Join John Wheatcroft as he waxes lyrical about the father of electric jazz guitar soloing, that legendary genius, Charlie Christian.
John Wheatcroft pays respect to the father of electric jazz guitar, Charlie Christian.
Charlie Christian found acclaim with the Benny Goodman Sextet And Orchestra and is widely acknowledged as the first significant musician to embrace the electric guitar. One can only imagine what Christian would have achieved had he not died of tuberculosis in 1942 at the tragically young age of 25. In an incredibly short time the Texas-born virtuoso set the music world alight, inspiring generations of guitarists to amplify their ‘boxes’ and explore exactly what this new instrument had to offer.
Christian was one of the first to challenge the horn’s position of lead line dominance, and he proved to be a more than equal match with his melodic invention, rhythmic intensity and a beautiful clarity to his phrasing – never a wasted note; it was all there for a reason.
Miles Davis famously stated that it was Christian, not Monk, Parker or Gillespie, who was responsible for instigating the movement that went on to become bebop, one of the rawest, hippest and most demanding forms of contemporary music that the world had seen.
While undoubtedly taking influence from saxophonists such as Lester Young, Charlie was no mere copycat. His playing had it all, with great tone, endlessly invention, supreme note selection and effortless swing. Christian defined the blueprint for electric jazz guitar and, rather like his acoustic guitar-playing contemporary Django Reinhardt in France, his playing still sounds fresh and unbelievably exciting. If you’re unfamiliar with his style, check out Charlie’s solos on Benny’s Bugle or Solo Flight and you’ll be blown away.
There are nine examples to learn, based around lines that Charlie might play in an improvised scenario. An often-overlooked aspect of his playing is that he was also an excellent rhythm guitarist, so make sure you check out his recordings first hand. There’s a wealth of ideas to be gleaned from studying Christian’s playing and due to his clean execution and clearly rhythmically defined note placement, his playing is just about the best place to get started with developing your transcribing skills.
Consider using some form of slow down software (such as Transcribe), get yourself some decent headphones or speakers, find a phrase that you like and get stuck in. Try your best to make the connection between the note selection and the underlying harmony. Don’t get too attached to a particular fingering until you’re sure that you’ve selected the most appropriate location on the fretboard, as it’s difficult to unlearn a fingering once you’ve ‘programmed it in’ incorrectly. To keep you going in the meantime, here are the licks I prepared earlier. As always, enjoy.
IF CHARLIE WERE ALIVE TODAY, WE’D STILL BE TAKING LESSONS FROM HIM HERB ELLIS
NEXT MONTH John introduces the amazing playing of the equally incredible Pat Metheny
Charlie Christian: this style of Gibson bar pickup still bears his name