Pure Guitar Photo Gallery: Six Great Jazz Guitarists
The guitar has been an integral voice for much of jazz history, though pinpointing its arrival is difficult. Some early recordings of military-style jazz bands with brass, saxes, clarinets, and drums reveal chordal guitar rhythm, though it was much more common for the banjo, with its greater volume. to play that role.
It wasn’t until the early 1920s and the arrival of the louder archtop acoustic guitar, which has a wider harmonic range than the banjo, that guitarists began to step out front. The first jazz guitar star was Eddie Lang, who’s been acknowledged as the father of jazz guitar by such luminaries as Joe Pass, George Van Eps, and John Hammond. The 1930s introduced swing, the electric guitar, and soloists such as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. The ’40s marked the emergence of small combos where the guitar functioned as a rhythm, melodic, and solo instrument. Jazz guitarists became fully recognized as soloists as well as accompanists.
The 1950s and ’60s broadened the instrument’s range and versatility with the expanded technique and the sensitivity of players such as Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, and Joe Pass, who laid the foundation for modern jazz guitar playing. The ’70s brought the fusion of rock, jazz, and R&B by players such as Larry Coryell, Pat Martino, Al De Meola, and John McLaughlin. Some fusion guitarists played solidbody electrics at high volume with electronic effects such as wah-wah, octave splitters, compression, and flange pedals. Since then, the world of jazz guitar has widened to encompass smooth, traditional, Latin, blues, funk, and everything in between. The limits are defined only by the imagination and technique of the improvising jazz guitarist.
In my 20 years with Guitar Player (1971-’91), I had the opportunity to photograph many of the most influential jazz guitarists. Here are some of my favorites.
For more than 50 years Barney Kessel was one of world’s pre-eminent guitarists. His career stretched from his earliest days as a Charlie Christian disciple through the supergroup Great Guitars, a trio that included Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd. Along the way he worked with big bands fronted by Chico Marx, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman. He accompanied artists such as Billie Holliday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Oscar Peterson, and recorded more than 60 albums as a leader or sideman. He won polls as the #1 jazz guitarist in Esquire, Down Beat, Metronome, and Playboy magazines, and became one of the most-recorded guitarists of all time as a Hollywood studio musician with the famed Wrecking Crew. His album credits include Elvis Presley, Liberace, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and countless others. He was particularly noted for how his playing seamlessly integrated his enormous vocabulary of chords, inversions, and chord-based melodies.
I first photographed Barney in 1974 for a Great Guitars cover story and was floored by the personality and swing of a group who lived up to their name. Barney was outspoken and always quite willing to criticize the direction of jazz, music education, and the process of improvisation. I last spoke to him in 1989 for a column on how to make the most of practice time. When the article appeared in Guitar Player, he phoned me to say he was resigning from the Advisory Board because the article was too short.
“You should never hear the guitar by itself. It should be part of the drums so it sounds like the drummer is playing chords – like the snare is in A or the hi-hat in D minor”
– Freddie Green
They called him “Mr. Rhythm” for a reason. For five decades Freddie Green provided the pulse and heart for Count Basie’s big band and smaller ensembles. His style, technique, and panache that has never been equaled. Green’s commitment to rhythm guitar was total; in those 50 years with the Basie band, he never once took a solo. He set the standard for four-to-the-bar rhythm, changing chords on every beat. He played an unamplified guitar even in the big band setting with blaring horns. To the audience, his presence was often felt more than heard, but according to Duke Ellington, every member of the band could hear him no matter where they sat. Playing a Stromberg Master 400 archtop acoustic and later a blonde Gretsch Eldorado custom, Freddie managed to stand out with his unique three- and four-string chords voiced with lines that highlighted and complemented the melodies of the other instruments. He held the guitar almost horizontal and set his string action very high. Green was also cognizant of other great rhythm players beyond the jazz idiom and advised young players to also listen to the work of people like Clarence White and Doc Watson. When Basie died in 1983, Freddie became of the leader of the Basie band until his death in 1987.
One of the most underrated jazz guitar stylists, George Barnes was a product of the Jazz Age. Born in 1921, he began his professional career at age 12, when he joined the musician’s union. His style was deeply rooted in swing, though he started his recording career backing blues singers such Merline Johnson, Blind John Davis, Washboard Sam, and Big Bill Broonzy. He was one the first guitarists to electrify his instrument and use it as a significant solo vehicle. Though Eddie Durham is often cited as the first to record with an electrically amplified standard guitar, records show that the teenaged Barnes recorded two songs on electric with Big Bill Broonzy on March 1, 1938, 15 days prior to Durham’s recording with the Kansas City Five.
By age 17, Barnes was a staff musician at NBC radio. During the next two decades, he recorded a dozen LPs as a leader, though he didn’t receive national recognition until he recorded Two Guitars and a Horn, a popular guitar duet album with Carl Kress. In the 1950s Barnes he became a fixture in the New York studios, recording hundreds of sides with everyone from Louis Armstrong to King Curtis to Homer & Jethro. He was reportedly the first electric guitarist to appear on a Bob Dylan single, 1962’s “Mixed Up Confusion.”
George Barnes passed away in 1977. Guitar Player’s Jim Ferguson wrote of his final LP, recorded a month before he died, “Often overlooked in a sea of more modern-sounding, bebop-oriented guitarists, George Barnes could swing like mad and spin out intricate, frequently bluesy phrases with awesome precision and musicality…. From start to finish, this well-recorded performance demonstrates the qualities that qualify Barnes for a position among the most elite players in the annals of jazz guitar.”
At the height of his studio career in the 1960s, Howard Roberts played on as many as 900 sessions annually. His lead and rhythm guitar appeared on uncounted thousands of records and movie and television soundtracks. That’s him playing the spooky lead line for the Twilight Zone television show theme. No kind of music was out of his range. His amazing versatility produced calls for jazz, pop, country, and rock sessions, backing artists such Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, Roy Clark, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Chet Atkins, the Monkees, Ray Charles, Chubby Checker, Duane Eddy, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Little Richard, Merle Travis, the Beach Boys, and Ella Fitzgerald. He and Barney Kessel were the first notable jazz guitarists to become studio musicians back in the ‘50s when it was considered uncool to do so.
But studio work was only one facet of H.R.’s brilliant musical career. He also made more than 20 albums as a featured jazz artist. His first two solo albums, 1963’s Color Him Funky and H.R. Is a Dirty Guitar Player are said to have created a fan base unequaled by any jazz guitarist of the decade. Howard also took an active role as a musical equipment designer, including the revolutionary Benson amplifier and the Howard Roberts model jazz guitars for Epiphone and Gibson.
In the ’70s he drastically cut back his studio work to focus on guitar education, starting with seminars that he took around the US. In 1977, he founded the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, a vocational school based on his educational philosophy; it still exists today as the Musicians Institute. He also formed a publishing company to develop and publish material that would upgrade guitar education. He authored or co-authored a dozen instructional books, most of which remain in print. Howard also had a longtime relationship with Guitar Player. His Jazz Improvisation column was a fixture for 15 years and one of the most popular and useful columns the magazine ever produced. When editor Don Menn wrote the definitive story on Howard for the June 1979 issue, I went to L.A. to shoot the cover photo and got to hang out with him all day and listen to great war stories about the L.A. studio scene. He was a fun and fascinating guy.
“Jim is father of modern jazz guitar to me. He’s the guy who invented a conception that has allowed guitar to function in a lot of musical situations that just weren’t thought of as a possibility prior to his emergence as a player. He reinvented what the guitar could be as a jazz instrument… Jim transcends the instrument… the meaning behind the notes is what speaks to people.” – Pat Metheny
In a career stretching nearly six decades, Jim Hall has become one of the most influential of all jazz guitarists. But in his own words, he is first a musician, arranger, and composer. In 1997, he won the New York Jazz Critics Circle Award for Best Jazz Composer/Arranger. Hall was an inveterate experimenter, and his expressive understated approach, individual voice and style, careful choice of notes, sensitive use of space, and warm, mellow tone have a way of fitting into any musical context. Throughout his career, he has been especially bold in his choice of instrumentation, always putting the other musicians on a equal footing. His varied collaborators have included Itzhak Perlman, Andre Previn, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Gunther Schuller, and Hampton Hawes. Musicians who work with him speak of his responsiveness, empathy, and communication. Of his musical style, Jim says simply that “listening is still the key.”
When Joe Pass recorded Virtuoso, the album that made him famous, in 1973, the jazz guitar world was dominated by the funk and driving rhythms of fusion guitarists such as Larry Coryell, Sonny Sharrock, and John McLaughlin. Joe Pass broke that hold with an unprecedented display of solo guitar virtuosity that changed the possibilities of the way the instrument was played. Working off standards in the chord-melody style with the warm, fat sound of his Gibson ES-175, Pass created an orchestra by himself with his blazing lead lines, brilliant use of counterpoint, harmonic inventions, walking bass lines, and chord inversions and progressions. Though Hall accompanied many notable artists throughout his career, including Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald, his legacy will always be that of the master of solo guitar who influenced countless other players. A good guy, he was everybody’s favorite Italian uncle.