While Eddie Durham is often cited as the first to record an electric guitar solo in jazz music, Charlie Christian was the first important soloist on the instrument.
He was called the “Genius of the Electric Guitar” – Charlie Christian is generally recognized as the person who changed everyone’s thinking about how jazz could be played on it.
Charlie Christian is to jazz what Robert Johnson is to the blues – a pioneer, an exceptional guitarist, a man who died way too young and a player only truly appreciated after he passed away.
Charles Henry “Charlie” Christian
From the moment he burst onto New York City’s jazz scene with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Charlie Christian changed forever the way jazz guitar would be played. And although his career—and his life—were brief, Christian’s influence on the transformation that jazz underwent through the introduction of bebop remains unquestioned.
Charlie left a lasting legacy with his innovative techniques. Combining blues licks and double stops with melodic lines, and all over a swing rhythm that was similar in tempo to a later rock n roll shuffle, it’s undeniable the influence that he (and Benny Goodman) had on rock n roll music.
Christian’s guitar also was majorly influential. Primitive electrics were on the market for 10 years before Christian made his name, but Gibson’s ES-150 (from 1936) saw this new electric instrument come of age.
The ES-150 guitar is generally recognized as the world’s first commercially successful Spanish-style electric guitar. The ES stands for Electric Spanish, and it was designated 150 because it was priced (in an instrument/amplifier/cable bundle) at around $150. The particular sound of the instrument was formed by a combination of the specific bar-style pickup and its placement.
The ES150 has a single-coil pickup in neck position that is known as the “Charlie Christian Pickup”. The original Charlie Christian pickup is almost unobtainable, but there’s a company in the UK that makes exact replicas of these pickups.
Charlie’s amp was a Gibson EH-150.
The EH150 guitar amp actually came into existence before the Gibson ES150 (it was used for lap-steel guitars).
The EH150 has a 10″ speaker (later a 12″) producing 15W. It has 1 microphone input, 3 instrument inputs, volume controls, a bass-tone expander and an “Echo” speaker jack. (Other guitarists using a Gibson EH150 amp: Django Reinhardt.)
Plugged into its accompanying Gibson EH-150 amplifier, Christian had a sound like no other guitarist. His sound had an edge, a hint of distortion. Married to his lyrical soloing skills, the electric guitar suddenly became a soloing instrument with massive potential.
Christian accomplished a lot in just 25 years and changed jazz. He not only popularized the electric guitar, but also influenced just about everyone who came after with his horn like solos and sense of swing.
As well as playing guitar for Benny Goodman, Charlie did some moonlighting in after hours jam sessions with other musicians in places such as Minton’s and Monroe’s in New York City. On 12 May 1941 Charlie Christian jammed on ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy‘ at Minton’s, with Joe Guy on trumpet, Nick Fenton on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums.
Famed jazz guitarist Barney Kessel spent three days with Charlie watching him play. “He played probably 95% downstrokes and held a very stiff big triangular pick very tightly between his thumb and first finger. He rested his second, third and fourth fingers very firmly on the pickguard…“. Source: Guitar Player March 1982.
(See also “MUSIC LESSONS” at the end of this article.)
Unfortunately, as there is no film footage available of Charlie Christian playing live, these videos offer some wonderful slides of his various photographs.
Rose Room / Benny Goodman Sextet / Charlie starts soloing at 01:10
Swing To Bop
/ with Benny Goodman orchestra
Stompin’ At The Savoy
/ playing live at Minton’s in New York City / This live track excerpt is characterized by longer solos than Christian would typically play with Goodman, and is a good indication of his incredible improvisational abilities.
A Columbia University student, Jerry Newman, made most of these “after-hours” recordings on a portable disk recorder in 1941 at Minton’s Playhouse in the Hotel Cecil, 210 West 118th Street in Harlem. This technology let him record significantly longer takes than current 78 rpm technology would allow. (There were then no commonly available magnetic tape recorders although one from AEG, called the Magnetophon K1, had been demonstrated in Germany in 1935.)
The Minton’s band features Joe Guy on trumpet, Kenny Kersey on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums. “Swing to Bop” is a tune by Eddie Durham called “Topsy.”
Some of the cuts recorded between October 1939 and March 1941
– Charlie in his early 20’s (Russ & Gary just born haha).
Tea For Two
1939 / Stardust
Charlie Christian / Profoundly Blue
Blues In B
Charlie Christion / Seven Come Eleven
Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Buck Clayton / Good Morning Blues / live
Good Morning Blues (Durham-Basie-Rushing) featured Lester Young (tenor sax), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Charlie Christian (guitar), Freddie Green (rhythm-guitar), Walter Page (trombone), Jo Jones (drums). Recorded in New York City’s Carnegie Hall ( 24-12- 1939 Live Concert From Spirituals To Swing )
1941 / Jazz Immortal / live at Minton’s Playhouse / Monroe’s Uptown House / 30 minute audio documentary
Thanks to Encyclopedia.com for these notes…
Born in Bonham, Texas, northeast of Dallas, in 1916, Christian moved with his family first to Dallas, then, around 1921, to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Christian’s father, who was blind, earned a living playing guitar and singing, sometimes with his three sons, Clarence (on violin and mandolin), Edward (on string bass), and Charlie, whose earliest guitars often were hand-made from cigar boxes.
Charlie’s skills were evident early, and he avidly absorbed the work of the many excellent southwestern blues and jazz players. As family friend, novelist, and essayist Ralph Ellison averred in his Shadow and Act, the young guitarist was exposed to a wide variety of musical forms at home and in the Oklahoma City community at large.
One of the major stylistic influences on Christian, perhaps as early as 1929 and more extensively in 1931, was the visiting tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whose long, arching solo lines made him a jazz icon.
Until Charlie Christian came along, the jazz guitar had nearly always been relegated to serving as a rhythm instrument, a weaker version of the banjo. Though some excellent acoustic guitar soloists had emerged—Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, George Van Eps, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, and the legendary Django Reinhardt—the guitar remained a minor solo voice. Early experiments, though, especially those by Eddie Durham, to play a guitar whose sound was amplified—at first mechanically, then electronically—showed some promise.
In about 1937 Eddie Durham and Charlie Christian met, and Durham, a gifted composer and arranger as well, taught Christian what he knew about the amplified guitar. Floyd Smith, guitarist with Andy Kirk, may also have played a part in Christian’s amplification of his guitar.
As he immersed himself in playing, sometimes on bass, Christian joined and often led bands that took him as far as Minneapolis, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Wherever he played, he quickly established a reputation as an exciting, innovative talent, using his pickup-amplified guitar as a horn in conjunction with the saxophone and trumpet and taking extended horn-like solos.
For the Record…
Charles Henry “Charlie” Christian, born July 29, 1916, in Bonham, TX; raised in Dallas, TX, and Oklahoma City; died of pneumonia, March 2, 1942, in New York, NY.
Became professional guitarist/bassist, c. 1928; played with father and brothers, then with other territory bands in Texas, Oklahoma, and throughout the Southwest; performed and recorded with Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1939-1942; contributed to the birth of bebop during after-hours gigs, Minton’s club, New York City, 1940-41.
Awards: Metronome poll winner on instrument, 1939-41; Down Beat poll winner, 1941-42.
Jazz pianist, composer, and vocalist Mary Lou Williams, amazed by Christian’s artistry, alerted record producer John Hammond.
In 1934, Hammond is known to have introduced Benny Goodman and pianist Fletcher Henderson. It is said that Hammond convinced the musicians to ‘swing’ the current jazz hits, so that they could play in a free manner like the original New Orleans Jazz.
Hammond always strived for racial integration within the musical scene. He played a role in organizing Benny Goodman’s band, and in persuading him to hire black musicians. So, when he was blown away by Charlie Christian’s guitar playing, he knew this would be a great addition to Goodman’s band.
When Hammond heard about Charlie Christian, he flew to Oklahoma City enroute to a Goodman recording date in Los Angeles to hear this amazing guitar player who was blowing everyone away.
Hammond found Christian’s guitar playing “unbelievable” and invited him to come to California and audition for Benny Goodman.
Hammond then convinced a reluctant band leader Benny Goodman to grant the guitarist an audition. “Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player? asked clarinettist Benny Goodman.
In its infancy at that time, the electric guitar became one of the defining sounds of 20th-century American music, in no small part thanks to Christian’s innovations on the instrument.
On August 16, 1939, at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, Christian, in full garish regalia, set up his Gibson EH-150 amplifier on Goodman’s bandstand, preparatory to auditioning with the quintet.
Ever wary, Goodman called for “Rose Boom,” thinking the Oklahoma “hick” might not know the tune. Witnesses attested that the group, sparked by Christian’s brilliant inventiveness, improvised on the tune for 47 minutes!
According to Bill Simon, in Jazz Guitarists: An Anthology, record producer Hammond said he “never saw anyone knocked out as Benny was that night.”
Less than a month later, on September 11, 1939, Christian found himself in a New York recording studio with a Lionel Hampton group that included such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Clyde Hart, Milt Hinton, and Cozy Cole.
Christian went from making $2.50 a night to making $150 a week.
On October 2nd, 1939, Christian cut his first record as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet. His impact was immediate and lasting. Not only was his playing a “must hear” for guitarists, but jazz instrumentalists of every kind were attracted to the mature solos of the friendly, unassuming 23 year old.
Sophisticated Beyond His Years
Despite his age, Christian’s musicianship seemed fully developed: his endless improvised riffs and figures formed the basis for compositions; his sculpted solo lines were miracles of form; his sense of time was impeccable; his infectious joy at playing seemed boundless; and his playing, evincing as it did such relaxed assurance as well as brilliance, inspired band mates to personal heights.
It may be argued, in fact, that Goodman played his best while Christian was with his band. Among the songs based on Christian’s various riffs—but usually co-credited to Goodman and/or writer-arranger Jimmy Mundy are: “Seven Come Eleven,” “Charlie’s Idea,” “Breakfast Feud,” “Solo Flight,” and “A Smo-o-o-th One.”
Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman Septet – A SMO-O-OTH One
Christian Developed Innovative Harmonic Soloing Structures
In addition to his beautiful, flowing melodic lines—executed at even the fastest tempos—Christian increasingly developed a harmonic structure that intrigued fellow musicians and liberated the approach to solo playing by combining Double Stops with melodic lines. (See “Music Lessons” at end of this post for examples of playing the Double Stop)
Christian’s Solo In “Grand Slam”
Christian’s studio recordings with Goodman were widely available in the 1940s and 1950s and influenced the next generation of important jazz guitarists. For example, take his solo in the tune, “Grand Slam“.
“Grand Slam” (alternatively titled “Boy meets Goy”) is a twelve-bar blues in the key of F recorded by the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1940. Christian’s two-chorus solo contains the perfect balance between swing rhythmic figures and proto-bebop eighth note runs.
This is a great solo to study for guitarists transitioning from pentatonic-based soloing to addressing the underlying harmonic progression on a twelve-bar blues.
In The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller explained, “Because of Christian’s superiority as a solo line player, his rhythm playing has been much neglected; occasionally one even reads implications that he was not terribly effective in this area. But if proof of Christian’s prowess as rhythm guitarist be needed, we can find it abundantly.”
Christian’s skill in this area is documented mainly by four recorded sessions:
- that first session with Hampton, on which he did not solo;
- a March, 1940, club session in Minneapolis cut by a local disc jockey;
- a session on February 5, 1941, with the Edmond Hall Celeste Quartet;
- and one at the legendary Minton’s club in May of 1941 that included Thelonious Monk on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums.
Minton’s had opened in the Hotel Cecil on Harlem’s 118th Street in October of 1940. In an unusual move, Teddy Hill—a musician—was named manager.
Hill had led a popular band and knew most of the local and visiting musicians. Almost instantly, with Hill acting as benevolent host, Minton’s became the after-hours place of choice.
Minton’s Mix Begat Bebop
It especially attracted the more experimental players, such as Gillespie, Clarke, Monk, and Charlie Parker, and it was here that the ingredients blended—and sometimes clashed—to produce bebop, jazz’s direction for decades to come.
Minton’s became a second home to Christian. Night after night he held forth on the stand, interacting with all comers but especially with those regulars with whom he created the new musical brew.
It was the place were Bebop came into existence, and we can hear that Christian with his intensely long jamming sessions was deeply emerging in that new style. His style of playing, his harmonic ideas, were way ahead of their time, and of great significance not only to guitarists but to jazz in general.
Charlie’s activities at Minton’s would, of course, take place after he had completed his day’s work with Goodman in the recording studio and/or the Hotel Pennsylvania or other nearby venues, and Christian would usually play continuously until 4 a.m. In fact, Christian logged so many hours at Minton’s that the manager Teddy Hill bought an amplifier for him so that he would not have to transport his to Minton’s nightly.
Charlie Christian / Up On Teddy’s Hill
Up On Teddy’s Hill was recorded: Mintons Playhouse, May 1941
Charlie Christian: Guitar
Don Byas: Tenor
Joe Guy: Trumpet
Nick Fenton: Bass
Kenny Clarke: Drums
Charlie with Buck Clayton (trumpet) and Lester Young (tenor sax) / Good Morning Blues
BD Music 50+ minute Compilation / Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman Sextet, etc./
Tracking for cuts on the above compilation:
- 00:03 Flying Home
- 03:30 Rose Room
- 06:29 Stardust
- 09:42 Seven Come Eleven
- 12:28 Honeysuckle Rose
- 15:38 Shivers
- 18:31 Till Tom Special – featuring Lionel Hampton
- 21:41 I Got Rhythm (Guy’s Got To Go)
- 23:55 Tea For Two – featuring Jerry Jerome
- 29:05 Topsy
- 38:01 Stompin’ At The Savoy
- 46:29 Honeysuckle Rose (another session)
- 52:47 Pagin’ The Devil (Kansas City Six)
The last cut, Pagin’ The Devil was recorded live at Carnegie Hall, December 24, 1939. The Kansas City Six consisted of:
Lester Young – tenor sax
Charlie Christian – electric guitar
Buck Clayton – trumpet
Freddie Green – guitar
Walter Page – bass
Jo Jones – drums
Of Christian’s contributions to the Minton’s scene, Swing Era author Schuller wrote: “There can be little doubt that at the time of his death, in 1942, Christian was on the threshold of becoming a major voice, perhaps, had he lived, the major voice in shaping the new language of jazz. All the greater the tragedy of his loss, one that has, I believe, not yet been fully fathomed and appreciated.”
Fortunately, the flavor of these Minton’s sessions has been preserved through the acetate recordings of jazz fan and collector Jerry Newman, which were released with the help of writer Bill Simon on Vox records in 1947. Though technically wanting, these extended versions of “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and an original, “Charlie’s Choice,” reveal Christian in full glory, propelling the rhythm and elaborating inventively on several choruses.
– Sadly, all produced after Charlie’s death.
1972 / Solo Flight
1987 / The Genius Of The Electric Guitar
1989 / The Benny Goodman Sextet
1993 / The Immortal Charlie Christian
2002 / The Original Guitar Hero
Christian had been suffering from Tuberculosis, which wasn’t found out until Benny Goodman got to Chicago. Charlie was coughing continuously, and Benny sent him to the Michael Reed Hospital, and that was when they found out that Charlie had already had TB.
Charlie was warned by the doctors to be terribly careful not to smoke and to get his rest. But when he got to New York there was never any rest. He played with the Goodman band – they worked the New York Hotels at the time – and then afterwards he would hang out at Minton’s. He was up there all night.
But the frenzy of Minton’s undoubtedly shortened Charlie’s life. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1940 and advised to curtail his activities. He not only ignored this advice, he accelerated his pace, musically and personally, after Minton’s opened and into 1941.
He died at just 25 years old, a trailblazer cut down by tuberculosis. Who can imagine what Charlie Christian would have brought to the bebop era, or even rock and roll? He was a rare talent.
Immensely popular, he was often surrounded by admiring women and “friends” who provided him with alcohol and marijuana, even after he was admitted to Seaview Sanitarium on Staten Island around July of 1941. Probably as a result of these extracurricular escapades, the 25-year-old genius contracted pneumonia and died on March 2, 1942.
Christian’s legacy is all but unanimously recognized. Two generations of jazz guitarists, admittedly or not, trace their inspiration to him. Most admit it.
Herb Ellis, the guitar virtuoso mainstay of the Oscar Peterson trio for many years, was asked by Guitar Player magazine for its January, 1992, issue to list “The Solos That Changed Jazz Guitar.” His first five choices were Christian solos on specific songs; his sixth was “Charlie Christian’s other solos with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra.”
Simon, writing in Jazz Guitarists: An Anthology, deemed Christian one of “a handful of musicians of whom it may be said that they completely revolutionized, then standardized anew the role of their instruments in jazz.” And Stan Britt, writing in The Jazz Guitarists, contributed: “Christian… was to become a seminal figure in the transition from the swing era to the jazz revolution of the early 1940s called bebop. But initially it was his use of an amplified instrument that in itself was to play an integral role in another revolution—that of the jazz guitar itself.”
Finally, as Allan Kozinn and coauthors sum up in The Guitar, “Christian… has been jazz guitar’s only authentic figure of genius, responsible for synthesizing the best elements of the instrument’s previous history into a seamless, totally original approach of such great melodic-harmonic resourcefulness that it has served as the basis for literally all subsequent developments in the instrument’s usage in jazz.”
Jazz guitarist Steve Khan says, “If you haven’t taken the time to go back, and to listen to Charlie Christian, you will truly be amazed at how much of Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green and others you will hear in his very futuristic playing. He was so far ahead of his time. A great, great pity that he passed away at such a young age.”
It’s a jazz cliché, these days, for guitarists to say, “I try and sound like a horn player.” According to Kessel, Christian’s smooth tones paved the way. “Charlie Christian’s tone was horn-like. It’s more like the velvety sound of some of the saxophone players and trombone players… As a matter of fact, many people that heard him play that didn’t know him didn’t even know that they were listening to a guitar. They didn’t know anything about it. They just were simply going to this club where he might be playing, and they’d hear the music from outside, and they didn’t know that there was such a thing as an electric guitar. Almost all of them thought that it was a tenor saxophone.”
Guitar Instruction Book: Charlie Christian – The Definitive Collection
Paperback | June 1, 2003
(Guitar Recorded Versions). 15 songs from one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time. Includes note-for-note transcriptions with tab for these top tunes: Air Mail Special * Flying Home * Gone with “What” Wind * Grand Slam * Honeysuckle Rose * Rose Room * Seven Come Eleven * Shivers * Six Appeal * Solo Flight * Stardust * Stompin’ at the Savoy * Swing to Bop * Till Tom Special * Wholly Cats.
Lessons Learned from Charlie Christian Untold