Since the advent of audio recording technology, it has become possible to preserve the evidence of musical greatness. With this preservation inevitably comes recognition. The following cast of characters are all beneficiaries of this process, but we are all beneficiaries of their talent. They are the innovators. The first rock stars. They are masters of the art and science of guitar playing.
A pioneer of the electric guitar, Charles Henry Christian, born in 1916, was a member of the first generation to whom the instrument was available. While to some, this was a step away from the purity of the guitar, to Christian, it allowed the guitar to play more than a supporting role in large ensembles for the very first time.
Christian's style is considered to have blazed a trail for bebop, swing, and cool jazz to follow. Charlie started playing as a child to help support his family after his father lost his eyesight and was unable to work. This served him well, as he quickly became known as a talented guitarist, and eventually played with the likes of the Benny Goodman Sextet. His career was short lived however, and Christian died in 1942 of tuberculosis at the age of only 25.
Despite his short career, Christian remains a major influence, and is thought of as a groundbreaking figure and early champion of the electric guitar.
There are those considered giants in their field. Names so well known that they become synonymous with their craft. Wes Montgomery defines jazz guitar. He is number one on the lists. He is to jazz guitar as Henry Ford is to the automobile - he didn't invent it, he made it vital.
Montgomery was born in 1923 into a family of musicians. He steeped himself in the work of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt (see below) and sculpted a style that was at the time, uniquely his own. Over the remainder of the 20th century however, no less than Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, and Jimi Hendrix studied his technique and made Montgomery's legacy a continuing presence in our musical landscape.
Montgomery died of a heart attack in 1968, but not before building the foundation of what would become known as smooth jazz. The Gibson Guitar Corporation has honored Montgomery's legacy with a signature model guitar that features appointments fitting the player's legacy. It is among the company's top-of-the-line instruments.
Born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalacqua in 1929, Joe Pass made his name by showing that even with just six strings on a piece of wood, there is something new under the sun. His unique chord voicings and phrasing were as fresh to the world of jazz as those pioneered by Django Reinhardt, who was one of Pass' major influences.
Pass made a name for himself by climbing up the music industry ladder, recording his first albums during the '60s, and then moving on to perform as a supporting musician for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis. In the '70s, Pass penned an instructional book that went on to become recognized as one of the premiere resources on the subject of jazz improvisation.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Pass would go on to perform along side none other than Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington - running the gambit of the greatest names in the history of jazz music.
Pass died in 1994 at the age of 65. His musical contributions have shaped our experience of his genre, and his influence continues to be felt among new jazz guitar players, for whom the exposure to Pass' work is a right of passage.
It is said that the secret to musical genius is to practice more and practice better. No one embodies this principal more than Chester Burton Atkins. Born in 1924, Atkins suffered from a potentially life-threatening asthma condition that forced him to pursue activities that were physically limited, and Atkins chose the guitar, often falling asleep in his chair after hours of practice, his guitar still in his hands.
Atkins went on to develop a style that was uniquely his own, but decidedly country. After making his first record for RCA in 1947, Atkins took the gradual pathway to success - one nearly unheard of in a newly vibrant, hit-focused American record industry. Eventually his reputation became so great that the Gretsch Guitar Company offered him an endorsement deal, and the Gretsch Chet Atkins models became the brand's most popular instruments, which they remain today, played by guitarists from country to rockabilly to punk. Stray Cat Brian Setzer helped usher in a resurgence of interest in rockabilly music in the early 1980s, with his Gretsch Chet Atkins "6120" model in his hands.
Over the course of his career, Atkins won no fewer than 14 Grammy awards. In 2002, the year after his death, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
One of the most mysterious and enigmatic figures not only among guitarists, but among musicians, Django Reinhardt is very likely the subject of the most debate and stylistic analysis of any musical figure of the 20th century. Reinhardt died in 1953 at the age of 43, leaving behind a body of work that the most accomplished of musicians have struggled to comprehend, and even more so to emulate.
Reinhardt's unique Gypsy Jazz style was defined starting at 18 years old, when having already become an established performing musician, he was badly burned in a fire, losing most of the function of his left hand - required by right-handed guitarists for fretting the strings on the neck of the guitar. One leg was paralyzed, and was to be amputated before Reinhardt left the hospital on his own to avoid losing the procedure.
His recovery from his injury is the stuff of the Django legend. The third and fourth fingers on his left hand remained paralyzed, and Reinhardt re-created his style to accommodate their usefulness in forming only limited chord shapes, leaving him to play lead parts with only his index and middle fingers.
Despite what is known about his injury, and the body of recorded music that Reinhard left behin?d, relatively little is known about his life. His Belgian gypsy roots likely formed habits that lasted throughout his life. He left little of his philosophy behind, and while a number of very talented guitarists have been able to work out his guitar parts, it is that philosophy that is key to emulating the sound, and it remains as mysterious as Reinhardt himself.
A jazz innovator and consummate entertainer, Bucky Pizzarelli was born in 1926, started playing the guitar in his teens, and interrupted only by brief military service in Austria during World War II continues to play a busy schedule in 2010. In 1952, Pizzarelli was hired by NBC as a staff musician, and in 1964 became a part of the Tonight Show band. As a bandleader, Pizzarelli has played at The White House on several occasions for Presidents Ronald Regan, and Bill Clinton.
One of Pizzarelli's best known contributions was his role in the popularization of the modern seven-string guitar. Now increasing in popularity, the use of the seven-string in jazz music was pioneered by the legendary George Van Eps, and Bucky and his son John are credited with championing the instrument. As played by the Pizzarellis, (and Van Eps) the seven-string guitar includes a string tuned below the lowest (traditionally E) string on which the player typically plays bass notes to accompany more traditional guitar parts. The seven-string has since caught the eye of classically-inclined rock musicians, and later, heavy metal guitarists, who most frequently use the lower string as the root of very low-pitched chords for heavy rhyhtm playing.
Despite his accomplishments and undeniable talent, Pizzarelli is known for his humble and unassuming presence when he supports other's music. His son, John Pizzarelli, is a talented guitarist in his own right, and is rapidly approaching his father's level of success in the jazz field - while playing the seven-string guitar like his father.
Bucky is also known to play a mean banjo
Perhaps the single most influential figure in the development of modern rock and roll guitar playing, Chuck Edward Anderson Berry remains a busy performer well into his '80s. An African-American playing the guitar in the '50s, Berry encountered a great deal of resistance from audiences who were ill prepared for a raucous, distorted, guitar-driven sound from their bandstand, let alone one created by a person of color.
Berry's hits, including Mabellene, Roll Over Beethoven, and the legendary Johnny B. Goode have become the archetype for generations of rock and roll guitarists, whether they recognize it or not. In the 1986 film Hail Hail Rock And Roll, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards plays along side Berry, and cites Berry as one of the biggest influences on his playing.
In 2010, Berry continues to perform at least monthly, and has toured worldwide as recently as 2008. Frequently using local backup bands, Berry often shows up to his own shows with nothing but a guitar and his Cadillac.
Perhaps the individual who has had the most influence over the shape music has taken in the modern world, Les Paul, born Lester Polsfuss in 1915, was not only a renown jazz guitarist was an inventor who's credits include much of the technology that is used every day to record the music that we live with.
An accomplished and popular guitarist in the 1940s, Paul performed on radio and television to nationwide audiences. In 1949, Paul married Mary Ford, (born Colleen Summers) a popular singer with whom he performed at the height of his career. It was during this time that Paul was approached by the Gibson Guitar Corporation (after the company's earlier rejection of his design for a solid body guitar) to endorse their first production solid body instrument, which went on to meet with spectacular success as the Gibson Les Paul.
Paul also began experimenting early in his life with audio reproduction and recording. In his workshop, he single-handedly invented the modern practice of multi-track recording, in which instruments are recorded separately (and in many cases repeatedly) on individual synchronized tape "tracks" and can then be mixed together for an optimum and dynamic performance.
Lester William Polsfuss died in 2009 at the age of 94. He continued to perform his regular Monday night sets at New York's Iridium Jazz Club until two months before his death.