The final assignment for my History of Jazz graduate seminar with Prof. Richard Thompson at SDSU was a paper and presentation on the history of the student's own instrument in jazz. The only requirement of the project was to feature five players who have been important to the student's personal development. In case someone's interested, here's my paper.

History of Jazz Guitar

The history of jazz guitar is defined by its players. In this paper, I will touch on many different players and mention their various impacts on the development of this instrument and style. I will indicate, where applicable, how each player has influenced my own approach to guitar. Further, I will focus on five guitarists who have had a more direct impact on my playing: Joe Pass, John McLaughlin, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Bryan Baker. I have left out some of my top favorites (Django Reinhardt, Al Di Meola, and Nels Cline) because I have already covered two of them in this course, and I wanted to learn more about the five I chose.

Early Jazz

Most of the early pioneers of jazz guitar are no longer direct influences on today's players, but their innovations live on, passed through the following generations of better-known figures in jazz, blues, and rock.

Banjos were used more often in the early New Orleans bands. Brock Mumford was one of the first jazz guitarists, playing in cornetist Buddy Bolden's band in the 1890s. No recordings of Mumford exist, so historians can only speculate about his sound (Chapman 94). Johnny St. Cyr played in Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, as well as Jelly Roll Morten's ensemble recordings ("Johnny St. Cyr"). Eddie Lang is regarded as the first important jazz guitarist, playing with Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby. He assumed the alias Blind Willie Dunn when recording blues records with Lonnie Johnson, a formidable blues and jazz guitarist, among the first to play single-note solos (Chapman 95). Carl Kress and Dick McDonough expanded the technical repertoire and sonic palate for jazz guitar, recording heavily arranged guitar duets (Chapman 95.) Freddie Green has had the most lasting influence of the early jazz guitar pioneers. He played with Count Basie and developed a much-imitated style of comping, playing percussive chords on every quarter note, known today as "Freddie Green style" ("Freddie Green"). Eddie Durham played with Cab Calloway and Glenn Miller, and was the arranger for "In the Mood" ("Eddie Durham").

Solo Instrument

Two figures advanced the guitar as a solo instrument more than any other: Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Reinhardt, with his Gypsy upbringing and influences like Louis Armstrong coming from the U.S., displayed unprecedented fluency in melodic guitar soloing. Christian, featured in Benny Goodman's big band, was an early adopter of the electric guitar, and his single-note solos brought the guitar out of a strictly rhythm section role.

Bebop and Beyond

The new bebop style introduced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie posed a formidable challenge for guitarists. The speed and fluency of the new language was difficult to adapt to the guitar. Tal Farlow was one of the first to bring the guitar to bebop, with his huge hands and light, fast lines (Chapman 104). Barney Kessel was one of the first guitar virtuosos, performing in a wide array of jazz groups and recording with "The Wrecking Crew," a group of first-call studio musicians (Chapman 105). Johnny Smith, equally at home with jazz and classical guitar, brought a sophisticated and refined approach to his jazz playing (Chapman 106). Les Paul, a technical wiz pushing the boundaries of musical equipment, contributed to Gibson's first solidbody guitar model, the Les Paul (Chapman 106). Kenny Burrell was a major sideman and became a prominent jazz educator ("Kenny Burrell"). He was an important influence on my personal overall favorite guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Wes Montgomery, the consummate jazz guitarist and certainly the most famous, played only with his thumb, often with percussive octave-doubling on melodies. He perfected a strategy of solo development and hard bop fluency (Chapman 110). Charlie Byrd blended classical technique and timbre with jazz harmony in the bossa nova style. He played with Stan Getz on Jazz Samba, the landmark first bossa nova album released in the U.S. jazz scene, in 1962 ("Jazz Samba"). João Gilberto is considered the father of bossa nova, and performed many of Antonio Carlos Jobim's well-known compositions, most notably on the influential Getz/Gilberto, again with Stan Getz, released in 1964 ("Getz/Gilberto").

Two DVDs that I bought when I was first studying jazz in college helped encourage me to pursue jazz guitar: Legends of Jazz Guitar: Volume One and Volume Two. They featured live footage of Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Charlie Byrd. I had previously only been exposed to horn players and pianists in any detail, and I was trying to model my sound after them. These DVDs opened my ears to how the greatest jazz guitarists had approached the same problem.

Joe Pass (1929 - 1994)

Joe Pass was born into a non-musical family in New Jersey and raised in Pennsylvania. His father was a steel mill worker. Pass was first inspired to pick up a guitar by Gene Autry's portrayal of a guitar-playing cowboy. His father urged him to play for family and friends during any social gathering, and insisted that he play real, entertaining songs and fill in the spaces left between guitar lines and chords. Pass adapted each tune he played to a solo guitar performance, picking up parts by ear, embellishing chords and melodies, and filling in all those spaces per his father's requests. (Pass)

In his teens, Pass was playing local gigs and traveling with various jazz groups. He eventually moved to New York City, but fell into obscurity during the 1950s due to drug abuse. He practiced guitar nonstop during a two-and-a-half-year rehabilitation program and began recording again in the 1960s. He was prolific in TV and recording session work throughout the decade, and released several albums as well. In the early 1970s, Pass co-authored a series of jazz guitar music books, Joe Pass Guitar Style, which remain influential today. ("Joe Pass")

In 1974, Pass recorded his best-known album, Virtuoso, often cited as one of the greatest jazz guitar albums of all time. Before this album, Pass approached the guitar in the traditional small jazz group setting, single-note soloing and comping for other soloists. On Virtuoso, he introduced a technique of unaccompanied guitar that involved simultaneous chords and melodies, sophisticated harmonic substitutions, improvised counterpoint, and walking bass lines with chords. ("Joe Pass")

John McLaughlin (1942 - )

John McLaughlin emerged on the jazz scene when he moved from London to the U.S. to join Tony Williams's group Lifetime. Upon his arrival, Miles Davis heard him play and asked him to contribute to the recording of In a Silent Way, regarded as the first of Davis's fusion albums. McLaughlin played on several of Davis's subsequent recordings, including the landmark Bitches Brew. (Gridley 165)

In 1971, McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a fusion group active until 1976. The group expanded the emerging ideas of fusing rock and jazz, turning up the volume and intensity expected of the new genre. Instrumentation included drums, keyboards, bass, and violin, as well as McLaughlin's guitars. They played at ear-splitting volumes and embraced McLaughlin's blossoming interest in Indian music and spirituality. (Chapman 115)

McLaughlin's next project was an acoustic fusion group called Shakti with Indian musicians on violin and percussion, including now-world-famous tabla player Zakir Hussein. Formed in 1975, they are regarded as pioneers of the world fusion genre. Later, McLaughlin worked in acoustic guitar trios with Paco de Lucía, Larry Coryell, and Al Di Meola, leading to several albums, DVDs, and world tours. ("John McLaughlin (musician)")


Fusion guitar started with John McLaughlin on Miles Davis's first fusion albums. The style embraced the emerging electric instruments and the popular sounds of rock. Allan Holdsworth is another prominent figure in fusion guitar, using synthesizer guitars and original techniques in close chord voicings and ultra-fast legato lines (Chapman 117). Al Di Meola employs unprecedented picking technique, played with Chick Corea in Return to Forever from 1974 to 1976, and has released many solo albums ("Al Di Meola"). He is my personal favorite guitarist under the wide umbrella of jazz, particularly for his latin- and tango-influenced acoustic playing. Mike Stern played with Miles Davis from 1981 to 1983 and with Michael Brecker and the Brecker Brothers for many years ("Mike Stern"). He also displayed a strong Hendrix influence and a peculiar jumpy technique in which he prefers to move his entire hand to new notes rather than stretch his fingers out.

John Scofield (1951 - )

Raised in rural Ohio and Connecticut, John Scofield attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, but left before graduating to play with Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and later Charles Mingus. He subsequently played in Miles Davis's band from 1982 to 1985. He uses a grainy tone, at times a very delicate touch, and a refined sense of dynamics. He has played an important role in the exposition of the jazz funk genre, especially in collaboration with Medeski, Martin, and Wood. ("John Scofield")

Central to Scofield's influence on my own playing is the sense of dynamics I mentioned. Because of the way he varies his attack from note to note, I hear character in every note he plays, similar to horn players like Parker, Davis, and Rollins. I don't hear this from guitarists very often; the attack is usually more consistent between notes. I love the way he bends held notes before they fade out.

Modern Era

Here I lump together some of the recent developments in jazz guitar, specifically those who are currently advancing the instrument. Pat Metheny was a prodigy on the guitar, and his output is still prolific today. He brings tinges of folk and country to his playing and his liquid phrasing is instantly recognizable ("Pat Metheny"). Nels Cline, another of my personal favorites, excels at free improvisation, utilizing an enormous array of effect pedals to bring unconventional sounds to life as music. He is the flagship artist of Cryptogramophone Records, a new label exploring cutting-edge jazz ("Nels Cline"). Frank Gambale, from Australia, displays major fusion chops and more picking technique breakthroughs beyond Di Meola's, particularly with sweep picking and economy picking. He has become a successful educator, co-founding the Los Angeles Music Academy ("Frank Gambale"). Kurt Rosenwinkel embraces a more traditional sound with subtle advances in sophistication of the music and tone. He sings while he plays, wears a lavaliere microphone, and processes his voice in parallel with his guitar. He is currently a music professor in Berlin ("Kurt Rosenwinkel"). Jonathan Kreisberg is an emerging talent in New York. He gave a clinic which I attended at the Los Angeles Music Academy and displayed a highly advanced knowledge of polyrhythms and a rock-solid consistent swing feel that seems to cut the beat into 3/5 and 2/5 instead of the usual 2/3 and 1/3.

Bill Frisell (1951 - )

Bill Frisell's recordings are all over the map. Some of it is certainly jazz. Some of it is questionably so. He employs a wide array of effects, often a light tremolo hinting at a country sound. Much of his playing is unaccompanied with looping effects to create rich textures with a single guitar ("Bill Frisell"). He has done extensive work with John Zorn, one of my favorite working composers. Zorn's album, Masada Guitars, released in 2003, showcases solo guitar performances by Frisell, Marc Ribot, and John Sparks of selections from Zorn's Masada songbook.

Bryan Baker (1986 - )

Born into a creative family, Bryan Baker began playing guitar at the age of four under the direction of his father, himself a professional guitarist. At 13, he enrolled at the Los Angeles Music Academy on a full scholarship. Upon completion of the two-year program, he spent the next two years teaching at the school and performing around Los Angeles. At 17, he enrolled at Berklee College of Music on another full scholarship. He recorded his debut album, Aphotic, while he was at Berklee. Bill Milkowski of Jazz Times magazine called it "the most startlingly original debut by a guitarist since Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life." Baker graduated from Berklee in 2006, and has since been touring the world with fusion group Steps Ahead. ("Bryan Baker")

Works Cited

"Al Di Meola." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Dec 2009, 04:35 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Bill Frisell." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 1 Dec 2009, 17:25 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Bryan Baker." MySpace. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
Chapman, Richard. Guitar: Music, History, Players. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 2000. Print.
"Eddie Durham." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Dec 2008, 10:52 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Frank Gambale." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Nov 2009, 14:20 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Freddie Green." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Dec 2009, 23:27 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Getz/Gilberto." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 11 Dec 2009, 03:23 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
Gridley, Mark C. Concise Guide to Jazz. Fourth Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2004. Print.
"Jazz Samba." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Dec 2009, 21:17 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Joe Pass." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 12 Nov 2009, 20:47 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"John McLaughlin (musician)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Dec 2009, 23:00 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Johnny St. Cyr." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 30 Aug 2009, 03:27 UTC. Web. 9 Dec 2009.
"John Scofield." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 29 Nov 2009, 09:39 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Kenny Burrell." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 Oct 2009, 22:24 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Kurt Rosenwinkel." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 13 Dec 2009, 06:19 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Mike Stern." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Dec 2009, 01:31 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
"Nels Cline." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 20 Nov 2009, 17:24 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.
Pass, Joe, perf. An Evening with Joe Pass. 1988. Warner, 2004. DVD.
"Pat Metheny." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 Dec 2009, 01:58 UTC. Web. 13 Dec 2009.