What are the best guitars for jazz? And what about jazz amps? Or strings? 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.
So keep reading for some of the key considerations and recommendations when it comes to setting yourself up to play jazz.
As one of the most versatile 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.
As as you might expect from such a widely-used instrument, there are a ton of subtle (and not so subtle) differences in how these instruments are designed, set up and played.
Whether you’re looking to start playing jazz guitar or just to upgrade your current set-up so it’s more suited to this style of music, here’s our guide to some of the key choices you need to make, which famous jazz guitarists you might want to copy and recommendations on some specific gear.
Aside from the instruments themselves, we’ve also covered some of the best jazz guitar amps, as well as the different strings you might choose from.
If you’ve got experience with some of these, or others to recommend, feel free to share your tips in the comments section…
- 1 Choosing a jazz guitar
- 2 Best jazz guitar amps
- 3 Buying Jazz Guitar Strings
Choosing a jazz guitar
The iconic ‘jazz’ guitar – a beautiful hollow-bodied instrument, with a distinctive warm, chiming, ‘bell-like’ tone.
A classic example is the Gibson ES-175, favoured by players from all corners of the jazz world, including Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and Jonathan Kriesberg.
The large body gives an earthy warmth to the tone, which is also clear and articulate. Archtop guitars sound great when played clean, and are perfect for standard, straight-ahead jazz – although many musicians play them in more contemporary jazz too, it’s always the same distinctive sound that shines through.
Depending on the model you buy, these guitars can feed back quite easily, especially when played through effects at higher volumes.
Entry-level Archtop Guitars
- Ibanez AF95
The Ibanez Artcore range offers high-quality affordable hollow-bodied guitars, including the AF95. Although they may be cheaper than other models, these guitars are of a professional standard, with great tone and playability. This is a versatile archtop, suitable for more modern styles as well as the more straight-ahead!
- D’Angelico Premier EXL-1
A beautiful guitar, with more minimalist take on the classic archtop design.
- Gretsch G9555 New Yorker
Perfect for old-school straight-ahead jazz, this is modelled after the 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.
A semi-hollow guitar has a solid block of wood running through the body, with a hollow chamber on either side. These instruments retain some of the warmth of the arch-top, combined with the more focussed, ‘electric’ sounds of solid-bodies.
They also aren’t prone to feedback like their hollow-bodied cousins, meaning they’re well-suited to playing louder and using effects. Very versatile instruments indeed!
A classic example would be the Gibson ES-335 – played more contemporary players such as John Scofield, Larry Carlton.
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)
Entry-level Semi-hollow Guitars
- Epiphone Dot ES-335
Epiphone is a subsidiary of Gibson guitars, producing more affordable alternatives to Gibson’s top-level instruments. Despite the lower price tag, they are still well-made and high-quality instruments. This is an entry-level equivalent to the iconic Gibson 335.
- Ibanez Artcore Vintage ASV73
Another offering from Ibanez’s excellent Artcore series. John Scofield is an Ibanez endorsing artist, so you’re in good hands!
Solid-body guitars are the more standard type of electric guitar, less commonly seen in jazz, as players prefer the warmer tones of an archtop or a semi-hollow.
However, more specialised jazz players opt for a solid-body when they want a brighter sound, closer to rock, blues or country, and will usually run the guitar’s sound through overdrive and other effects.
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.
Virtuoso solo guitarist Ted Greene also played a Tele – check out his album ‘Solo Guitar’ for some juicy, shimmering tones!
Naturally, jazz-rockers sometimes favour these instruments too – Mike Stern is known for playing a Yamaha Pacifica.
Entry-level Solid-Body Guitars
- Fender Player Telecaster
Telecasters are known for their signature ‘twang’ and sparkle – very different to the more conventional round, warm jazz guitar tones!
Fender’s ‘Player’ series offers a range of affordable variants of their famous instruments. Classic Fender feel and quality with a better price tag.
- Yamaha Pacifica 300 Series
This guitar is 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, but the 300 series offers good playability whilst still being affordable.
Best jazz guitar amps
Tube amps – also known as ‘valve amps’ – use vacuum tubes to amplify your guitar signal, and were the first type of electric guitar amplifier.
They have a distinctive warmth, and are very responsive to playing dynamics – turning the guitar’s volume down or playing softer can produce a cleaner sound, and turning up or playing harder makes the tone more aggressive.
Tube amps are very versatile – they can provide a rich, warm clean tone, but when they are turned up, the tubes naturally saturate the sound and produce overdrive.
Some amps, such as the classic Fender Twin Reverb, are designed to be super-clean, even at louder volumes (known as having ‘headroom’).
Fender amps are a favourite among jazz guitarists.
Tube amps can be large and heavy, and require maintenance – the tubes themselves need replacing about once a year! They sound best when turned up at least moderately loud. The tone may be unsatisfying on the lowest settings, so they may not be appropriate for quieter gigs.
Tube amps for Jazz
- Fender Blues Junior
Fender have a range of excellent tube-powered amplifiers. The Blues Junior offers the same rich, clean sounds as the more expensive models, whilst being more affordable and portable.
- Fender Blues Deluxe
A bigger, better (heavier) model from Fender. More low end and tweak-ability than the Blues Junior, plus a separate overdrive channel.
- Vox AC30 C2
A less conventional choice. Vox amps tend to be brighter, ‘janglier’ and have less prominent low end than Fenders – however, John Scofield has done beautiful things with a Telecaster and an AC30!
Solid state amps use transistors to amplify your signal. They tend to be much smaller and lighter than tube amps, but can be surprisingly loud for their size!
They produce a clear, crisp clean tone which doesn’t saturate at higher volumes, like a small tube amp would. Some jazz players prefer solid state amps designed for acoustic instruments, such as the AER compact 60.
These are designed to not add any colour to the sound of your instrument, and pair especially well with archtop guitars. Small, light, and powerful, solid-state amps are very portable and don’t require regular maintenance like tube amps.
Solid-State Amps for Jazz
- ZT Lunchbox
The ZT Lunchbox provides great tones in a very compact package. Julian Lage has been seen to gig with one of these! There are minimal controls, but this little thing can produce remarkable volume for its size!
- AER Compact 60
The AER is a go-to amp for many jazz players, including Russell Malone. Designed for acoustic instruments, this amp is very transparent, and played with an archtop, can produce a rich, warm, ‘wooden’ tone.
- Henriksen Blu 6
Henriksen produce compact, solid-state amps designed for jazz, providing beautiful high-quality solid-state warmth. Blu is their most affordable model, but still features a great tone, and lots of control over EQ.
Buying Jazz Guitar Strings
The string gauge refers to the thickness of the string. Sets are referred to by the thickness of the thin E string, 0.09s being ‘light’, 0.11s being medium, and 0.12 or 0.13 being ‘heavy’.
Lighter gauges are easier to press down and bend, making them easy to play, and tend to have a thinner sound. Heavier gauges are harder to play, but have a warmer tone.
Unsurprisingly, most jazz players prefer heavier gauges, tending towards 0.11s to 0.13s.
Most brands of strings are available in multiple thicknesses.
Roundwound vs Flatwound strings
The lower strings of the electric guitar are wrapped in a second wire. Most guitar strings are round-wound, using a rounded outer wire.
These strings are bright, with lots of overtones, and work well with more ‘electric’ guitars, such as semi-hollows or solid-bodies.
Flatwound strings are wrapped in a flat wire, producing a more mellow, duller tone, favoured by straight-ahead guitarists, such as Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell.
Commonly paired with archtops, using these strings will give you an authentic, old-school tone.
- D’addario ECG24 Chromes Flat Wound
Among the most popular strings for jazz guitarists, these are an excellent choice for flatwounds!
- Thomastik GB112 George Benson Flat Wound
Made by Thomastik to George Benson’s specifications, these high-quality strings are only available in higher gauges, starting at 0.12.
- Ernie Ball Slinky
These are a great, affordable, all-round string for electric guitar, available in many different gauges.
- Thomastik-Infeld Power Brights
As the name suggests, these strings produce a brighter tone than most, coupled with a long sustain, and a stronger sound. These are designed to enhance harmonics, and work excellently with overdrive.
They are very versatile, too – the brightness can be easily tamed with the tone knob of your guitar.
- Kemp Strings
Kemp Strings are another great all-rounder, with great tone and sustain, but they also feature a unique ‘equal sensitivity’, meaning that the force required to bend the each of the strings is the same, unlike conventional sets, where bends are impractical on the thicker strings.
“Kemp strings are really fun to play – they feel and sound great, and the equal sensitivity for bending opens up all kinds of new creative possibilities!’’ Joe Williamson, guitarist & endorser of Kemp Strings
I hope this guide gave you some better insight into your options when it comes to buying a great jazz guitar, amplifier or strings. And, as always, let us know in the comments what your set up of choice is. Archtop, Semi-Hollow or Solid-Body? Solid-state or tube amps? Roundwound or Flatwound?
Looking for more jazz guitar? Check out our interviews with these jazz guitar legends:
Last update on 2020-06-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API