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Charlie Christian: The First Guitar Hero

Michael Leonard
|
08.15.2011

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.

Christian was the guitar player with jazz bandleader Benny Goodman from 1939 to 1942, and while the music may now sound mellow, Christian introduced a whole new soloing vocabulary to jazz and the electric guitar itself. The guitar he played, a Gibson ES-150, proved influential, too, especially its pickup, now known as the Charlie Christian pickup.

Charlie Christian’s tenure with the Benny Goodman Sextet may have been short, but it was groundbreaking. Before Christian, the guitar was not widely accepted as a soloing instrument. But Christian played with the fluidity, confidence and swing of a saxophonist and his style set the template for the likes of Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery and George Benson, who followed.

Jazz guitar legend Kessel idolized Christian, and was lucky enough as a 16-year-old to jam with him in 1940. Kessel told Guitar Player’s Jas Obrecht: “Charlie told me many things that day, such as the importance of swing when playing jazz. He said it was important to get some fire going, get an emotion. No matter what else you do, get that feeling… I never forgot that day. I consider it one of the highlights of my life.”

Renowned blues and jazz talent scout/producer John Hammond arranged for Christian to audition to travel to Los Angeles in August 1939 and try out with Benny Goodman. Legend has it that the clarinetist was initially wary of Christian's shoddy dress-sense and a poor first audition, but Christian impressed later. Goodman asked Christian to play “Rose Room,” believing the young wannabe guitar player would not know the tune. In fact, Christian knew it perfectly – he’d been playing it at home gigs in Oklahoma City for years. Within minutes, Charlie Christian was hired.

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.”

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. 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.

Charlie Christian had “chops,” too. He didn’t so much solo using scales; he worked on the internal notes of chords, yet he found leaping melodies and quirky inflections that were way ahead of the “stab-stab” or “comping” chordology of his jazz peers.

The higher-output  “blade” pickup of Christian’s Gibson ES-150 endured. Gibson’s ES-175CC of the 1970s were fitted with “recreated” Charlie Christian pickups. Gibson Super 400s of 2000 had the Charlie Christian pickup. In 2007, the Gibson Custom Shop released an “Inspired By” guitar based on John Lennon's modified Les Paul Junior that featured the Charlie Christian pickup.

There are many pictures of Christian playing with his thumb and fingers only, but some of these were posed photos. As Kessel told Guitar Player: “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.”

As with Robert Johnson and the similarly baffling English folk fingerstylist Nick Drake, there exists no film of Charlie Christian playing guitar. 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.

If you need any convincing how far Charlie Christian was ahead of his time, listen to “Stompin’ at the Savoy” from 1941, a full 70 years ago. Less than a decade after the “electricified guitar” was invented, Charlie Christian was already mapping out its future.

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