On a recent visit to Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture (formerly EMP), I found myself transfixed for well over an hour by the Guitar Gallery, a veritable shrine for guitar players, with “55 vintage, world changing guitars from the 1770s to the present.” In addition to illustrating a few hundred years of music history, the exhibit represents the slow development of the electric guitar, and the many ungainly stages in-between. What we learn in studying the history is that guitar innovations have always been player-driven.
Guitarists have modified and built their own guitars, and many have taken models and adapted them so fully to their style that they become iconic mainstays as other models drop away. Such is the case with the ES-150, Gibson’s first “Electric Spanish” archtop guitar, and its most famous player, Charlie Christian, who has inspired some of the best-known guitarists in jazz, like Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery, and who also may have invented the electric guitar solo. Gibson goes so far as to bestow on Christian the honorific of "the first guitar hero."
Before Christian, guitar soloists in jazz ensembles and orchestras were rare, since the acoustic instrument couldn’t be heard loudly enough over horns, woodwinds, double bass, and drums. The first electric guitar, the “Frying Pan,” arrived in 1931, built for Hawaiian jazz lap steel players. Rapid development of the electric pickup proceeded throughout the decade, and Christian bought his ES-150 the year after it went into production in 1936.
By 1938, when he had found steady work at a club in Bismarck, North Dakota, “a local music store displayed the Gibson ES-150 with a sign reading ‘As featured by Charlie Christian.’” By this point, writes Riff Interactive, Christian was “a regional hero.”
In 1939, Christian joined the Benny Goodman orchestra, but the story of his audition tells us as much about the electric guitar’s importance as it does about Christian’s playing. It seems that “Goodman was initially unimpressed” by Christian’s strumming of an “unamplified rhythm guitar behind ‘Tea for Two.’” (hear him play the song, electrified, below.) But when jazz impresario John Hammond snuck him and his electric guitar onstage with Goodman’s Quintet later at the Victor Hugo Restaurant, “Christian matched Goodman riff for riff and improvised over 20 choruses. He was hired on the spot.” He could play some of Django Reinhardt's most difficult songs note-for-note, and “many of the figures he worked into his solos evolved later into Benny Goodman tunes.”
“Some argue he wasn’t the first” electric soloist, writes the site Justice through Music, but “he made the electric guitar lead solo ‘popular,’ and in essence ‘invented’ it,” leading the way for “Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Buddy Guy, Eddie Van Halen and all the great guitar shredders.” Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead agrees, telling Terry Gross that Christian “was the single greatest influence on the signature 20th century instrument, the electric guitar, even though he died at age 25 and did all his recording in under two years.”
Beginning in his hometown of Oklahoma City as a ukulele player, Christian picked up many of his “slingshot rhythms” on the guitar from saxophonist Lester Young (hear him play with Young just above). “Amplified slide guitarists in white western swing bands showed Christian how electric guitar could project,” Whitehead notes. “He wasn’t the first electric picker who played on the frets. He dug Chicago pioneer George Barnes. But Christian had the most imposing sound.”
We have a representative sampling of the imposing sound of Christian and his ES-150 in the recordings here. At the top of the post, hear him live with Goodman (who introduces him as “our new discovery, Charles Christian”) in 1939, playing “Flying Home.” Further down listen to “Rose Room” with Goodman’s Sextet, with whom he made most of his records, Whitehead tells us, “compet[ing] for space with other good soloists.” Further down, hear Christian play “Stompin’ at the Savoy” live at Minton’s in 1941 and “Tea for Two” with Jerry Jerome in 1939.
Further up, in “Solo Flight” with Goodman’s orchestra, Christian demonstrates his “impeccable” timing and “heavy, front-loaded attack” in a two-and-a-half-minute showcase. Christian’s phenomenal playing “inspired untold jazz, blues, and rock-guitar players.” In some of his last recordings, before his death from tuberculosis in 1942, he “laid the groundwork for the new music that Christian started calling bebop.” Hear him reshape the sound of jazz with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Don Byas, and Kenny Clarke above in “Groovin’ High.” “You can hear a lot of guitar’s future coming” in these recordings, Whitehead argues, “Chuck Berry included.”
Behold the First Electric Guitar: The 1931 “Frying Pan”
Jazz ‘Hot’: The Rare 1938 Short Film With Jazz Legend Django Reinhardt
The Story of the Guitar: The Complete Three-Part Documentary
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness