Unlike rock, blues or metal, the guitar is not necessarily the first instrument you might think of when talking about jazz. However, over time, the guitar has proved to be a versatile and exciting instrument in the genre, and some of the greatest jazz musicians have been guitarists.
In this post, we’re going to explorer the lives and music of 20 of the most famous jazz guitar players of all time. Let’s get started.
1. Wes Montgomery
Despite a relatively short professional playing career due to his untimely death at the age of 45 in 1968, Wes Montgomery has arguably proved to be the most influential and loved of all jazz guitarists.
Unlike anyone before or since, Montgomery played entirely using the side of his right thumb as opposed to using a plectrum or traditional fingerstyle. This gave him a beautiful mellow tone which is among the most recognizable of all guitar sounds.
Apparently, he started playing in this manner so as not to wake his wife and kids up when he was practicing after a shift at the factory where he worked!
When you listen to one of his solos, notice how he often approaches them in three tiers – single note lines first, followed by octave lines and finishing with block chords.
Our recommended album of his to check out is Smokin’ At The Half Note.
- MONTGOMERY WES / KELLY TRIO W.
2. Joe Pass
After overcoming drug addiction and a stint in prison, Joe Pass turned his life around and went on to become one of the greatest jazz musicians ever.
His abilities were formidable even amongst the other players on this list, and his level of virtuosity has been compared to that of famous violinist Paganini!
What set Pass apart from his peers was his ability to play the melody, chords and bass line of a given song simultaneously.
He showcased this talent most famously on his 1973 album Virtuoso, which is considered a landmark recording in jazz guitar.
He also released several duet albums with jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald. His sense of swing was so deep, we dare you to listen to him without tapping your foot!
Check out his Virtuoso album to hear him in action.
- Joe Pass- Virtuoso
- Audio CD – Audiobook
- English (Publication Language)
3. Pat Metheny
20-time Grammy winner Pat Metheny grew up in a musical family and by the time he was a teenager was considered a prodigy – he was on the faculty at Berklee College of Music while still in his teens!
Metheny considers himself a musician first and a guitarist second – he views his guitars as ‘screwdrivers’ – tools to get the job done.
Known for his experimentation in different genres and with unusual instruments such as his 42-string Pikasso guitar, Metheny has collaborated with a huge range of artists including icons such as David Bowie and Joni Mitchell.
With a distinct tone and incredible rhythmic sophistication, Metheny’s music is always exciting to listen to.
Check out his album Bright Size Life to hear his iconic playing in action.
4. John Scofield
Alongside Pat Metheny, John Scofield is one of the truly legendary jazz guitarists still recording today.
After a spell in Mile Davis’ band in the 1980s, ‘Sco’ as he is known to his fans has gone on to record some of the most instantly recognizable jazz guitar playing around.
Bebop, fusion, blues, funk, soul and rock are all comfortably within Scofield’s wheelhouse and alongside his distinctive, edgy guitar tone, he plays with such a sophisticated sense of phrasing in his improvisations that he is practically impossible to confuse with anyone else!
If jazz guitar isn’t usually your thing, try out his album Country for Old Men (2016) where he deftly reworks classic country songs into a jazzier setting.
But, for jazz guitar lovers, a must-listen album is A Go Go.
- Audio CD – Audiobook
- English (Publication Language)
- 04/07/1998 (Publication Date) - Verve (Publisher)
5. Pat Martino
Pat Martino did something no one had ever done before…he became a world-class musician twice!
After becoming a formidable jazz guitarist in the 1970s, Martino suffered a devastating brain aneurysm in 1980 and although he thankfully survived, he was left with amnesia and had to relearn the guitar from scratch.
He went on to become even better than before and released some of the most inspiring jazz guitar playing ever recorded.
He was a master at creating blazingly fast chromatic lines throughout his improvisations and is also seen as a key jazz educator through books such as Linear Expressions or his video course The Nature of Guitar, available at www.truefire.com.
To hear some of his best work check out his album Live at Yoshi’s.
6. George Benson
George Benson is unique on this list because, in addition to being one of the great all-time jazz guitarists, he achieved huge mainstream pop success in the 1980s with songs such as Give Me The Night and Turn Your Love Around.
He also put jazz guitar in the mainstream spotlight with the crossover hit Breezin’ (1976).
Despite this commercial success, Benson’s roots lie firmly in the jazz guitar tradition of players such as Wes Montgomery, showcased on early albums such as It’s Uptown.
One of Benson’s trademarks is his ability to scat sing whilst playing the same notes on his guitar – check out the start of This Masquerade.
To hear more, check out one of his key albums Breezin’.
7. Jim Hall
Born in New York in 1930, Jim Hall recorded and performed for almost 60 years from the mid-1950s until his death in 2013.
Considered one of the great classic jazz guitarists, Hall played with a delicate, warm tone that worked so well he barely changed it throughout his long career!
Hall’s spacious and melodic playing suited these more intimate settings perfectly – check out how much space he would leave in his solos!
For more, check out his album Jim Hall: Live!
8. Kurt Rosenwinkel
Born in 1970, Kurt Rosenwinkel is one of the most important guitar players of the past few decades.
Although he is a master of classic jazz guitar playing, he is a relentless explorer who is adept at many styles and yet the thread that ties it all together is his startling improvisational ability.
YouTube music maestro Rick Beato has called him ‘the most important improvising guitarist of the past generation.’
His playing has led to collaborations with musicians such as Eric Clapton, Joe Henderson and Brad Mehldau.
Rosenwinkel now releases music through his own record label ‘Heartcore Records’ and you can purchase his incredible masterclasses on their website.
Check out his album Deep Song.
9. Bill Frisell
The ‘musing poet of jazz guitar’, Bill Frisell’s playing is truly something to behold. Difficult to pin down, his playing is effortlessly sophisticated and yet often sounds deceptively simple. Instead of flashiness, he opts for depth of feel and melody.
Over a long career, his diversity is reflected in his discography, featuring everything from ambient solo guitar musings (Music IS -2018) through to his unique take on country classics (Nashville – 1996).
Despite being 70 now, Frisell seems tireless in his creative quest, with new albums or collaborative projects being released every year. Go and get lost in the magical world of Bill Frisell!
Our favorite album of his to check out is Guitar In The Space Age.
10. Julian Lage
By far the youngest player on this list , we just had to include Julian Lage.
He is such a versatile guitarist that he shouldn’t be considered purely as a jazz player like many others on this list, however, he truly is a master jazz player!
A child prodigy, receiving praise from the likes of Carlos Santana, and being mentored by other legends like Pat Metheny, Lage is one of the foremost guitarists of his generation.
Known for his sophisticated improvisational ability, intricate compositions, and beautiful tone, Lage is truly one of the most exciting musicians recording today.
Check out his album Squint to hear a good example of his work.
- Audio CD – Audiobook
- Blue Note (Publisher)
11. Kenny Burrell
Detroit-born and raised Kenny Burrell fused jazz and blues stylings to create one of the smoothest most soulful jazz guitar sounds ever recorded.
Burrell began playing guitar when he was 12. He cites influences as diverse as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt among jazz guitarists and Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker among blues legends.
Burrell pioneered the jazz trio concept of guitar, bass, and drums in the 1950s.
His work with Blue Note Records produced jazz guitar classics, like Chitlins Con Carne and Midnight Blue. His playing directly influenced Stevie Ray Vaughan and other guitar greats of many genres.
We’d recommend taking a listen to his famous album Midnight Blue to hear him in action.
12. John McLaughlin
Many jazz historians consider John McLaughlin to be one of the pioneers of jazz fusion.
A British guitarist, He was raised on Doncaster in the UK by a family of musicians and began playing guitar at age 11 after starting with the piano and violin.
McLaughlin has been playing professionally since the early 1960s and did a lot of session work. He recorded his debut album 1969 and relocated to the United States soon after.
Upon reaching the U.S. shores, McLaughlin backed Miles Davis and played session work with a variety of bands.
He formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s and remains a highly sought session player.
We’d recommend listening to his album Extrapolation to hear his work.
13. Larry Carlton
Larry Carlton practically invented the smooth jazz genre with his fluid and soulful playing style on jazz guitar.
Many recognize Carlton’s work as a session player for Steely Dan and that band’s many successful albums.
He also earned esteem as the guitarist for the jazz fusion band The Crusaders.
Carlton is a native of Torrance, California, and began to learn how to play guitar at age 6.
He released his debut album in 1968 and produced six others from 1978 to 1984.
Carlton remains a highly sought session player and won four Grammy Awards, including for the popular Theme from Hill Street Blues television show.
14. John Pizzarelli
John Pizzarelli Jr. is the son of a jazz guitarist whose career surpassed that of his father, Bucky Pizzarelli.
Raised in Paterson, New Jersey, Pizzarelli began learning guitar at age 6 and played trumpet as well during his youth.
Pizzarelli has recorded more than 20 solo LPs and recorded on more than 40 others by artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and Rosemary Clooney.
His outstanding guitar playing and excellent vocals make him a true dual threat as a performer. As well as performing Pizzarelli has produced many successful albums for other artists.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2009 named him the winner of its annual Ella Fitzgerald award for his vocalizations.
Check out his album Meets The Beatles for some interesting arrangements of their songs.
- John Pizzarelli - John Pizzarelli Meets The Beatles
- Audio CD – Audiobook
- Sony Legacy (Publisher)
15. Earl Klugh
Primarily known for playing acoustic jazz guitar, Earl Klugh started his musical studies on the piano before switching to guitar at age 13.
He played on his first recording as a backup player at age 15 and appeared on George Benson’s White Rabbit LP before forming his own band in 1973.
Klugh and his band have toured internationally since the 1970s and recorded more than 30 albums. He has several top-10 albums on the Billboard Jazz Album chart and five that reached the top spot.
Klugh has one Grammy for best pop instrumental performance along with Bob James in 1981.
Check out his album Heart Strings.
16. Bill Connors
Los Angeles-raised Bill Connors earned acclaim as the guitarist for Return to Forever with keyboardist Chick Corea before embarking upon a solo career.
Connors started learning guitar when he was 14 and played in a blues-rock band before switching to full-time jazz at about age 18.
He performed in a live audition for Return to Forever a couple of years later and earned a spot in the band in 1973. He left over artistic and personal differences about a year later and started recording solo albums.
Connors continues to perform live at venues around the world and has been a highly sought session player.
Check out his album Of Mist And Melting.
- Audio CD – Audiobook
- 05/17/2019 (Publication Date) - ECM (Publisher)
17. Lee Ritenour
A native of Los Angeles and among the first smooth jazz guitarists, Lee Ritenour started learning to play guitar when he was 8.
By age 16, he filled his first gig as a session player for the Mamas & the Papas and a year later played with Tony Bennett and Lena Horne.
Ritenour studied classical guitar while enrolled at the University of Southern California and began recording solo albums in 1976.
His style is very funky and blends well with a variety of genres.
He won a Grammy for Best Arrangement on an Instrumental in 1985 for the recording of Early A.M. Attitude and has been nominated for many others.
Our recommend album to listen to would be Rhythm Sessions.
18. Al Di Meola
Fusion jazz guitarist Al Di Meola hails from New Jersey and attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston before joining Return to Forever at age 19.
All three albums that he made with Return to Forever landed on the Billboard Top 40 for jazz albums and stands as the band’s most successful era prior to its end in 1976.
Di Meola began recording his own works in 1976 and turned out several works that emphasized his very fast and highly complex solos and jazz compositions.
Di Meola won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Group as part of Return to Forever in 1975 and continues recording solo works.
Recommended listening would be Elegant Gypsy to hear him in action.
19. Mike Stern
Mike Sterns is a former member of Blood Sweat & Tears and has played in bands with Miles Davis, Billy Cobham and Jaco Pastorius.
He first learned guitar as a teen and studied jazz guitar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Stern released his first solo album in 1986 that featured his fusion jazz playing style.
Stern’s 1993 album Standards (and Other Songs) earned the Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year award from Guitar Player magazine readers.
Stern’s works earned several Grammy nominations and other awards.
One of his albums to check out would be Upside Downside.
20. Kevin Eubanks
Kevin Eubanks is the former leader of The Tonight Show band and grew up in a very musical household.
Eubanks studied piano, trumpet, and violin as a child before setting his sights on learning guitar.
He backed Art Blakey and other prominent jazz bandleaders in New York in the early 1980s after finishing his studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
His fusion jazz guitar stylings appear on more than 100 recordings and he continues to tour and record new works after playing with and leading The Tonight Show Band for 18 years.
One album to check out would be Zen Food.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Jazz Guitarists
The list of 20 great living jazz guitarists are among the most influential guitar players who ever lived.
Many continue performing and recording so that they can share their love of jazz music with the world.