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.
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!
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.