Charlie Christian Bio
Charlie Christian (1916-1942) was the founding father and primary architect of
the modern jazz guitar style. He was the first major soloist on the electric guitar. With
Christian, the electric guitar became a distinct solo voice; equivalent to a saxophone,
trumpet or clarinet, and capable of the same levels of expressiveness and intensity. His
pioneering efforts with the electric guitar resulted in a liberating of the instrument, in
jazz specifically and in music generally. Following Christian's initial appearance
and short career, a school of stylistic disciples emerged and spread his influence far and
wide. Christian's legacy today is larger and more pervasive than ever, and his
contributions more profound and revered. His music is embedded in the very core of all
guitarlore influencing blues, rock, country and popular electric guitarists for decades to
The First Electric Guitarist. Part 2
Charles Henry (Charlie) Christian
was born in Bonham, Texas, on July 29, 1916. His family had a musical background.
Charlie's father, Clarence James Christian, played trumpet in a silent movie theatre,
while his mother, Willie Mae, accompanied him on the piano. He had two older brothers,
Edward and Clarence. Both were musically inclined, though to a lesser extent than Charlie.
In 1918, the Christian family moved from the Dallas area to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
There, during the early 1920s, Charlie attended elementary grades in Douglass School,
which had an extensive music program. Interestingly, this coincided with the first known
experiments of amplified "electric" guitar.
At this time, Charlie Christian took informal guitar lessons from his father, but dropped
the instrument when his father died in 1926. A couple of years later he briefly took up
the trumpet to play in the school band. Charlie's interest in the guitar was revived
in 1928, and it is thought that his earliest jazz influence was instilled a year later
when tenor saxophonist Lester Young arrived in Kansas City. Young's linear style had
a strong effect on Christian, who remained a permanent "addict" to his music and
was known to scat sing his solos throughout his life.
Charlie Christian's first public performance as a guitarist was in 1930 at around age
14 when he sat in with the Don Redman Orchestra at Honey Murphy's Club in Oklahoma
City. He took solos on "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Tea For Two," and
"Rose Room"-most likely holding his acoustic guitar up to a microphone.
In 1933, Charlie Christian began to study guitar with Ralph "Big-Foot Chuck"
Hamilton. He learned to read music and some basic music theory. Christian introduced his
boyhood friend, T-Bone Walker, to Hamilton, who taught them
together. Hamilton played in the typical chordal style of the period, and it is doubtful
that he had any influence on either Christian's or Walker's single-note solo
approach. During this time, Walker and Christian, while learning together, played shows as
a duo alternating on bass and guitar.
In 1934, Charlie secured his first professional music job, as a bassist, with the Alphonso
Trent band. The group toured throughout the area, playing venues in Kansas City, Dallas,
Fort Worth, Little Rock, and Tulsa. In the next three years, Christian also played with
The Jolly Jugglers (with his brother Edward), toured the Southwest with the Anna Mae
Winburn Orchestra, and worked with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in St.Louis. In his travels
he probably encountered Delta blues players, as well as Western-Swing bands which were now
regularly featuring amplified steel guitars and soloists who used a swing-based
A breakthrough occurred for Charlie in 1937. Back in Oklahoma City, he was playing piano
and met Count Basie's guitarist Eddie Durham, who is credited with having
recorded one of the earliest amplified guitar solos. Christian was immediately enamoured
with the electric guitar and sought Durham out for some basic pointers. Durham later
remarked," I never saw anyone learn so fast, nor have I seen anyone rise to the top
so quickly." Soon after the meeting, Christian bought his first electric guitar,
probably a Gibson ES-150, and began to assemble the components of his horn-like approach.
By 1938, Charlie was touring as an electric guitarist with Alphonso Trent's Septet,
and worked at The Dome in Bismarck, North Dakota. There, he was heard by jazz guitarist
Mary Osborne. She recalled that it was "the most startling thing" she ever
heard, a sound like a distorted saxophone. Osborne further recalled that Christian played
Django Rheinhardt's difficult "St. Louis Blues" note for note, and that
many of the figures he worked into his solos evolved later into Benny Goodman tunes like
"Seven Come Eleven" and "Gone With 'What' Wind." At that
time, a local music store displayed the Gibson ES-150 with a
sign reading "As featured by Charlie Christian." Christian was by this point a
In July, 1939, jazz and blues impresario and producer John Hammond became aware of Charlie
Christian. Acting on a tip from singer Mary Lou Williams, Hammond flew to Oklahoma to hear
the guitarist. He then arranged a fortuitous audition in Los Angeles for swing clarinetist
Benny Goodman, who was becoming interested in the electric guitar as an ensemble
instrument. Goodman was initially unimpressed when he heard Christian comp unamplified
rhythm guitar behind "Tea For Two," and further dubbed him "an impossible
rube." Later Hammond sneaked Christian on the bandstand for an impromptu jam session
with the Benny Goodman Quintet at the Victor Hugo Restaurant. The group played an extended
jam on "Rose Room" during which Christian matched Goodman riff for riff and
improvised over 20 choruses. He was hired on the spot for $150 a week to play with the
Benny Goodman Sextet, and relocated to New York City.
Charlie Christian's influential recordings began in late 1939. He recorded
extensively with the Goodman Sextet, Septet and Orchestra, and the Lionel Hampton
Orchestra, and participated in the historic Carnegie Hall jazz concert, Spirituals to
Swing. These sessions marked the formal genesis of modern jazz guitar. Christian's
stirring performances on pieces such as "Air Mail Special," "Honeysuckle
Rose," and the epic "Solo Flight" argue the case convincingly. During his
association with Goodman, Christian became one of the biggest names of the swing era. Not
content to rest on his laurels and enjoy the fruits of his newfound stardom and accolades,
he pushed the musical envelope further.
In 1940, Charlie was part of the milieu at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, and as such
foreshadowed the arrival of the bebop idiom along with early luminaries of the genre Dizzy
Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke. Christian went so far as to purchase an
amplifier to be kept on the premises for his regular after-hours jams. Plagued with
respiratory problems his entire life and unwilling to scale down his intensive lifestyle,
Christian succumbed to tuberculosis and died on March 2, 1942. In a period of less than
three years, Charlie Christian had emerged from total obscurity to produce a copious body
of material which forever altered the course of music.
Like jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong
before him, Charlie Christian was the principal role model for electric guitarists
worldwide. Elements of his style were copied and appropriated by countless
players-solos were learned note for note, his tone quality, phrasing and articulation
were emulated and appeared in mutated and varied forms in the work of his successors. His
licks became the lingua franca of the first phase of electric guitar music.
The diverse lineage of players who descended from Charlie
Christian's musical paternity is extensive. Before Christian guitarists were
predominately unamplified acoustic musicians who were relegated to strict rhythm-guitar
roles in an ensemble. With Christian the electric guitar became a distinct solo voice;
equivalent to a saxophone, trumpet or clarinet and capable of the same levels of
expressiveness and intensity. It can be said without qualification that his pioneering
efforts with the electric guitar resulted in a liberating of the instrument, in jazz
specifically and in music generally. From Christian it is possible to draw a comprehensive
and well-defined time line connecting the subsequent contributions of Barney Kessell,
Oscar Moore, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Herb Ellis, Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith, Howard Roberts, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Grant Green, George Benson, Pat Martino, Joe Diorio and
Pat Metheny. Furthermore, his electric guitar playing proved highly influential to
important blues, pop and early rock players such as T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Chuck Berry,
and Scotty Moore.
Christian's actual physical technique on the guitar was
observed and described in detail by jazz guitarist Barney Kessell, an ardent admirer and
one of his most notable stylistic disciples. Kessell recalled, "He played probably 95
percent downstrokes, and held a very stiff, big triangular pick very tightly between his
thumb and 1st finger. He rested his 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers very firmly on the pickguard.
He almost never used the 4th finger of his left hand."
Charlie Christian introduced and
established what we commonly call today the classic "jazz guitar sound." The
distinctive tone quality is produced by an arch-top hollow-body guitar, generally with
f-holes, equipped with built-in electromagnetic pickups. This remains the standard into
the 1990s; with contemporary players such as George Benson, Pat Metheny, Jimmy Bruno, Tuck
Andress, Mark Whitfield and many others employing a similar type of instrument. Though
there are sketchy accounts of Christian using Harmony, Vega and National guitars, his
primary guitars were Gibson ES (Electric Spanish) models manufactured in the late 1930s
and early 1940s.
Charlie Christian chose the Gibson
ES-150 for most of his playing. Originally announced in 1936, and shipped in quantites
in 1937, the ES-150 became immortalized as the "Charlie Christian model."
Christian is known to have played at least three different, perhaps more, ES-150s from
1937-1942. The ES-150 was essentially a 16-inch L-50 non-cutaway acoustic with a
carved spruce arch top and maple back and sides. It had a mahogany neck with a very
triangular "V shape," a rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays, and an ebony
bridge. It was not considered to be a "top of the line" instrument. The ES-150
led inevitably to the development of the cutaway ES-175 which
remains the most popular and versatile arch-top hollow-body electric guitar in the Gibson
line. Had he lived Charlie surely would have played one when it was introduced in 1949.
The ES-150 was fitted with a single bar pickup, now
generically known as a "Charlie Christian pickup," which was adjustable for
height and a slight tilt in relation to the strings via three screws mounted on the top of
the body between the pickup and the bridge. The pickup itself was close to the fingerboard
and this factor no doubt contributed to the deeper bassy tone of the guitar. An output
jack was located in the recessed base of the tailpiece. Christian adjusted the pickup
closer to the body, away from the strings. This resulted in a warmer, more mellow
"stringy" tone quality with less output.
Christian also played the fancier Gibson
ES-250 guitar. Introduced in late 1939, this was basically an L-7 type with a larger,
superior-grade 17-inch body, "open book" inlays on the fingerboard, and a
modified "Christian pickup" with a deeply notched blade to better balance the
string response. Christian is thought to have played at least four of these models between
1939 and 1942. The ES-250 was also favored by his friend and colleague T-Bone Walker in the early 1940s.
Christian plugged his ES-150s and ES-250s into Gibson EH
(Electric Hawaiian) amplifiers. Of these, he used two models: the EH-150 and the EH-185.
The smaller EH-150 was offered as a matched set with the ES-150 guitar for a total price
of $150. It had a 10-inch speaker, 6 tubes and an output of 15 watts. The 150 had two
controls: volume and a two-position tone change switch for bass or treble sound. The
larger EH-185 was an early "piggyback" style with the electronics of the
amplifier mounted in a metal case under its "flip top" lid. The case could be
separated from the cabinet to form a two-piece amp head and speaker box unit. The 185 had
a 12-inch speaker, 7 tubes and an output of 18 watts. The controls again consisted of only
volume and tone, but included a variable tone change control.
What did it sound like? The combination of the bar magnet
pickup in the neck position, the resonant hollow body and the small underpowered amps
resulted in a thick, semi-clean tone ideal for the horn-like, single-note lines that
characterized the Christian solo style. Though the amount of sustain and gain produced by
the equipment would be considered minimal by today's technical stanadards, the sound
was quite revolutionary at the time and a radical departure from the acoustic guitar
sounds heard in jazz previously. This basic tone Christian pioneered in the 1930s remains
the classic "jazz guitar sound" to the present.
|Charlie Christian, "Honysuckle Rose"
|Charlie Christian, "Benny's Bugle"
Charlie Christian: The
Seminal Electric Guitarist. Written by Peter Broadbent.
(1997) Ashley Mark Publishing Company, UK. Distributed in USA
by Hal Leonard Corp.
A 150-page biographic account
of Charlie Christian's life and music. Contains photos, interviews, discography, an
equipment overview and information about recording sessions.
Charlie Christian: The Art
of the Jazz Guitar. Edited by Dan Fox.
(1964) The Goodman Group Music Publishers. Distributed by Hal
A 34-page music book
containing transcriptions in standard notation for many of Christian's most famed solos
and a brief bio.
Charlie Christian. Written
by Stan Ayeroff.
(1979) The Jazz Masters Series. Amsco Publications.
Distributed in USA by Music Sales Corp.
A 74-page music book
containing transcriptions in standard notation with string and fingering symbols. This
volume also includes notes on the solos, a brief bio and a guide to some technical aspects
of Christian's playing style.
Jazz Guitar Standards. Written
and performed by Jack Grassel.
(1998) Artist Transcriptions Play-Along Series. Hal Leonard
A 40-page music book
containing transcriptions in standard notation and tablature with a matching CD. The
author is an accomplished guitarist who performs the tracks at slow and moderate tempi.
Selections include Charlie Christian's solo on "Stompin' at the Savoy."
The Jazz Guitar: Its
Evolution and its Players. Written by Maurice J. Summerfield.
(1978) Ashley Mark Publishing Company, UK. Distributed in USA
by Hal Leonard Corp.
Swing to Bop. Written
by Ira Gitler.
(1985) Oxford University Press.
Genius of the Electric Guitar: Columbia 40846
Best of Jazz: The Swing
Era-Charlie Christian: Best of Jazz (French import) 4032
The Benny Goodman Sextet,
Featuring Charlie Christian (1939-1941): Columbia 45144
Charlie Christian Live
Sessions at Minton's Playhouse 1941: Jazz Anthology (French) 550012
Solo Flight (1939-1941): Stash
With the Benny Goodman
Sextet and Orchestra: Columbia 652
Solo Flight with the Benny
Goodman Sextet, Septet and Orchestra: Columbia 62581
Swing to Bop: Natasha
The Immortal Charlie
Christian: Legacy 373