Guitar Aficionado

How Charlie Christian Defined the Electric Guitar and the Guitar Hero Myth

Charlie Christian forged the tragic archetype for the six-stringers that followed him—from Hendrix to Cobain.
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This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on actor Kiefer Sutherland and his debut country-rock album, Jerry Garcia's famed Doug Irwin Tiger and its encore appearance with Warren Haynes and the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.


PHOTO: Guitar Player Archive

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MAGIC CHRISTIAN: At the dawn of the electric guitar, the young and talented
Charlie Christian broke into the national spotlight to popularize a new sound that shook the world.

By Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna

This is an edited and condensed excerpt from Play It Loud by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna. Copyright 2016 by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. Click here to order.

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One could argue that, as the world’s first electric guitar hero, Charlie Christian forged the tragic archetype for the many six-string revolutionaries that followed him, among them Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Kurt Cobain. All were musicians who radically changed the face of music but died too soon.

Charles Henry Christian was born on July 29, 1916, in Bonham, Texas, to a family of musicians—including his parents and his two older brothers. His father, Clarence, was particularly gifted. It was said Clarence could play almost any instrument he set his hands on, but he favored strings and his first love was the guitar. He encouraged his sons to play music, teaching his older boys to play violin and mandolin. It was assumed when Charlie was born that he’d complete the family band.

Soon after Charlie came into the world, Clarence contracted an illness that made him gradually go blind. After dealing with the initial shock and depression of his condition, Clarence rallied, turning to music for therapy and a way to feed his family. There weren’t many formal jobs for musicians, black or otherwise, to be had in Bonham, so Clarence grabbed his sons, headed to the streets, and played in public places or door-to-door for change. Unable to make ends meet, and with starvation a very real threat, the Christians left Texas in 1918 for Oklahoma City, where they found support in their extended family.

When Clarence passed away in 1926 at the age of 36, he left his guitars to Charlie, who started seriously devoting himself to music. By the time he was 13, Christian was studying theory with local jazz musicians and developing his signature sound: a sophisticated and idiosyncratic approach to soloing that, with its single-note melodies, owed more to local saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans than to popular country blues guitarists of the time such as Lonnie Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson.

In many ways, the guitar was an unusual instrument for serious musicians to gravitate to. Still largely an acoustic instrument, it wasn’t loud enough to compete with horns. As a rhythm instrument it usually was overshadowed by the piano. But as Charlie discovered, it was perfect for street entertaining. It was portable, you could play the chords to all the popular songs of the day on it, and you could dance while performing.

Despite realizing the seeming limitations of the guitar, Christian was determined to become a master like his father and elevate the instrument in the process. The guitar was in the early stages of becoming a lead instrument in popular music, and though there were no guidelines and few six-string role models available, one thing Oklahoma City had no shortage of was musical inspiration and innovation.

In the Thirties, despite the Depression and the unprecedented Dust Bowl drought that sent thousands scurrying to other regions, Oklahoma City’s music scene was thriving. The town played host to the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, an extraordinary Southwestern jazz band featuring future jazz giants such as Count Basie, drummer Jo Jones, and Charlie’s hero, Lester Young. Equally important were Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, one of the very first country bands to synthesize big-city swing jazz with folk instruments like fiddles and steel guitars.


PHOTO: Guitar Player Archive | Christian playing at a recording session with the Metronome All-Stars, New York, 1940

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Off the streets, inventions like the radio and phonograph filled the air with exciting new jazz, blues, and country sounds, and Charlie soaked it all in. By the time he was 18, in 1934, his talent was undeniable. He was performing in clubs and proper paying gigs, and the elder jazz community recognized his talent. Over the next four years he was allowed to sit in and learn from the best at clubs such as the Hole, the Goody-Goody Cafe, the Ritz, and on local radio stations like WXFR and KGFG.

The young man enjoyed his life as a professional musician, but what he most relished was being inducted into jazz’s not-so-secret society: the exotic and intense world of the late-night jam session. Any musician visiting the area—black or white—knew that the only place to be after the clubs closed was Second Street, where musical showdowns erupted like knife fights almost every night in ballrooms, public halls, and even hotel rooms. The bandstand was all well and good, but it was these nightly challenges of skill, technique, and intellectual rigor that turned Charlie Christian into the phenomenon he would become. In a cutting contest, he usually had the sharpest knife, and he had no problem sticking it to any musician with any instrument.

It was one of these jams in 1939 that would cement Christian’s local hero status and set his trajectory toward world fame and fortune. Floyd Smith, who had a national reputation as a first-rate guitarist due to his hit “Floyd’s Guitar Blues,” was playing a one-nighter at the Oklahoma Ballroom when he was lured into a jam with Christian. Thinking he was facing off with a hick from the sticks, he burned through all of his best licks in his first couple of choruses, hoping to crush the young upstart at the outset.

Pianist Mary Lou Williams, an eyewitness to the event and the woman who later championed Christian to John Hammond, remembered: “For a while it was a close call, then Charlie decided to blow. He used his head on cutting sessions, taking it easy while other musicians played everything they knew, then cutting loose to blast them off the map. Never in my life had I heard such inspired and exciting music as Christian beat out of his guitar. Poor Floyd gave it up and walked off the stand. Charlie played for us till daybreak.”

While improvising guitarists were still pretty rare in the Thirties, Christian wasn’t the only six-string gunslinger to come from Oklahoma City. The town—almost miraculously—would serve up two other giants who would eventually pioneer and revolutionize the use of the electric guitar in two completely different musical genres. Just as Charlie Christian would electrify jazz, his childhood friend “T-Bone” Walker would find fame by fusing blues and swing into his own highly polished sound (which would go on to influence B.B. King and rockers like Chuck Berry and the Allman Brothers). Eldon Shamblin, who starred in Bob Wills’s swing band, would help introduce amplification to country music. Together, these three men would put the electric guitar on the map. But before they could take over the musical world, they needed an instrument that was a match for their talents.

Gibson’s ES-150 is regularly referred to as the world’s first commercially successful Spanish-style electric guitar (the ES stood for Electric Spanish; 150 reflected an instrument/amplifier bundle priced at around $150). This archtop would become the archetype for pretty much all jazz electrics to come.

Prior to the ES-150, Gibson had tried getting electric guitars onto the market as early as 1933. These initial attempts, however, were somewhat primitive, using pickups that relied on capturing vibrations off the top of the guitar rather than the strings. The introduction of George Beauchamp’s revolutionary electro-magnetic pickup for the Rickenbacker Electro gave guitar makers their most essential piece of inspiration. In the spring of 1935, Gibson commissioned an amateur radio operator named Walter Fuller to develop an electromagnetic pickup that would better Beauchamp’s. Remarkably, within a matter of weeks, Fuller had managed to create what is now commonly known as the “bar pickup” because of its long, flat shape and bar magnet construction.

Destined to be known as the “Charlie Christian pickup,” this distinctive hexagonal-shaped pickup was a definite improvement over Beauchamp’s cumbersome pickup, which had a bulky “horseshoe” magnet that arched over the strings and interfered with the picking hand. Instead, Fuller’s pickup sat comfortably and discreetly beneath the strings. The outer portion of the pickup consisted of a coil of copper wire wrapped around a rectangular plastic spool known as a bobbin, both of which fit around a slim, chrome-plated steel blade. Attached to this were two slender bar magnets. Fuller designed the pickup so that the two magnets were located beneath the top of the guitar, tucked inside the instrument’s hollow body, like the bulk of an iceberg concealed under the surface. This design placed the magnets out of sight and, more important, out of the way of the player’s picking hand…

This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on actor Kiefer Sutherland and his debut country-rock album, Jerry Garcia's famed Doug Irwin Tiger and its encore appearance with Warren Haynes and the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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