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Ever feel like diving into the deep world of jazz music and learning all that cool, sophisticated-sounding vocabulary? Have you felt a little odd playing popular standards or well known ballads with an inappropriate guitar? Although jazz has been played on most types of guitars, let’s take a look at what makes up traditional and modern jazz tones and which guitars can better help you achieve your creative vision.
Traditionally, jazz guitar players have chosen the thick, creamy sounds of hollow body electrics. Being an older style of music, this is what was available in the 1930’s and gave an identity to the guitar in jazz ensembles. Gibson’s models were the most widespread offering long-established arch top construction and featured the woody sounds of straight bar pickups, then P-90s later, and eventually the famous PAF model pickups for rich and detailed expression. The use of flat wound strings and heavy string gauges added even more thickness and seemed to ease playing thanks to their smooth, flat wound surface.
Stylistic changes encouraged guitarists to experiment with various instruments. The hollow body addicts explored semi-hollow guitars that allowed a certain amount of overdrive to compliment their expressive playing and blues influences. While the more rock oriented axemen of the fusion style explored Les Pauls and various floating tremolo models.
That creates a lot of variety to choose from, so let’s take a look at each category and discuss models in different price ranges to figure out the easiest way to hone in on your needs and preferences.
Hollow Body Guitars
This is the way to go if you want to play straight ahead jazz with a traditional approach to tone. The bigger these guitars are, the more enhanced the woody quality of the sound is, so take the time to try out different sizes. Different bridge types are also available. Wooden bridges provide a more authentic sound but are harder to adjust and intonate, especially when compared to their metal counterparts. These “jazz boxes” have a hard time handling higher volumes without resulting in feedback, so these models are, in a sense a one trick pony.
If price isn’t an issue, Gibson and Ibanez have interesting high end models, including signature models from legends such as Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, George Benson and Pat Metheny. For more affordable models, Ibanez offers the Artcore line and Epiphone features the wonderful Joe Pass model with wooden bridge that will satisfy any bebop purist.
Affordable Hollow Body Guitars
If dropping $10,000 for a Gibson L-5 isn’t in your budget, don’t worry, there are many affordable, quality options for those of you wanting a more traditional jazz hollow body guitar. Here are a few you should consider:
Semi-Hollow Body Guitars
Semi-hollow body guitars offer the nice mellow tones of the fully hollow models, but with the added advantage of being able to handle additional volume and gain. With simple tone knob adjustments, the variety of tones available is quite varied and could interest guitarists looking for more versatility in their axes. From sweet jazzy tones to raunchy blues and rock, this category of guitars offers a lot of bang for your buck. Like the larger jazz boxes, different shapes and sizes are available, so it’s a good idea to try different models to see which ones fit more with your playing and your style. Other than the size and depth of the body, playability is similar to the completely hollow models.
The Gibson ES-335 (pictured below) is the flagship model that sets the standard for other builders. The sophisticated playing of Larry Carlton really put it on the map and opened the eyes of other players towards what was possible within the jazz boundaries. Other players with very interesting and unique tones such as John Scofield, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder use these types of guitars.
Affordable Semi-Hollow Body Guitars
If you’re not quite ready for a genuine Gibson ES-335 there are plenty of quality, budget-friendly options within reach. Here are just a few you should consider:
Other Interesting Options
Other than the f-hole models usually seen in jazz, the most often seen guitar in the genre is the Fender Telecaster. Usually a very bright sounding instrument, the amount of warmth available is very impressive when you start lowering the tone knob. Although more modern players like Mike Stern, Adam Rogers, Julian Lage and the versatile Bill Frisell usually favor this type of model, more traditional players have had great careers with the Telecaster such as Ted Greene and Ed Bickert. In addition to being a great jazz axe, the Telecaster can double as a country machine, an awesome rock and roll tool, or an R&B favorite. This is a pretty big selling point for this seemingly simple guitar and I highly recommend checking out the various options offered at your local music store.
For the fusion fans, there are several options depending on your preferences. If you prefer the likes of Scott Henderson, Wayne Krantz, or Oz Noy, a Stratocaster type guitar is really something to consider. With countless pickup and tremolo options, this is one versatile guitar that will satisfy many needs all the while offering expressive possibilities.
Other more eclectic models come to mind when thinking of fusion. Allan Holdsworth’s Fat Boy made by Kiesel guitars (formerly Carvin) might be the most recognizable. This is a completely different beast, featuring a headless neck and optional floating bridge. Being a custom guitar, you can’t really try it out in stores and unless you know someone that has one, make sure that this sci-fi fusion model is what you really want.
If this is your first jazz guitar purchase, I highly recommend you thoroughly explore the pros and cons of each of the categories I mentioned above so that you can get the most mileage out of whichever guitar you choose. If you can anticipate what style of jazz you’ll be most dedicated to, you most likely won’t get stuck with an axe that’s gathering dust in your practice space.
Are you a jazz player? If so, what kind of guitar do you use? I’d love to know, so let me know in the “Leave a Reply” section down below!
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