Four pre-1950 Jazz Guitarists you should know

Django Reinhardt - Public Domain - Library of Congress - Gottlieb CollectionIt’s time for a history lesson. Today’s subject: Early Jazz Guitarists. Our source material comes from YouTube where you can find filmed examples of most of the great guitarists starting in the second half of the Twentieth Century. There is a problem finding examples of earlier jazz guitarists who were filmed playing during their lifetime and who have clips available on YouTube. Thus, some of the following are still photos or photo montages with music. Still, there are some great videos that will get you introduced to the most influential guitarists.

Eddie Lang is the earliest of the guitarists I am going to present. He was one of the first guitarists to use the instrument for solo playing instead of just as a rhythm instrument. He was at his peak in the 1920s.

The influence of Eddie Lang on guitarists has been acknowledged by George Van Epps, Barney Kessel and Les Paul. He has been called the father of jazz guitar. He played with with some of the great artists including Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, Bing Crosby and Lonnie Johnson – an influential jazz and blues guitarist .

Django Reinhardt formed the Hot Club in 1934. I couldn’t find any filmed footage of him that had been transferred to video and YouTube so the video is just a photo montage with Django’s music playing in the background.

This video shows a photo of Django with a Gibson archtop guitar but he was of course better known for playing Selmer guitars designed by Mario Maccaferri. The Selmer designs have become permanently associated with the Gypsy jazz style of playing made famous by Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club.

Freddie Green started playing rhythm guitar with Count Basie in 1937. He continued with Count Basie for the next 50 years. He played big archtops that provided an important part of the rhythm, on the beat, four to the bar. Although he is not known for solos – he was strictly a rhythm player, he apparently took a solo when playing with the Benny Goodman Big Band in 1038.

One of his famous guitars was an 18 inch Stromberg. In the video, notice how he holds the guitar on his lap, angled up and mic’d from above.

Charlie Christian was one of the first jazz guitarists to play electric guitar and take solos along with the other artists in the band. The peak of his playing was with the Benny Goodman band from 1939 to 1941.

The video is another without any live recordings of the artist. He played a Gibson ES-150. The pickup on the early ES-150 became known as the Charlie Christian pickup.


None of these guitarists were the true firsts for the examples I cited. But they were the famous and influential who inspired future guitarists.

Guitarist Born Died Peak years Guitars
Eddie Lang 1902 1933 1920s Gibson L4 and L5
Django Reinhardt 1910 1953 1930s – 1940s Selmer
Freddie Green 1911 1987 1940s until his death Stromberg
Charlie Christian 1916 1942 1939 – 1942 Gibson ES-150

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