Best Guitars For Jazz
When the whole jazz scene was in its infancy, all guitars were acoustic, this led to many arguments and bad feelings among musicians. Because the acoustic guitar just wasn’t loud enough to compete with the rest of the band. That all changed in 1923 when the Gibson L5 erupted onto the jazz industry.
The L5 very quickly started to replace the banjo in jazz line ups, and thanks to Django Reinhardt the guitar took on a much more prominent role in jazz. For a great example of what can be done with a guitar in a jazz setting listen to “Djangology” and “Minor Swing” both of which placed the electric guitar well and truly front and centre into the jazz scene.
But it wasn’t just Django, from the late 20s Eddie Durham started to experiment with creating a bigger sound from the guitar in a jazz setting. He started using resonators and even megaphones in an attempt to get the guitar heard. In 1935 he was the first guitarist to record a guitar that was electronically amplified. Along with his band The Kansas City Five, he released the track “Hittin’ the bottle”which featured Eddie on electrified guitar.
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Which Type Of Guitar Do You Need To Play Jazz?
If you are looking for a guitar to play jazz on, the first question you’ll need to answer is which type of guitar? There are 3 main options of guitar to play jazz. They are:
Solid Bodied Guitars
These are usually found in a rock, blues or country setting, but the solid bodied guitar can, and has been used for jazz. Many successful jazz guitarists have used solid bodied guitars, artists like:
- John Abercrombie
Is often seen playing a Ibanez Artist and on occasion he uses a Gibson SG.
- John McLaughlin
Has used many different solid bodied Gibsons during his career.
- Mike Stern
Always uses a solid Telecaster or similar.
Solid bodied guitars are known to produce a consistent tone, are less likely to suffer from feedback and are capable of being played at a consistently high volume.
Archtop Guitars (Hollow Bodied)
The archtop guitar is the guitar most identified with jazz.
- Joe Pass
- Johnny Smith
Gibson Johnny Smith signature guitar, the Guild Johnny Smith signature Guitar and the Heritage Johnny Smith Guitar, all hollow bodied models.
- Wes Montgomery
The main problem with hollow bodied guitars is of course the problem with feedback, to counteract this annoying problem guitar manufacturers developed the semi hollow body guitars.
Semi-Hollow Bodied Guitars
The design on the semi-hollow is not quite as large as a hollow bodied guitar and not quite as small as a solid bodied guitar. They have less problems with feedback, and give that tone associated with jazz guitars like a warm, jazzy sound. The semi-hollow guitar fits into more genres of music than archtops but they are not quite as versatile as solid bodied guitars. Some of the top guitarists that use semi-hollow guitars include:
- Larry Carlton
- John Scofield
- Emily Remler
What To Look For When Buying A Jazz Guitar
Due to all the technical innovations that have developed over the last few years, it is not beyond the realms of probability to take any guitar at all, and create a great sounding jazz guitar just by using effect pedals. But that loses the authenticity of it all. Jazz is not just music, it’s not notes written on a score, jazz is about feeling.
To get that feeling, the best place to start is with the correct guitar. Whilst it is possible to play jazz on a Fender Stratocaster, it’s not going to have that “jazz feel”. Traditional jazz music deserves traditional instruments, and especially guitars. While we’re not suggesting you go out and buy a hollow-bodied L-5 or ES-150, it would probably be advantageous to buy a ES-335.
Yes the ES-335 was used by many blues players (BB King, Freddie King etc) but the ES-335 gives that rich, full sound needed for authentic jazz but without the terrible issues surrounding feedback. Plus those rich humbucker pickups keep the sound clear and crisp.
Other Things To Consider
There are a few things that will determine the type of guitar you will buy when looking at a jazz guitar. Let’s go through the main points. Many a great guitarist has bought the wrong guitar and seen their playing suffer as a result. To make sure this isn’t you, consider the following points.
You will probably be holding your guitar for some length of time, it needs to be comfortable, not too heavy and easy to play. When asked why he plays a Gibson SG, Angus Young answered, it’s a small guitar and I’m a little guy, most of the other guitars I tried were too heavy. OK wrong type of music but you get the point. Try as many guitars as you possibly can, until you find one that feels comfortable.
When thinking about pickups to suit a jazz guitar the mind automatically strays to humbuckers. They are less likely to create feedback, sound warm and relatively clear. But single coil pickups like the DeArmond have been used in jazz guitars for many years and with great success. But if it’s perfect tone, clarity and little to no feedback, we suggest the P-90.
The P-90 pickup has the right mix of tone and richness, it’s like a cross between a humbucker and a DeArmond, with all of the best features ringing out loud and clear. Look for a Guild T-50 Slim Vintage to hear just what we mean about the pickup. In fact you could do a lot worse than buying the Guild T-50.
The Guitars Cost
There are guitars to suit all budgets when it comes to guitars suitable for jazz. Let’s get a rough idea of prices for the 3 types of jazz guitars.
Average Archtop Guitar Prices
Archtop guitars are the archetypal jazz guitar. As we mentioned earlier they are prone to feedback but they produce a warm, dark sound that is easily recognisable as jazz. Below are a number of archtop guitars that we think are perfect for jazz guitarists along with a rough guide to prices.
- Gibson ES-125
The Gibson ES-125 was originally produced in 1941. It has great playability, a sweet tone, and it is an easy guitar to handle. Not just jazz aficionados prefer this one, the top Texan Bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan also played the 125. You can expect to pay somewhere around £650.00 to around £1,900.00.
- Gibson ES-175
Apart from the L-5 this is probably the most recognisable jazz guitar because of how many great jazz guitarists have played one over the years many musicians try to get guitars from the 50s and 60s but the reissued modern models are still great guitars. Incidentally the 175 in the name refers to the original price it would have cost in 1949 ($175). In today’s market you will be looking at around £1,500.00 and up to around £9,000.00.
- Gibson L-5
One of the original, and still one of the best jazz guitars the L-5 is a great looking and sounding guitar. The L-5 looks and sounds like a Jazz guitar. The only problem is the price. The Gibson L-5 will set you back anywhere between £3,000.00 and £55,000.00. The L-5 has been in constant production since 1922.
- Ibanez Pat Metheny PM200
Like all Ibanez guitars the PM200 is as you would expect. A great jazz guitar, with a slim neck for ease of playing, clear sounding all through the range bass tenor and treble, excellent tonality. Price around £2,000.00 to £3,800.00
- Gibson Super 400
This started life as an acoustic guitar which soon got reissued with p-90 pickups and then with Charlie Christian pickups added. The super 400 is a very sought after guitar because of its playability. People who own a super 400 tend to hold on to them. Priced at around £3,000.00 and rising to £56,000.00.
- Epiphone Broadway
First introduced in 1931 the Epiphone Broadway gives a top quality sound at relatively budget prices. It looks great, sounds great and is easy to play. With prices ranging from around £575.00 to £2,250.00
- Ibanez George Benson LGB30
This guitar looks, sounds and feels great, if there is a drawback, it’s the weight, weighing in at 8.5 lbs. The George Benson is not for the weak. Prices range from £875.00 to £3,500 depending on model and specs.
- Heritage H-575
A relative newcomer to the guitar industry, the Heritage H-575 is a really great archtop jazz guitar. One of the drawbacks of this guitar is it is quite expensive and it loses a considerable amount in the resale market. The price ranges from around £1,000.00 to £2,500.00 depending on the model.
- D’Angelico EXL-1
This is a great guitar as long as you stay away from the “premier” and go for the Deluxe. These look like the real McCoy and they play great too. And priced at between £470.00 to £1400.00 they are an absolute bargain.
- Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin
Hailing from Canada, the Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin looks the part and sounds great too. The single P-90 pickup gives it that warm, full jazz tonality and the guitar’s overall size is easy to handle. Prices range from around £210.00 to £1,000.00.
Average Semi-Hollow Guitar Prices
Semi-hollow guitars were designed to cut down on feedback. This is achieved by placing a solid block of wood running through the centre of the body. As this is the only real difference between hollow and semi-hollow guitars, they produce a very similar tone, but sadly some of the warmth is lost. Here are our choices of semi-hollow guitars that we think make great jazz guitars.
- Epiphone Casino
Championed by the Beatles back in the early 60s, the Epiphone Casino is still in production and it still sounds and looks as good as it ever did. Somehow the Casino replicates that hollow bodied sound without suffering from feedback. This easy to play semi-hollow guitar will cost around £290.00 to £8,500.00
- Ibanez John Scofield JSM100
Ibanez have made an almost exact copy of the Gibson ES-335, great looks and sounds. An all round excellent guitar. But it can be pricey, you’re looking at somewhere around £870.00 to around £2,500.00.
- Gibson ES-335
The classic Gibson ES-335 was first introduced in 1958, just in time for the great rock and roll era. Many rock and roll and blues artists favoured the ES-335 including Chuck Berry,BB King and Eric Clapton. The ES-335 lends itself very well to the jazz scene for it’s tone, playability and classic look. If it has a downside, it would be the price. You can expect to pay around £1,000.00 to around £22,000.00.
- Yamaha SA2200
The Yamaha SA 2200 is a slightly heavier version of the Gibson ES-335. It has a solid maple soundblock which helps to prevent feedback. The overall tone is mellow and perfect for jazz guitarists. You can expect to pay from around £870.00 to £1,900.00.
Average Solid Bodied Guitar Prices
Solid bodied guitars are made from a solid piece of wood, the sound is amplified purely by the pickups and amplifier. They are smaller than the other types of guitar, but there is much less chance of feedback from a solid bodied guitar. They don’t have such warm, rich tones as hollow or semi-hollow guitars with the possible exception of the Fender Telecaster which does have a warm tone. Some of the better solid bodied guitars to play jazz with include:
- Fender Telecaster
More well known for country and rock guitars, the Telecaster has been creeping into the world of jazz over the past few years. The Telecaster is lightweight, relatively affordable, robust, and can be used for all different genres.
With that said, they don’t look very jazzy, and some players find them to be uncomfortable. If you are considering buying a Fender Telecaster you will have to pay something like £200.00 to around £28,000.00
- Fender Jazzmaster
Since its first release in 1958, the Fender Jazzmaster has been a relatively popular guitar with guitarists of all genres.But there aren’t too many jazz guitarists who favour them.If you did want to try the jazzmaster out it will cost you around £330.00 and up to around £9,000.00
- Yamaha Pacifica
Due to its 3 pickups and resonant tones the Pacifica is probably one of the better solid bodied guitars for jazz players. It has 3 pickups, which help to achieve that full bodied sound. If you think a Pacifica will suit you it will cost somewhere between £75.00 and £600.00.
What’s The Best Type Of Guitar For Jazz?
Without a doubt, to get that genuine vintage jazz sound, you need a hollow bodied guitar. Having said that, you’ll probably have to deal with unwelcome feedback. So for a similar sound and look, but with far less feedback, you should go for a semi-hollow bodied guitar. Many modern jazz guitarists are using solid bodied guitars with added effects pedals.
It depends on your preference and on your budget too. We personally think the best guitar for pretty much every situation is a Gibson ES-335 or similar. The ES-335 gives you the best of both worlds, good looks, great tone and less feedback. If a ES-335 is out of your price range then settle for the Yamaha SA 2200 which is similar in style and less costly.
Frequently Asked Questions
While any guitar can be used to play jazz, the most common types of guitar are the hollow bodied archtop guitars.
Telecasters are good for jazz, some famous jazz guitarists have used the Fender Telecaster including Ed Bickert, Mike Stern and Ted Greene.