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 Perhaps that’s because, traditionally, the guitar, which superseded the banjo in jazz rhythm sections, was primarily perceived as a supporting and accompanying instrument rather than a viable vehicle for solo improvisation.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 through 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 Green, 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 superhuman 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.
While you’re reading, listen to our Best Jazz Guitarists playlist here.
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, favoring 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 afterward, 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 synthesizers – 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 the 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 a 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 career, 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 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 flavors 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 Abercrombie 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 Green (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 recognizable 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 fusion 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 coloration, 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, favoring 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. A good starting place? Idle Moments.
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 utilizing 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 on his left hand paralyzed). 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. Start with Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery and explore further from there.