The guitar was never one of the instruments at the forefront of jazz music; those roles were left to horn players in the early years. Eventually, though, it would become a staple of many of the most influential groups as a solo act and accompaniment. In this article, we’ll go over the 55 best jazz guitarists of all time who helped elevate the humble guitar to its place of prominence in the genre today.
1. Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery used a unique style for picking his guitar using the side of his fingers to pluck the strings. He also used more octaves than most of his peers, switching them often and developing a distinct sound that set him apart. His earliest works were soul jazz and hard bop, but his guitar style became the inspiration and influence behind much of the sound in fusion jazz and smooth jazz.
2. Jim Hall
Jim Hall recorded constantly from 1970 until 2010 and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music in 1995. His earliest training was as a classical guitarist, but he was instrumental in the popularity of the cool jazz movement. In addition to being one of the very best jazz guitarists, he was a gifted composer and arranger whose work has been featured worldwide.
3. Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian was one of the most important early pioneers of cool jazz and bebop as well as a developer of the electric guitar. In jazz, he was able to use his signature single-string technique to bring the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the forefront as a solo instrument. In 1990, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his early influence on the jazz and swing styles of music and his work with advancing guitars.
4. George Benson
George Benson had an extensive career as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, but he began as a jazz guitarist playing soul jazz in the 1960s. Throughout his life, he’s dabbled in other genres and experimented with jazz, pop, R&B, and scat singing. His 15th studio album has been certified triple platinum, and he’s won 10 Grammy Awards and been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
5. Django Reinhardt
Jean Reinhardt, better known as Django Reinhardt, became one of the first notable jazz talents in Europe and would go on to form the Quintette Du Hot Club De France in 1939, one of the first to use the guitar as a lead instrument. His music was partly responsible for popularizing the genre in Europe and is the educational standard of gypsy jazz and minor swing. During a brief stint in the US, he played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1946.
6. Kenny Burrell
Currently a professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Kenny Burrell is best known for his work with numerous top-shelf jazz labels. He spent a short time touring with both Oscar Peterson and Tommy Flanagan before recording his first leader work with Blue Note. He would earn an award as a jazz educator in 2004 from DownBeat magazine and wrote, arranged, and performed a 1999 Grammy-Award-winning album. In 2005, he was named an NEA Jazz Master.
7. Grant Green
Loose and groovy are two adjectives used often when describing the playing of Grant Green. A prolific composer and guitar player for Blue Note, he played the guitar the way many early saxophone players did which helped make the instrument a lead one in jazz groups. He’s known for turning off the bass and treble settings of his amplifier to achieve a punchier tone to his music.
8. Tal Farlow
Tal Farlow had a large reach, both in the notes and style of his playing and his hands. He’s noted for having huge hands that made playing for him easier and earned him the nickname “Octopus.” He is described as doing things with a guitar nobody else had before with his understanding of grouping notes together, combining rhythmic chords with linear melodies, and weaving lines together like nobody else could.
9. Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny is one of the most accomplished guitarists of all time. Leader of the Pat Metheny Group, owner of three certified gold albums, and winner of 20 Grammy Awards, his style fused Latin jazz, jazz fusion, and progressive jazz to make something new. He’s the only artist to win a Grammy in ten different categories and collaborates on numerous side projects in all kinds of genres.
10. Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel was particularly gifted in his understanding and playing of chords, inversions, and chord-based melodies. It was one of the reasons so much of his work was featured in film and recording studios throughout his career. When he first started, he gained notoriety for being the only white member of his band but would go on to work for groups like Oscar Peterson Trio, Charlie Parker’s band, and Columbia Pictures. From 1961 until 1974, Gibson Guitars made signature Barney Kessel models, and he was rated as the number one guitarist by Esquire, DownBeat, and PlayBoy magazines multiple times.
11. Joe Pass
Joe Pass would go on to become one of the most important guitarists of the 20th century, thanks in large part to his collaborations with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. Among this trio, he would win the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance by a Group in 1975. He won DownBeat’s New Star award in 1963 and would go on to work extensively in television and film studios.
12. Freddie Green
Freddie Green spent 50 years playing rhythm guitar for the Count Basie Orchestra, one of the preeminent jazz groups of the century. While he rarely played solos, it was because of personal preference. He is quoted as saying the guitar should never be played alone, it should be part of a drum solo. He was one of the most skilled jazz guitarists when it came to changing chords, doing so on the beat instead of on the measure.
13. John Scofield
John Scofield earned his reputation as a member of Miles Davis’s band and went on to play with many of the best jazz artists like Eddie Harris, Joe Lovano, and Pat Metheny. Throughout his career, he has blended multiple styles together, such as jazz fusion, funk, blues, soul, and rock. In 1997, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music and has won three Grammy Awards.
14. Mike Stern
Starting out as a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mike Stern would work with some of the most prolific jazz musicians of all time including Billy Cobham and Miles Davis. Guitar Player Magazine named him the best jazz guitar player of the year in 1993, and it would go on to honor him with the Certified Legend Award in 2012. He won the Miles Davis Award in 2007, and he’s been listed as one of the best jazz guitarists of all time by DownBeat magazine.
15. Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell started out as a session musician with ECM Records in the 1980s, going on to work with big names like Paul Motian and John Zorn. His work as a bandleader covers the spectrum from jazz to country and folk to rock music, earning him six Grammy nominations and one Grammy Award win.
16. Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd is responsible for bringing bossa nova music into the mainstream of North America with his collaboration album Jazz Samba. He was also a celebrated arranger, compiling and composing numerous albums that combined jazz guitar with classical music. Interestingly enough, he was knighted by the government of Brazil in 1999.
17. Stanley Jordan
Stanley Jordan is noted for his unique playing style that involved tapping the fretboard with fingers from both hands. He became the first person signed to Blue Note Records by Bruce Lundvall, and his first album with the studio sat at number one on the jazz chart for 51 straight weeks.
18. Johnny Smith
One of the most versatile guitarists of the 1950s, Johnny Smith was able to direct orchestras at the highest level and play in jazz nightclubs just as easily as each other. His early career was spent as a staff arranger and guitarist for NBC, though he would go on to record hits like Moonlight In Vermont and Walk Don’t Run.
19. Larry Coryell
Larry Coryell attended the Mannes School of Music and was greatly influenced by classical masters. He’s most notable for his time in Chico Hamilton’s quartet and Free Spirits, blending rock, jazz, and eastern music together to create unique styles.
20. Emily Remler
Emily Remler was one of the most important female figures in music through the middle of the 20th century, but she liked distancing herself from any politics. Largely touted as a virtuoso guitar player, her talent led her to be the Guitarist of the Year in DownBeat Magazine’s international poll in 1985. In an interview, she hilariously said “I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavy-set black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery.”
21. John McLaughlin
John MacLaughlin was one of the pioneers of jazz fusion music, combining jazz elements with those from rock, classical, flamenco, and blues. When Miles Davis moved into jazz fusion music, he played guitar on four of his albums. Reader polls for magazines like DownBeat and Guitar Player have led him to become the guitarist of the year, and he was listed at number 49 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
22. Jimmy Raney
Jimmy Raney was the replacement for Tal Farlow in Red Norvo’s group, garnering him quite a bit of popularity. His styles have run the gamut of jazz, playing cool jazz, bebop, hard bop, post-bop, and mainstream jazz. He lived with a disease for over 30 years that caused him to be nearly deaf in both ears, but he was still able to play at a master level. His obituary in the New York Times named him one of the most gifted and influential post-war jazz guitarists.
23. Allan Holdsworth
Alan Holdsworth is known for his complex music theory concepts in his melodies and harmonies, utilizing abstract and insanely difficult chord progressions. Originally, he wanted to be a saxophone player, and his solo technique on guitar is modeled after the solo technique of jazz saxophonists.
24. Pat Martino
Pat Martino began playing professionally at the age of 15. He then moved to New York and lived with Les Paul for a while before establishing himself as a regular player in the nightclubs in the city. Unfortunately, he suffered a nearly-fatal seizure that left him with amnesia. He completely forgot how to play the guitar and had to relearn everything he had built up over the years.
25. Gábor Szabó
Gábor Szabó was a Hungarian-born guitarist who moved to California in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He would go on to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston a few years later before joining a quintet headed up by Chico Hamilton. A song from his debut album would eventually be covered by Carlos Santana and turned out to be a huge hit.
26. Lenny Breau
Lenny Breau was rather unique among jazz guitarists because he took his style from country artists like Chet Atkins and made use of a seven-string guitar. He started out in his family’s band playing country music, but by 1959, he turned to jazz music and didn’t look back. Most of his accolades and awards were given posthumously, including an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and numerous released recordings.
27. Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis spent the 1950s working in a trio band with Oscar Peterson. Their group would become one of the most popular and frequent performers on Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of North Texas College of Music and was inducted into the Arkansas Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
28. Larry Carlton
Larry Carlton has had an extensive recording career, playing on thousands of recordings across a wide variety of genres. In the jazz scene, he’s been a member of both the Crusaders and Four Play, while outside of jazz, he’s worked with notable artists like Joni Mitchel and Steely Dan. His solo career resume is staggering, with over 100 gold album releases and numerous works for film and television.
29. Al Di Meola
Al Di Meola began his career in the jazz fusion band Return To Forever alongside Chick Corea and helped pioneer the genre of fusion jazz. His second solo album won him a gold certification, and all of his early albums became influential in both jazz and rock circles for his complex guitar solos and compositions.
30. Eddie Lang
Eddie Lang is credited as the Father of the Jazz Guitar because of how early he entered the scene. In the 1920s, he was among the first to use the guitar as a solo accompaniment for vocalists, as a solo instrument in general, and as a prominent feature in orchestras. His most notable work was alongside the famous Bing Crosby who insisted on Lang as his accompaniment on radio shows.
31. John Pizzarelli
John Paul Pizarelli Jr. has recorded over 20 solo albums and appeared on over forty 40 by other artists, with notable names on that list including Paul McCartney, James Taylor, and Jessica Molaskey. His early career was spent in a trio that was the opening for Frank Sinatra’s Las Vegas show, and he has also hosted a national radio show called Radio Deluxe With John Pizzarelli.
32. Bill Connors
Bill Connors was yet another member of Chick Corea’s Return To Forever group. He would go on to record three acoustic albums and three electric albums as either the leader or in a solo role. He’s noted for preferring the sound of an electric guitar over any other kind of instrument when it came to giving jazz music the right energy.
33. Kurt Rosenwinkel
Kurt Rosenwinkel is a jack of all trades, acting as a jazz guitarist, bandleader, keyboardist, composer, and record label owner. He’s seen as a visionary composer, mixing the influences of John Coltrane, David Bowie, Pat Metheny, Tal Farlow, and others to create infinitely layered sounds.
34. Earl Klugh
Earl Klugh is one of the most accomplished acoustic guitar players and composers in history. In his career, he’s received 13 Grammy nominations and won one of them. His first experience in recording was with Yusef Lateef’s Suite 16 album, then he went on to play and tour with George Benson. He has produced more than 30 studio albums, with 23 of them charting in the Top 10 and five of those reaching number one on Billboard’s Jazz Album charts.
35. Sonny Sharrock
Sonny Sharrock was one of the only famous jazz guitarists to be part of the first wave of free jazz in the 1960s. He’s best known for his aggressive sustain and heavy chords that allowed him to achieve a saxophone-like sound with a guitar. After he divorced his wife and collaborator, he took a hiatus in the 1970s and 1980s before resurrecting his career and even producing the soundtrack for Cartoon Network’s show Space Ghost Coast To Coast.
36. John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie had more of an underrated style than one that was in the audience’s face and especially liked to work with organ trios. His music explored the complexities of fusion, avant-garde, and free jazz styles. His bands played music credited to all three members who came up with their songs in a freestyle model.
37. Martin Taylor
Martin Taylor was one of the most celebrated British jazz guitarists who’s best known for his engaging stage presence and personality. He would go on to work in jazz bands alongside Stephane Grapelli before releasing a few solo albums and starting his own band.
38. Lee Ritenour
Lee Ritenour started playing music at age eight, and by 16, he had his first recording session alongside The Mamas & The Papas. His first solo release was the album First Course, which was a shining example of classic jazz and funk sounds. He would then be brought in to play guitar on Pink Floyd’s The Wall album before beginning to mix pop elements into his own music.
39. Steve Khan
Steve Khan is best known for playing in an acoustic guitar duo with Larry Coryell and his time as a member of the Brecker Brothers Band. In 1998, Jazz Life Magazine named him to the list of the 22 All-Time Greatest Jazz Guitarists, and he’s received two Grammy Award nominations for his work.
40. George Van Eps
George Van Eps became inspired to pick up the guitar when he heard Eddie Lang on the radio, and by 13 years old, he was performing for the radio himself. Most of his career was spent as a studio musician in California, producing tracks for movies and commercials. In the 1930s, he popularized the seven-string guitar, adding another bass string to it, which paved the way for artists like John Pizzarelli, Chet Atkins, and Howard Aiden.
41. Norman Brown
Norman Brown’s love of Jimi Hendrix led him to learn to play the guitar, but when he heard Wes Morgan, he fell in love with jazz music. His debut album in 1992 included collaborations with Boyz II Men, Stevie Wonder, and Kenneth H. Williams and was produced by Norman Connors. His second album won him the Jazz Album of the Year from the Soul Train Awards and remained on the charts for more than two years.
42. Ed Bickert
With a more than 50-year career behind him, Ed Bikcert rose to become one of Canada’s best and brightest jazz guitarists. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he was able to chart songs as part of two local Toronto jazz groups before playing for Paul Desmond until 1975. After that, he led a successful career as a solo artist and bandleader that saw him tour across North America.
43. Biréli Lagrène
Biréli Lagrène rose to fame because of his innate talent and style, which was heavily influenced by Django Reinhardt. He would go on to win numerous French music awards and was one of the most influential European jazz artists of the 2000s.
44. Robert Conti
Robert Conti’s contributions to jazz music include 30 educational DVDs on how to play the jazz guitar that includes the methods for learning he developed for himself. A self-taught musician, he would become the resident jazz guitarist at the Irvine Marriott for over 30 years.
45. Hank Garland
Hank Garland didn’t start out as a jazz musician. In the beginning, he played country music before switching over to rock and roll as it rose in popularity during the 1950s. In 1960, he released a jazz album, but you’ll recognize his guitar playing from classic recordings of Jingle Bell Rock and his work with Elvis Presley on songs like A Big Hunk O’ Love.
46. Oscar Moore
Oscar Moore is best known for his work as the guitarist of the King Cole Trio. One of his biggest influences was the work of Oscar Peterson, and much of his early career was done working on local radio and a couple of short films.
47. Les Paul
Les Paul today is known for his guitars, and he unsurprisingly was one of the pioneers of the solid-body electric guitar. He is one of the few artists who have a permanent exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the only person in both that and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His work in jazz is his best, selling millions of records thanks to his experimental style.
48. Ted Greene
Ted Greene may have been a jazz musician, but his best work and passions were in his role as an educator. He taught at the Guitar Institute of Technology and wrote numerous columns for Guitar Player magazine, while also penning his own books on harmony, single-note soloing, and chord melody.
49. Chet Atkins
Chet Atkins is credited with helping create the Nashville sound and is one of the best country guitarists of all time. His main influences on the guitar however came from Django Reinhardt and Les Paul, borrowing their techniques and sounds to incorporate into his own songs. He won a total of 14 Grammy Awards and was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
50. Joe Diorio
Joe Diorio has performed with jazz greats like Stan Getz, Pat Metheny, and Freddie Hubbard. He would go on to become one of the first instructors at the Guitar Institute of Technology, has published several books and videos, and has ten albums released under his name.
51. Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson was a pioneer of jazz guitar, but he also was one of the first to include a violin in jazz music. As the first to play an electrically amplified violin, he would eventually become one of the most popular jazz and blues musicians in Louisiana history.
52. Ken Navarro
Ken Navarro spent the beginning of his career working as a studio guitarist before releasing his debut album in 1990. His second album would earn him a Grammy nomination, and he has had four songs reach the top 11 of Billboard’s smooth jazz charts.
53. Thom Rotella
Thom Rotella plays a style very reminiscent of Wes Montgomery and has been a major studio musician in Hollywood. He studied under Gary Burton in the 1970s, and while he is involved in the jingle business, prefers to play live music.
54. Robben Ford
Robben Ford is a great guitarist who has collaborated with greats like Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and Kiss. Musician Magazine named him among the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th century, and he has spent time as a member of L.A. Express and Yellowjackets.
55. Billy Bauer
Billy Bauer started off playing the ukulele and banjo before he switched to guitar. He eventually established himself as one of the best soloists in the bebop movement and would move on to be an influential figure in jazz for decades.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
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