Referred to as one of the most complex and intricate genres of music to ever exist, jazz guitar is a style of playing with many virtuosic players, yet few true innovators. Popularized in the 20th century by the likes of Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, jazz guitar is a widely studied genre even today. The many various sub genres of jazz practiced by modern musicians are widely considered to be some of the most extreme styles to play as a guitarist, and as such, some true greats have risen above the crowd.
Wes Montgomery – Soul Jazz
American guitarist John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery is known as one of the founding fathers of virtuosic jazz guitar playing. Having influenced countless players, such as Pat Methany and Jimi Hendrix, his contributions to jazz guitar history are well documented. Montgomery was greatly revered by other jazz greats of his time, including fellow jazz virtuoso Joe Pass, who claimed him to be one of the only true innovators of guitar, along with Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.
Django Reinhardt – Gypsy Jazz
French jazz guitarist Jean Reinhardt may have been born over 100 years ago, but he remains a guitar icon to this day. Known as one of the greatest guitarists in history, Jean “Django” Reinhardt’s contribution to the jazz and bebop genres is unrivalled. As the most famous and celebrated gypsy jazz artist, Reinhardt’s work is studied in great detail, with even decorated players such as modern jazz guitarist John Jorgenson devoting many hours of study into his unique style of playing. At the age of 18, a fire accident cost him almost all the use of his fourth and fifth fingers. An extremely accomplished musician with only two usable fingers (not counting the thumb), Django Reinhardt remains as one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time.
Joe Pass – Jazz, Bebop
The chord-melody prowess of Joe Pass is legendary amongst jazz guitarists. Another of the 20th century’s greatest players, Pass’ guitar abilities paved the way for many modern jazz guitarists. Self confident in the extreme, Pass released four albums entitled “Virtuoso,” and, having worked with jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass’ claim to fame as a virtuoso was very well founded. A curious quirk possessed by the jazz guitarist was the fact that he would often break his guitar plectrums, playing with only the small section, presumably for increased control.
Greg Howe – Modern Jazz Fusion
Having played with Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Enrique Iglesias, as well as his own band Maragold, Greg Howe’s name has been around the block. His perceptive take on jazz fusion, coupled with his unique use of the elusive glissando style of vibrato (in which a player quickly slides to higher and lower frets while maintaining focus on a select note, creating a violent yet fluid vibrato effect) has allowed him to stand out from the jazz fusion crowd. His use of a string-dampener (in this case a fluffy hairband placed over the fretboard, used in order to cut down on excess string noise while playing legato ) has garnered some criticism, but his mastery of inside and outside playing, coupled with his flawless note choice and phrasing, have earned Greg Howe the title of Virtuoso.
Guthrie Govan – Modern Jazz Fusion
Referred to by many as the greatest modern-day electric guitarist, Guthrie Govan’s jazz fusion (and really, nearly every other genre of guitar music imaginable) chops are at an extreme virtuosic level. Equally comfortable playing in a laid-back blues setting as he is in extreme shred and jazz fusion, Govan’s abilities are revered amongst many. His live performances as a solo act and with his all-star band The Aristocrats (which also features percussion master Marco Minnemann and bassist Brian Beller, known for his work in fictional death-metal band Dethklok) are awe-inspiring to say the least. Gaining much of his exposure and popularity through YouTube and from touring with the British rock Asia, Govan’s extreme versatility and technical mastery of the guitar has put his name at the top of many “best of” lists of jazz guitar greats.
By Christopher White