) back in 2009. The instrument itself is a “tool of the gods” when it comes to rock and roll music.

A great place to start to put “jazz guitar” in the right context in our minds is to examine the who’s-who. Without further ado, here are the most revered, imitated and innovative jazz musicians of the 20th century. And these guys just so happen to play guitar; what a coincidence!

Pat Metheny: The Prodigal Son

Metheny, who’ll turn 64 this year, first burst onto the international jazz scene back in the mid-seventies as a sideman to vibraphonist Gary Burton. The guitarist turned the jazz world (and more precisely, the jazz guitar world) onto its head with his first studio release as a leader, Bright Size Life.

Still anchored in swing tradition, the Great American Songbook and blues, Metheny redefined what the jazz guitar sound meant for generations to come. He, like many others, has cited Wes Montgomery as his main guitar influence.

George Benson: The Historical Necessity

A natural entertainer and crowd-pleaser, Benson has firm roots into jazz, bebop and R&B guitar chops. Believe it or not, it’s through his mostly vocal albums that he gained international fame (Give me the Night, Breezin’), backed by such giants as Quincy Jones.

Many jazz guitarists today perceive George Benson as the natural historical consequence of Wes Montgomery’s guitar work. Benson was able to link old-school stuff to the modern era with pop music, increasing opportunities for jazz musicians of the next generation.

Joe Pass: The Virtuoso

This guy probably is THE guitarist’s guitarist. With foundations in bebop music and Great American standard songs, Joe’s influence is pretty much limited to hardcore jazz guitar fans. His most famous works include solo jazz guitar albums (the Virtuoso series) as well as duets with the great singer Ella Fitzgerald.

Joe Pass opened the “technical doors” of jazz guitar by pushing the boundaries of harmony; that is, playing chords. Playing standards unaccompanied and making great recordings with those studio takes was unprecedented. Okay: jazz pianists, you can stop laughing at us now, we only have six strings to work with! Asking “What is possible on this novelty instrument?” Joe’s answer must have been: “Everything.”

Jim Hall: The Painter

My personal favorite, Jim Hall had a long career, being called to collaborate on some of the most ingenious jazz recordings of the time (Sonny Rollins, The Bridge). Avoiding melodic clichés, Hall is still revered for his delicacy and taste in note choices. Perhaps it was his classical training? We don’t know, but we can clearly hear the subtleties in Jim’s playing while he’s telling us (in notes and chords, not in words): “Guys, less is always more.”

Fun fact: Jim Hall is probably the guitarist who played the least number of notes (read between the lines: jazzers tend to be shredders) that still influenced lots of the modern guitar slingers. Pat Metheny and John Scofield, two very fast, “busy” soloists, cited Jim Hall as an esthetic influence. Metheny even recorded a duo album with Hall.

Wes Montgomery: The Trailblazer

Last but not least, Wes Montgomery is the father of jazz guitar, making possible pretty much everything the four players above did through their musical careers. For jazz aficionados: I’m not snobbing Charlie Christian here. I believe that CC is the grandfather of jazz guitar, that’s all!

I wouldn’t even know where to start discussing Wes Montgomery, so I’ll give you just the gist of it:

-First, he could hold his own in bebop (i.e., fast music) territory, improvising over chord changes at blazing speeds like it was nobody’s business. NOT many guitarists could do that at the time, but it was a commonplace skillset in pianists, saxophonists, etc.

-Secondly, Wes had this very unique sound that is instantly recognizable: he played with his right thumb, instead of a pick. Kudos for defining that “smooth jazz guitar music” feel, dude!

-And lastly, Montgomery started to use octaves to solo instead of single notes. He didn’t do it all the time, but when he used octaves, it was very effective. In his era (1950’s and 1960’s), the new technique was completely revolutionary.

By putting guitar itself into the spotlight (in a jazz context, nonetheless), Wes Montgomery really opened the doors. To this day, I have yet to meet a jazz guitarist not influenced by Wes: young and old, beginners or pros, world-famous or basement player. Enough said.

Marc-Andre Seguin head

About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

This guest post reflects the views and opinions of its author.
Headshot courtesy of Marc-Andre Seguin; photo of Pat Metheny is copyright-free from Pixabay.com.

Pre Order ad

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: