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20 Best Jazz Guitarists of All Time

June 19, 2023
jazz guitarists

At first blush, jazz is a genre of the mid-century, an elegant, cerebral musical format that pairs with well-appointed dinner clubs and sultry evening romances.

It is a sound comprised of meticulously rendered instrumental layers and crisp, romantic rhythms.  

But the richness and satisfaction of jazz don’t come merely from its expansive saxophone and warm, enlivening melodies.

It also comes from the penetrating, untempered prowess of the guitar, an oft-neglected component of the arrangement that is nonetheless foundational to its enduring impact. 

In the nimble hands of jazz’s best guitarists, the genre never remains stagnant.

Instead, it cross-pollinates with an unlikely cast of characters: progressive, classic rock, psychedelic – even the spiritually potent sounds of the sitar.

Jazz is never static, and the guitarists who give the genre its sweeping depth and amicable approachability ensure that it charts new terrain in all of its emboldened iterations.

Enjoy our list of the best jazz guitarists of all time!

1. Wes Montgomery 

Celebrated by fellow luminary Pat Metheny as the best guitarist of all time, Wes Montgomery was a self-taught savant, and it would be no exaggeration to say that he was the architect of the fifties and sixties sound.

He was a visionary, a musician who embodied an unflinching, experimental verve across a diverse subsection of stylistic movements, from soul to bop to commercial, orchestral jazz.

His experimental methods expanded the scope of jazz’s technical components, and his thumb-plucking and octave-heavy compositions were simply revelatory.

The sumptuous, atmospheric cadence of “Days of Wine and Roses,” “While We’re Young,” and “In Your Own Sweet Way” are worthy of a sustained, attentive listening.

2. Pat Metheny

Lush, erudite, and serene to a fault, Metheny is a looming godfather of modern jazz.

Metheny is a prodigy, and he got his start as a teen, becoming a teacher at Berklee College of Music at the tender age of nineteen.  

He is poignant, and his elusive intellect and meticulous technical vision have helped position him as a sojourner in a land of form, texture, and symbolism.

He has collaborated with countless artists but is most revered for his eclectic, pensive turn with his jazz fusion act, the Pat Metheny Group.

He has had a broad-ranging career that has seen him establish himself as a musician capable of alluring dualities and versatility, and he has received twenty Grammy Awards to wit.

3. John Scofield

More prolific than Stephen King, Scofield has been busy since he emerged on the world stage in the early seventies, releasing over thirty records and performing with giants like Ron Carter and Miles Davis.

Never content to settle into the same patterns and motifs, Scofield kept the personal stakes high, tantalizing his audiences with diverse and versatile melodies and rhythmic innovations.

His expansive career has taken in diverse strands of influence, from blues to funk to classic rock to pure fusion.

The bluesy luxuriance of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” emboldens the capacities of jazz, and the trippy, offbeat flourishes of “A Go Go” demonstrate the malleability of the genre.

4. Kenny Burrell

Detroit-bred Burrell was a hitmaker of the fifties and sixties, and his profile rose in tandem with the legacy of his hometown.

Performing alongside first-name-only luminaries like Chet Baker and Stan Getz, Burrell was in a class of his own.

He was the natural choice for those who sought out a musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of the form and a crafty spontaneity that reared its head at unexpected, intriguing junctures.

His 1965 Billboard sensation Organ Grinder Swing introduced his suave, self-possessed mastery to a broad commercial audience, and at 91 years old, he remains an imposing figure.

5. Allan Holdsworth

British luminary Allan Holdsworth has been dubbed the “John Coltrane of the guitar” because of his prescient, esoteric perspective, technical proficiency, and preternatural ability to render peerless sonic palettes. 

A Holdsworth piece can be restrained and taut, but so too can it erupt with resplendent, shimmering bars. 

Holdsworth was a shameless academic and a challenging thinker and creator who infused theoretical and harmonic concepts into his melodies, ensuring complexity at every turn.

His delightfully off-kilter 1980 album Eidolon blends the motifs of progressive rock with the unrestrained adaptability of jazz – give the trippy “The Drums Were Yellow” and the idiosyncratic “City Nights” a listen first. 

6. Joe Pass

The session musician to end all session musicians, Joe Pass possessed a charming temerity, a self-assured bravado, and boldness that enabled him to imbibe in alluring, unexpected currents.

He swept through the Los Angeles jazz scene with ease and was celebrated for his unflinching ability to collaborate with peers and reimagine mid-century conventions. 

Pass is best known among cursory jazz fans for his collaborations with vocal icon Ella Fitzgerald and jazz pianist Oscar Peterson.

He was foundational to the elegiac, refined sound of sixties jazz and was duly rewarded for his efforts by DownBeat magazine, which honored him with their New Star Award in 1963.

7. George Benson

Benson’s flawless technical form and effortless method of blending jazz, soul, and pop garnered him ten Grammy awards.

His stylistic abilities on guitar, paired with his comely, warm vocals and inimitable stage presence, garnered him a loyal following and a quiet degree of cult fandom.

His career was at once cinematic but also refreshingly candid and earnest.

The cheeky album The Other Side of Abbey Road offers a glimpse into Benson’s rugged, endearing self-assurance. 

8. Django Reinhardt

The original bohemian dreamer, Django, was a Romani-French wunderkind who embodied jazz’s illuminating spirit and inventive possibilities.

He is one of the preeminent European jazz musicians, and his brand of sound was saturated with heritage, cultural prowess, and the rich romanticism of the Parisian nightclub scene.  

His solos were provocative and possessed of the whispers of a bygone era of elegance, audacity, and a touch of self-deprecating amicability.

He is in many ways the godfather of gypsy jazz, and compositions like “Belleville,” “Djangology,” and “Nuages” are like spectral, haunting odes to a seductive bohemian past. 

9. Freddie Green

During his tenure with Count Basie Orchestra, which spanned over fifty years, Green established himself as a preeminent rhythm guitarist and a camera-shy, collaborative maestro.

Renowned for his decidedly minimalist ethos, he demonstrated a truism often overlooked: jazz is not merely a bold, impactful genre – it also delights in nuanced, intricate melodies that approach the listener with a healthy reticence.

You can encounter his peerless sense of timing and sophisticated melodies firsthand on 

1955’s April in Paris or his swinging 1955 solo release Mr. Rhythm.

10. Grant Green

Green seduced listeners into suspending their workaday woes by embracing the atmospheric warmth and soulful, appetizing conventions of blues.

He invited listeners to immerse themselves unabashedly in the textures and insinuations he and his bandmates dished out.

Throughout his synthesized, insatiable career, he spanned the divide between bebop, hard bop, and Latin-influenced instrumentals.

His concept-driven albums The Latin Bit and Feelin’ the Spirit play with Latin conventions and the heritage of spirituals, respectively, and embody his meticulous attention to detail and razor-sharp discipline. 

11. Mike Stern

Staging a revolt against the status quo, Mike Stern rose to prominence during the fervent and intransigent early days of the seventies when traditional jazz broke its own code of conduct and branched off into jazz fusion. 

Informed by the currents of his generation, Stern pioneered a visceral, surreal, buoyant iteration of jazz, invoking a pantheon of cultural and stylistic references.

Upside Downside offers a glimpse into his groovy, charismatically defiant style and his collage of diffuse reference points.

His hardy efforts renewing the jazz tradition for a millennium-bound generation earned him the Miles Davis Award in 2007, the namesake being a common collaborator of Stern’s in the early eighties.

13. Bill Frisell

Frisell produced an uncanny, hybridized blend of jazz, country, and true-blue Americana, challenging anyone who believes jazz belongs in a neat, identifiable box.

He gained critical acclaim as a reliable and imaginative session musician in the eighties.

He was coveted for playing well with others and highlighting the other instruments in a piece without overpowering them. 

During his turn as a bandleader and composer, he has infused a heady dose of Americana and folk into his jazz-forward arrangements.

His 1992 magnum opus, Have A Little Faith draws on the pop and easy listening of the eighties and beyond and renders jazz digestible and prodigiously inventive for a younger generation.

14. Charlie Christian 

In his 25 years of life, cut short by tuberculosis, Christian transformed the popular tapestry of jazz, bridging its fledgling, audacious twenties roots with its stylized, elegant mid-century reincarnation.

He emancipated the jazz guitar from the rhythm section with his single-string technique and dashing, swing-heavy melodies. 

His integration into the 1940s bebop scene immortalized him in the popular imagination and brought him into contact with jazz greats like Duke Ellington and swing icon Benny Goodman.

15. John McLaughlin

McLaughlin cut his teeth in the heady Britain of the sixties, where he cultivated renown doing session work and teaching icons like Jimmy Page.

He continued his reign, taking it to the international stage, when he moved across the pond and began recording with jazz legend Miles Davis. 

You know him best from his work with the experimental psychedelic jazz group The Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Mahavishnu was his surrealist musical project, a group that blended Indian sitar with spiritual flourishes, expansive jazz rhythms, and progressive conventions.

Their revelatory 1971 debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, embodied the bohemian, worldly vision that was flourishing in the countercultural atmosphere of the post-Summer of Love years.

16. Emily Remler

Before her life was cut short at 32 in 1990, Emily Remler cultivated a prolific and formidable career at the nexus of rock and jazz.

Her magisterial album Firefly demonstrates a composed, elusive master at the height of her powers, and in 1985 readers of DownBeat magazine awarded her guitarist of the year.

Her peers stood up and took notice, with jazz guitarist Herb Ellis calling her “the new superstar of guitar” and critics admiring her preternatural, effortless mastery over the guitar.

She cited Jimi Hendrix as a reference, and one can hear the quietly confident, peculiar elegance of the sixties in her refreshing arrangements.

17. Barney Kessel

Lauded for his part in the 1960s L.A. session collective, the Wrecking Crew, Kessel was a musician’s musician, a creative who perfected an incisive, potent style of jazz.

When combined with his animated vocals, his arrangements were a veritable tapestry of delightful textures and refreshing tones.

His densely rhythmic instrumentals stood on their own two feet as stand-alone fare or as luscious accompaniments to the enduring, riveting work of names like Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day.

To soak in the terribly dreamy and earthy nostalgia of a lost world, imbibe in his 1961 classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

18. Jim Hall

Jim Hall was born into a musical family in 1930, and his creative trajectory dovetailed with that of his chosen genre, blossoming with the cool jazz movement of the fifties and coming of age in the sixties.

He once taught at the Lenox School of Jazz, and this academic, classical passion for challenging arrangements and technical craft served him well in his ambitious career.

He toured with Ella Fitzgerald in 1960 and expanded his repertoire to include bebop, hard bop, and bossa nova, and he even incorporated blues inflections further into the seventies.

Performing well past the age of eighty, he maintained a tentacle-like prowess, influencing and impacting twenty-first-century jazz in all its manifestations.

19. Larry Carlton

For those in the know, Carlton is a sophisticated master of the form, a studio guitarist whose agile methodology has featured on over 3,000 recordings.

His repertoire is expansive, and his buoyant, organic take on jazz has elevated the bluesy, folksy sounds of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and the seductive Americana of Steely Dan. 

Performing on over 100 gold albums, he was admired and coveted during the seventies and eighties for his warm, candid melodies and heartfelt, intricate chords.

He was the preeminent jazz fusion performer of his day, blending pop motifs and rock idioms to create a potent and seductive blend.

20. Pat Martino

Born in the mid-forties, Martino was a master at constructing crisply-articulated riffs and polished melodies that enchant with their clean, tidy cadence.

Tragically, Martino suffered an aneurysm in 1980 and forgot his entire jazz career and technical abilities.

Loyal followers could never shake the memory of his soulful melodies or his hard bop constructions, and luckily, they didn’t have to be content with his past work as he taught himself to play guitar all over again.

In 1987, he released the aptly named The Return, which featured a spirited, spontaneous evolution of his original ethos. 

For an earlier experience of his sound, his 1972 album Footprints is blissful, thoughtful, and stylistically minimalist.

Best Jazz Guitarists of All Time – Final Thoughts

Have we succeeded in dethroning the saxophone from its lofty perch?

Have we convinced you of the enigmatic, enchanting primacy of the guitar within the jazz canon?

Are you ready to become the most enlightened, artistically vital, culturally informed version of yourself?

Jazz guitar beckons.

You may also like: Best Jazz Singers of All Time

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