Jazz has been played for almost a century and the sound of jazz guitar has evolved with the genre. Jazz can virtually be played on any guitar, though each player is looking for a particular sound in this genre.
The most important thing to ask yourself when buying your jazz guitar is: "What sound do I want?" The sound you want to play depends on the body of your guitar.
You will be confronted with three types of body when looking for a jazz guitar:
- Archtops (or Hollow)
Each body type has its merits and it is up to the player to choose one that will fulfill his or her needs.
Archtop guitars are the ones the legendary players played. It is the traditional guitar type that produces the classic jazz tone heard in many timeless records. Heavily used in the bebop era, they are anchored in jazz history. Players looking for the classic jazz tone will definitely want to shop for an archtop guitar.
Be aware that archtop guitars have little tonal variety compared to the other body types. These guitars are hard to include in other musical styles. They are also subject to feedback problems due to the thickness of their body.
Hollow-bodied guitars' shape and size can be uncomfortable for some player over a long period of time. You might need to adjust your posture and playing position. Spending time playing an archtop you want is very important before buying it.
Due to its history and popularity, archtop guitars can be costly so we suggest players to play with them a handful of times at the shop before bringing it home. Nonetheless, archtop guitars produce authentic jazz sound that reminisces the bebop era. If you are able to put your hands on a vintage archtop, chances are you will never want to sell it!
Jazz guitarists who play archtops:
- Joe Pass
- Wes Montgomery
- Herb Ellis
- Jim Hall
- Tal Farlow
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Players looking for a warmer tone will focus their choice on this type. Thinner than its big brother, the semi-hollow body type offers a modern sound. The tonal variety of semi-hollow guitars makes them versatile instruments that can be used to play other musical genres. Semi-hollows are used by many modern jazz guitar players who sometimes fuse jazz with other genres.
Even though they are thin, semi-hollow guitars are fairly large. Just like an archtop, playing a semi-hollow might ask for a change in a player's posture.
Semi-hollow guitars also have fewer feedback problems than archtops due to the way they are built. This makes them good guitars to play before an audience.
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Jazz guitarists who play semi-hollows:
- John Scofield
- Larry Carlton
- Kurt Rosenwinkel
- Emily Remler
- Grant Green
Solid Body Guitar
Solid body guitars are usually associated with blues and rock. That didn't stop rebellious guitar players to develop new jazz sounds with those instruments. In order to produce a sound close to archtops, humbucker pickups are needed.
While it is difficult to produce a genuine "jazz sound" with them, solid body guitars are light, small and allows more tonal variety. Being a popular body type, good and comfortable solid body guitars are easier to find.
Jazz guitarists who play solid bodies:
- Ed Bickert
- Ted Green
- Bill Frisell
- Julian Lage
- John Abercrombie
What about Acoustic Guitars?
Acoustic guitars aren't popular among jazz guitarists but they did make their way into the world of jazz. They give jazz another color that is interesting for listeners. Acoustic guitars are notably present in gypsy jazz.
Keep in mind that you will not be able to produce a traditional jazz sound with an acoustic unless you aim to play gypsy jazz, but it is possible to use all the jazz devices you know to play jazz on it.
Jazz guitarists who play acoustic guitars
- Django Reinhardt
- Ulf Wakenius
- Tommy Emmanuel
- Earl Klugh
- Charlie Byrd
Choosing the perfect archtop guitar, or any body style, can be a daunting task. You are looking for a specific sound, tone, beautiful jazzy creaminess. Try a few out in your local music shop, but don't forget to pick an instrument that you can grow with and be proud of.
Guest Post Author
Ny Fanilo Andrianjafy is a guitarist based in Canada. While his primary influences are traditional music from his birth country, Madagascar, and blues, he discovered jazz at the age of 19 and has been a practitioner ever since. His passion for the art and steady study has led him to be the Editor-in-Chief of JazzGuitarLessons.Net.