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It’s always interesting coming up with new ideas for GuitarBytes. We’ve had the idea of writing some blog posts. These will include articles about guitarists, album reviews and interviews and we’ll try make these as varied and informative as we can. It is important to gain an understanding of the history and traditions of the instrument so we are going to target a series of guitarists and discuss their playing styles, life, influence and influences and recordings. We’ll kick it off with Charlie Christian.

For many players Charlie Christian was their first influence, the reason they play jazz guitar. Amazing considering how short a period Christian was around, he died at the age of 25 and was essentially in the limelight for only three years. Reading interviews with Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Oscar Moore and Herb Ellis, they all talk about the influence of Christian and learning from his recordings. Herb Ellis even made an album called ‘Thank You, Charlie Christian’. Barney Kessel and Charlie Christian were both from Oklahoma and in 1940 when Kessel was just 16 he got to jam with the great man. Barney’s fond recollections of the meeting included the advice given to him by Christian.

“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.”

Wes Montgomery started learning the six string guitar at the relatively late age of 20 by listening to and learning the recordings of Charlie Christian. He was known for his ability to play Christian’s solos note for note and was hired by Lionel Hampton for this ability.

As a guitarist learning in the late 70’s and 80’s I learned of Charlie Christian second hand after discovering Barney Kessel and Joe Pass. Recordings of Christian at the time were difficult to come by and I got hold of an album called ‘Solo Flight, The Genius of Charlie Christian’ This contained most of Christian’s famous recordings from Benny Goodman’s band with a few of the solo’s spliced together from different takes to make them more substantial. Christian’s recorded output is limited to mostly the Goodman band apart from ‘Live at Mintons’ a very telling album released in the 1990’s and is essentially  jam sessions at the legendary Minton’s jazz club in Harlem. The personal on this album read like a who’s who of bebop including Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk.

One of the most interesting things about Christian is he was a fully formed electric guitarist and soloist. That isn’t an unusual thing today but back then Christian was at the forefront of electric guitar development. The first players to move onto the electric guitar were acoustic guitarists and banjo players and generally they sound like amplified acoustic guitarists. Christian’s playing sounded more like a saxophone with flowing lines and an acutely modern harmonic outlook to music. He cited Lester Young as one of his big influences.

Christian gained national exposure with Benny Goodman’s band. Goodman at the time was the king of swing, running one of the most successful bands of the late 1930’s and 40’s. How Charlie arrived in Benny’s band is quite a well-known story. The promoter John Hammond having ‘discovered’  Christian in Oklahoma discussed him with Goodman. Goodman wasn’t interested as the electric guitar was a relatively new instrument but Hammond brought him to Los Angeles anyway. Unknown to Goodman, Hammond installed Christian on the bandstand for that night’s set at the Victor Hugo restaurant. Displeased at the surprise and giving Hammond the legendary Goodman stare, Goodman called Rose Room, a tune he assumed Christian would be unfamiliar with. Christian took about twenty choruses, all of them different, all unlike anything Goodman had heard before. That version of Rose Room lasted forty minutes. By its end, Christian was in the band. In the course of a few days, Christian went from making $2.50 a night to $150 a week.

Christian was very influential in the development of bebop and would play frequently after shows with the Goodman band at Minton’s where he had a guitar and amp stored. The influence he had on “Dizzy” Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Don Byas can be heard on their early “bop” recordings “Blue’n Boogie” and “Salt Peanuts”. Other musicians, such as trumpeter Miles Davis, cite Christian as an early influence. Indeed, Christian’s “new” sound influenced jazz as a whole. He reigned supreme in the jazz guitar polls up to two years after his death.

In the late 1930s Christian had contracted tuberculosis and in early 1940 was hospitalised for a short period when the Goodman group was on hiatus due to Benny’s back trouble. Christian returned home to Oklahoma City, in late July 1940 before returning to New York City in September 1940. In early 1941, Christian resumed his hectic lifestyle, heading to Harlem for late-night jam sessions after finishing gigs with the Goodman Sextet and Orchestra. In June 1941 he was admitted to Seaview, a sanitarium on Staten Island in New York City. He was reported to be making progress, and Down Beat magazine reported in February 1942 that he and Cootie Williams were starting a band.

After a visit that same month to the hospital by tap dancer and drummer Marion Joseph “Taps” Miller, Christian declined in health and died March 2, 1942. He was 25 years old. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bonham, Texas, and a Texas State Historical Commission Marker and headstone were placed in Gates Hill Cemetery in 1994. The location of the historical marker and headstone has been disputed.

Charlie Christian’s Guitar and Amp.

Charlie Christian played a Gibson ES150 guitar. The ES150 was the first electric guitar that had commercial success.

The Gibson ES150 was introduced in 1936 and was an enormous success in the jazz bands of that time because it produced enough volume to be heard.

Kinds of wood used in the production of the Gibson ES150:

  • Archtop: solid spruce
  • Back and sides: solid maple
  • Neck: mahogany
  • Fretboard: rosewood

The ES150 has a single-coil pickup in neck position that is known as the “Charlie Christian Pickup”.

The Gibson EH150 guitar amp came into existence before the Gibson ES150 (it was used for lap-steel guitars).

The EH150 has a 10″ speaker (later a 12″) producing 15W. It has 1 microphone input, 3 instrument inputs, volume controls, a bass-tone expander and an “Echo” speaker jack.

Quotes from other players about Charlie Christian

How did you get interested in the guitar: Charlie Christian, like all other guitar players. There was no way out. That cat tore everybody’s head up. I never saw him in my life, but he said so much on records. I don’t care what instrument a cat played, if he didn’t understand and feel the things that Charlie Christian was doing, he was a pretty poor musician.
“Solo Flight” – boy that was too much! I still hear it. He was IT for me. I didn’t hear anybody else after that for about a year. I listened to (Charlie Christian’s records) real good, and I knew that everything done on his guitar could be done on mine. About six or eight months after I started playing I had taken all the solos off the records and got a job in a club just playing them. I’d play Charlie Christian’s solos then lay out.

Wes Montgomery (Guitar Player ’73)

I first heard Charlie Christian in about 1942 – on record – I never did hear him live. His sound was just great. How, with a little amplifier without any gimmicks or anything, he gets that sound! Today we have all this equipment, all special kinds of pickups and amplifiers…..and still can’t get that sound! I think it has to do with the person that’s playing, probably.

Joe Pass (Down Beat)

I think there are three guitarists who left an impression on the Guitar: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery.

Joe Pass (Melody Maker April 1974)

I was curious to know how he (Charlie Christian) achieved such a full, firm swinging sound – and I still am – so I began learning those choruses note for note. Charlie’s playing was so strong and clean that memorising the notes was not so difficult so I just had to work out the fingerings for the phrases.

Tal Farlow (BMG Dec 1959)

Christian made music important to me. I rearranged the schedule at my shop so I could work nights and listen to band remotes (broadcasts)….Christian was the one who got me going. I bought all the Goodman/Christian recordings and memorised Charlie’s choruses, playing them on a second hand $14 guitar and $20 amplifier.

Tal Farlow (Down Beat 1969)

When I was younger, it took me a little longer to track down Charlie Christian. I came to him through listening to guitarists such as Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and Herb Ellis. I first heard Charlie on a Benny Goodman record. I liked him immediately. His playing really got to me………
No one swung like Charlie Christian. It’s safe to say that he was one of the founders of the bebop movement. You listen to what he was playing back then on an album like Live Sessions at Mintons Playhouse, and you hear it still being played today…..
You’ve got to check out his solo on Stompin’ At The Savoy What drive, what swing! He had a great sense of time and every note had definition, thanks in large part to the fact that he used all down strokes…….Charlie’s influence is everywhere!

Russell Malone (Down Beat July ’99):

I was working in Oklahaoma City, where Charlie lived. A guy called Benny Garcia had acquired Charlie’s guitar………He brought to me one night to play. The guitar had that filed bar pickup on it and there was a big bubble in the back of the body. But I could just FEEL the vibrations in that guitar, like Charlie’s music was still in it somewhere. It was a beautiful instrument. I’ll never forget that feeling….of playing Charlie Christian’s own guitar.

Roy Clark (Guitar Player June ’70)

I had the fortune to work with Charlie Christian and he was more aggressive, forceful and louder than I was. I said to him: “You play loud” – not as a criticism or anything. He said: “I like to hear myself!”

Charlie played probably 95% downstrokes, and held a very stiff, big triangular pick very tightly between his thumb and first finger. He rested his 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers on the pick-guard. He anchored them there so tensely that it was like there almost wasn’t a break in the joint. He almost never used the 4th finger of his left hand.

Barney Kessel (Guitar Player Oct ’70)

Charlie Christian was amazing. I first heard him around ’41 or’42. There were 10 cent vending machines then, just like juke boxes but with pictures……and that’s how I saw Charlie Christian I was still in Indianola Mississipi at the time. To me, he was a master of diminished chords. A master at new ideas too. Barney Kessel plays a lot like him but with ideas that are more of today. Charlie didn’t fluff notes much…he was so sure.

B B King (Guitar Player March ’75)

…some musicians told me to drop by a place called The Dome to hear this guitarist who was working with the Al Trent Sextet which was passing through town (Bismark, North Dakota). The man was Charlie Christian. It was the most startling thing I had ever heard. I had listened to all the jazz guitarists of the time…. but they all played acoustic. And here was Charlie Christian playing Django’s “St. Louis Blues” note for note, but with an electric guitar. I’ll never forget that day.

Mary Osborne (Guitar Player Feb ’74)