The guitar has been an integral part of jazz since it first took off in the early 20th century, but the style and techniques used have seen some big changes over the years.
Many of these changes can be pinpointed to specific jazz guitarists – and that’s what we want to explore today.
- We’ll delve into their unique styles and look at the lasting impact they’ve had on jazz guitar.
- You’ll also learn how to introduce some of their techniques into your own playing.
And because we’re in such a good mood we’ll throw in some practice tips and tricks too!
Grab your guitar, put your favorite jazz hat on, and let’s get started.
It’s impossible to have a list of the top jazz guitarists without mentioning Wes Montgomery.
- He’s arguably the most influential jazz guitarist of all time.
- Being completely self-taught, he developed an unusual picking technique – using only his thumb.
- While there’s a lot to learn from Montgomery, this technique is probably not one of them.
Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of Montgomery’s playing that have made him such an icon.
Building a solo
Montgomery's solos often follow a specific path with three distinct sections:
- Single notes
- Octaves (double stops)
With each step, the harmonic layers increase.
- This gives the solo a sense of growth as it progresses.
- He’ll rarely go back a step as this would lose the feeling of building up to a crescendo.
- Increasing intensity is a common tool guitarists use when creating a solo, whether going up in pitch, speed, or complexity.
A great example of this method is the song Cariba from the live album Full House.
Let’s look at three different passages from the song that showcase this concept.
- Montgomery was the first to play melodic lines in octaves. This is partly what has made his playing instantly recognizable and unique.
- Being able to harmonize melodic ideas so fluidly takes immense skill and theoretical knowledge.
Chords and voicings
Wes Montgomery was a fan of the drop 2 voicing.
- This is a very common voicing in jazz guitar.
- To make a drop 2 chord you take a four-note chord in a closed position and then move the second-highest note down an octave.
For more information on chord structure, take a look at our membership page and see which of our courses you’re interested in.
Another common chord choice for Montgomery is the diminished 7th. Below are two movable dim7 chord shapes to learn:
- Jazz progressions are often centered around four-note chords.
- That means each chord has four possible inversions.
- Experiment with inversions by changing the order of notes in a chord.
This style of playing is not something a beginner guitarist can simply jump into and get right straight away.
Beginners need to learn chord construction and the theory behind building chords. With that knowledge, you can learn chord intervals across the entire fretboard.
Like Montgomery, Joe Pass has essentially perfected the melodic chord style of playing. Pass’ album Virtuoso, released in 1973, is one of the staple albums in jazz history.
It’s considered one of the absolute best jazz albums of all time.
- A key element to achieving the sound of jazz are passing tones – especially diminished passing chords.
- Other than extended chords, a big part of the jazz sound is the half steps and diminished chords.
We’ll take a look at a quick chord progression featuring half steps and diminished chords – typical for the Joe Pass style.
This short progression will show you how far you can go mostly using different voicings and inversions of the same chord. In this example, we mostly play G.
- We start with a Gm7 in a third inversion
- Then move to a passing chord, which is a Gbm7
- We land on a Gm7 in its root position
- Another passing chord is the Adim7
- Then Another Gm7 with the third in the bass
- We end on a C7
It seems like a lot to think about, but it starts to make sense the more you practice this style.
Jazz typically has a laidback feel, so the chord changes need to feel relaxed and fluid.
- As always start slowly and focus on accuracy over speed.
- A good way to practice inversions is by inverting chords in progressions you’re already familiar with.
- This will give you a context you’re already familiar with and allow you to hear the difference inversions make to a sequence of chords.
Something Pass does frequently is playing what’s known as Rubato.
- Rubato is a classical music term meaning to play slightly ahead or behind the beat – by either slowing down or speeding up.
- This can create a great sense of tension and release in the music.
A great way to approach rubato is to feel, or play to, the larger beat and the pulse of the song, rather than quarter notes.
What sets Pass apart from other influential jazz guitarists: he’s doing this all by himself.
- No other musicians are on stage – it’s just him and his guitar.
- He’s providing all the melody, rhythm, and harmony – not easy!
Here’s a great clip of Pass playing his versions of the jazz standard Ain’t Misbehavin’.
For our third inspirational jazz guitarist, we’ll discuss Django Reinhardt.
His style is quite different from both previously mentioned jazz musicians. Reinhardt plays a style called gypsy jazz or manouche jazz.
This style of jazz leans more into swing rhythms.
- In the gypsy jazz style, this rhythm is referred to as “la pompe” (meaning “the pump”)
- The emphasis is on beats 2 and 4, just like swing.
If you’re unfamiliar with this style, listen to this clip of Reinhardt performing in 1945.
As you may notice in the video, much like Wes Montgomery, Reinhardt had an unusual playing style.
- Due to an injury on his left hand, he was unable to use his ring and pinky finger his playing.
- However, only having two fingers to play didn’t stop him from telling the musical stories that he wanted to.
It’s too good to only listen to one track! Let’s check out Minor Swing, perhaps Reinhardts most known song:
- Pay attention to ‘La Pompe’.
- Try to internalize that swing – it needs to become something that you don’t think about.
- It’s a pretty relentless rhythm. Practice by playing in short bursts, then slowly building up stamina.
Start with only one chord: the common gypsy jazz Am6.
- This shape is moveable – wherever you put the root note (highlighted in red) defines the chord.
- Root on the 5th fret makes it and Am6 – move down two frets it becomes a Gm6, etc.
- Just be sure to mute the open A string.
The sound of the guitar in gypsy jazz is important to get right.
- First, you need to make sure that you’re muting unwanted strings appropriately to avoid excess noise.
- Keep the chords sounding tight and avoid ringing out.
- In this style of music, the rhythm guitar almost serves as a percussive instrument.
The best way to practice this is by initially focusing on your fretting hand.
- Simply press down the chord notes and then lift your fingers from the strings just enough to mute the strings.
- Now pluck each string to check they are all muted.
The trick is to be able to strum a rhythm and use your fretting hand to switch between sounding the chord out and muting it.
Like everything it takes time, but the more you do it the more natural it will become.
Another extremely important guitarist in jazz history is Freddie Green. He took a different approach from the other guitarists on this list.
- A very ensemble-focused player – always playing what best served the band.
- Green played guitar for the Count Basie Orchestra for almost 50 years.
- His style of playing developed from being an acoustic guitar player next to a loud piano and loud brass instruments.
Supporting an ensemble
His philosophy was that his guitar needed to be felt, not heard – similar to bass instruments in many genres.
- Green always concentrated on supporting the rest of the band rather than drawing attention to himself.
- His playing is very much centered around a solid rhythm, hitting quarter notes – specifically beats 1 and 3.
Here’s a good example of Green playing a stable four beats to the bar – the guitar is almost like an extension of the double bass.
- Once more we see the guitar being used with more a focus on rhythm than melody.
- Many guitarists don’t focus on timing, but it’s essential for great rhythm playing.
- If we view rhythm guitar as percussive, we must master keeping a solid beat.
The best way to practice timing is to play along to a metronome. We have a versatile metronome for you to practice with.
Practicing jazz rhythm guitar
Here are some things to focus on if you want to improve your jazz rhythm playing.
Root-5 and root-6 chord inversions
- You need to know how to play chords with root positions on both the 6th and 5th strings.
- This will allow you to build walking bass lines while simultaneously playing chords.
Drop chord voicings
- Drop 2 and drop 3 voicings are an easy way to instantly sound more “jazzy”.
- Drop 2 lowers the second-highest note of the chord by one octave.
- Drop 3 lowers the third-highest note in the chord by one octave.
With good chord knowledge, you’ll be able to play chord solos just like Freddie Green:
- When you’re practicing chord progressions and rhythm, do it to a metronome and really focus on playing on the beat.
- Start slow and increase the tempo as you get more comfortable.
- When you’ve worked your way up to a higher BPM, cut the BPM in half, but keep the tempo.
- This will force you to internalize and feel beats that the metronome is not sounding.
It’s always good to record yourself and listen back to see if you’re really playing on the beat or if you’re slightly behind or ahead.
Charlie Christian is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in the development of modern jazz guitar playing.
- Known as the man who established the electric guitar as a viable instrument in jazz.
- One of the first guitarists to use single-note lines and solos in jazz, rather than just playing chords or rhythm.
- His style of playing was similar to what the solo lines horns and brass instruments would play.
Here’s a great example:
Chords and melody
Although he was playing single lines, the note choices were still heavily influenced by the underlying chords.
To better understand this, we need some context. Let’s use this common jazz chord progression:
- The idea here is to let the chords influence the melodic lines you’re playing.
- Arpeggios are a great thing to practice to blur the lines between chords melody.
Here’s an example of an arpeggio incorporating these chords.
- Play something along these lines to a metronome and find a groove and rhythm.
- Charlie Christian was a swing jazz guitar player, which means a lot of emphasis on beats 2 and 4.
Although most of these ideas seem obvious now, in the 1930s and 40s this was totally pioneering and paved the way for modern jazz guitar.
We’ve only just scratched the surface of jazz guitar and the amazing players that paved the way. It’s such has a rich and diverse genre, with so many players making significant contributions to its development.
- Jazz guitarists have pushed the boundaries of what is possible on the instrument and inspired generations of musicians in and outside of the genre.
- Each player has brought a unique voice and approach to the music, and their influence can be heard in the playing of countless guitarists today.
Whether it's the lightning-fast runs of Charlie Christian or the incredible virtuosity of Joe Pass, the legacy of these influential jazz guitarists will continue to shape and inspire us for years to come.
If you want to improve your knowledge of chord progressions, chord voicings, or music theory, take a look at our courses at Pickup Music. New members can try it completely free for 14 days.
We have courses for players of all stages, ranging from complete beginner to advanced. We also have courses focused on specific genres, such as jazz, where our tutors will teach you what you need to know to become a phenomenal jazz guitarist.
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