Hear the Brilliant Guitar Work of Charlie Christian, Inventor of the Electric Guitar Solo (1939)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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  • Rob Galpin says:

    Here’s a nice quote on the new elec­tric gui­tar from ‘A Text­book of Euro­pean Musi­cal Instru­ments’ (1937) by the Eng­lish col­lec­tor of musi­cal instru­ments, Canon F.W. Galpin:

    “A very up-to-date devel­op­ment of the zither, hail­ing from Amer­i­ca, is dis­played in the elec­tric zither (1936), with its com­pan­ion the elec­tric gui­tar… When plucked by the fin­gers or the plec­trum in the usu­al way only a fee­ble sound is heard; but when an elec­tric cur­rent is passed through the mag­net, the sound can be ampli­fied and, through a loud-speak­er, increased to an unpar­al­leled extent.”

    The Canon seems to fur­ther antic­i­pate sta­di­um-fill­ing rock here:

    “As a rec­om­men­da­tion it is stat­ed that its ampli­fied pow­er will car­ry through a 120-piece mil­i­tary band.”

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