The first electric guitar soloist in history had the ultimate “starter guitar.” It was made out of a cigar box.
Yes, legend has it that this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee played his earliest gigs on a resonant, one-time container of stogies with a makeshift neck and strings attached. Someday, they would name an electric guitar pickup after him.
He is Charlie Christian. Surely, all jazz players and students of guitar history know the name. He was the Oklahoma-raised, blues- and country-influenced player who took the guitar out of the rhythm section shadows and thrust it into the musical limelight. By amplifying the instrument for the first time, he was able to move the guitar to center stage. It has remained there ever since for players across musical genres.
History shows that Christian had a seismic impact on the emergence of jazz guitar in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But it’s interesting to consider his rock and roll recognition.
Everyone’s first reaction: a jazz guitarist in the rock hall of fame? Makes sense, though, when you realize that he was the first player to ever step forward and play an electric guitar solo!
(To be fair, two other players lay claim to being the first to amplify their axe. Both Eddie Durham and George Barnes maintain that they were the first to use an amplified guitar. OK, so Christian was one of the first to do so. He’s certainly the most famous.)
Christian amplified his guitar to cut through and be heard in the horn-centric combos of his day. Amplification may be the aspect of his playing for which Christian is best known. Yet it was his distinct sense of swing and intricate lines that completely redefined what could be done on six strings. At the same time, he was strongly influencing the emerging jazz form, bebop.
An endless list of guitarists was influenced by Christian. They include virtually all the jazz guitar legends who came to prominence in the 40s and 50s—namely Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Tiny Grimes, Herb Ellis, and others. Included in that list are players who hail from different genres: Chet Atkins, the famed fingerstyle and country guitarist, is just one player outside the jazz world who is said to have been influenced by Christian.
Some other quick facts about Charlie Christian …
- In his early years, he played bass and piano, in addition to guitar
- His principal musical influence was the saxophonist Lester Young, whose fluid horn lines inspired Christian’s approach to single-string lead playing
- In his audition for the clarinetist Benny Goodman’s sextet, Christian reportedly played a 47-minute solo on the song Rose Room – supposedly blowing Goodman away and cementing Christian’s place in the band going forward
- Christian was only 26 when he died of tuberculosis in 1942.
Christian’s core approach to single-string improvisation has sustained to this day. It’s still reverberating.
He elevated the guitar to first-instrument status. And, in a striking example of musical exploration and unbounded creativity, he incorporated horn-like phrasings into his improvisation … not to mention his original infusions of country and blues.
Every guitarist stepping up to take his or her next solo should offer thanks to Charlie Christian for his historic contributions to the guitar—and a happy 100th birthday!” (coming up on July 29).