Jazz doesn’t just include putting some great techniques under your fingers, but if you really get into it, finding the right guitar for the job can be a nice little journey in itself. Since many different genres sit under the jazz umbrella, some guitars will suit one sub-genre better than another. In this little blog, we talk about the most common jazz guitar models and the jazz genres where you’re most likely to find them. Before we get into it, and for all the beginner jazz-guitarists out there: if you’re looking for your first jazz guitar, the best place to start is by looking at the model that’s in the hands of your hero.
- Archtop: Start at the Top
- Thinline: Thinking Outside the Jazzbox
- Solid Body: To Infinity & Beyond
- Here Come Old Flat-Top
- Play the Right Strings
- What Else Do You Need to Swing?
- See Also…
Archtop: Start at the Top
When you think of a jazz guitar, most people will see the image of a full-sized archtop guitar, and for excellent reason. Since the archtop is essentially based on the first electric guitars, they helped shape the sound of early jazz. An archtop is basically an acoustic guitar with the sounhole removed from the middle of the body, and divided into two f-shaped holes (technically called the ‘f-holes’) placed either side of the vaulted soundboard like a violin. If you’re playing as part of a little acoustic combo, then an acoustic or electro-acoustic guitar will be enough. If you’re playing in larger venues or need more volume, then you’ll be better off with a model fitted with at least one magnetic pickup (otherwise known as a semi-acoustic). The neck pickup is the most important, but for a little more tonal colour, you could go for a model fitted with more pickups. For jazz genres like big band, swing, soul, and early bebop, a semi-acoustic guitar is actually perfect. If you want to go back to where jazz guitar started, then take a look at the work of Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian and Freddie Green. Even if you’re already a fan of later guitar-gods like Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and Jim Hall, this is a good idea. You’ll also find some outstanding chord and melody work by the likes of Joe Pass.
Thinline: Thinking Outside the Jazzbox
When you need a little more volume and maybe want to add a bit of modulation or even an overdriven edge, then a thinline hollowbody is a better idea than a semi-acoustic. The body is thinner than a jazzbox (the nickname for the deep body of hollowbody guitars) and the sound better fits jazz styles like Latin, blues, and smooth jazz. Also, if you want to branch out into pure soul and electric blues, then this model can handle it. However, when you play louder, you do run the risk of feedback, so it’s best to counter this by getting a hollowbody fitted with a centre-block. If you want to see what other guitarists do with a thinline hollowbody, then check out the work of Grant Green and John Scofield. And, while guitarists like Pat Metheny and George Benson tend to prefer models with deep bodies, their playing style translates brilliantly to a thinner archtop.
Solid Body: To Infinity & Beyond
If you’d prefer to get stuck in and get your hands dirty with some more seventies-style guitar work, then you’ll need a few more extreme effects and even more volume to support more crossover styles like rock, funk, and even pop. It’s little wonder that many fusion guitarists opt for a straight-up electric solid body. Set up to take on the challenge of all the genres mentioned above, you get the pick of Telecaster or Les Paul style models, and if you think you’ll want to venture into different genres, then a Stratocaster or another Strat-inspired model will give you more than enough range. While there are probably too many to choose from, the legends of rock, funk, and pop guitar include Mike Stern, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin. And, if your ears are looking for something more fresh, then see the work of guitar-gurus like Allan Holdsworth and Pat Martino.
Here Come Old Flat-Top
Unless you’re listening to older jazz styles, the steel-string flat-top guitar is not something you come across that often in jazz music. You’ll sometimes still see acoustic guitars playing Latin and afro-Cuban styles, but most of the time, it’ll be a Spanish or classical guitar. A great blend of both guitars can be heard on the legendary album ‘Friday Night in San Francisco’ by Di Meola, McLaughlin, and classical guitar-hero Paco de Lucía. There is one place where a steel-string acoustic guitar is still a staple and that’s in Hot Club or Gypsy Jazz. Still immensely popular among guitarist and violinists, this is the kind of music you’ll almost always here soundtracking a travel or cooking show that ends up somewhere in France. Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France were Gypsy Jazz pioneers, and Django was always seen, from the very start, with a steel-string Selmer guitar in his hands. These are Maccaferri-style guitars with a distinct oval or D-shaped soundhole. They form a kind of middle-ground between a steel-string and classical guitar and are often still played within the genre. Musicians like Stochelo Rosenberg and Biréli Lagrène are considered contemporary masters of Gypsy Jazz.
Play the Right Strings
Archtop and solid-body guitars tend to come stringed with a set of roundwound strings as standard. If they sound good to you already, then it’s best not to mess with a recipe that’s already perfect. But if you’re missing warmth and want a little less sparkle, then like many jazz guitarists, you might want to try out a set of flatwound strings. For Gypsy Jazz, a set of silk & steel strings are usually used instead of normal bronze or phosphor bronze strings.
What Else Do You Need to Swing?
Of course, you can choose to play with a plectrum or with your fingers, but if you use both, then make sure to have a thicker plectrum to hand. For the best definition, somewhere between a 1.5mm and 2mm thick plectrum is considered the standard since they counter the unwanted little noises that are typical with thinner plectrums. When it comes to amplifiers, it might go without saying that the well-known rock and metal amps are best avoided. Combos that literally include ‘jazz’ in the model name are definitely a good choice, like the Roland Jazz Chorus, but then there’s also the Polytune Mini Brute or any vintage-style Fender amplifier. If you need to build up your jazz repertoire, then you’ll find all of the legendary jazz standards included in the renowned Real Books. Whatever you’re playing, never forget the wise words of Mr. Duke Ellington himself, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing”.
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