The History of Jazz Guitar

History of Jazz Guitar

Often considered one of the greatest musical and cultural movements of the 20th century, jazz has arguably originated sometime during the late 19th century. Although the guitar wasn’t exactly the genre’s most prominent instrument, it most certainly gave jazz several of its signature style marks. More importantly, jazz guitar became a playing style of its own, ultimately spreading throughout the music world. As you might have expected, improvisation stands out as one of the most important characteristics of the jazz guitar. The style itself is slightly younger than the genre, with the fist known electric jazz guitars emerging during 1930’s.

If we were to discuss the types of jazz guitar in more detail, the following models would most definitely stand out:

  • Archop guitar
  • Nylon string guitar
  • Resonator guitar
  • Solid body electric guitar

The Early Days of Jazz Guitar

The beginnings of jazz guitar style can be traced all the way back to the early decades of the 20th century. Back then, the guitar was used strictly as somewhat of a backing instrument in bigger jazz bands. The instrument’s primary use most often consisted of providing the rhythmical background to brass instruments such as the saxophone or a clarinet. The specific playing style included basic chord strumming in an expressively rhythmical manner.

It was the genre’s early days when the first prominent jazz guitar was first produced. Made by the globally renowned guitar manufacturer Gibson, the Gibson L5 was initially introduced in 1923 and was used by some of the earlier jazz axeman such as Eddie Lang. More importantly, the guitar started massively replacing the banjo in jazz orchestra, proving itself as far more superior and fitting for the new musical style.

Electric Jazz Guitar and its Foundations

Despite the introduction of electric guitar and its widespread use throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, it was the post-World War II period that marked the definite emergence of the jazz guitar. Prior to that time, the guitar was an always present, yet still merely underlying element of big band and swing jazz orchestras. As previously mentioned, the role of the guitarist was a limited one when it came to music groups, but several axeman have still managed to emerge as distinctive solo artists.

Most notably, there was Django Reinhardt, the pioneering French guitar virtuoso and arguably the earliest jazz guitar icon. Among other factors, Django’s unique style was formed after he was severely injured in a fire at the age of 18, making him able to use only the index and middle finger of his left hand while playing the guitar. Some of his most notable compositions such as the “Minor Swing,” “Djangology” and “Daphne” ultimately became jazz standards.

As far as the massive affirmation of jazz guitar is considered, several other notable guitarists from the post World War II period have defined the idea of jazz guitar as a distinctive playing style and even a genre of its own. The advancements, or a revolution if you will, continued well throughout the 1950’s and 1960s with the help of such jazz icons as Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall.

The Emergence of Fusion and the Rise of Jazz Guitar

The early 1970s marked the emergence of the fusion jazz subgenre, with a solid portion of jazz guitarists opting for solid body electric guitars, similar to the ones used by their contemporaries in rock music. So expectedly, the guitar sound itself started drawing some of the rock elements, essentially combining the improvisational and musical style of such brass instrument virtuosos as Miles Davis, McCoy Turner and John Coltrane and combining it with the more of a gritty rock ‘n’ roll style of rock artists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck or the iconic Jimi Hendrix.

The jazz guitar was finally defined as a distinctive playing style with so much room to experiment and more importantly, make progress. Through the work of such guitarists as the legendary John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Al Di Meola, John Scofield and Larry Coryell, the jazz guitar found its definite expression and earned the title of basically an individual genre. The jazz guitar was massively applied within the bands as well, with Return to Forever standing out as the most prime example.

1980s and onwards

As it often goes in the music world, the period of great experimentation was succeeded by a more concise, straight-to-the-point, you might say radio-friendly era of smooth jazz. Merging fusion jazz with elements of pop, funk and R&B, smooth jazz propelled the genre into more mainstream waters, often being incorporated as an element of numerous pop singles and chart-topping numbers.

Throughout the genre’s history, whether it was the early days or the later pop influenced phases, jazz guitar always had its distinctive elements that made it immediately recognizable to the listener.  There was always the odd-rhythm timing that was successfully implemented even within the straight-groove, 4/4 timing tunes. Such an approach allowed the song to flow smoothly without baffling the listener, but still keeping the rhythm unpredictable and more interesting that the regular flat beat.

The melody and harmony have a story of their own. If we were to get into the jazz theory a little bit, we would have to single out the use of chord transformations and the so-called chord voicing – typically emphasizing the third and seventh notes of individual chords. As far as the melody goes, it is all about the touch and the successful integration of complex guitar phrases into a cohesive single element, whether it is just the solo, a phrase or an entire song.

Finally, we’ll end it with the very essence of not only the jazz guitar, but the genre itself – the improvisation. True jazz axeman always strive to discover something new by constant playing and experimentation. This goes not only for the studio work and jam sessions, but for live performances as well, making jazz quite possibly the most unpredictable of all genres. In the words of legendary Miles Davis, “don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”

Marko Jovanovic

Marko Jovanovic

Marko is a freelance music journalist from Serbia. As a tech savvy individual and a regular Ultimate-Guitar.com news and feature article writer, he contributes on a wide array of musical topics with at least a pinch of rock 'n' roll always present in his work.

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