Legendary Rigs: Classic Jazz and the Charlie Christian Tone
Welcome to the first of a new series of features on Gibson.com that takes a look at a range of guitar, amp, and effects set-ups of legendary players. Each installment will offer a rundown of the gear used either by a single legendary player, or by the “classic” player in a major genre of music, with a quick assessment of the sonic ingredients that make that tone tick. To start things off, let’s roll back to the roots of the electric guitar for a look at the types of rigs used by classic jazz players of the 1930s and early ’40s.
Jazz guitarists, and their countrified cousins, Western swing players, deserve the majority of the credit for pushing to amplify the humble guitar in the first place. In the early part of the 20th century the guitarist in a big-band context was usually a supporting player at best, simply because it was usually difficult to hear much more than his “chop, chop, chop” rhythm once the horns and drums got going. When players started putting add-on pickups from companies such as DeArmond on their archtop “Spanish” guitars (as the standard six-string was known in the day) and plugging them into rudimentary amplifiers, the road to the front of the stage was finally getting paved.
Although companies such as Rickenbacker, Kay/Stromberg-Voisinet, and ViviTone experimented with electric guitar designs in the early 1930s, it wasn’t until Gibson released the standard-production ES-150 in 1936 that the format really came of age. Compared to what we’re used to today, the first “Electric Spanish” guitars didn’t have a whole lot of sustain, were a bit “woofy” and heavy on a rather woolly midrange tone, and were of course prone to howling feedback if you turned them up too loud or stood in the wrong place. But brother, this was a revelation, and a revolution in the making. Plugged into its accompanying Gibson EH-150 amplifier, this rig produced a sound like none any guitarist had known before, and more than a few groundbreaking artists saw it as their ticket into the spotlight.
We recognize the early ES-150 most prominently as the guitar in the hands of a young Charlie Christian, so much so that its unusual blade pickup has since taken the name of the formative jazz player. Until the introduction of the ES-175 in 1949, all Gibson archtops were still made with solid, carved-arch tops, and the ES-150 was no exception. Otherwise—probably because no one, including Gibson, was entirely sure whether this new electric guitar thing would sink or swim—it was very much a lower-mid-level model, with simple dot position markers, single-ply binding, little adornment of any kind, and a flat, rather than arched, maple back. It did, however, have a reasonably spacious 16 1/4"-wide body with carved, X-braced spruce top, and the Gibson build quality that professional players were coming to appreciate.
The pickup itself appears to be a familiar singlecoil unit mounted in the neck position, but in fact the portion we can see protruding through the top is only the coil and blade-poll configuration, which is attached to an unusually large magnet mounted beneath the center portion of the top by three screws. These are great sounding pickups, with a bold, percussive attack, slightly silky highs, and surprisingly good definition. Alongside the groundbreaking work of Charlie Christian, other pioneers such as Eddie Durham, Alvino Rey, Tony Mottola, and Mary Osborne used an EH-150 or similar model to establish the “Electric Spanish” guitar as a format that was here to stay. Other makers such as Epiphone, Gretsch, Stromberg, and D’Angelico took up the flag, but Gibson was never really toppled as the classic jazz rig of choice.
Amplifiers of the day were just as basic as the early electric guitars, if not more so. The EH-150 had in fact arrived before the ES-150 guitar, as partner to Gibson’s EH-150 lap-steel guitar (these were actually Gibson’s first genuine electric guitars, and the amplifier retained the lap steel’s “Electric Hawaiian” designation). The EH-150 originally carried a single 10" speaker (later a single 12") and was powered by a truly archaic circuit design, and now-obsolete preamp and power tubes, but it was an impressive beast for the mid ’30s. Even when the circuit had evolved a few years later to employ 6L6 output tubes, the amp still only produced around 15 watts at best, but that 15 watts sounded pretty darn loud next to any acoustic-only rhythm guitarist hacking away in the rhythm section, so these amps were enough to unleash the guitarist as soloist on the big-band stages of the day.
Charlie Christian to Gibson ES-150 guitar to Gibson EH-150 amplifier … to history. It’s a humble rig by the standards of 2008, but today’s electric guitarists have it to thank for proving what this instrument, and a great player, could do.