In the world of jazz, there is a certain level of mystery surrounding the jazz guitar, especially when thinking about its origins and evolution. There is uncertainty about when it began to function in jazz music and how it ultimately progressed to becoming a featured instrument. A lot of musicians would probably tell you that the first jazz guitarists were Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt. This is understandable, as they were the first to really gain widespread fame. But truly there were a myriad of other players who came before them. These guitarists who could be classified as jazz players, possibly could have achieved the same level of success, had it not been for limitations like living conditions and guitar amplification. Django and Christian, although prolific were really just culminations of hard work done by many guitarists before them.
Guitars and similar instruments have been around for thousands of years. There are references to instruments similar to harps or lutes in the Psalms from the Bible. There are also pictures of instruments similar to guitars drawn on stones around Turkey, that date back to 1350 BC. There are also many references to guitar playing, made in 15th and 16th century texts from Europe.
In classical music, the guitar served primarily as a background instrument for vocalists and other instruments. Rarely was it featured or taken seriously in the music world. Players like Andres Segovia, Francisco Tarrega and Agustin Pio Barrios helped establish the guitar as a solo instrument, touring the world and displaying virtuosity in the classical arena. There were also composers who wrote specifically for the guitar around the turn of the century, at the encouragement of the aforementioned guitarists. Many classical guitarists however seemed to distance themselves from the new emerging forms of music whether it be classical, blues or ragtime. A reason for this could be that this music was commonly played in brothels and saloons, or on street corners at first. Andres Segovia was quoted as being against 20th century trends like dissonance and atonality in favor of earlier, more melodic styles. Luckily for us jazz guitarists, that idea didn't stick.
Jazz, a dissonant music, ultimately evolved from European classical and the music played on plantations by slaves brought to America. Jazz author Mervin Cooke states in his book, The Chronicle of Jazz, that the 'fundamental elements of jazz were born when the dynamic rhythmic language and expressive pitch-bending of African vocal music became fused with structure and harmonies borrowed from the European music favored by most white slave-owners. After universal emancipation in 1865, black religious music paved the way for the two genres that would directly lead to early jazz style: ragtime and the blues.'
The instrument that was most popular during these times besides drum and voice, was either a guitar or banjo. A stringed guitar-like instrument would be the easiest to come by and potentially conceal in slavery days. Many blues guitarists of old referred to the guitar as the 'starvation box.' This is partly because a lot of them made their own guitars out of old cigar boxes with holes cut in them. They would fashion planks to the boxes and hang string or wire over the hole and adjust the tightness, till it produced tones. Blind Willie Johnson and Eddie Lang each had fathers who made them guitars out of cigar boxes. Jimi Hendrix would later go on to make his own cigar box guitar. Equipped with tools like these, mostly unknown guitarists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries began pioneering the early forms of jazz.
Many early blues guitarists had the harmonic vocabulary of later jazz guitarists. Possessing styles comparable to ragtime pianists, these guitar players would often provide rhythmic accompaniment while playing melodic lines or fills. Players like Charlie Patton, Sylvester Weaver and Blind Lemon Jefferson used complex rhythmic devices, like chordal slides, to support vocal parts. Charlie Patton's playing mirrors rag piano players very well in the tune Spoonful Blues (1929). Patton provided bass lines on beats one and three, while playing chords on two and four, all while singing vocals. His chords are harmonically complex, particularly in the upward slides. Similarly, in Blind Lemon Jefferson's Black Snake Moan (1927?), there are upper chord voicings and melodic fills that seem to foreshadow the activity later jazz guitarists would play.
Guitar players in the early jazz tradition rarely seem to get the credit they deserve for pioneering jazz music. Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson were both formidable players and created a duo that is constantly overlooked in jazz. Like the above mentioned blues players much of their playing seems to merge different styles or genres into one. There were also other prominent players who came before them like Brock Mumford, who was in Kid Ory's band, The Woodlanders in 1905, as well as Bud Scott who played in Buddy Bolden's band. Also Johnny St. Cyr, who played in both Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver's band to mild acclaim. Lang and Johnson however had very unique styles merging impressionistic and blues influences. They both composed and arranged tunes as well, like Eddie's Twister (1927), which was composed by Lang and uses complex harmony and mixing rag, blues and classical in a guitar/piano duet.
These players didn't garner the success that other guitarists just a few years later received. This can be attributed to a few debilitating factors. One being that they played acoustic guitars and were not akin to the electric guitars that guitarists Charlie Christian and even Django Reinhardt got to play in the 30's. These models by Gibson and Epiphone led to increased success of jazz guitarists. Another factor is that many early blues guitarists as well as early jazz, unfortunately died very young. Guitarists Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang both died before they were 35. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton both passed in there 40's. Even Charlie Christian died of tuberculosis when he was 25. This trend can be attributed to the harsh living conditions in America at that time.
Another factor in the reason for limited success of these predecessors, is that up until the swing age, the guitar was somewhat looked down upon as a whole, unless it was performed classically. In Tim Brookes's book, Guitar: An American Life, he states that, 'Reporters at the beginning of the 20th century loved yoking guitars and crime as if anyone who played the guitar was capable of dangerous passions.' He goes on to say that a lot of jazz writers as well, shunned the guitar, because in their opinion, it was not truly a jazz instrument. In fact there weren't guitars present in Louis Armstrong's early recordings because they argued it was too soft volume wise.
The guitar at the turn of the century was thought of as a poor man's instrument, especially in America. Many blues guitarists were poor and/or blind. They played the guitar and performed music as a means to make money. The cost of guitars was relatively cheap around the turn of the century. They were mass-produced and became widely available in the U.S. in the late 19th century. The guitars that ultimately catapulted Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and other players to success were expensive and state of the art technology. Charlie Christian played a Gibson ES-150. This was Gibson's first electric guitar and the first of its kind, other than earlier lap steel models. Christian championed the use of the electric guitar in general, as well as in jazz. He was quoted as saying, 'Guitar players have long needed a champion, someone to explain to the world that a guitarist is something more than just a robot plunking on a gadget to keep the rhythm going.' He went on to say that a new era was starting that would allow guitarists who were 'playing to feed their souls, but not necessarily their stomachs' would have a new lease on life.
Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian were no doubt men from difficult upbringings themselves. But for some reason they made it out of their challenging situations to achieve wealth at least for a short time, while others didn't do so well. There playing was advanced and beyond classification. Reinhardt a virtuoso yet physically impaired (his left hand badly maimed in a fire when he was around the age of 20), composed and recorded prolifically, producing classics like the wartime piece, Nuages and a countless amount of ensemble work with many notable musicians like Stephane Grappelli, Duke Ellington and Dizzie Gillespie.
Charlie Christian was a pioneer of bebop himself and sought to emulate lines played by horn players like Lester Young. Christian popularized the electric guitar and took guitar soloing to new heights, in his work with Benny Goodman and recordings with Charlie Parker. He joined the Goodmen Sextet in 1939 and later took part in the foundational bebop sessions at Minton's Playhouse. He demonstrated a melodic smoothness in his lines that sounded refreshing and new. Christian along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach and others were main the pioneers of bebop.
The relatively successful careers of Reinhardt and Christian, even other greats like Oscar Moore, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Green, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, were indeed the product of unmitigated and fortuitous circumstances coming together. There harmonic and soloistic vocabularies were largely in debt to many guitarists that came before them. They developed astounding techniques, but much of their material had already been broached by the likes of Lang, Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Andre Segovia and many others. They had no doubt studied these guitarists and luckily had developed sound techniques, when jazz really started to take off in the swing era. That coupled with the rise of guitar amplification technology and the general uptick in living conditions allowed them to establish hallmark careers even in short periods of time. Still jazz guitarists and musicians ignore the immense catalogue of material played by guitarists that came before the swing era. These guitarists helped lay the foundation for the progression of jazz harmonically and orchestrally, as well as solidifying blues for the eventual creation of rock music. Guitarists today are extremely in debt to them and would greatly benefit from increased study of their dense catalogues.
Jared Smith is a producer/guitarist from San Pedro, CA, who is a conservatory-trained musician, writing and producing a wide range of music from electronic to rock, and jazz to reggae.
Smith recently released a self-titled album under the pseudonym "Cyrus." The album focuses on instrumental/electronic music blended with jazz/hip hop influences.
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