From early icons like Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian to later greats like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery, the topic of best jazz guitarists is subjective and open to plenty of discussion.
There are, however, a core group of legendary jazz musicians on this instrument who made an enormous impact on the development of the style.
We’ve compiled this list of some of the most famous guitarists in jazz who will transport you from the very beginnings of its history to those who are still playing today.
The goal? More great listening discoveries and, for the players amongst you, additional inspiration for your own music-making!
21. John McLaughlin
Described by guitar royalty Pat Metheny, as the world’s greatest guitarist; John McLaughlin was born in Yorkshire in the UK in 1942 and spent time in London in the 60s doing mostly session work and teaching (most notably Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones!).
Although this polished his technique on the guitar, he found this unsatisfying and moved to the US where he began to play with both Tony Williams’ Lifetime and Miles Davis, recording ‘In a Silent Way’ the day after Mclaughlin had arrived in New York.
After working with Miles Davis, McLaughlin’s study of Indian musical and philosophical concepts deepened. His guru Sri Chinmoy gave him the title ‘’Mahavishnu’’ leading to the name of his own band ‘The Mahavishnu Orchestra’ who’s perplexing and revolutionary sound has international acclaim, blending North and South Indian rhythmic concepts with Jazz and Rock music.
Recommended John McLaughlin album – The Inner Mounting Flame
1971 saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut studio album ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ with John McLaughlin on guitar, Jan Hammer (keyboard), Rick Laird (bass), Billy Cobham (drums) and Jerry Goodman (violin).
This albums raw and explosive performances and compositions will blow you away, even 50 years after its release.
20. Pat Martino
Born in 1944 Pat Martino was a jazz guitar player rooted in the tradition of the music who played mostly with a clean tone unlike a lot of other rock/fusion crossover players on this list.
Although he is known for playing mostly standard repertoire, his solos were revolutionary and groundbreaking as he built his own modern sound with diminished and chromatic lines played at blazing speeds with immaculate articulation.
Martino performed professionally until 1980 when he suffered a brain aneurysm resulting in amnesia and inability to remember anything of his jazz career. Martino then essentially relearnt the guitar rediscovering playfulness akin to that of a child, describing the guitar as his favourite toy.
Recommended Pat Martino album – Footprints
Featuring the great Billy Higgins on drums, Bobby Rose (guitar) and Richard Davis (bass), Footprints is a real highlight of Pat Martino’s earlier career.
Martino effortlessly navigates through some of his favourite standards with exquisite narrative solo lines and outstanding interplay of the 4 musicians on this 1972 record.
19. Larry Carlton
Unlike many of the best jazz guitarists who sit in the limelight demonstrating their virtuosity, Larry Carlton is primarily a studio guitarist who has featured on over 3,000 recordings, with his sophisticated and versatile artistry winning him numerous Grammys.
His spacious and tasteful jazz-influenced playing can be heard with acclaimed artists such as Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Joan Baez, and Michael Jackson.
Recommended Larry Carlton album – Larry Carlton
Alongside his prolific output of music as a sideman, Carlton’s work as a leader displays his own fantastic ear-catching bluesy/funk solos. A highlight here is ‘Room 335’, named after Carlton’s studio it was recorded in, dedicated to his iconic Gibson ES-335 guitar.
18. Allan Holdsworth
Although not necessarily a famous jazz guitar player amongst the general public, amongst fellow musicians Allan Holdsworth is regarded as one of the most advanced and trailblazing guitarists to have ever lived.
Born in Bradford in the UK, Holdsworth is often dubbed “the John Coltrane of the guitar“, having pushed the envelope with his phenomenal dexterity and pioneering music theory concepts.
Recommended Allan Holdsworth Album – Sixteen Men of Tain
Since the 1980s, Allan Holdsworth was known for his esoteric and eye-watering jazz fusion playing on both guitar and an early form of guitar synthesizer: the ‘SynthAxe’.
This was all present later in his career, however this release from 2000 is a slightly less demanding listen as Allan Holdsworth’s fretboard sorcery is used in moderation and his SynthAxe playing, more restrained.
17. Emily Remler
Born in New Jersey in 1957, Emily Remler was a rising-star American jazz guitar player whose life and career was cut tragically short.
She began her recording career in 1981 and maintained a steady flow of releases both as a bandleader and side-musician until her untimely death in 1990 aged just 32.
Remler’s early influences straddled jazz and rock, running the spectrum from Jimi Hendrix to Pat Martino, Charlie Christian & Joe Pass and her recorded output hinted at what might have come had her career developed.
Recommended Emily Remler album – Firefly
Whilst in California, Emily met Carl Jefferson, the president of Concord Records, and scored an album deal.
This album was her first recorded effort under the Concord Jazz label and mixed two original compositions with six jazz standards and compositions written by the greats, such as Wes Montgomery, of whom she was a big fan.
On the back of the success of Firefly, Remler was offered an extension on her recording contract for an additional three albums.
16. Barney Kessel
Guitarist Barney Kessel was a member of the Wrecking Crew, the famed collective of L.A. session musicians, in the 1960s. However, he also had serious jazz credibility, playing in the bands of Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and Oscar Peterson.
Known for his ability to sensitively accompany singers, he recorded extensively with Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, as well as featuring on Julie London’s incredibly successful rendition of ‘Cry Me a River’.
Recommended Barney Kessel album – The Poll Winners
Kessel, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelley Manne dominated the reader polls on their respective instruments in magazines like Downbeat, Metronome and Playboy in the mid-1950s. As a result the three West Coast jazz stars recorded a series of albums as ‘The Poll Winners’.
This, the first of five that they would release under the name, is a fun and swinging selection of standards. Kessel’s appearance as a sideman on Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders is also highly recommended.
15. George Benson
Influenced by the likes of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, ten-time Grammy award-winning guitarist and vocalist George Benson, is widely acknowledged to be the greatest jazz cross-over artist of all time.
Blending Soul, Jazz and Pop music, Benson is a jack of all trades with an innate ability to entertain with bags of virtuosity and an effortless cool swagger.
Although he is most often marketed for his rich and soulful vocals; Benson’s jazz guitar credentials are what gives him a place on this list.
Recommended George Benson album – The Other Side of Abbey Road
Alongside jazz greats such as Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock, Benson covered an entire Beatles album, starting work on it only 26 days after Abbey Road had been released!
Expect a groovy and soulful performance from Benson as well as thrilling solo’s from Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard.
14. Larry Coryell
First coming to prominence with Jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, Larry Coryell was a multi-faceted and diverse jazz guitarist whose refusal to confirm to any one genre led to his recording with artists all the way from Ron Carter and Tony Williams through to Art Garfunkel and Jon Anderson.
Recommended Larry Coryell Album – Eleventh House with Larry Coryell
Coryell’s eclectic taste and finesse on the fretboard is displayed with his seminal fusion group, Eleventh House. Expect blazing technical mastery, huge grooves and complex compositions on this Rock, Funk and RnB infused jazz fusion classic.
13. Charlie Byrd
Born in 1925, American guitarist Charlie Bird, favoured the classical guitar as opposed to a lot of the electric jazz guitar players that feature on this list. Byrd toured in World War 2 with his guitar in the military, where he first heard and indulged in jazz music in Europe.
His tastes continued to evolve in the early 1960s as he was sent by President John Kennedy on a state department tour of Latin America. Here he found his love for Brazilian music.
Recommended Charlie Byrd album – Jazz Samba
When he returned from this Latin American tour, Bryd recorded the ‘Jazz Samba’ with Stan Getz. This Bossa Nova record was perhaps the first to be recorded in America and hit at the peak of Bossa Nova craze in the States, leading to Charlie Bryd’s widespread fame.
Like a number of guitarists on this list, Jim Hall was initially inspired to take up the instrument after hearing recordings of Charlie Christian.
He first received attention as a member of interactive, thoughtful Cool jazz groups such as Chico Hamilton’s quintet and Jimmy Giuffre’s forward-thinking trio, before sideman work with Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan and other big names.
Some of the highlights of his incredibly rich, long and varied career include: his early drummer-less trio sessions with Carl Perkins and Red Mitchell; his work in Sonny Rollins’ early ‘60s quartet on The Bridge and What’s New?; live albums in duo with Ron Carter; Art Farmer’s influential quartet with Hall, Steve Swallow and Walter Perkins or Pete Laroca; Paul Desmond’s cool quartet on records like Take Ten.
Hall, also a prolific composer, continued recording until 2010, often joined in his later years by top younger sidemen like Bill Stewart, Larry Goldings, Scott Colley and Greg Osby.
Recommended Jim Hall album – Undercurrent (with Bill Evans)
Jim Hall and Bill Evans enjoyed a fruitful musical relationship in the 1960s, with Hall featuring on two brilliant Evans quintet albums: Interplay and Loose Blues. They also made Undercurrent, a beautiful duo set from 1962.
Evans and Hall are both first-rate soloists and accompanists, and they split soloing and comping duties evenly, as well as sometimes opting to improvise single lines simultaneously to thrilling effect. The pair would collaborate in a duo setting again with Intermodulation in 1966.
Iconic jazz guitarist Pat Metheny burst onto the scene as a prodigious talent in the mid-1970s, with a three-year stint in vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band and, at 19, becoming the youngest teacher in the history of Berklee College of Music.
In an extremely wide-ranging career he has collaborated with musicians as varied as minimalist classical composer Steve Reich; jazz legends Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall and Herbie Hancock; Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, and even pop star David Bowie.
His Pat Metheny Group, featuring long-time collaborator Lyle Mays on keyboards, has generally been his main outlet for jazz fusion music, but he has also released more traditional jazz albums, like 1991’s Question and Answer, with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes.
He has reached a level of mainstream popularity that few jazz musicians attain, winning 20 Grammy Awards and becoming the first person to win Grammys in 10 categories.
Metheny was an early proponent of the 12-string guitar in jazz, and has also used a 42-string Pikasso guitar and the guitar synthesiser.
Pulling in influences from across the history of jazz, as well as fusion, Brazilian music and folk from various cultures, he has created a progressive sound that revolutionised the way we view the jazz guitar.
Recommended Pat Metheny album – Bright Size Life
Metheny’s debut for ECM was released in 1976 when he was just 21, and it is also the first major recording of the great electric bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Bob Moses, with whom Metheny had played in Gary Burton’s band, completes this trio of highly melodic improvisers.
The guitarist is heard on both six and 12-stringed guitars, and a number of his original compositions are inspired by his mid-western upbringing. This is remembered as one of the most accomplished and fully formed debuts in the history of jazz.
10. Bill Frisell
Jazz guitar player Bill Frisell has an instantly recognisable sound, with a spindly tone that is steeped in Americana and country music.
He first came to prominence during the 1980s and has had a long association with ECM Records. His own bands have often had unusual instrumental lineups, as exemplified by his use of cellist Hank Roberts in his quartet during the 1980s.
He was a long-time member of Paul Motian’s bass-less trio along with Joe Lovano, which explored the leader’s compositions alongside standard songs, and he has also worked as a sideman with John Zorn and Jan Garbarek.
His own albums have taken on an array of themes, ranging from film music, the music of John Lennon, standards, bluegrass and original composition.
Recommended Bill Frisell album – Have a Little Faith
This 1992 set looks at an amazingly broad selection of American music: Aaron Copeland’s ballet Billy The Kid, Sonny Rollins’ ‘No Moe’, Madonna’s ‘80s pop ballad ‘Live To Tell’, Sousa’s ‘Washington Post March’, the Victor Young jazz standard ‘When I Fall in Love’.
Scott Yanow’s All Music review called Have a Little Faith “One of the most inventive albums of the ‘90s”.
9. Mike Stern
The 1970s were a pivotal time for jazz music as the existing blend of cultures that led to hard-bop and post-bop evolved further as new musical frontiers were explored.
The amplified sounds of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix started to spill over into the jazz world creating an amalgamation often referred to as Jazz Fusion. One of the best jazz guitarists that resided here was the fierce, experimental and distinctive Mike Stern.
Having graduated Berklee College of Music in the mid 70s, Stern developed a flexible style with the ability to improvise extremely quickly and fluidly with his signature ‘’big, spacey sound’’ using chorus, reverb and delay.
Recommended Mike Stern album – Upside Downside
Upside Downside is a must for any guitar lover as Stern oozes lyrical virtuosity on this funky electric jazz fusion album.
With spacious ballads alongside heavy grooves Mike Stern gives exactly what you want to hear next to Dave Weckl’s big gated 80s snares.
A virtuoso instrumentalist, Joe Pass’s innovative approach to playing solo, and the clever way that he arranged chords and melodies, has influenced countless subsequent jazz guitar players.
He was known for his versatility, working extensively as a Los Angeles session musician as well has landing high profile gigs accompanying Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, with whom he recorded a series of duo albums in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Interestingly, he is quoted as saying that he consciously avoided the influence of other great guitarists, instead transcribing Charlie Parker and trying to sound like a horn player:
“I never copied anything that Charlie Christian played. I can’t play any of his solos, I don’t know how they go… I never copied Django.”
Recommended Joe Pass album – Virtuoso
At times when listening to this 1973 solo set it’s hard to believe that you’re only hearing one guitar.
Proving that he didn’t need the accompaniment of other musicians to swing hard or create a full sound, Pass is incredibly inventive with his use of techniques and textures on Virtuoso, perhaps the most important solo guitar record.
Hailing from Detroit, a city that has produced an astonishing number of famous jazz musicians, Kenny Burell was one of the most in-demand sidemen of the 1950s and ‘60s, recording with Kenny Dorham, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Blossom Dearie, Donald Byrd and many others.
The great jazz guitarist is still active, leading the Jazz Studies programme at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles and continuing a remarkable career – having made his recording debut with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie back in 1951.
He also made plenty of well-received albums as a leader, perhaps most notably for Blue Note Records and Prestige.
In the late 1950s he held the guitar chair in Benny Goodman’s band that had previously been Charlie Christian’s, and Duke Ellington famously described him as his favourite jazz guitarist.
Recommended Kenny Burrell album – Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane
‘Freight Trane’ (a ‘Blues For Alice’-type blues in A flat by Tommy Flanagan) is one of the highlights of his enjoyable 1958 set, as is Burrell’s own ‘Lyresto’.
Other brilliant Burrell-led albums include A Night at the Vanguard and the soulful Midnight Blue.
John Scofield is known to have started playing guitar at age 11, giving up his homework for a year in order to hone his skills.
This in time, led to his virtuosic abilities both as a player and composer as he went on to release over 30 records as a leader playing with the likes of Miles Davis, Dave Holland, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter placing him firmly as a player on the international jazz scene.
John Scofield is a stylistically diverse player whose sound uses a mixture of post-bop and rock with a gritty and distorted bluesy edge to it.
Recommended John Scofield Album – EnRoute
Regarded as a rite of passage for both pianists and guitarists, the trio format is perfectly executed here by John Scofield’s trio of with Steve Swallow of bass and Bill Stewart on drums.
The longtime friendship of the three can be heard as they spontaneously twist and turn through a mixture of jazz standards and originals like at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York in 2003 on the album, ‘’EnRoute’’.
5. Freddie Green
It’s now time to divert our attention away from the limelight of blazing solos and discover a jazz guitar legend who helped to shape the role of the rhythm guitarist in swing music.
Often referred to as the master of rhythm guitar, Freddie Green epitomised the role of an accompanist in the big band being an integral part of the Count Basie Orchestra for over 50 years.
Rarely taking solos, Green brought a minimalist approach often playing only one or two note chords per measure.
Even when playing denser chords, Green would mute certain strings so that only one note was clearly heard with the others just being felt, creating his unique, modest and unamplified sound that was still able to cut through the orchestra providing a strong quarter note pulse.
Recommended Freddie Green album: April in Paris
His signature style, heavy pick and bronze strings can be heard on Count Basie’s album’ ‘April in Paris’.
Recorded in 1955, Green can be heard in the iconic rhythm section with Count Basie, Papa Jo Jones and Walter Page, keeping the flame burning from the swing era with this vibrant record.
Christian was one of the first performers to embrace the electric guitar during the mid-1930s, popularising it as a jazz instrument and finding national fame with Benny Goodman’s hugely popular swing outfit, which he joined in 1939.
His soloing style is often described as ‘horn-like’, and his linear playing sounds notably similar in improvisational style to the saxophone playing of Lester Young.
He was involved with the birth of bebop, jamming with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Don Byas at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.
Charlie Christian died in 1942, aged just 25, having contracted tuberculosis, but has influenced virtually every famous jazz guitar soloist since.
Recommended Charlie Christian album – Solo Flight, The Genius of Charlie Christian
Christian barely recorded as a bandleader, but this compilation brings together some of his most notable work with Benny Goodman, including some with Count Basie at the piano, as well as some quintet tracks under Christian’s name.
3. Grant Green
Green generally opted for an uncluttered linear jazz guitar style, rarely playing chords.
Following early professional performances with gospel bands, his bluesy, soulful soloing was often heard in the company of organ players in hard bop or soul jazz settings.
Legendary Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion was a huge fan, and Green recorded dozens of sessions as both bandleader and sideman for the label during the 1960s and early ‘70s.
From the late 1960s until his death in 1979, aged just 43, his music became funkier and more commercial.
Recommended Grant Green album – Idle Moments
Green’s 1960s Blue Note albums all feature A-list bands – the likes of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Louis Hayes and Larry Young all crop up on various sessions – and 1965’s Idle Moments is no exception, with a fabulous frontline of Green, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
Duke Pearson’s slow, moody title track lasts almost 15 minutes.
Before the invention of the amplifier, jazz guitarists largely played an accompanying role within groups, as their solos could not be heard clearly over the rest of the ensemble.
Django Reinhardt, a Belgian-born Romani-French gypsy, changed all that with his band the Quintette du Hot Club de France, which he fronted with the violinist Stéphane Grapelli.
With an instrumentation that only featured string instruments (Reinhardt, Grapelli, two rhythm guitarists and double bass), the quintet’s softer sound allowed Django’s virtuosic acoustic soloing to be heard clearly.
He is considered one of the most influential European jazz musicians of all time, despite the fact that he played without the use of the third and fourth fingers on his left hand after they were badly damaged in a caravan fire while he was still a teenager.
Recommended Django Reinhardt album – The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order
Most of Django’s output predates the LP, but this compilation includes much of his classic work with Grapelli as well as transatlantic recordings with big name Americans like Coleman Hawkins.
Swing Era standards make up most of the repertoire, plus a few of Django’s original compositions, including future Gypsy jazz standards ‘Swing 39’ and ‘Hungaria’.
Wes Montgomery is arguably the most famous jazz guitarist in history and deserves his place at the top of this list for numerous reasons.
He was known for his unusual technique of plucking the guitar strings with his thumb, his distinctive way of playing in octaves and the fact that he used very heavy strings as a jazz player.
Self taught as a guitarist, he was initially inspired by hearing Charlie Christian.
Montgomery was famed for his stamina, working long hours as a welder before playing through the night at Indianapolis jazz clubs.
He played hard bop and soul jazz until the mid-1960s, when his albums began to take on a more commercial hue, with the guitarist often backed by orchestral string sections.
He recorded with his brothers during the late 1950s and early ‘60s: Buddy Montgomery played vibraphone and piano, and Monk Montgomery played double bass, later pioneering the electric bass.
Wes died suddenly of a heart attack in 1968, at the height of his popularity. Pat Metheny calls him “the greatest guitarist of all time”.
Recommended Wes Montgomery album – Smokin’ at the Half Note (with the Wynton Kelly Trio)
This 1965 live album see Wes accompanied by Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, the three of whom had formed the rhythm section of Miles Davis’ quintet from 1959-63.
Montgomery’s powerful soloing on top of the incredibly swinging rhythm section make this one of the most influential jazz guitar albums ever.
You can also check out our guide to 10 great Wes Montgomery albums.
Thanks for reading our take on some of the most famous jazz guitarists of all time.
Of course, there are plenty of others we could have included, so feel free to add your comments below.
To dive deeper into the topic of the modern guitar scene, check out our pick of the most essential modern jazz guitarists today.
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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