Charlie Christian

Jazz guitar has known no shooting star like Charlie Christian. Though the Texas-born guitar phenom succumbed to tuberculosis in 1942 at just 25 years old, he was arguably the most influential jazz guitarist ever. Armed with powerful and, at the time, relatively new guitar technology—namely, a pickup and an amplifier—as well as astonishing talent as a soloist, Christian shattered the convention that jazz guitarists were fated to strumming background rhythm parts their entire careers. With his dazzling melodicism, fluid technique, impeccable sense of groove, and other head-turning talents as an improviser, his lively solos proved that a 6-string could be every bit as lyrical and swingin’ as horns, a piano, or any other featured instrument on the bandstand.

Christian’s big break came in 1939 when, thanks to the great producer John Hammond, he scored an audition in Los Angeles with the “King of Swing,” clarinetist Benny Goodman. Legend has it that the famous bandleader was initially put off by Christian’s less-than-city-slicker wardrobe—until the young guitarist plugged in. From that moment forward Christian and his Gibson ES-150 were accepted not only in Goodman’s orchestra, but also in the inner circles of the jazz elite.

Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” finds Christian bursting with inspired lines similar to Ex. 1—which uses syncopation to spice up a common melodic cliché, the rising chromatic line on the third string in bars 1-3. Ex. 2 showcases how Christian might connect F7 to B7 (IV7 to VII7 in C) on the tune’s bridge. Notice the use of added chromatic notes and melodic leaps while navigating the F and BMixolydian scales for two bars apiece. Reminiscent of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the arpeggiated Fm6 chord in bar 4 (which also implies B9) shows Christian had a more advanced knowledge of phrasing and harmony than most guitarists of the late 1930s.

Ex. 3 starts out sparsely, then lets loose with a more bluesy sound in bars 3-4, which are highlighted by the honking tritone between the high A and E. With licks like these pouring effortlessly from his fingers, Christian (along with Gypsy jazz immortal Django Reinhardt) drastically raised the bar for guitarists emerging in the bebop era, and his influence can still be heard in just about every jazz guitarist on the scene today.