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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 follow.

Charlie Christian-
The First Electric Guitarist. Part 2

Additional Information Biography
Additional Information Guitar Style 
Additional Information Guitar Sound
Additional Information Bibliography
Additional Information Discography
Guitar Lessons Charlie Christian guitar lesson

Charlie Christian with Gibson ES-150 guitar






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 single-note style.

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 regional hero.

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.

Listen here.

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 Leonard Corp.

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 Corp.

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.




Charlie Christian-The 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 1021

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 Imports NI-4020

The Immortal Charlie Christian: Legacy 373


copyright 1998 Marshall Arts Music

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