What are the best guitars for jazz? We’ve already written about some of the greatest jazz guitarists in history but, for this guide, we wanted to focus on the gear they use.
Stay tuned for some of the key considerations and recommendations when it comes to setting yourself up to play jazz, on any budget.
|Ibanez Artcore Expressionist|
High-quality affordable guitars suitable for both modern & straight-ahead playing
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|Fender Player Telecaster (Buttercream)|
Known for their signature ‘twang’ and sparkle, these hard-bodied electric guitars are great whether playing rock, country, jazz or blues.
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#1 Budget Pick
|Gretsch Streamliner Hollow Body Aged Brooklyn Burst w/V-Stoptail & Broad'Tron Pickups|
A classic archtop guitar that is perfect for old-school straight-ahead jazz
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As one of the most versatile and popular instruments in the world, the guitar pops up in everything from classical and baroque music, via jazz & blues, through to heavy metal and rock – and most things in between.
There are a lot of differences in how these instruments are designed and set up, so it’s important when playing jazz to know what’s best for the sound you’re after.
Whether you’re looking to start playing jazz guitar or just to upgrade your current set-up, we’re going to explore the three main types – archtop, semi-hollow and solid-body – that you need to choose between.
We’ll talk about some specific (cheaper) beginner guitars, as well as the more premium models in each category. Plus, we’ll share some recommended listening tips that will allow you to hear these different guitars in action.
If you’re looking to buy a new guitar right now, here’s the quick guide…
The iconic ‘jazz’ guitar – the large bodied archtop is a beautiful hollow-bodied instrument, with a distinctive warm, chiming, ‘bell-like’ tone.
Used by many of the most iconic guitarist in jazz history, such as Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Kenny Burrell, it remains just as popular to this day.
Originally conceived as a purely acoustic instrument by Gibson in the late 19th century, most modern day archtops are semi-acoustic and feature an arched top (either solid, or laminate) and a hollow body.
The ‘f-holes’ that can be seen on the instruments top, are a design principle taken from the violin family, and assist in projecting the sound of the guitar. This is a feature that is primarily found on archtop and semi-hollow body guitars, and helps to produce the dark and warm sound often associated with jazz guitar.
These instruments look great and have a distinctive tone which is perfect for playing standards and straight-ahead jazz. Despite that, many modern musicians play them in a more contemporary setting too.
Important archtop considerations
There are some things that you might want to consider before opting for one of these instruments.
One significant disadvantage of the archtop guitar is the potential for them to feedback. Whilst there are things you can do to limit this, it certainly proves to be more of an issue than with semi-hollow or solid body guitars.
With their classic tone, they are arguably versatile as solid body guitars, so it’s worth listening to some of the famous players first, to make sure you like the sound.
Budget archtop guitars for beginners
The Ibanez Artcore range offers high-quality affordable hollow-bodied guitars, including the AF95 and AM93.
Although they may be cheaper than other models, these guitars are of a professional standard, with great tone and playability.
In short, this is a super versatile archtop guitar, suitable for more modern styles as well as the more straight-ahead!
|Ibanez Artcore Expressionist AM93ME||Check Price on Amazon|
Getting a great archtop guitar needn’t break the bank, and there are plenty of options for those looking for that classic jazz tone whilst being on a budget.
Godin’s 5th Avenue series of guitars are a good place to start.
These instruments channel the looks and feel of classic archtops at an affordable price. In particular, look out for the
This non-cutaway archtop is equipped with a single P-90 pickup, has a lovely warm tone and offers great value for money.
|Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin||Check Price on Amazon|
D’Angelico make beautiful guitars and this one is a more minimalist take on the classic archtop design.
There are also choices when it comes to colours, as well as the option to buy a ‘lefty’ version.
|D'Angelico Premier EXL-1||Check Price on Amazon|
The Gretsch New Yorker is perfect for old-school straight-ahead jazz!
It’s modelled after the original Gibson ES-150, the very first electric archtop guitar.
The lack of cutaways and bridge pickup renders it less versatile than other guitars, but if you’re looking for something vintage, this could be the one for you.
|Gretsch Guitars 9555 New Yorker (Archtop)||Check Price on Amazon|
Premium Archtop Guitars
The Gibson L5 is viewed by many as the gold standard of archtop guitars, and has been in continuous production since 1922.
Built with the highest quality woods that Gibson offer, and featuring a solid carved top, the L5 is perhaps most closely associated with the great Wes Montgomery.
It’s an instrument that simply oozes class, its iconic art deco tailpiece and golden tuning keys being features of an instrument that looks just as stunning as it sounds.
This comes at a premium however, and the price of an L5, coupled with the fact that it’s not a particularly versatile instrument is understandably not for everyone.
- Gibson ES-175
This is a slightly more affordable archtop guitar – whilst still in the ‘premium’ category – which is played by many jazz greats, including Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and Jonathan Kriesberg.
Recommended Archtop Listening
You can hear the classic warm sound of a big bodied archtop guitar on hundreds of records.
Two that capture the tone particularly well, are The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (playing a Gibson L5), and Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue (playing a Gibson L5 equipped with a ‘Charlie Christian’ pickup).
Semi-hollow body guitars are viewed by many as a great compromise between an archtop and a solid body guitar.
The solid block of wood that runs through the body of the instrument, greatly helps to reduce the feedback issues that archtop guitars are prone to, and results in a tone that is a little brighter than a traditional archtop, whilst retaining some of its warmth.
Semi-hollow body guitars are known as being extremely versatile instruments that can be used when playing all manner of styles, and many find their thinner bodies (when compared to an archtop) more comfortable to manage.
If you’re happy to lose some of the warmth that a hollow body archtop guitar provides, then perhaps a semi-hollow body guitar is for you…
Budget Semi-Hollow Body Guitars
An affordable version of Gibson’s ever popular ES-335 model, the Epiphone ‘Dot’ is a great entry level semi-hollow body guitar.
Epiphone is a subsidiary of Gibson guitars, producing more affordable alternatives to their top-level instruments.
Despite the lower price tag, they are still well-made, high-quality instruments. It’s classic looks, warm tone and versatility match its Gibson counterpart, giving you fantastic bang for your buck.
|Epiphone DOT ES Style||Check Price on Amazon|
The Artcore Vintage ASV73 is another offering from Ibanez’s excellent Artcore series.
Legendary player John Scofield is an Ibanez endorsing artist, so you’re in good hands!
|Ibanez Artcore Vintage ASV73 (Semi-Hollow)||Check Price on Amazon|
Premium Semi-Hollow Body Guitars
Gibson’s flagship semi-hollow body guitar the Gibson ES-335 which was first introduced to the world in 1958.
Co-opted by jazz musicians in the 1970’s such as Larry Carlton and John Scofield, the 335 gives you a warm tone at high volumes without feedback.
Jazz guitarists view: “My semi-hollow guitar (a Gibson ES-345) is so versatile, I use it for both straight-ahead standards and gigs with my jazz-rock group, Animal Society’’ Joe Williamson (UK)
Recommended Semi-Hollow Guitar Listening
Larry Carlton (who acquired the nickname ‘Mr 335’), is an American guitar great known for his varied and extensive sideman work across a myriad of different genres.
Whilst his solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Kid Charlemagne’ is perhaps what he is best known for, Carlton also recorded under his own name, and Night Sweats demonstrates the beautiful tone he gets from his Gibson ES-335 in a jazzier context.
As the name would suggest, a solid body guitar is built from a single block of wood and are the more standard type of electric guitar.
It’s less commonly seen in jazz, as players prefer the warmer tones of an archtop or a semi-hollow, but more specialised jazz players do opt for this type of guitar when they want a brighter sound. Closer to a rock, blues or country sound, these players will usually run it through overdrive and other effects.
Unlike hollow body, or semi-hollow body guitars, a solid body guitar will always need electronic amplification, as there are no holes in the guitar to increase resonance.
This lack of holes eradicates most feedback issues, and many guitarists also find their smaller dimensions to be more comfortable than those of a larger hollow or semi-hollow instrument.
Solid body guitars are also fantastically versatile, a factor which also has its downsides, some finding it difficult to achieve the traditional warm and dark tone of a hollow archtop guitar on a solid body.
Best Budget Solid Body Guitar – The Yamaha Pacifica
The Yamaha Pacifica 300 series is an extremely affordable and versatile solid body guitar, as well-suited to rock as it is to jazz!
Yamaha make Pacifica guitars at different price points, including a pricey Mike Stern signature model, used by the jazz-rock great himself, but the 300 series offers good playability and fantastic value for money.
As previously mentioned, though, if you’re looking for that classic warm jazz tone, we’d recommended looking for a semi-hollow or hollow body guitar.
|Yamaha Pacifica Series PAC012DLX||Check Price on Amazon|
Best Solid Body Guitar – The Fender Telecaster
The Fender Telecaster is a highly versatile and iconic guitar, perhaps best known for its use in country and blues music.
These instruments are known for their signature ‘twang’ and sparkle which is very different to the more conventional round, warm jazz guitar tones!
Its warm tone however has found it fans in the jazz world, and has proven itself to be a favourite amongst musicians looking for a lightweight and durable instrument capable of tackling all manner of tasks.
Bill Frisell and Julian Lage are known for using Telecasters, which when amplified and compressed, have a bright twang and rich sustain well-suited to their country-inspired take on jazz.
Highly customisable, and available in models to suit every budget, the Fender Telecaster is a good bet for those looking to play jazz on a solid body guitar.
|Fender Player Telecaster Electric Guitar||Check Price on Amazon|
Recommended listening – Solid Body Guitars
Check out Ted Greene’s stunning debut record ‘solo guitar’ to hear the sound of a hard body guitar (Th Fender Telecaster) in a jazz setting.
Hopefully this guide gave you some better insight into your options when it comes to buying a great jazz guitar. If you’re looking to complete your set up with a killer guitar amp and great jazz strings, we’ve covered that too.
And, as always, let us know in the comments what your set up of choice is: Archtop, Semi-Hollow or Solid-Body?
Looking for more? Find everything else on our jazz guitar homepage
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!