Guest post by Alex Bruce
Are you looking to foray into jazz guitar for the first time? Picking the right guitar can be overwhelming when there are so many options on the market. Whether you’re new to guitar as a whole & know you want to focus on jazz, or whether you’ve already played a little bit of rock and blues but want to explore jazz further, there’s something here that’s sure to help you find the right instrument.
The very first thing to say is that to a certain extent, the term “jazz guitar” is a little misleading. Any guitar can be played in a jazzy way – a stylistically inappropriate instrument wouldn’t hold back a master like Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery, or John Scofield. To that point, buying a $10,000 vintage Gibson is not going to transform you into an aficionado overnight. As always, the most important things are practice, enthusiasm, listening and all those other old favorites you’re sick of repeatedly hearing about.
Having said all of this, playing a nice guitar well-suited for jazz does make a difference - in tone, feel and probably your own comfort and enthusiasm too. Here’s a look at your main options, to help you make an informed choice. Remember that ultimately there’s no substitute for getting into a store and trying a few guitars to see how they feel and respond. Even if this will be your very first guitar and you don’t know how to play anything yet, you can assess the comfort/size/shape/sound of it - and maybe take a trusted friend/family member who can play, to advise and help you.
Here’s a breakdown of the choices available to you, their features, and the pros and cons.
Archtop guitars are the large, fat, traditional jazz guitars you’d probably see an old jazz player with in a photograph. An archtop guitar has a hollow body and its top and back are arched, not flat. They’re the most traditional kind of jazz guitar, and certainly do provide a warm mellow jazzy sound and look the part too. There are issues, though: they can be costly, create feedback due to the large hollow space inside, and can be quite a bulky choice, tricky to handle if you’re not already very comfortable with a guitar in your hands.
- The original, authentic, classic jazz guitar tone and look
- Can feel very big and uncomfortable
- Can potentially create lots of unwanted feedback
- Fewer sound/tone possibilities than some other guitar choices
- Can be expensive
I’m aware it may sound like I’m giving archtops a bad rep here, which is not my intention at all. archtops are great and have their place, but they’re not usually the correct choice for the beginner. It can be an uncomfortable guitar to learn how to play, difficult to amplify with control, and can be restrictive in relation to playing other styles. Save this choice for your second jazz guitar, when you’re a little more advanced, knowledgeable and further down the jazz route!
Hollow & Semi-Hollow Guitars
Semi-acoustic (hollow) and semi-hollow bodied guitars are thinner than archtops and have flat (not arched) tops and backs. Semi-acoustics are fully hollow electric guitars, whereas semi-hollows have a block of wood through the middle of the hollow space, so they’re not entirely hollow. You’ll see a lot of modern jazz players using this kind of guitar, but it also has that element of versatility that’s not really present with an archtop. You’ll also see these guitars in blues, funk, indie, soul, and just about every stylistic scenario, except maybe metal, where the lack of absolute power and the potential presence of feedback could again be an issue.
- Thinner body / more comfortable to hold and play
- Still provide a great jazz tone, but more versatile guitar in relation to other styles and genres.
- Can be a more affordable choice of guitar
- Can still feel large at first
This presumes you’re not going to be playing a lot of metal, because if so, the semi-hollow isn’t necessarily going to be so great. Other than that, you have a choice that’s way more versatile than the archtop, more comfortable, but can still produce a great jazz tone, that only a serious jazzer could tell from the archtop sound. The semi-acoustic or semi-hollow are great halfway house options to explore the jazz style and discover and learn more without breaking the bank, your back, or being less able to play some other styles.
Solid Body Guitars
As they sound, solid body guitars are solid! These guitars are staples of the guitar world, famously like the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster models. There are some excellent quality, very reasonably-priced entry level models in the Fender range and some great copies at even better prices by reputable makers like Yamaha. A good jazz sound is achievable on a solid body guitar, although there can be a lengthy list of styles that they’re arguably better suited to than jazz: rock, blues, funk, indie, country, and more.
- A compact, versatile, inexpensive option
- Good jazz sound is achievable
- Not the authentic jazz sound/look - At times too twangy/rocky
There’s nothing about playing a solid-bodied electric guitar that will hold you back in your jazz development at all, it’s more about having the right dedication, learning the techniques and theory, practicing guitar scales, listening and enjoying. However, given the choice between semi-acoustic/semi-hollow and solid body, an aspiring jazz player would be well advised to choose the semi-acoustic/semi-hollow.
My overall verdict is to go with a semi-acoustic or semi-hollow model. If you’re a jazz fanatic who doesn’t mind the bulkiness of the archtop, then go for it. If stylistic versatility and price are key factors for you, then a solid body may be the way to go. But as a jazz guitar beginner, a semi-acoustic / semi-hollow is a fantastic way to go.
As for makes and models, I’m keen to make it clear that nothing beats going to a store and trying out a few guitars, especially with a more-knowledgeable friend. Likewise, read some reviews, watch some demo videos, and so on. It’s an important choice. To give you a few pointers on makes though - have a look at Epiphone, Gretsch, Washburn, Ibanez and Vintage. All have some incredibly good semi-acoustics / semi-hollows in the region of $250 - $400.
Good luck on your jazz quest. Enjoy!
Alex Bruce writes for GuitarTricks.com. Guitar Tricks® invented online guitar lessons in 1998, and has grown its comprehensive lesson library to over 11,000 lessons, and over 700 songs, with top-notch instructors from all over the world. Guitar Tricks has lessons for everyone, whether you’re an absolute beginner learning guitar or an advanced guitar player looking to improve your technique.
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.
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