The ten best jazz guitarists of all time

Categories: Jazz, Lists

091613_wes-montgomery.jpg

In jazz discussions, the saxophonists and the trumpeters generally dominate the conversation, and rightly so. Equally as integral to the music, though, is the rest of the band. While we've already listed the pianists, and we'll soon be taking a look at bassists and drummers, today we focus on the six-stringers. Although there are a number of exceptional players worthy of consideration (guys like Johnny Smith, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Barney Kessel, Nels Cline and Kurt Rosenwinkel), these are the ten best jazz guitarists of all time.

See also: Ten essential jazz albums for those who know squat about jazz

10. Lenny Breau
Lenny Breau, one of the more underrated guitarists in the history of music, was a brilliant player skilled at a variety of styles from jazz and classical to flamenco and country. Breau died in 1984 at the age of 43, and regrettably, he never achieved mainstream success. Just the same, he left behind some stellar albums, like Guitar Sounds from Lenny Breau and The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau, and the Guitarchives imprint has done a fine job issuing live and rare recordings.

9. Bill Frisell
Since growing up in Denver and studying with Longmont-based guitarist Dale Bruning, Bill Frisell has gone on to be one of the most distinctive voices in jazz guitar. With an instantly recognizable tone, Frisell has forged a captivating approach to jazz, throwing in a bit of twang and folk into his playing. Since his early '80s ECM recordings like In Line and Rambler, Frisell went on to release close to three dozen albums under his own name as well as teaming up with luminaries like Paul Motian and John Zorn.

8. Pat Metheny
With Pat Metheny's excellent debut, Bright Size Life, released in 1976, when he was only 21, it was evident that the guitarist was equally gifted at playing as he was penning compositions. Since then, he's gone on to become a major force in jazz guitar, releasing a number of stellar discs with the Pat Metheny Group (Travels, Offramp and Imaginary Day), as well as in the trio format and duets with Brad Mehldau and Jim Hall, who was a primary influence on Metheny. Along the way, he's won twenty Grammy Awards.

7. Kenny Burrell
Influenced by the top three players on this list, Kenny Burrell's style was rooted in bop and blues. While his output in the 1950s was solid, especially All Night Long, The Cats and A Night at the Vanguard, his 1963 Blue Note album Midnight Blue, possibly his best and most well-known recording, is a great document of the guitarist's bluesy approach to jazz, especially the album's opener, "Chitlins Con Carne."

6. Grant Green
While Grant Green, who was influenced by Charlie Parker, could swing like hell and was a master bop and hard bop player, his pocket playing on his jazz funk recordings was heavy, as well. Green was prolific during the '60s, and he released number of notable Blue Note recordings, including two of the finest albums of his career -- Idle Moments and Matador. And for a taste of just how funky Green could get look check out 1971's Live at the Lighthouse, especially his extended solo on "Jan Jan."

5. Jim Hall
Incredibly lyrical in his phrasing, Jim Hall took a more relaxed approach to the guitar than some of his contemporaries who played faster and more complex runs. Sure, Hall had no problem playing fast (listen him with Sonny Rollins on "The Bridge"), but his thoughtful and economical phrasing proves that less is more, especially on Undercurrent, a brilliant duo recording Hall did with pianist Bill Evans. Hall's duo albums with Ron Carter are highly recommended as is his 1975 release Live! and 1975's Concierto with Chet Baker and Paul Desmond.

4. Joe Pass
There's a reason there's not only one album titled Virtuoso, but four different volumes of the same title, as well as a Virtuoso Live!. Joe Pass was the epitome of the word. A consummate genius of fingerstyle chord-melody guitar (listen to any volume of the Virtuoso series for evidence), Pass took solo jazz guitar to a completely new level. He was also an exceptional bop guitarist who could play incredible single line solos over up-tempo cuts like "Cherokee."

3. Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian was one of the first players to embrace the electric guitar when it was introduced in the late '30s. Before that, a lot of guitarists in big bands were essentially rhythm players. A remarkable player, improviser and master of the swing feel, Christian helped bring the guitar into the forefront during his tenure with Benny Goodman; pretty much anything he recorded with Goodman is worth a listen. A great bop player, as well, Christian, who died when he was just 25, was a major figure in jazz guitar.

2. Django Reinhardt
Already an accomplished musician in his early teens, Django Reinhardt had to essentially relearn the guitar after his left hand was burned in a gypsy caravan fire when he was eighteen. While doctors said he'd never be able to play again after the fire, Reinhardt came up a completely new harmonic approach to the guitar using just the index and middle fingers of his fretting hand. He could do more with those two fingers than a lot of guitarists can do with four fingers. The father of gypsy jazz, Reinhardt inspired legions of followers who continue to pay tribute the master through recordings and annual festivals around the world.

1. Wes Montgomery
Before "Wes" Montgomery began his career as a professional musician, he practiced late at night, using his thumb (rather than a pick), so he didn't wake up his wife. This technique wound up being the hallmark of Montgomery's warm tone. While he clearly had a firm hold on single line soloing, Montgomery's use of octaves was also another trademark of his style. A great place to start for examples of all this are the 1960 release The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery and his 1961 disc, So Much Guitar!

See also:
- The ten best saxophonists of all time
- The ten best trumpeters of all time
- The ten best pianists of all time






Advertisement

My Voice Nation Help
12 comments
newworldatheist
newworldatheist

Any list of the best jazz guitarists of all time that does not include Al Di Meola is not to be taken seriously. It would be like having a list of best rock guitarists and leaving out Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix is the greatest rock guitarist of all time because NO one played like he did. Likewise, Al Di Meola stands above every other jazz guitarist. The fact that John McLaughlin is also not on the list (as others have noted) simply confirms my view that this list is bogus. Pat Metheny? Really? That guy puts me to sleep!

Samjnes
Samjnes

This list is GARBAGE!! I just knew the majority would be white, half of them are overhyped. 

ryukishi
ryukishi

They all sound boringly the same but the Django one kept me awake at least. I'm in search for a guitarists that does interesting modal phrases without getting to much into other scale or arpeggio. I listened to some of the well known but it's all boring, all I heard is just meaningless overflow of modal phrase. I want to learn modes from a guitarist but they all sound the same to me, If you understand what I'm talking about and have a guitarist that could interest me more please just let me know.

storkmusic
storkmusic

Although by choice he was never famous, Cincinnati's Kenny Poole was arguably the best solo jazz guitarist ever. His forte was improvising complex jazz arrangements usually involving three different parts at once, completely off the cuff. Although he left few recordings at his death, one of the best examples of his expertise is a live recording entitled "Heritage"  recorded at his weekly gig at the former Heritage restaurant. Just Kenny, his guitar, and a two track recorder set on "record". May be previewed at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/kennypoole.

steveg0606
steveg0606

Hard to imagine George Benson and Pat Martino not being on this list

markajohnson
markajohnson

Where is Salvatore Messaro (Eddie Lang)? 

Cognitive_Dissident
Cognitive_Dissident topcommenter

Wow, I guess opinions are like...well, you know the rest.

dmanor.dm
dmanor.dm

You must be "Older".....Outside of Christian & Wes & Django( All "Standard bearers" in my opinion), Who are these other Bebop Fossils?


djbuckdc
djbuckdc

When I saw the headline, all thought was two of the ten better be Charlie Christian and Django Rheinhardt or I will be peeved.  Ha.  Nice list; good work.  Dan

Now Trending

Denver Concert Tickets

From the Vault

 

Loading...