The Basics of Guitar in Jazz

Jazz is one of the most complex and satisfying forms of popular music, and guitar has been an important part of the genre for decades. In this article, we will go over a brief history of jazz guitar, and also review the works of some of its innovators.

The Jazz Guitar

Although electric guitars are generally associated with rock, the electric guitar was actually invented for and used by jazz musicians from the 1930s onward. As jazz bands became all the rage, they needed amplification for the guitar in order for it to be heard. Then, as now, the most common type of electric guitar used in jazz is the archtop hollow body, an example of which is shown here:


Archtop hollow body
Archtop hollow body

Many Jazz guitarists also use solid body guitars, such as the one shown here:


Solid body guitar
Solid body guitar

In jazz, guitar is used for “comping,” or accompanying other instruments when they are improvising. It is also used for “blowing,” or improvising over jazz chord progressions with jazz-style phrasing.

Early History

In the 1920s, Gibson produced an archtop acoustic guitar that was louder than its earlier counterparts. This was born of necessity, as the fuller-sounding guitar had replaced the banjo as the primary stringed instrument. Tubas had been replaced by upright basses due to their resonance, and guitars needed to be louder to keep up.

As the Big Band era came to the forefront in the 30s and 40s, the guitar became a very important part of the rhythm section.  Big bands seldom incorporated amplified guitar solos, but smaller jazz combos used them more and more frequently. Django Reinhardt, Oscar Moore, and Charlie Christian were early jazz guitar greats.

After World War II, the guitar took on a much more prominent role in all different strains of jazz. As technology improved, newer and better electric guitars became available and tonal options expanded.   George Barnes, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Tal Farlow emerged as the bebop style became more popular.

Modern Jazz Guitar

Jazz-rock fusion began to emerge in the 1970s, and with it a new breed of jazz guitarists who were strongly influenced by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix.  Solid body guitars became the norm in this hybrid music form. John McLaughlin was a pioneer in jazz fusion guitar.

From the 1980s until the modern era, the most popular strain of jazz has been radio-friendly smooth jazz. Pat Metheney has become renowned for his fluid guitar work in this arena. At the same time, a return to more traditional jazz forms has taken hold. Bobby Broom, Peter Bernstein, Howard Alden, Russell Malone, and Mark Whitfield are among the many great guitarists who represent the new traditional jazz guitar style.

Ingredients of Jazz Guitar

Jazz guitar can be very complex and hard to fret. The rhythms are not as common as straight-ahead rock songs, but it is a form of guitar which is worth looking into and hearing. In order to truly understand jazz, it is important to truly understand both music theory and your instrument. Even though jazz breaks a lot of rules, you cannot break rules until you know what they are.