Music For Your Road, no. 5: The Guitars That Took Over The World, Part 1

GCDC Photo

As the saying goes, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” (Although Yogi Berra did say that, it seems that physicist Niels Bohr said something very similar, quite a bit earlier.)

The British record label Decca (founded 1929) was one of the most important multi-genre record labels in the English-speaking world. However, it wasn’t always exactly infallible.

Nearly 60 years ago, a scrappy four-piece band, fresh from playing in dockside bars in Germany, lobbied for a spot on Decca’s recording-artist roster. A Decca executive made the trip to Liverpool. He heard them perform in a nightclub there. Deccca then invited the group to London, where they recorded more than a dozen demo songs in Decca’s studio.

Despite that hopeful beginning, the producer (or another Decca executive) eventually pronounced the judgment that “guitar bands” were only a passing fad. Indeed, in his opinion, guitar bands had already had their day. Therefore, Decca did not offer the lads a recording contract.

That’s the story of how Decca turned down the Beatles. (That took place in 1962; so, the drummer was Pete Best.) A few years later, Decca doubled down—they unapologetically rejected Jimi Hendrix.

Obviously, guitar bands are still enjoying “their day.” There are quite a few reasons for that. However, for the purposes of this particular column, I want to focus on the nature of the guitar as a musical instrument.

acoustic guitar playing hands detail
Unsplash/Jefferson Santos

The guitar (whether classical, folk, or electric) is an ever-present cultural object because it is comparatively affordable, extremely portable, and relatively easy to grasp the basics of. Especially compared to, for example, the bassoon. Bassoons are very expensive; rather bulky; and, learning how to get a good sound out of a bassoon is not easy.

Furthermore, by the very nature of things, if you are playing a mouthblown wind instrument such as the bassoon (or the saxophone, or the trumpet), you cannot, at the same time, sing. Whereas, as you pensively strum a few chords on a guitar, you can sing. Troubadours were the singing poets of the High Middle Ages in Europe. Many troubadours accompanied themselves on the plucked, fretted string instruments that are the ancestors of the modern guitar.

Therefore, going on for more than 1,000 years, the guitar and its ancestors (such as the lute—and its ancestors) have been important in Western popular and art music. Legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) composed for, and publicly performed on, the guitar. Art-song, piano-sonata, and symphony composer Franz Schubert (1797–1828) owned a guitar, wrote chamber music for the guitar, and almost certainly could play it. (Beethoven, ever the individualist, owned a mandolin.)

The 20th century revolutionized the guitar, starting with Lee deForest’s 1907 invention of the grid element for the triode vacuum tube. In the fullness of time, workable vacuum tubes enabled not only commercial radio broadcasting, but also sound amplification. Later—in the late 1920s—vacuum tubes made possible sound recording via the electrical (rather than acoustical-horn) “cutting” of 78-rpm phonodisc masters.

Early efforts at amplifying acoustical guitars were just that—using microphones, or other mechanical acoustical transducers, such as thin sheets of mica. The drawback of such arrangements was that the amplified sound coming out of the loudspeaker could “feed back” into the microphone, generating loud howling sounds. The solution to that problem came with the invention of the electromagnetic guitar pickup, by Rickenbacker and Beauchamp, in 1931.

mrs ken harvey adjusts early amplifier
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The electric-guitar pickup (the same is the case with the LP phono cartridge) is in essence a miniature electrical generator that converts mechanical (kinetic) energy into a small amount of electrical energy. That is accomplished when the vibrational motion of a nearby metal string induces an electrical current in a coil of conductive wire that has been wrapped around a bar magnet.

That small electrical current then was amplified (in the day; and, in many cases, up to today) by vacuum tubes, to an output level strong enough to drive a loudspeaker. Importantly, because the pickup process is electromagnetic rather than mechanical-acoustical, feedback is much less of a problem. Therefore, the volume of sound produced and projected can be much greater.

The first “electric guitars” were “Hawaiian”-style lap-steel guitars. That’s why Gibson’s guitar-model designations often start with “ES” (for Electric Spanish-style guitar)—to distinguish them from “Hawaiian” guitars.

The hollow-body electric guitar was developed in 1931, at Rickenbacker’s Electro Stringed Instrument Company. The solid-body electric guitar, with even greater feedback resistance, was at least in prototype form circa 1934, at the Vivi-Tone Company. In 1936, Gibson began selling the hollow-body ES-150, the first electric guitar manufactured in any significant quantity. The rest is history!

That said; history usually arrives with footnotes attached.

FN1: I should note that the legendary vocalist-with-guitar Delta Blues recordings of the 1920s and 1930s, by Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, and others, were acoustical-guitar recordings.

That was primarily because, for most of that time, the electric guitar was not yet a commercial product. Also, almost definitionally, Bluesmen (or women) were not likely to have a spare $150 lying around, with which to buy a newly released Gibson ES-150 (that’s about $3000 in today’s dollars). Finally, the essence of that musical genre was a lone voice singing or shouting the blues, with guitar accompaniment. Guitar amplification was not really required. (The “Electric Blues” genre began developing in the early 1940s, but only achieved critical mass circa 1944.)

FN2: After World War I, social dancing to dance-band music grew in popularity. That was in part because the older, more-formal dances such as the waltz and the polka were supplanted by new, “jazzier” dances, such as the jitterbug and the foxtrot. As the size of the ballrooms (and of the crowds) grew, increasingly larger “Big Bands” evolved. Guitars needed amplification to be heard in the soundspace created by all those brass instruments.

That was the “felt need” that the development of the electromagnetic guitar pickup was a response to.

This is a collection of recommended recordings featuring guitarists as instrumentalists. Two of the recordings are of unaccompanied music—for guitar solo. The other recordings are of mixed instrumental ensembles. In other words, this is not a list of singer-songwriters with guitars, or guitar-playing rock-band front-man singers. Neither does this list include rock-band lead guitarists who either did not sing, or would only sing upon occasion. Therefore, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Boston, and Dire Straits will have to sit this one out. As will James Taylor—and Taylor Swift.

As always, my recommendations are subjective and idiosyncratic, and weighted in favor of albums, rather than hit singles. In addition, as occasionally is the case, I take the liberty of declaring one or more artists or albums to be hors-concours, because they are so well known.

If your favorite guitar recording is not on my list, and that recording is by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, or Stevie Ray Vaughan; well, that’s the reason why. I think it is more important that I bring undiscovered or neglected-treasure recordings to peoples’ attention, than revisit things they already know. (I would have recommended Jim Hall’s Concierto here, but for the fact that I covered it in my first Hagerty column.)

Choosing 12 albums was difficult. If you think I missed something important, please leave a comment!

1. Charlie Christian: The Essential Charlie Christian (1939-1942)

Columbia/Legacy Records

Charlie Christian (1916–1942) had a life that was difficult, and tragically brief—he died of tuberculosis at age 25. In addition to helping create the foundations for bebop and cool jazz, Charlie Christian invented the guitar solo (by which I mean, a guitarist’s taking the melodic lead in a group or ensemble performance).

Christian’s musicianship elevated the guitar to the position of a solo instrument equal in importance to the trumpet, the saxophone, or the clarinet. Previously, the guitar had replaced the banjo’s subsidiary role in jazz bands as a rhythm instrument (or, as a contributor to a denser harmonic fill).

Furthermore, because jazz, in the broadest sense, was the popular music of that era, Christian’s soloistic style later served as the template for the guitar solos of the Pop and Rock eras.

All that was made possible by Gibson’s ES-150 electric guitar. Indeed, the original ES-150’s electromagnetic pickup became known as the “Charlie Christian” pickup.

2. Django Reinhardt: The Best of Django Reinhardt (1936-1948)

Best of Django Reinhardt album art
Blue Note Records

Charlie Christian was strongly influenced by Louis Armstrong. Christian, in turn, influenced just about everyone—from Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix. However, off in Europe, only occasionally keeping in touch via 78-rpm records, another guitar giant was similarly making it up as he went along. Django Reinhardt (1910–1953) eventually became every bit as influential as Charlie Christian.

“Django” has become mononymic, in the manner of Sting, Bono, Beyoncé, and Adele. By the way, “Django” is merely a Belgian nickname for “Jean.” (Reinhardt was not ethnically Belgian; he was of Romany ancestry.) Django achieved mythic status as a guitarist, despite the fact that a caravan fire had left him with the ring and pinky fingers of his left hand fused together.

Charlie Christian’s recorded legacy consists largely of his playing in jazz bands such as the sextet led by Benny Goodman, which consisted of clarinet, guitar, vibraphone, piano, bass, and drums. Whereas, most of Django’s recordings are of string Quintets, consisting of solo guitar and solo violin, with a rhythm section of two guitars and an upright bass. (I hope you caught the “No Drummer” part.) Therefore, the musical textures (and dynamics) are lighter.

It’s hard to say whether it is the instrumental virtuosity, or the musical inventiveness of Django and violinist Stéphane Grappelli that is the more impressive aspect. This is music for the ages.

For most of his career, Reinhardt played a semi-arched-top cutaway “Maccaferri” acoustic guitar by Selmer of Paris. The top was not carved into domed contours, as is the case with violins, and with American arched-top f-hole hollow-body guitars. Instead, the Maccaferri semi-arched-top was shaped by bending.

Early Maccaferri models had an instantly recognizable “D”-shaped sound hole, which was soon replaced with an elongated oval. Another distinctive Maccaferri design feature is a brass-and-ebony “floating” tailpiece to anchor the strings, as found on many mandolins.

Reinhardt preferred very thin, light strings—the top string on his guitar was the same gauge as a violin E string. He also preferred very thick guitar picks made from tortoiseshell. Both choices were in the aid of projection. Both choices were also because Reinhardt was more of a “chordal” player (while Charlie Christian was more of a “linear” player). Circa 1951, Reinhardt moved on from the string-quintet format. He began playing be-bop in small groups that included brass instruments. Therefore, he then played an amplified (but not electric) Maccaferri.

BTW, when I lived in Nashville, I twice met and shook hands with Stéphane Grappelli; he kindly pretended to understand my French. To hear him play live was to enter another world.

3. Hank Garland: Move! The Guitar Artistry of Hank Garland (1959–1961)

Columbia Records

Hank Garland (1930–2004) came to fame as a Rockabilly recording-session guitarist (well, to the extent that session musicians can become famous) because of his appearances on a string of Elvis Presley’s 1950s hits. By the way, Garland co-designed, with the prominent guitarist surnamed Byrd who was not Charlie Byrd (i.e., Billy Byrd), Gibson’s so-called “Byrdland” 1950s jazz electric guitar. (“Byrd” from Byrd; “land” from Garland.) Garland successfully leveraged that degree of recognition and admiration to accomplish what he really wanted to do, which was to record small-combo jazz.

Garland’s first jazz recording as a leader (1961) was a quartet outing that featured the 18-year old Gary Burton on vibes—amazing. 18 years old. The other musicians were bassist Joe Benjamin, who had played with both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington; and drummer Joe Morello, whose then-recent work included having been a member of Dave Brubeck’s Quartet for Time Out (1959), one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.

So, here we have a Nashville Session Stalwart, two Jazz All-Stars, and one future Jazz All-Star. And if that weren’t enough (if you can believe this), the producer of Garland’s first album as a leader, Englishman Don Law, twenty-five years previously (1936 and 1937), had produced the only recordings ever made by the iconic Delta Bluesman Robert Johnson.

Those Robert Johnson recordings that Don Law produced were among the most important inspirations for (and influences upon) the British Blues Movement,, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds (Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck), and the original Fleetwood Mac. (And countless others.)

You can add Hank Garland to the list of important guitarists who cited Charlie Christian as their most important influence. Charlie Christian did in fact record with vibes legend Lionel Hampton; first with Hampton as a fellow sideman, and later, with Hampton as a leader. That connection very well might have been the inspiration for the lineup on Garland’s first album as a leader.

Garland’s 1961 recording, Jazz Winds from a New Direction, is available streamed only as part of a three-album compilation that interleaves those cool-jazz tracks with material from albums that are more oriented toward Easy Listening. E.g., “Autumn Leaves.” That said, it’s all quite listenable. More importantly, the tracks with Gary Burton are of the “You must hear this!” variety. Just don’t blame me, please, if you get “Tammy’s In Love” stuck on Repeat in your ear-brain system.

In 1962, a catastrophic automobile accident pretty much ended Garland’s music career, and nearly his life.

4. Kenny Burrell: Guitar Forms (1965)

K Burrell Guitar Forms album art
Verve Records

This recording is be-bop guitarist Kenny Burrell’s (b. 1931) orchestral collaboration with arranger and conductor Gil Evans, the same Gil Evans of Miles Davis Sketches of Spain fame. Creed Taylor (later of CTI, the crossover label that so many loved to hate) produced; Rudy van Gelder was the recording engineer.

Session players included Lee Konitz (saxophone) and Bill Barber (tuba) (both of whom had played in the Birth of the Cool live performances that were recorded, as well as in the actual Birth of the Cool recording sessions). Also, Ron Carter (upright bass) and Elvin Jones (the drummer on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme). Whew!

To say that Guitar Forms is Kenny Burrell’s orchestral collaboration with Gil Evans is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. Five of the album’s nine tracks are orchestral settings, but three are small-combo jazz; and one piece, a Gershwin Prelude, is for solo guitar.

And (best Claude Rains voice) you are shocked, shocked! that once again, here we have yet another guitarist who stated that his chief influences were Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. You are shocked.

Burrell made his recording début as a member of a Dizzy Gillespie sextet. That was before he had finished college. In short order, he was touring with Oscar Peterson and recording with Billie Holiday. Duke Ellington called Burrell his favorite guitar player. B.B. King said the same. For most of his career, Burrell played a Gibson Super 400 arch-top hollow-body electric jazz guitar with humbucking pickups.

For me, the most memorable Guitar Forms track of all is Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Last Night When We Were Young,” on which Burrell plays classical guitar. There is a brief orchestral introduction, but it dies out. Burrell’s classical guitar then enters, solo. An electrifying moment!

Once again, with all the important explanatory material up front, I have already gone way past my word target. Therefore, I will cover albums five through twelve the next time around!

Here’s a Qobuz link to a playlist of albums one through four:

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