Lou Reed famously said, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Of course, the grumpy Velvet Underground auteur was joking (he actually wrote some chordally-complex songs himself) but we get what he’s saying – jazz can be baffling stuff.

So…before you jump head-first into 21st century free-jazz harmolodic mind-melds where you need a theory book just to listen, settle down in your favorite luxuriant-weave turtleneck, and dig these 10 Gibson-toting masters of this thang we call jazz. This is designed merely as an introduction, a jump-off point. They’re not really in order either: consider them different flavors. But what’s definitely here is good tunes here, great grooves, and no end of simply superb guitar playing...

 

Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian is to jazz what Robert Johnson is to the blues: a pioneer, an exceptional guitarist, a man who died way too young in 1942. Christian’s early bop soloing (notably with Benny Goodman’s famous “Rose Room”, “Solo Flight” and “Stompin’ At The Savoy”) is a primer for all electric jazzers and he could swing. The music around him is sumptuous and full, making for ol’ time jazz that still guarantees a smile.

Notable guitar: Gibson ES-150

 

Johnny A

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

Like a lot of modern players, Johnny A (it’s “Antonopoulos” fully) is no purist. He’s recently been playing with Brit R&B veterans The Yardbirds, but his instrumental solo albums certainly have the sensibility of a jazz interpreter: check out his covers of “Wichita Lineman” or “The Wind Cries Mary” for great tone, hip chord melodies and novel grooves. His thinline archtop signature guitar is also a modern classic: you really should try one.

Notable guitar: Gibson Johnny A Signature

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

More on the Gibson Johnny A Signature

 

Tal Farlow

Beginning in the 50s, jazz guitar started to get seriously gymnastic and one pioneer was the late Tal Farlow. He was nicknamed “Octopus” for the way his large, quick hands could spread over the fretboard, creating harmonically rich sounds other could only dream of. He recorded intermittently, but his strongest albums were perhaps after his “comeback”, such as the swinging Cookin’ On All Burners. It’s true that Farlow could lose people – his chordology on “Misty” is quite “out there”.

Notable guitars: Gibson ES-350, Gibson Tal Farlow

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

More on the Gibson Tal Farlow

 

Kenny Burrell

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

For more accessible bluesier jazz of the 50s and 60s, seek out Kenny Burrell. Starting with Dizzy Gillespie in 1951, Burrell has always played his smoky jazz licks with a wider public in mind. Killer soul-jazz albums with organist Jimmy Smith, hip collabs with John Coltrane and backup for James Brown prove Burrell’s versatility. His Midnight Blue album (1963) is considered a stone-cold classic of jazz guitar.

Notable guitars: Gibson ES-175, Gibson Super 400

 

Grant Green

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

If you want your jazz guitar to have a link to the dance-floor, you early should listen to the hard bop, funk/soul and Latin-influenced Grant Green. George Benson considered Green his superior, and even if he didn’t even hog the limelight on his own records, those discs are supremely listenable. Green made more albums for Blue Note than any other artist: the Retrospective album covers the “classic” years while Green’s early 70s cuts veer tastily into funk. You’ll still hear his edgy-toned grooves sampled on hip-hop records.

Notable guitar: Gibson ES-330

 

Les Paul

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

How can we not include him? Lester considered himself a jazz player above everything else, and even when you take away his pioneering double-tracking and sonic manipulation, you’ll hear at heart a supreme jazzman with a feather-light touch. Even in his later years, just listen to this version of “Over The Rainbow”, originally recorded as duet with Chet Atkins. The purest of tones, and a melodic sense that was other-worldly, Les had a mastery of the guitar few others can match.

Notable guitar: Gibson Les Paul. (Duh!)

 

Larry Carlton

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

Ok, to call Carlton just a jazz player is restricting – he’s also a bedrock of American guitar across pop, rock and TV themes. But Carlton’s one of those “sidemen” it’s actually worth buying records for. His leaping solo on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” is what made the song famous; his playing on Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark and throughout The Crusaders’ career is legendary. You must listen to one of his own or his band albums at least; the Fourplay ensemble albums show off ‘Mr 335’s silkiest playing.

Notable guitar: Gibson ES-335

 

Joe Pass

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

For a jazz titan in a “pop” jazz setting, there’s no one better than Joe Pass who was trusty sidekick to Ella Fitzgerald for years, and also recorded with Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie. But his solo/collaborative albums, such as Virtuoso and Jazz/Concord (with Herb Ellis) are also essential. Pass was also known as a teacher and published numerous books: “The music has to be in your head, not just your hands,” he said. Essential listening and reading.

Notable guitar: Gibson ES-175

 

Johnny Smith

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

For a jazz player with a true populist touch, seek out Johnny Smith. His version of “Moonlight In Vermont” with saxophonist Stan Getz is one of jazz’s biggest-selling singles, and he wrote “Walk, Don’t Run”, the classic instrumental hit for The Ventures. With work across various orchestras too, Smith was a most admired jobbing jazzer of the 50s. He retired early but had key design input on his own signature Gibson, not something every player truly has.

Notable guitar: Gibson Johnny Smith

 

Wes Montgomery

The Top 10 Gibson Jazz Players

When we said “no particular order” we were kinda lying: there’s really one player who deserves the final word, and that’s Wes Montgomery. From his unusual thumb-plucking technique to his use of “octaves” and “chord solos” which popularized a whole new vocabulary for guitar, Montgomery was unique; not just in jazz, but of any genre. His releases covered much ground within the jazz idiom – hard bop, blues, soul-jazz, radio-friendly jazz-pop – and he’s probably the only jazz guitarist that nearly every six-stringer, at some point, tries to emulate. Start with The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery, Boss Guitar and Smokin’ At The Half Note and get hooked.

Notable guitar: Gibson L-5 CES

More on the Gibson L-5 CES Wes Montgomery