While jazz can be played on any type of guitar, from an acoustic instrument to a solid-bodied electric guitar such as a Fender Stratocaster, the archtop guitar has become known as the prototypical "jazz guitar." Archtop guitars are steel-string acoustic guitars with a big soundbox, arched top, violin-style "F" holes, a "floating bridge" and magnetic or piezoelectric pickups. The earliest guitars used in jazz were acoustic. While acoustic guitars are still sometimes used in jazz, most jazz guitarists since the 1940s have performed on an amplified electric guitar, typically an archtop with a magnetic pickup.
Jazz guitar playing styles include "comping" with jazz chord voicings (and in some cases , walking basslines) and "blowing" (improvising) over jazz chord progressions with jazz-style phrasing and ornaments. When jazz guitarists play chords underneath a song's melody or another musician's solo improvisations, it is called "comping", a portmanteau of "accompanying" and complementing. When jazz guitar players improvise, they use the scales, modes, and arpeggios associated with the chords in a tune's chord progression.
The stringed, chord-playing rhythm instrument typical of jazz ensembles from 1900 until the early 1920s was the banjo, an instrument which was much louder than guitars of the time. The banjo could generate enough sound to be heard in groups which included military band-style instruments such as brass, saxes, clarinets, and drums, such as early jazz groups. As the acoustic guitar became a more popular instrument in the early 20th century, guitar-makers began building louder guitars which would be useful in a wider range of settings. The Gibson L5, an acoustic archtop guitar which was first produced in 1923, was an early “jazz”-style guitar which was used by early jazz guitarists such as Eddie Lang. By the 1930s, the guitar began to displace the banjo as the primary chordal rhythm instrument in jazz music, because the guitar could be used to voice chords of greater harmonic complexity, and it had a somewhat more muted tone that blended well with the upright bass, which, by this time, had almost completely replaced the tuba as the dominant bass instrument in jazz music.
The next important development in jazz guitar came in the mid to late-1930s with the advent of electrical amplification. Although Gibson was not the first commercial producer to make an electric guitar, the company made the first successfully-marketed electric guitar, the ES150 in 1936. It was an acoustic archtop fitted with a guitar pickup, which sensed the vibrations in the metal strings so that they could be amplified by a guitar amplifier. When guitarist Charlie Christian used the amplified electric guitar to improvise horn-like, single-line melodies in the jazz context, jazz and blues musicians became interested in the potential of the louder, new electric guitar. His playing was heard by millions in the dazzling recordings he cut with Benny Goodman.
During the late 1930s and through the 1940s -the heyday of big band jazz and swing music -the electric guitar was an important rhythm section instrument. Some guitarists, such as Freddie Green of Count Basie’s band, developed a guitar-specific style of accompaniment. Few of the big bands, however, featured amplified guitar solos, which were done instead in the small combo context. The most important jazz guitar soloists of this period included the Belgian Gypsy virtuoso Django Reinhardt, best known for his recordings with Stephane Grappelli, and Oscar Moore who was featured with Nat “King” Cole’s trio.
It was not until the large-scale emergence of small combo jazz in the post-WWII period that the guitar took as a versatile instrument, which was used both in the rhythm section and as a featured melodic instrument and solo improviser. In the hands of Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Tal Farlow, who had absorbed the language of bebop, the guitar began to be seen as a “serious” jazz instrument. Improved electric guitars such as Gibson’s ES175 (released in 1949), gave players a larger variety of tonal options. In the 1940s through the 1960s, players such as Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, and Jim Hall laid the foundation of what is now known as "jazz guitar" playing.
As jazz-rock fusion emerged in the early 1970s, many players switched to the more rock-oriented solid body guitars. Other jazz guitarists, like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery, turned to applying their skills to pop-oriented styles that fused jazz with soul and R&B, such as soul jazz-styled organ trios. Younger jazz musicians rode the surge of electric popular genres such as blues, rock, and funk to reach new audiences. Guitarists in the fusion realm fused the post-bop harmonic and melodic language of musicians such as John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis with a hard-edged (and usually very loud) rock tone of Jimi Hendrix to create a new sound. Guitarists such as John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, John Abercrombie, and John Scofield fashioned a new language for the guitar which introduced jazz to a new generation of fans. Fusion guitarists usually played their solid body instruments through stadium rock-style amplification, and signal processing “effects” such as distortion and wah-wah pedals.
By the early 1980s, the radical experiments of early 1970s-era fusion gave way to a more radio-friendly sounds of smooth jazz. Guitarist Pat Metheny mixed the sounds of blues, country, and “world” music, along with rock and jazz, playing both a flat-top acoustic guitar and an electric guitar with a softer, more mellow tone which was sweetened with a shimmering effect known as as “chorusing". During the 1980s, a neo-traditional school of jazz sought to reconnect with the past. In keeping with such an aesthetic, young guitarists of this era sought a clean and round tone and they often played traditional hollow-body archtop guitars which were played without electronic effects.
As players such as Bobby Broom, Peter Bernstein, Howard Alden, Russell Malone, and Mark Whitfield revived the sounds of traditional jazz guitar, there was also a resurgence of archtop luthierie (guitar-making). By the early 1990s many small independent luthiers began making archtop guitars. In the 2000s, jazz guitar playing continues to change. Guitarist Steve Kahn brings a Latin jazz influence, acid jazz-style dance club music uses samples from Wes Montgomery, and guitarists such as Bill Frisell continue to defy categorization.
The earliest guitars used in jazz were acoustic. While acoustic guitars are still sometimes used in jazz, most jazz guitarists since the 1940s have performed on an amplified electric guitar, typically an archtop with a magnetic pickup. In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of interest among jazz guitarists in acoustic archtop guitars with floating pickups. Sitka spruce, European spruce, and Engelmann spruce are most often used for the resonant tops of archtop and flattop guitars, although some guitar builders use Adirondack Spruce (Red Spruce), or Western Red Cedar. Archtop guitars often have Curly Maple or Quilted Maple backs.
Mass-produced archtop guitars are made by several different manufacturers. There are also a smaller number of handmade archtop and flattop guitars made on a small scale. Builders of handmade guitars take about six months to make each jazz guitar. Builders have to spend time choosing the maples, spruces and exotic woods, building the instrument, adding decorative inlays and purfling, and applying a hand-rubbed lacquer finish. The most expensive archtop guitars may have a range of high-end features, such as "boutique" pickups with hand-wound magnets, wooden volume and tone knobs, and built-in condenser microphones, piezoelectric pickups, and preamplifiers.
Jazz guitarists use their knowledge of harmony and jazz theory to create jazz chord "voicings," which are usually rootless and which emphasize the 3rd and 7th notes of the chord. Some more sophisticated chord voicings also include the 9th, 11th, and 13th notes of the chord. In some modern jazz styles, dominant 7th chords in a tune may contain altered 9ths (either flattened by a semitone, which is called a "flat 9th", or sharpened by a semitone, which is called a "sharp 9th"); 11ths (sharpened by a semitone, which is called a "sharp 11th"); 13ths (typically flattened by a semitone, which is called a "flat 13th").
Jazz guitarists need to learn about a range of different chords, including Major 7th, Major 6th, minor 7th, minor (with Major 7th) dominant 7th, diminished, half-diminished, and augmented chords. As well, they need to learn about chord transformations (e.g., altered chords, such as "alt dominant chords" described above), chord substitutions, and re-harmonization techniques. Some jazz guitarists use their knowledge of jazz scales and chords to provide a walking bass-style accompaniment.
Jazz guitarists learn to perform these chords over the range of different chord progressions used in jazz, such as the II-V-I progression, the jazz-style blues progression, the minor jazz-style blues form, the "rhythm changes" progression, and the variety of chord progressions used in jazz ballads, and jazz standards. Guitarists may also learn to use the chord types, strumming styles, and effects used in 1970s-era jazz-latin, jazz-funk, and jazz-rock fusion music.
Another aspect of the jazz guitar style is the use of stylistically appropriate ornaments, such as grace notes, slides, and muted notes. Each sub-genre or era of jazz has different ornaments that are part of the style of that sub-genre or era. Jazz guitarists usually learn the appropriate ornamenting styles by listening to prominent recordings from a given style or jazz era. Some jazz guitarists also borrow ornamentation techniques from other jazz instruments, such as Wes Montgomery's borrowing of playing melodies in parallel octaves, which is a jazz piano technique. Jazz guitarists also have to learn how to add in passing tones, use "guide tones" and chord tones from the chord progression to structure their improvisations, and create "chord solos" by adding the song's melody on top of the chord voicings.
In the 1970s and 1980s, with jazz-rock fusion guitar playing, jazz guitarists incorporated rock guitar soloing approaches, such as riff-based soloing and usage of pentatonic and blues scale patterns. Some guitarists used Jimi Hendrix-influenced distortion and wah-wah effects to get a sustained, heavy tone, or even used rapid-fire guitar shredding techniques, such as tapping and tremolo bar bending. Guitarist Al Di Meola, who started his career with Return to Forever in 1974, was one of the first guitarists to perform in a "shred" style, a technique later used in rock and heavy metal playing. Di Meola used alternate-picking, tapping, and sweep-picking to perform very rapid sequences of notes in his solos.