Jazz music is a combination of ragtime and blues that developed back in the late 1890s. With the introduction of soulful melodies, uplifting strains, and brass instruments, jazz music began to materialize. Buddy Bolden is said to have been one of the first jazz guitarists to emerge, and thousands of legends would soon follow in his footsteps.
Since the 1890s, many talented jazz guitarists have showcased their original flair, altering the jazz scene forever.
Though there are many talented jazz musicians out there, and though they may not have gotten the recognition they deserved at the time, these are who I believe are the Top 15 Jazz Guitarists of All Time.
Charlie Christian was born in 1916 in Bonham, Texas. His family moved to Oklahoma City. Oklahoma when he was a small child, where he picked up the ukelele.
Though he died at the young age of twenty-five in 1942. he highly impacted the jazz genre. He made waves in the jazz music industry when he introduced bebop on the jazz guitar.
This style of jazz is comprised of quick, single-note chromatic lines and rhythmic alterations. His influence on this particular style prompted others to follow suit. Charlie was also the first electric guitarist in jazz.
Critic Kevin Whitehead claimed that Charlie was the “single greatest influence on the signature 20th-century instrument, the electric guitar.”
Like many other talented musicians from that era. Charlie was involved in various combination groups where he could showcase his talent on a muted scale.His revolutionary style and unique perspective made his work stand out among the other musicians. He will forever be known as the “father of bebop guitar.”
George Benson was born in 1943 in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania. He began his career as a professional jazz guitarist at the age of nineteen though he was a child prodigy much before this age.
He won a singing contest and sang at nightclubs and street events, where he was discovered by a talent scout. His newfound fame took him down many avenues, where he sang with other artists and influences.
Though George started as a pure jazz guitarist, his sound and style eventually took on a pop spin, both vocally and instrumentally. This caused controversy among his fans, who alienated him when he altered his style. This new blend of music led him to become a worldwide phenomenon where he mastered both the traditional and modern jazz styles in a clever twist.
Today. George continues to remain at the forefront of the jazz and pop music industry, recording over thirty-six studio albums and climbing the Billboard charts year after year.
Barney Kessel was born in 1923 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. His main influence growing up was Charlie Christian, where he began emanating his style. Like all artists. Barney realized he needed his own unique style instead of mimicking his idols.
His new style brought him new opportunities, such as joining a musician group and recording with talents like Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys.
Barney’s talent was often overshadowed by wider-known musicians like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, but Barney recorded many successful albums as a session guitarist and bebop jazz musician. Perhaps his most famous albums were The Poll Winners and Great Guitars, featuring artists like Herb Ellis. Charlie Byrd, and Ray Brown.
Barney passed away in 2004. succumbing to brain cancer, but his masterful and highly improvisational style will be remembered forever.
Joe Pass was born in 1929 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He joined a band when he was just fourteen years old. where he played gigs for about five dollars per event. Just when his talent was becoming widely recognized and his father was encouraging him to study under Harry Volpe in New York. Pass became addicted to drugs.
The pressure to join in with his idols furthered the life-threatening issue. Drugs began to ruin his life and his career when he was arrested and sent to a Public Health Hospital in Texas.
Joe began taking his career more seriously after that phase of his life. He defied all odds by breaking back into the music industry and dominating the jazz charts. He recorded international albums and worked with phenomenons like Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis. He soon became the most recorded jazz guitarist of all time.
Joe passed away in 1994 from liver cancer, leaving quite the legacy in his wake. His extensive array of studio albums, awards, and collaborations left a mark on the jazz industry.
Django Reinhardt was bom in 1910 in Belgium. He is famously referred to as a gypsy because he grew up with a family of Romani gypsies. Though some of his family members were amateur musicians.
Django rose above and became the first major European jazz musician. He started off by playing the violin before graduating to the banjo and guitar.
A burn injury on his hand almost ended his career, but a couple of years after the accident, he learned to play the guitar without his fourth and fifth fingers on his left hand. Django miraculously devised ways to play chords without the use of those two fingers, blazing his own path in the industry.
Django’s flair was infectious. If someone didn’t recognize him by his name, he’d surely be recognized by his music. The way he combined American and European jazz styles became widely beloved worldwide.
He also used the acoustic guitar as his lead instrument in many tracks. Couple his original style with his three-finger learning curve. Django was sure a unique musician.
Django passed away in 1953. but his music still lives on to this day.
Stanley Jordan was born in 1959 in Chicago. Illinois. He began playing piano at a young age. which grew to influence his style as a jazz guitarist later.
Stanley’s claim to fame is his unique fretboard technique; he uses two-handed tapping instead of a typical strumming and picking technique that most guitarists use. His career exploded as he went on to perform countless festivals and shows on six different continents, snagging Four Grammy nominations along the way.
Stanely is known for stretching the boundaries of the jazz realm. He blends classical piano styles that he learned at a young age with a range of warmth and sensitivity that resonated with audiences early on. He’s worked with a variety of artists from different genres such as The Dave Matthews Band. Quincy Jones, and Richie Cole, further confirming his wide range.
To this day, Stanley has recorded dozens of albums, and he continues to tour, showcasing his immense talent and unique techniques as a jazz artist to the world.
Jim Hall was born in 1930 in Buffalo, New York. He was raised by a single mother in public housing in Cleveland, Ohio, with little to nothing to his name.
Since Jim was passionate about the guitar from a young age, his mother managed to scrounge up the money for one when he was just nine years old. Feeling grateful, Jim went on to become a legend in the jazz music industry.
Jim’s style is more traditional than modern. He doesn’t add fancy technique to his rhythm; he plays the notes classically and organically. His original and simple style went on to influence many jazz guitarists that followed in his footsteps.
He earned the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master honor, which also earned him the unofficial title “One of the Greatest Jazz Artists of All Time.’ His legacy is up there with Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, who are all guitarists who “shook the world.’
Though he passed away in 2013, he will always be known as a legendary Guitar God.
Charlie Byrd was born in 1925 in Suffolk. Virginia. He learned guitar from his father as a child, playing on radio shows and surrounding himself with talented musicians at his father’s general store.
He recorded over one hundred albums in his lifetime, famous for having a wide range of musicality and fusing multiple genres in a single tune. Over the years, he accomplished mixing a blend of classical acoustic guitar with jazz and pop music while slowly integrating Brazillian flair. Charlie first discovered his love of Brazilian music when he noticed the emerging bossa nova movement in Brazil. This sound was a blend of samba and cool jazz, which Charlie knew would be a hit back in North America. Sure enough, he pitched the idea, and thus began the bossa nova wave in North America.
Charlie passed away in 1999 from cancer, leaving behind a legacy. From kickstarting the bossa nova movement in North America to fusing genres. Charlie will be remembered.
Mike Stern was born in 1953 in Boston. Massachusetts. He grew up in Washington. D.C.. where he watched his three idols slay the industry. He decided to combine the hardy lyricism of Jim Hall, the swing style of Wes Montgomery, and the grit of Jimi Hendrix.
Since his discovery, he has collaborated with talents like Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, and Blood. Sweat, and Tears, dominating the charts. Similar to Django Reinhardt, an injury threatened to terminate Mike’s exploding career. Significant nerve damage created the need for multiple surgeries and countless physical therapy sessions.
His re-admittance into the jazz guitarist world was explosive. He was nominated for Grammys and multiple other awards and recorded more than a dozen studio albums. He proved his talent once again as he battled the injury and rose to the top.
To this day, his high energy, unique voice, and bebop/blues style continues to reach the ears of millions around the world.
Wes Montgomery was born in 1923 in Indianapolis. Indiana. Wes rose to the scene shortly after Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Those two influences had already shaped the standards of jazz music, but Wes had a different idea.
He altered the melodies, harmonies, and overall sound, creating his own sophisticated sound. The fact that he couldn’t read a note of music didn’t deter him; he simply devised his own techniques that no one else could comprehend.
Many were shocked by this realization and attempted to discredit him because of it, but Wes wouldn’t be discouraged. The fact that he couldn’t read music made him able to create a new sound that no one had heard before, so people were able to pick him out from a crowd of dozens of up-and-coming jazz musicians.
Wes continued to release and play music in his unique, unorthodox fashion that intrigued the world. Since his passing in 1968 from a heart attack, many have tried to honor his legacy by mimicking his techniques and sharing his story as one of the greatest innovators and improvisers of all time.
Freddie Green was born in 1911 in Charleston. South Carolina. He began playing the banjo at an early age before picking up the guitar. Freddie was known for his expertise in rhythm guitar.
He could change chords on every beat, never lagging behind the rhythm of the music. He rarely played solo as he preferred to play in groups and ensembles. His rhythmic talent made him a legend in the jazz industry.
Freddie died of a heart attack in 1994, leaving behind a string of musicians who have been trying to mimic and master his complicated rhythmic techniques.
Sonny Sharrock was born in 1940 in Ossining. New York. His passion originally lie with the saxophone, but due to his asthma, he wasn’t able to fulfill this dream. Instead, he picked up the guitar and altered the lines to mimic a saxophone style.
With this, he invented the free jazz guitar, which was an experimental approach to the genre. Sonny created his own lane of music by breaking down barriers and altering the traditional tempos, tones, and chords of jazz music. He went on to play with legends like Miles Davis. Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Mann.
Throughout his life. Sonny also co-founded a jazz venue in his birthplace. Ossining, became a member of a punk/jazz band, and recorded with the improvising band. Machine Gun. He died of a heart attack in 1994 in his hometown.
Eddie Lang was born in 1902 in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania. As with many other famous jazz guitarists Eddie began as a violinist before switching to the guitar later in his life. Shortly after learning how to play, he began playing with his former schoolmate and touring with the Mound City Blue Blowers.
Known as the “father of the jazz guitar.” Eddie blazed the jazz industry by playing a critical part in getting the jazz guitar widely accepted. The traditional banjo was the primary instrument prior to the jazz guitar. Between his role in this acceptance and his part in the evolution of the big band swing guitar. Eddie’s music will not be forgotten.
Mary Osborne was born in 1921 in Minot. North Dakota. She grew up in a family of eleven, most of which were heavily influenced by music. Mary learned to strum a ukelele by the age of four. From there, she began to sing, tap dance, and play the guitar.
Mary blazed a trail for women quickly recognizing a need for females in a male-dominated industry. Though her records were few and far between, she held her own against the males in the jazz community, inspiring many females to follow in her wake after her passing in 1992.
Johnny Smith was born in 1922 in Birmingham. Alabama. Johnny taught himself how to play the guitar when he was young, trading tuning jobs for free practice with guitars in a pawnshop.
He went on to play in a local country band in his hometown in Maine, dropping out of school in the process. His interests switched from country to jazz music when he became intrigued with certain jazz musicians on the radio. This influenced his decision to join a variety jazz trio.
Johnny is best known for his composition in the track. “Walk Don’t Run.” He won the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal as a result of his impressive musicality in that track. He passed away in 2013 from a fall in his home, but no one will soon forget the great work that he left behind.
Over the last century, there have been countless talented jazz musicians, all with a variety of skill, originality, and technique. Many have bridged the gap between genres while others have changed the way jazz music is portrayed today.
Though there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of possible candidates, these fifteen individuals changed jazz music forever and left behind legacies that won’t soon be forgotten. Therefore, these are the Top 15 Jazz Guitarists of All Time:
- Charlie Christian
- George Benson
- Barney Kessel
- Joe Pass
- Django Reinhardt
- Stanley Jordan
- Jim Hall
- Charlie Byrd
- Mike Stern
- Wes Montgomery
- Freddie Green
- Sonny Sharrock
- Eddie Lang
- Mary Osborne
- Johnny Smith
Comment below if you have any questions!