From the top end of the market, to the more ‘economic’ options, this article will help with the decision-making process!
Choosing a guitar for jazz can be a tricky business.
There are a huge range of makes and models to pick from and instruments vary hugely in terms of their price points, intended purpose, and target audience.
On top of that, there’s the choice between iconic manufacturers that have been around for over 100 years, as well as small independent one-man operations producing fully bespoke instruments, and everything in between.
Whatever your ability and budget, there’s a great jazz guitar out there for you!
In this article we’ve put together a list of 10 of the best guitar brands making excellent instruments for jazz. Alongside a little info on their history and reputations, we’ll also give you our recommendation of a particular model for each brand.
Ibanez are a driving force in the guitar world, and produce a vast array of instruments, effects pedals and amplifiers.
Whilst perhaps best known for their solid body guitars used by the likes of Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert, their range of semi-hollow and hollow body guitars are extremely popular with jazz musicians, and are available in a range of styles across a number of price points.
The Ibanez John Scofield models (the JSM100, JSM10 and JSM20) are a great choice if looking for a versatile semi-hollow body guitar capable of switching easily between different genres, but still possessing a classic warm jazz tone.
The sound block inside the instrument and its rigid top help to greatly reduce feedback, and Ibanez’s signature half-bone, half brass nut provides a balance of highs and lows.
In terms of price, the JSM100 certainly isn’t an entry level instrument, but the JSM10 and JSM20 models come in at a lower price point.
Ibanez’s best-selling archtop guitar of all time is their George Benson GB10 model, designed to Benson’s exacting specifications.
The floating GB special pickups sit on top of the body of the guitar, producing a superb warm jazz tone, and the instruments ebony neck was chosen to deliver rich sustain.
It’s a beautifully made instrument, crafted from high quality woods, and this versatile laminate-top guitar whose size sits somewhere between a semi-hollow and large archtop guitar.
|Ibanez JSM 100 (John Scofield Signature)|
a versatile semi-hollow body guitar with a warm jazz tone
In their 100-year history, Gibson have designed many iconic instruments that we consider to be quintessential examples of the jazz guitar.
They remain to this day the guitar of choice for jazz guitarists of all abilities and backgrounds looking for that classic jazz tone that has long been synonymous with the Gibson name.
These instruments have been played by a who’s who of the great jazz guitarists of all time, including Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and Johnny Smith.
As their catalogue of instruments includes so many influential models, we’ve picked out two of their most important as recommendations:
The Gibson ES-175
The Gibson ES-175 has been one of the most popular jazz guitars available for decades.
First introduced in 1949 as an alternative to the bigger and more ornate L-5, the Gibson ES-175 features a laminate 16-inch body, sharp Florentine cutaway, and two mounted humbucker pickups.
A true workhorse, the 175 is closely associated with greats such as Joe Pass and Jim Hall. It possesses a warm, yet clear tone and due to its slightly smaller size (when compared with other archtop guitars) is extremely comfortable to play.
These can be picked up for a reasonable price on the second-hand market, with exact prices dependant on the age and condition of the instrument.
The Gibson L-5
The L-5 is Gibson’s flagship archtop and has been in continuous production since 1922.
Popularised by the great Wes Montgomery in the 1960’s (Gibson still to this day make a signature Wes Montgomery L-5 built to his specifications), the L-5 is the guitar that many players hope to one day own, despite its hefty price tag.
Comprising a fully carved 17-inch body, made from the highest quality woods, the L-5 has a beautiful warm rounded tone that looks just as stunning as it sounds.
These features and craftsmanship comes at a premium, so don’t expect to pay any less than $5000 to own your own piece of jazz guitar history…
The Trenier Guitars brand is a one-man operation ran by Bryant Trenier, an American luthier building archtop guitars in the south of France.
Inspired by great luthiers of the 20th century such as John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto, whose instruments he has over the years helped to maintain and restore, Trenier crafts bespoke archtop guitars in the tradition of these masters, citing examining instruments built by the likes of D’Angelico and D’Aquisto as the best education a young luthier could receive.
Whilst Trenier builds visually stunning instruments, he is keen to stick to the philosophy that form must be secondary to function, and that it is achieving a great tone that is always the end goal; a pursuit that is informed by the fact that Trenier himself is an accomplished guitarist.
Trenier’s ‘Modello Pasquale Grasso’ is a great example of his artistry.
Built for virtuoso jazz guitarist Pasquale Grasso’s specifications, the instrument features a neck joint at the 15th fret to allow for greater access to the high reaches of the guitar, a zero fret for tonal balance between open strings and fretted notes, and a single coil Charlie Christian style pickup, with volume and tone controls mounted on the tailpiece.
As one might expect, these exceptional examples of archtop guitars do not come cheap, and and you’ll need to join a long waiting list too…
Learn more via trenierguitars.com
Eastman make a large range of instruments suitable for a variety of genres including jazz.
Utilising traditional techniques such as hand-scalloped bracing and precision tap tuning as well as coming in a range of beautiful finishes, including their Antique Varnish Series, Eastman Guitars are great value, with the look and feel of an instrument made by an independent luthier at a fraction of the cost.
Endorsed by the likes of John Pisano and Frank Vignola, Eastman’s archtop guitars (both laminate, and carved) are particularly popular with jazz guitarists looking for that classic archtop sound and look, at a fraction of the price of what an equivalent instrument made by the likes of Gibson would cost.
They produce a vast array of different archtop guitars, but their AR372CE model is a beautiful take on the ever-popular Gibson ES-175 and their AR910CE is a great example of a fully carved archtop guitar with floating pickup.
|Eastman AR805CE-SB Arch Top|
quality maple-wood archtop with hard case
The Epiphone guitar brand, one of America’s oldest instrument makers, has been in operation since 1873.
Well-known for the large acoustic archtop guitars that they produced during the big band swing era – such as the De Luxe, the Broadway and the Triumph – Epiphone are nowadays known as the sister company to Gibson, who purchased the company in the 1950s.
They offer more affordable versions of many Gibson guitars – alongside their own range of archtops and semi-hollow instruments – and, as such, we recommend an Epiphone for those looking for a solid, entry-level jazz guitar with classic looks and historical pedigree.
Epiphone’s reissue of its legendary Broadway model first introduced in 1931, features a large hollow body, and two mounted humbucking pickups. A great choice for those looking for their first archtop guitar, this reasonably priced instrument possesses a warm tone, slim neck and classic looks.
The Epiphone Casino (their version of Gibson’s classic thin-line ES-330) is another good choice for those looking for an entry level semi-hollow body style guitar, as is the Epiphone Riviera Custom P93.
Closely associated with The Beatles, the Casino is well suited for jazz and blues guitarists due to its hollow body and those coming from a solid body guitar may find its smaller dimensions (when compared to an archtop guitar) comfortable to play.
|Epiphone Riviera Custom P93|
This semi-hollow-body maple guitar provides a warm, fat jazz sound
Heritage guitars was formed in 1985 by former Gibson employees who wanted to carry on the tradition of handcrafting high quality guitars in Kalamazoo Michigan, after Gibson moved out of their iconic factory for good in 1984.
Combining traditional craftsmanship with innovative features, Heritage guitars are firm favourites amongst jazz guitarists looking for the pedigree of an American built instrument whilst offering something a little different than a Gibson.
The Eagle Classic is similar to Gibson’s L-5 and features a carved Sitka spruce top and figured maple back. Combining traditional materials with modern construction, the Eagle is a well balanced instrument and comes equipped with mounted humbuckers modelled on the PAF pickups that Gibson would use in the late 1950’s.
Whilst a Heritage won’t have the same resale value as a Gibson, these are excellently built ‘workhorse’ instruments, fit for any serious player, and they have quickly established themselves as one of the premier manufacturers of high-end jazz guitars.
John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto are widely regarded as the two finest guitar builders of the 20th century.
After the D’Angelico brand was resurrected in the 2000’s, long after both luthiers had passed away, the new D’Angelico team worked at creating and perfecting a line of authentic reissues with the intention of delivering D’Angelico’s craftsmanship and quality at an affordable price.
These new models have been well received by professional jazz guitarists and amateurs alike, with the likes of Susan Tedeschi and Kurt Rosenwinkel endorsing their instruments.
The D’Angelico Premier EXL-1 is a particularly striking model currently in production.
Utilising John D’Angelico’s original design, the Premier EXL-1 has a balanced organic tone, coupled with signature D’Angelico features such as the stairstep tailpiece and striking headstock.
Equipped with a floating mini humbucker so as not to compromise the natural tone of the wood, this model comes in three striking finishes: Ocean Turquoise, Fiesta Red, and Champagne.
|D'Angelico Premier EXL (Hollow-Body)|
a balanced organic tone, coupled with a stair step tailpiece and striking headstock.
|Check Price on Amazon|
Benedetto have been building archtop jazz guitars in the United States since 1968.
Operating from Savannah, Georgia, Benedetto pride themselves on making absolutely no compromises in quality, or outsourcing of labour.
Alongside making some of the world’s most collectable and expensive instruments, Benedetto still caters for the professional and aspiring jazz guitarist, with their more affordable (though still premium-priced) models gaining just as much praise
Born in New York in 1946, luthier Robert Benedetto is known as one of the foremost builders of archtop guitars in the world, and follows directly in the lineage of John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto.
Despite no longer directly overseeing the construction of Benedetto guitars as production manager (a job inherited by master luthier Damon Mailand), Benedetto guitars still maintains an unimpeachable reputation as one of the finest in the world.
Perhaps Benedetto’s best-known model is the Manhattan.
The eye-watering price tag is justified by the use of only the finest materials, design and craftsmanship. A fully carved 17-inch archtop equipped with floating Benedetto pickup, the Manhattan is a stunning example of a handcrafted instrument.
Peerless archtops deliver a great jazz tone at an affordable price.
Having gained their stellar reputation producing early Korean made Epiphone and Ibanez archtops, Peerless eventually struck out on their own and now build instruments under their own name.
Endorsed by the likes of virtuoso jazz fingerstyle guitarist Martin Taylor, a Peerless instrument is a great choice for the advanced student looking for their first serious jazz guitar.
Their 17 inch Cremona comes with a carved maple top, laminated back and sides and mounted humbucker pickup.
Built with similar specifications to the iconic Gibson L5, but costing a fraction of the price this instrument offers great value for money without compromising on tone.
Equally renowned for his electric basses as he is guitars, Roger Sadowsky is one of the most highly respected instrument makers in the world.
Played by many of the great contemporary jazz guitarists, including Jim Hall, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny, Sadowsky’s archtop guitars are designed for professional gigging musicians.
Whilst by no means cheap, these instruments are roadworthy, optimised for amplified playing, and priced competitively when compared to bigger name competitors.
The Sadowsky Jim Hall model is the result of many years of prototyping and collaborating with master guitarist Jim Hall.
Designed to meet all of Hall’s requirements as a player, the instrument measures 16 inches across, features a laminate maple construction and a mounted custom wound vintage PAF style pickup.
Thanks for reading and hopefully this has given you some useful ideas for your next jazz guitar.
Looking for listening tips? Check out our roundup of the best modern jazz guitar players today!