(function(h,o,t,j,a,r){ h.hj=h.hj||function(){(h.hj.q=h.hj.q||[]).push(arguments)}; h._hjSettings={hjid:104204,hjsv:5}; a=o.getElementsByTagName('head')[0]; r=o.createElement('script');r.async=1; r.src=t+h._hjSettings.hjid+j+h._hjSettings.hjsv; a.appendChild(r); })(window,document,'//static.hotjar.com/c/hotjar-','.js?sv=');
Join us


The 50 Best Jazz Guitarists Of All Time

Even the very best jazz guitarists rarely receive the attention of the genre’s horn players, so give it up for the 50 best jazz guitarists ever.

Published on

Best Jazz Guitarists featured image web optimised 1000

Even the very best jazz guitarists rarely receive the attention and plaudits that the genre’s horn blowers – saxophonists and trumpeters, in particular – receive. Perhaps that’s because, traditionally, the guitar, which superseded the banjo in jazz rhythm sections, was primarily perceived as a supporting and accompanying instrument rather than a viable vehicle for solo improvisation.

Another reason why the spotlight didn’t fall on jazz guitar players in the music’s formative years was that their instrument was acoustic and didn’t have the ability to cut though the rest of the ensemble like brass and woodwind instruments could. So while the horns basked in the limelight, guitarists had to make do strumming chords and comping in the background.

But electric amplification changed everything for the role of the guitar in jazz. Introduced in 1931, the hollow-bodied electric guitar was immediately sought-after by guitarists struggling to be heard in the swing era of brass-heavy big bands. Now, though, not only could their percussive rhythm work be clearly audible in relation to the rest of the ensemble, but the possibility of playing solo passages had also become a tangible reality. Even so, due to the propulsive nature of big band swing and its emphasis on the interplay of the horns, the best jazz guitarists of the era – like the Count Basie band’s Freddie Greene, one of the pre-eminent swing-era axe men – were rarely granted, or even desired, solo passages.

But there were exceptions. Enter Django Reinhardt, the revolutionary Belgian gypsy guitarist who made his name playing in smaller ensembles and redefined the role of the guitar in jazz. His phenomenal fingerboard work was an inspiration to guitarists everywhere and gave rise to a new generation of jazz guitar star: virtuosic soloists as well as solid rhythm section men.

Charlie Christian was the next significant guitarist in jazz. As part of Benny Goodman’s band, he blew people’s minds with his ability to solo using single, flowing melodic lines like a horn player. Christian’s advanced harmonic conception anticipated the development of bebop, which, though a horn-led sonic revolution (its main architects were saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie), nonetheless saved a bit of the spotlight for some of the best jazz guitarists of the 40s and 50s.

Their ilk proliferated in the 50s, though the guitarist who stood head and shoulders above everyone else was a modest genius from Indianapolis called Wes Montgomery, who rose to fame as the 50s met the 60s. Montgomery, like his idol, Charlie Christian, could play single-note lines like a horn player, but also incorporated chords and octaves in his solos. His jaw-dropping abilities made him seem super-human and he was soon hailed as one of the best jazz guitarists to have walked the planet.

Montgomery’s influence was deep and wide, but the 60s witnessed the arrival of a new breed of jazz guitar slinger (think Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin) that combined jazz’s complex harmonic language with the high-decibel dynamics of rock music.

Since then, jazz guitarists (Pat Metheny, for example) have generally been a more eclectic breed, absorbing an array of influences, sounds and stylistic elements from all kinds of different musical sources. But one thing that unites them all is their debt to the early pioneers, who took jazz guitar out of the shadows and into the light.

Want to know more? Here is our rundown of the 50 Best Jazz Guitarists Of All Time…

50: John Pizzarelli (born 1960)

Having a noted guitar-playing father (swing specialist Bucky Pizzarelli) no doubt accelerated this New Jersey fretboardist’s musical development; he found himself playing with the likes of Benny Goodman and Clark Terry while still a teenager. Pizzarelli’s tasteful guitar work has graced recordings by musicians as diverse as Stephane Grappelli, Rosemary Clooney and Paul McCartney, earning him a name as one of the best jazz guitarists of his generation.

49: Norman Brown (born 1970)

Jimi Hendrix and The Isley Brothers were this Grammy-winning Kansas City-born guitarist’s first influences, but he changed direction after hearing Wes Montgomery. In the 90s, Brown began his solo career serving up a tasteful amalgam of George Benson-esque melodic lines over chugging, sensual smooth jazz grooves.

48: Mary Osborne (1921-1992)

Female guitarists are rare in jazz, but this North Dakotan string-picker, whose musical roots intertwined ragtime and country music, could certainly more than hold her own against the male guitar-slingers. Osborne took New York by storm in the 40s but only made a few records under her own name.

47: Russell Malone (born 1963)

Though in demand as a sideman (his credits include Jimmy Smith, Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Harry Connick Jr, and Sonny Rollins) this Georgia guitarist has a string of fine solo albums to his name. Malone takes a more traditional, straight-ahead, bop-tinged approach to jazz guitar, favouring a rich, mellow tone and combining Grant Green-esque horn-like melodies with subtle chord sequences.

46: Emily Remler (1957-1990)

A tragic heart attack robbed the world of this Manhattan-born guitarist’s talent, who began playing at the age of 10. Though indebted to her inspirations, Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, Remler has earned her place among the best jazz guitarists in history thanks to the development of her own style, which combined a languid grace and emotional intelligence with virtuosic fretboard work.

45: Charlie Hunter (born 1967)

Not content with the normal six-string guitar, Rhode Island native Hunter prefers to play on custom-built seven- and eight-string instruments on which he can play basslines and create contrapuntal patterns. A member of Michael Franti’s The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy in the early 90s, he established a solo career soon afterwards, spending five years at Blue Note. Marrying his jazz DNA with funk, R&B, rock and pop elements, Hunter is the author of an unclassifiable sound and style that makes his a unique voice among the world’s best jazz guitarists.

44: Kurt Rosenwinkel (born 1970)

Not averse to using an array of effect pedals and guitar synthesisers – anathema to most straight-ahead jazz guitarists – this Philadelphia son also likes to take creative risks and experiment in diverse musical settings. He famously collaborated with hip-hop troupe A Tribe Called Quest and its leader, Q-Tip. An unpredictable player who always surprises.

43: Julian Lage (born 1987)

In the vanguard of the newest generation of jazz guitar stars, Lage hails from Santa Rosa, California, and was a child prodigy who went to work with vibraphone maestro Gary Burton while a teenager. Though he only has four solo albums to his name, Lage’s reputation is burgeoning, thanks to his skill, imagination and creation of a sound that’s all his own. Though young, he has the makings of a talent who could move further up ranks of the world’s best jazz guitarists in the years to come.

42: Earl Klugh (born 1953)

A disciple of the nylon-stringed Spanish guitar, Detroit-born Klugh was inspired to take up the instrument after seeing country star Chet Atkins on TV. Precociously talented, he was mentored by jazz great Yusef Lateef and then played with George Benson before establishing himself as a solo artist in the late 70s. A tasteful, sensitive musician whose limpid fingerboard filigrees are gracefully rendered, Klugh’s striking sound is a blend of simplicity and elegance.

41: James “Blood” Ulmer (born 1940)

Starting out as an orthodox rhythm’n’blues axe slinger, Ulmer radically transformed his style in the early 70s as he fell under the spell of free jazz maven Ornette Coleman and the latter’s revolutionary harmolodic concept (a unique system for collective improvisation). As a result, Ulmer created a discursive idiom defined by scratchy chords and jagged melodic shards. More recently, Ulmer has explored his blues roots, though his sui generis approach to jazz guitar remains unparalleled among the best jazz guitarists in history.

40: Eric Gale (1938-1994)

A prolific session ace with perfect pitch whose main musical domain was R&B and funk, Gale – as some of his solo albums attested – could also play some mean and dexterous bop-influenced jazz guitar. At the root of his sound was a deep blues core, which manifested itself in a plaintive, BB King-esque crying tone.

39: Eddie Lang (1902-1933)

A crucial architect in the evolution of big band swing guitar (he played in Paul Whiteman’s and Bing Crosby’s large ensembles in the early 30s), Lang (born Salvatore Massarro) earns his place among the world’s best jazz guitarists thanks to the pivotal role he played in getting the guitar accepted as a viable jazz instrument (replacing the traditional banjo). A huge influence on Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang is rightly hailed as the “father of the jazz guitar”.

38: Larry Carlton (born 1948)

Like his contemporaries Steve Khan and Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton was a first-call session guitarist in the 70s and his distinctive, jazz-informed blues-rock sound defined seminal albums such as Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. Carlton’s own work has been more fusion-oriented, with his early albums being a precursor to what is now called smooth jazz.

37: Laurindo Almeida (1917-1995)

Hailing from São Paulo, self-taught Almeida’s passport to the US was writing the lucrative song ‘Johnny Peddler’, which was hit for vocal group The Andrews Sisters. He then joined Stan Kenton’s band and, in addition to being a prolific recording artist, found plenty of work as a West Coast session musician. At home with both acoustic and electric guitars, Almeida was a pioneer who blended jazz with the sounds and styles of Brazil.

36: George Van Eps (1913-1998)

With his mellow, well-rounded tone, this New Jersey-born guitarist was first drawn to the banjo as a youngster, but after hearing Eddie Lang playing with big bands, switched to the guitar. He made his radio debut at 13 and then, in the 30s, as his notoriety gained momentum, he played in several big bands, including Bennie Goodman’s. Van Eps designed his own seven-string guitar, which added lower bass notes and allowed him to develop his own finger-picking style.

35: Sonny Sharrock (1940-1994)

Not many of the world’s best jazz guitarists can also claim to have started out singing doo-wop in the 50s. That’s how New Yorker Warren “Sonny” Sharrock began his careeer, though in the 60s he became one of the leading lights of avant-garde jazz guitar. The saxophone was his preferred choice of instrument (he had fallen in love with John Coltrane’s sound) but his asthma prevented him taking up a woodwind instrument. Instead, he turned to the guitar, and his signature style – which was loud and funky – used horn-like lead lines as well as rock-style amp feedback.

34: Howard Roberts (1929-1992)

Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, Roberts picked up his first guitar at the age of eight and was working professionally at 15. He moved to Los Angeles and was soon in demand as a session ace, eventually working with the elite group of sessioneers known as The Wrecking Crew. An adherent of the West Coast “cool school”, Roberts’ style combined a detached emotional restraint with fleet-of-finger technical virtuosity. As well as recording many solo albums for a plethora of labels, he also worked as a record producer. Outside of jazz, Roberts appeared on songs by The Monkees and The Electric Prunes.

33: Kevin Eubanks (born 1957)

The nephew of jazz pianist Ray Bryant, Philly-born Eubanks arrived at the guitar after trying his hand at the violin and trumpet. His big break came was when he moved to New York in 1980 and played with Art Blakey. 1983 saw the release of Eubanks’ debut album and he’s been recording regularly ever since. A dexterous guitarist who’s comfortable with both electric and acoustic instruments, Eubanks combines flowing melodic lines with crisp percussive effects and a sumptuous harmonic content.

32: Bill Connors (born 1949)

Though his tenure with Return To Forever was short and overshadowed by the arrival of his flamboyant replacement, Al Di Meola, in 1974, Connors played on the group’s seminal Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy album and takes his place among the world’s best jazz guitarists thanks to his importance in the evolution of jazz-rock guitar. The Los Angeles guitarist created a signature, readily identifiable style fusing jazz chromatics and advanced chord changes with elements of blues and rock.

31: Steve Khan (born 1947)

The son of renowned songwriter Sammy Cahn, Steve Khan excelled as a versatile studio sideman (his credits range from Steely Dan and Bob James to Billy Joel and Aretha Franklin) while pursuing a solo career that has garnered two Grammy nominations. In the 70s, Khan successfully fused jazz with rock and later added piquant Latin flavours to expand his stylistic palette. Still recording regularly, Khan is one of the pre-eminent jazz guitarists working today.

30: Lee Ritenour (born 1952)

Nicknamed Captain Fingers, LA-born Ritenour recorded with The Mamas & The Papas while still a teenager before becoming an in-demand session ace whose clients included Frank Sinatra, Barry White and Aretha Franklin. Ritenour’s solo career took off in 1976 when he followed a fusion path that was funkier, lighter and less grandiose than bands such as Return To Forever. He is also a former member of the influential smooth jazz group Fourplay.

29: Pat Martino (born 1944)

This Philly axe-meister (born Pat Azzara) is a musical shape-shifter who can switch from straight-ahead jazz to fusion and post-bop at the drop of a plectrum. He served his apprenticeship with soul-jazzers Willis Jackson, Brother Jack McDuff and Richard “Groove” Holmes before establishing his solo career in the latter half of the 60s. Keen to share his knowledge, Martino has also written textbooks on approaches to guitar playing.

28: Ralph Towner (born 1940)

Despite now sitting comfortably among the world’s best jazz guitarists, the guitar wasn’t Ralph Towner’s first instrument of choice. He began on trumpet, then moved to piano, before finally arriving at the classical guitar, which he studied in Austria for two years. After cutting his teeth with the Paul Winter Consort, in 1970 Towner co-founded Oregon, an all-acoustic band that blended chamber jazz with Eastern sounds and which was a forerunner of New Age music. Though the band is still going strong today, Towner has also enjoyed a fertile solo career, and his striking guitar work – limpid and crystalline – remains a thing of beauty.

27: John Abercrombie (1944-2017)

A prolific recording artist for Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based ECM label since the 70s, this native New Yorker cited Chuck Berry and Barney Kessel among his influences. A member of pioneering jazz-rock band Dreams, in the 70s Ambercrombie played with the likes of Gil Evans and in supergroup Gateway, while developing a warm, pastel-hued sound that was infused with a melodic lyricism.

26: Bill Frisell (born 1951)

A student of jazz guitar greats Johnny Smith and Jim Hall, Maryland-born Frisell has found his own stylistic niche by blending jazz with elements from country, folk and rock music. His ability to conjure a particular mood or atmosphere with effects is also part of his signature style. An eclectic, versatile guitarist who has helped expand the boundaries of the instrument.

25: Freddie Greene (1911-1987)

Hailing from South Carolina, Green was a long-serving stalwart of the Count Basie band and spent almost half a century with the jazz aristocrat. He began on the banjo before graduating to the six-string guitar, and rose to fame in the big band swing era. Rarely taking solos, Greene preferred to help drive the rhythm section by providing a flowing and hard-swinging chordal accompaniment. He wrote the book on big band guitar paying.

24: Herb Ellis (1921-2010)

There’s a slight but perceptible country twang in the bebop-rooted style of this noted Texas guitarist, who came on the radar of most jazz aficionados due to his indispensable presence in the Oscar Peterson Trio during the 50s. Together with fellow fretboard luminaries Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd and Barney Kessell, Ellis co-founded a jazz guitar supergroup called The Great Guitars.

23: Al Di Meola (born 1954)

A veritable fretboard speed king, New Jersey’s Di Meola fused the passionate, fleet-of-finger intensity of flamenco music with the visceral crunch of Santana-esque Latin rock. He was plucked from obscurity at age 19 when he replaced Bill Connors in Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and then went on to forge a successful solo career.

22: Lenny Breau (1941-1984)

From Auburn, Maine, and born into a family of country musicians, Breau was a member of his family’s band for several years when he was a teenager, but left after angering his father by playing a jazz-inflected solo. After that, the technically brilliant Breau gravitated towards jazz and also assimilated Flamenco music, which resulted in a distinctive personal style that never forgot its country roots.

21: Mike Stern (born 1953)

Born Mike Sedgwick in Boston, Stern played in drummer Billy Cobham’s fusion band in the 70s before joining a resurgent Miles Davis on the comeback trail in 1981. After leaving Miles in ’83, Stern began a solo career that showed him blossoming into an all-round guitarist who can marry the visceral power of blues and rock with jazz’s advanced vocabulary.

20: John Scofield (born 1951)

Like his contemporary Mike Stern, Ohio-born Scofield played fusion with Billy Cobham and then joined a rejuvenated Miles Davis for two years (he was Stern’s replacement). With his acerbic tone and blues-infused string pulls, Scofield developed an immediately recognisable style and has recorded in a breathtaking variety of styles (embracing jam band funk, orchestral jazz and even country music).

19: Charlie Byrd (1925-1999)

A jazz proponent of the acoustic, nylon-stringed, classical guitar, Virginia-born Byrd studied with Spanish master Andre Segovia and then began to make his mark as a recording artist in the late 50s. His biggest mainstream breakthrough was the innovative album Jazz Samba, recorded in tandem with saxophonist Stan Getz in 1962, which fused jazz improv with sinuous Brazilian rhythms and instantly put him on the map as one of the world’s best jazz guitarists. Byrd’s sound, with its finger-picked gossamer filigrees, is a unique one in jazz.

18: Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)

Something of a musical polymath, this supernal British jazz guitarist advanced the vocabulary of his instrument by using unusual scales and absorbing elements from progressive rock (including effects pedals). Though he often used ornate finger-picking, he liked to articulate melodies in a smooth, legato style, reflecting his interest in the sound of the saxophone.

17: Larry Coryell (born 1943-2017)

Sometimes dubbed The Godfather Of Fusion, Galveston-born Coryell (real name Laurence Van DeLinder III) was Gabor Szabo’s replacement in Chico Hamilton’s band and began to make his name in the late 60s as a proponent of a new musical hybrid called jazz-rock. He led his own fusion band, Eleventh House, in the 70s and later joined forces with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía to form The Guitar Trio. A hugely influential axe god who bridged the divide between jazz and rock, Coryell will forever be remembered as one of the best jazz guitarists to ever pick up the instrument.

16: Jimmy Raney (1927-1995)

Tal Farlow’s replacement in the Red Norvo Trio, Kentucky-born Raney branched out as a bandleader in the mid-50s, triumphing in DownBeat magazine’s Best Guitarist polls on two occasions during that time. His eloquent style, with its lucid melodic lines and cool harmonies, won him many fans and his numerous credits include recording stints with Stan Getz, Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin and Eddie Harris.

15: John McLaughlin (born 1942)

Miles Davis was so smitten with McLaughlin’s guitar playing that he named a song after him (on Bitches Brew). Before that, the Yorkshire-born axe deity made his name as a first-call session musician in London during the 60s when he appeared on myriad pop and R&B records. He played with Tony Williams’ Lifetime before, in the 70s, co-founding the influential jazz-rock supergroup Mahavishnu Orchestra. Combining technical brilliance with emotional depth and a genuine appreciation of Indian music, McLaughlin remains one of the best jazz guitarists in the world, and has led the way in jazz-rock for five decades.

14: Gabor Szabo (1936-1982)

With his meld of Hungarian Gypsy folk music, extended modal vamps, Indian ragas and psychedelic colouration, this versatile Budapest-born guitarist exerted a huge influence on Mexican axe god Carlos Santana. His rise to fame was accelerated by his presence in Chico Hamilton’s pathfinding jazz group in the early 60s, before he embarked on a successful solo career.

13: Johnny Smith (1922-2013)

Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Smith was a precociously talented musician who learned to play guitar as a pre-teen while hanging around in local pawnshops. His all-round versatility (he toured with a hillbilly band before gravitating towards jazz and could play anything from swing and bebop to avant-garde classical music) meant that he was much in demand. Smith was also a noted composer: his classic 1954 song ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ became an instrumental standard and was a hit for Chet Atkins and later, in 1964, The Ventures.

12: Stanley Jordan (born 1959)

Back in 1985, this Chicago-born fretboard sorcerer, then just 26, caused a sensation with his Blue Note debut LP, Magic Touch, which showcased Jordan’s remarkably unorthodox technique of playing the guitar by tapping the fingerboard with his fingertips to produce sounds. Such was Jordan’s digital dexterity that, much like a pianist, he could articulate melodies and chords at the same time with both hands. A phenomenal talent who more than earns his place among the world’s best jazz guitarists.

11: Tal Farlow (1921-1998)

North Carolinian Talmadge Farlow was a self-taught guitarist who, in his early days, worked as a sign-painter by day and a musician at night. He was inspired to build his first electric guitar himself after hearing Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman band. His solo career gained pace in the mid-50s and he quickly acquired the nickname The Octopus, which referred to the combination of his large hands and jaw-dropping technical prowess.

10: Pat Metheny (born 1954)

This chameleonic fretboard sorcerer from Missouri – whose album credits range from David Bowie and Joni Mitchell to Ornette Coleman – cites the influence of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall as key components in the foundation of his own unique style. Lyrical, harmonically rich and yet also intent on dissolving musical boundaries, Metheny’s shape-shifting music is hard to classify, but that hasn’t stopped him nabbing 20 Grammy awards. Not only one of the best jazz guitarists in history, Metheny is, without doubt, the most progressive guitarist in jazz right now.

9: Joe Pass (1929-1994)

A New Jersey native with Sicilian ancestry, Pass (born Joe Passalaqua) started playing guitar at the age of nine and advanced so rapidly that he was gigging by the time he was 14. A supremely versatile guitarist, he patented a singular and innovative style with which he could articulate melodic lines using deft sequences of chord progressions. Pass spent many years accompanying singer Ella Fitzgerald and also played extensively with pianist Oscar Peterson.

8: Kenny Burrell (born 1931)

A go-to sideman as well as being a recording artist in his own right, Detroit-born Burrell drew inspiration from blues music as well as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. He started playing guitar at the age of 12 and made his recording debut eight years later with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Burrell became a key figure in the hard bop movement and can play soulfully as well as swing hard. His myriad credits range from Sonny Rollins and Donald Byrd to Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett.

7: Barney Kessell (1923-2004)

A member of the 60s LA session mafia dubbed The Wrecking Crew, this guitar master was originally from Tuskegee, Oklahoma, and came to prominence in the 50s, both as a leader and a sideman (he famously accompanied singer Julie London on her 1955 LP, Julie Is Her Name, which featured ‘Cry Me A River’). Fittingly, for one of the best jazz guitarists in history, Kessell played with the great and good of the jazz world (everyone from Billie Holiday to Sonny Rollins) and was noted for his mellow sound and judicious choice of chords.

6: Grant Green (1935-1979)

A prolific recording artist at Blue Note during the 60s and early 70s, St Louis-born Green, who was influenced by bebop horn players, adopted a linear approach to the guitar, favouring single melodic lines over chordal accompaniment. His minimalist, less-is-more aesthetic, with its blues-infused phrasing, was often highlighted within an organ trio setting.

5: George Benson (born 1943)

Influenced by Charlie Christian and mentored by Wes Montgomery (he’s often considered the latter’s heir apparent – no finer compliment for any of the world’s best jazz guitarists), this Pittsburgh-born guitar slinger was a child prodigy who became a jazz and soul superstar in the 70s when he reinvented himself as a vocalist. A dexterous fretboardist out of the soul-jazz school, Benson’s calling card is doing a scat vocal while doubling the melody on the guitar. Probably the greatest jazz guitarist alive right now.

4: Jim Hall (1930-2013)

Born in Buffalo, New York, Ohio-raised Hall started playing guitar aged 10 and had a life-changing epiphany went he first heard Charlie Christian, who had a profound influence on his own style. Noted for his warm, mellow sound, Hall is a master of utilising space and creating tonal contrasts. He earns his place among the world’s best jazz guitarists thanks to an eclectic choice of collaborators and wide range of musical settings that helped to expanded the lexicon of the jazz guitar.

3: Charlie Christian (1916-1942)

A true jazz guitar revolutionary, Texas-born Christian rose to fame in Benny Goodman’s band during the years 1939-41. He pioneered the electric guitar in jazz, which, combined with his penchant for using single-note lines (like a horn player), took the instrument out of the rhythm section and into the foreground, making it a valid solo instrument. An early proponent of what evolved into bebop, Christian was only 25 when he died, succumbing to tuberculosis.

2: Django Reinhardt (1910-1953)

The founding father of swing-influenced European “hot” jazz in the 30s, this Belgian-born Romani boasted a prodigious technical ability despite only playing with his thumb and two middle fingers (after a fire had left his other two digits paralysed). He was able to combine speed, precision and a dazzling manual dexterity with imagination and deep feeling. A true jazz giant whose playing never ceases to astonish.

1: Wes Montgomery (1923-1968)

Topping our list of the best jazz guitarists of all time is a revered and profoundly influential Indianapolis fretboard genius who couldn’t read a note of music. Just using a calloused thumb to pick out notes, Montgomery was inspired by the bebop horn-like phrasing of his idol, Charlie Christian, but offered a more advanced harmonic style that incorporated block chords and the use of parallel octaves. He died too young but his music and its influence lives on.

Looking for more? Discover the best jazz drummers and best jazz saxophonists of all time.



  1. Peter

    February 20, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    Johnathan Kreisberg

  2. Buddy Raymond

    February 20, 2018 at 8:54 pm

    No list of GREAT Jazz guitarist’s is complete without CHUCK WAYNE’S name being included in the top ten names. And then there is JOHN PISANO.

    • Bob

      February 20, 2018 at 10:34 pm

      Chuck who? Wayne who?

    • raff

      July 15, 2018 at 2:28 am


  3. Santiago

    February 21, 2018 at 1:58 am

    Ted Greene

  4. Chuck

    February 21, 2018 at 3:49 am

    Nice list Charles but agree with a poster from above, Jonathan Kreisberg has to be on that list. He has the credentials, history, and chops. You also left out one of the greatest Jazz guitar educators and players of all time; Ted Greene. Very few jazz guitarists of the 21st century weren’t influenced by his arrangements and theory. Unbelievable guitarist.

  5. Duffy

    February 21, 2018 at 4:21 am

    Kenny Burrell 8th? Benson 4th… You lost my respect right there…

    • Namzzaj

      February 21, 2018 at 1:14 pm

      You can’t be too familiar with George Bensons work.

  6. Richard

    February 21, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Got the fifty pretty much right but the order is way off. Benson in front of Pass, Burrell, Byrd & Green. What the hell are you drinking?

    • ian

      February 22, 2018 at 3:24 am

      Its not about the order, each one of these players was extremely influential in their own way.

  7. joe waye

    February 21, 2018 at 4:04 pm

    With the exception of 3 players in your list it would appear that the list is made up of the top American jazz guitarists. Europe ,Canada ..Asia ..Australia its a big world man.. I think your list should feature more innovators..

  8. John Cole

    February 21, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    Ed Bickert? Bucky Pizzarelli? Frank Vignola? John Pisano? Jimmy Bruno?

  9. Jack

    February 21, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    Spot On! Wes will always be #1

  10. Jimmy

    February 21, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    Joe Negri from Pittsburgh

  11. Max

    February 21, 2018 at 6:31 pm

    Wes Montgomery is way over-rated. Tasteful, funky and cool to listen to but No. 1? Please the guy couldn’t even master the use of a plectrum. Django is the best but there are so many great players it’s impossible to rate the geniuses of jazz guitar.

  12. Dave Harrison

    February 21, 2018 at 9:34 pm

    I would have found room for Howard Alden.

  13. RV

    February 21, 2018 at 11:33 pm

    What a joke ! Please rename it “The 50 Best US Jazz Guitarists Of All Time”. No Paco de Lucia ? No Birelli Lagrène ? No Stochello Rosemberg ? Hey dude, take a walk beyond your hills, there’s a whole world out there…

  14. Mick Minn

    February 22, 2018 at 12:03 am

    You forgot senatra’s other guitar player, besides Joe Pass, Tony Mattola .
    is Les Paul, on this list . Chet Attkins , Jobim was really influencial as well .
    My top 10 are Wes, Martino, Di Meola, Metheny les paul , Mottola, Pass, Remler, Stern, Garsed

    • Bob

      March 2, 2019 at 1:19 pm

      Les Paul amen

  15. Mick Minn

    February 22, 2018 at 12:10 am

    I like the bop era of the Montgomery brothers , it’s mybelief wes is a vibe player who switched to guitar, because his older brother played vibes .
    wes’ approach is much like the vibraphone ‘, octaves chord triads single notes.he probably read on vibraphone . i don’t buy any of that he didn’t know anything crap

  16. ian

    February 22, 2018 at 3:21 am

    This is a great list! To those who are upset about the specific order I would say that it doesn’t really matter. How can you say one player is better than any other? All these people included here are great in their own way!

  17. Doug

    February 22, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    Where is the late, great Eddy Marron?

  18. Derek

    February 23, 2018 at 6:01 am

    My only issue is John NcLaughlin at #15. He’s top ten everyday, every year!

  19. Jim

    February 25, 2018 at 2:31 am

    Mildly surprised not to see Ulf Wakenius in the top 50

  20. Gianpiero

    March 1, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    George Barnes !?!?!?

  21. Drillon

    March 2, 2018 at 6:47 am


  22. Philippe

    March 2, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Thanks for this work… I can’t find Philipp Catherine, the great guitarist (still alive) who worked with Chet Baker, a long time in Europ….so Tiny Grimes, Floyd Smith, Ralph Moore…

  23. givry

    March 2, 2018 at 10:43 am

    and philip Catherine and joe puma ! ok for Montgomery the best but Joe Pass, Mc Laughlin and Tal Farlow best too !

  24. Eduardo

    March 2, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    where’s my compatriote Philip Catherine and the other “Young Django” Birelli Lagrene ?

  25. Danny Strunk

    March 20, 2018 at 12:11 am

    Barney Kessell was born in Muskogee Okla.
    Greatest lists are always subjective so everyone take the list with a grain of salt.
    As for the snide remark about Wes not mastering the pick, he very much could except the thumb thing evolved because his neighbors complained when he used a pick for comping and single lines when he practiced so he started using his thumb which produced a mellower tone , and less confrontations and evictions ..and his thumb became his Plectrum…

  26. Jim Bretzfelder

    March 20, 2018 at 1:31 am

    What about Hank Garland ?

  27. Patrick Towning

    March 20, 2018 at 9:59 am

    Terje Rypdal ?!!!

  28. Paulo Casal

    March 25, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    It would be fairer if the names were in alphabetical order …

  29. Mark Arata

    March 25, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    Peter Bernstein not on this list he is one of there best guitar players on the planet. When it comes to Jazz guitar he is the man. He is in my top 5 of all time.

  30. Link

    March 25, 2018 at 7:03 pm

    Even Chuck Berry admitted to stealing Charlie Christians jazz riffs 7 tryna adat the to Rock & Roll failing miserbly except for a few songs, since they were all the same anyway Except My Dind a Ling

  31. Robert Moehle

    March 25, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    I’m delighted to see that I know of every guitarist on this list and have heard the work of each one. And I agree with Wes Montgomery being at the top of the list! The only problem with the list is that virtually none of the playing or influence of any of these has made it into my own personal playing! That’s because I hate to practice.

  32. Alessandro

    March 26, 2018 at 6:47 am

    Rene Thomas? Billy Bauer?

  33. umc

    March 26, 2018 at 7:08 am

    Jonathan Kreisberg, Bireli Lagrene, Philip Catherine, Hank Garland, Chuck Wayne, Sylvain Luc… missing! And Pat Martino on 29? What a joke

    • Robert

      July 2, 2019 at 3:58 pm

      Martino should be in top 3, easily. Glad to see Grant Green properly respected. Tragically underappreciated.

  34. Pete Gage

    March 26, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Eddie Lang at 39!!! Freddie Greene at 25!! These should be in the top ten

  35. Christian Grimaud

    March 26, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    The late Ronny Jordan should be on the list. His guitar playing is comparable to Wes Montgomery, Norman Brown, and George Benson. Another guitar great worth noting: Craig T Cooper.

  36. Andrew Sapienza

    May 8, 2018 at 5:59 am

    I understand putting together a list, but as mentioned in a previous comment, it’s impossible to rate them 1 through 50 in order of importance. How do you compare Stanley Jordan, with Charley Byrd, John Mclaughlin, Django Reinhardt, and Kenny Burrell.

    From my standpoint,conspicuously missing were: Bireli Lagrene, Ed Bickert, Gene Bertoncini, Phillip Catherine, and Andreas Oberg.

  37. GuyK.

    May 25, 2018 at 11:57 pm

    No.46 Emily Remler was born in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Not Manhattan.

  38. john mcmaster

    August 1, 2018 at 1:44 am

    Ed Bickert – ask Paul Desmond

  39. Brian Roberts

    September 16, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    All are great guitarists, but not sure how Ed Bickert got overlooked

  40. Eloise Bonner

    October 9, 2018 at 3:16 am

    What happened to Nick Colionne? He’s been around forever.
    He’s outstanding.

  41. Jeffrey Wallace

    October 15, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Martin Taylor UK guitarist for Stephane grappelli has to be on your list also

  42. andrew r puglia

    October 20, 2018 at 1:22 am

    I have always appreciated the music of many of the fine guitarists listed but I could never presume to know enough to comment upon the list or the order. My late older brother, Richard, however would have plenty to say about the list, I have no doubt. He was a self-taught guitar player and a damn good one, too. He “jammed” every Wednesday evening with his good friend and teacher, Andy Greco – himself a professional musician. From time to time I would drop by to listen and enjoy. A self-taught musician, a self-taught fine furniture maker, Richard was my idol. He so loved the guitar and all the fine guitarists. If I had to surmise, I would think, based upon his comments, Django was #1 on his list, though he had great admiration for many of the others listed.

  43. Ken Boling

    October 21, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Barney Kessel is from
    Tuskegee Ok
    What the heck,?

    • D R Hatch

      December 21, 2018 at 8:25 pm

      Ken, pleased you spelt Kessel correctly, surprising how many people, even in magazines get it wrong, with two l’s. Also confirmed his birthplace right ! Saw Barney with Herb and Charlie a few times as the Great Guitars, brilliant ! Many other superb guitarists missing from the list sadly.

  44. Brad

    November 16, 2018 at 8:54 pm


  45. Neal Forrester

    November 23, 2018 at 3:11 am

    Baden Powell could be on this list, though I don’t have a problem with most of your picks. Fun read.

  46. jeff

    December 15, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    One l in Ksssel

  47. William

    January 31, 2019 at 12:59 am

    Did I miss something?

    The 50 Best Jazz Guitarist of All Time is missing one of the top 1 to 5 guitarists ever, Jimmy Bruno.

    Who compiled this list?

    It is clear that, if Jimmy Bruno is not at the top of the list, at least in the top five, and not even on the list at all, that the method of collating the data is deeply flawed.

    Are people who do not know the jazz guitarists the people selecting the names?

    Many on the list are talented. Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, Johnny Smith, Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Pass, Him Hall, Grant Green, Freddie “Fathah Time” Green (Count Basie’s orchestra), are wonderful guitarists.

    With that said, and they all belong at the top of the list, if they are on the list, and some appear to be missing, then Jimmy Bruno should be at the top of the list with them, or even above them.

    No matter.

    I know West Montgomery, George Benson, the guitarists I listed, above, and JImmy Bruno, are THE best of the best, hands down, the science is settled, the debate is ended (sound familiar? ha, ha).

    Take care everyone!

    Enjoy the great jazz guitarists, those listed, those ommitted, and more!

    • William

      May 8, 2019 at 3:19 am

      When I see any current Greatest Jazz Guirist list, or even Greatest of All Time Jazz Guitarist list which does NOT include Jimmy Bruno, I know the list is bogus, and not compiled by a person knowledgeable of the very best.

      This list is actually very good, mentioning Jimmy Raney, Johnny Smith, Freddie Green, Grant Green, West Montgomery, and George Benson, even John Pizzarelli, although I do not recall seeing Bucky Pizzarelli, one of the finest of all time, on the list.

      Over-all, while the placement of some of the players is not where I would have placed them, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Kenny Burrel, Jimmy Raney, Johnny SMith, George Benson, West Montgomery, Bucky pizzareli, Freddie “Fatha’ Time” Green, Grant Green, and Jimmy Bruno would round out the top eleven or so, with Jimmy Bruno at the top of the list, especially considering his swing feel, his ability to dig in to the rhythm unlike most other guitarists, his freakish, top percentile speed and dexterity, his musicality, his tone, and phrasing.

      Although not listed as a jazz guitarist, Carlos Santana has basically one style of sound which is clearly his signature sound, a sound which makes it easy to identify him within seconds of hearing his music.

      The guitarists I mentioned, above, do have a certain signature sound as well, yet some, like Jimmy Bruno, has a capacity to expand beyond a strict, restricted, repetitive sound.

  48. Buzz

    February 23, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Enjoyed reading the list, but definitely agree with putting it in alphabetical order, and agree 1000% with adding Chuck Wayne and John Pisano…the list isn’t complete without them.

  49. Lloyd Hardin

    March 3, 2019 at 3:44 am

    At #49 Norman Brown certainly deserves mention. However, there is no player who captures the style of Wes Montgomery more than Chuck Loeb.

  50. Carol Caldwell

    March 6, 2019 at 10:12 pm

    You left out Mundell Lowe, Jonathan Kreiesberg, if you have Sonny Sharock, you must have Dom Minasi, the best of the free players…also Vic Juric and Lage Lund

  51. Steve Holtje

    March 10, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    Joe Morris. Or he he too avant-garde for you?

    • Steve Holtje

      March 10, 2019 at 4:46 pm

      Also Mary Halvorson.

  52. Rafael Jorge Armiñana Romeu

    March 30, 2019 at 8:24 am

    Con todos mis respetos y admiración a los creadores de estas listas, siempre aprendemos mucho, falta el más grande, el inmortal, el divino, el más humano, el más sabroso, ritmos, fuerza, delicadeza, pasión, el hijo de DIOS, el sobrenatural, el super-humano, admirado y respetado por todos sus amigos , incomparable, la persona que más a hecho por la música, el talentoso y gran trabajador, excelente comunicador, reservado e infinitamente grandioso….PACO DE LUCIA. PACO EL DE LA LUCIA….Solo tienen que ver u escuchar el trabajo titulado PACO DE LUCIA en VIVO conciertos ESPAÑA 2010. Es solo mi opinión, insisto con todos mis respetos y admiración a la increíble lista aquí presentada. Les deseo a tod@s ustedes un fenomenal día.

  53. Michael Corenzwit

    May 10, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    1. John McLaughlin. 2. Pat Metheney. 3. Wes Montgomery. 4. Al DiMeola. 5. Barney Kessel. My List of the greatest I ever heard.

  54. Michael Corenzwit

    May 10, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    Your list’s most glaring omission is Steve Morse. A unique virtuoso.

  55. Jaynius Swannius

    May 20, 2019 at 7:01 pm

    Norman Brown at 49? I don’t know about that one, considering he impressed George Benson.

  56. Jim Nesterick

    June 7, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    John NcLaughlin at 15? Really??? Top 5 all day long.

  57. Carl Flohe

    July 18, 2019 at 11:09 pm

    Why is ED BICKERT missed !!??!!??

  58. Mark Raz

    July 25, 2019 at 11:13 pm

    Obviously this list was made by someone who is not a musician.

  59. Donald Crawford

    August 11, 2019 at 6:55 am

    Have you ever heard of a gentleman named Jimmy Ponder? If not listen to him. Also you have Django Reinhardt ahead of George Benson? That automatically disqualifies you as an expert, but thanks for you opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Don't Miss