What can be said about Charlie Christian that hasn’t already been dutifully noted in the jazz guitar log book? A light that shone brightly and briefly, his death at the age of 25 left a frustratingly small discography that fans have pored over in detail while extracting as much information as possible.
His groundbreaking playing and concepts laid the path for all future practitioners of the electric guitar and also for the emerging language of Bebop. When you hear Charlie Christian (if you’re hearing him for the first time) it’s easy to hear everything he plays and take it all for granted.
Remind yourself that every double stop lick, sweet little bend, or joyful cascade of arpeggios had literally never been tried before on the electric guitar! His sound (while sharing musical vocabulary with many of the other instrumentalists who were his contemporaries of the swing era) was unprecedented on the newly showcased electric guitar.
Speaking of Vocabulary!
The big thing about Christian is that he lived on the cusp of the Swing and Bebop eras and as many have noted before would almost certainly have been at the forefront of the music with Charlie Parker and the gang had he lived. His late night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and other future bebop luminaries are legendary. While the sessions yielded a few field recordings, it is but a tantalising glimpse into what might have been.
What we hear in his playing is still firmly in the swing vernacular but edging closer to the kind of stretching chromaticism that would be the hallmark of bebop. The harmonic language of swing was not yet rife with the extravagant chord substitution that would give rise to the kind of extended harmonies explored by Parker and Gillespie, Bud Powell and JJ Johnson.
There is a kind of beautiful specificity to Christian’s take on the swing language that can make it challenging for modern players raised on the guitar playing of the entire 20th century. Very few guitarists I know can truly cop this style convincingly for long without some anachronistic element working its way into their playing. Someone who really has explored the style very authentically is Montreal guitarist Jordan Officer. Check him out!
A great example of this kind of melodic and harmonic specificity would be the sound of the tonic major chord. Major 7 chords were not the de facto resting major sound in swing music. That job went our friend the Major 6 chord. That sounds like a small detail (and it is, really), but when so many of our drills in jazz pedagogy revolve around arpeggios that include not only the 7th but the upper structures, and our ears and hands have a tendency to go there, playing lines that sound like “Swing” can be challenging. We can’t see the forest for the trees!
What I hear (to paint broadly) is an emphasis on the Major Pentatonic sound to generate melodies. With his inventive use of chord shapes rather than scales to navigate the fretboard, he nimbly improvised around these shapes adding chromatic and diatonic embellishments.
Take any of your basic moveable major chord shapes and try to use them to orient yourself to the basic chord tones as well as the 6th and the 9th (or 2nd). How many notes? 5! There’s your pentatonic major. Now for the time being, avoid the 4th and the major seventh but try to add other chromatic notes to the 5 core pitches.
Now you’re getting into a colour pallet that sounds like swing music. And it forces you to be specific in a way that can get lost to ears brought up in the Anything Goes/Bebop /Dodecaphony/Public-Enemy-Sampling-James Brown/Autotune Era. Think of it as improvising by omission. Stay away from that major seventh and the perfect 4th, and start improvising in “Swing Major”!
Once you’ve laid out the palette and explored a bit, try composing some lines using these parameters. They don’t have to be long (but they can be if you want!) but try a bunch. If you don’t read/write music, use your techno gadget of choice to record them. Then go to the source and listen to Charlie Christian again. Or for the first time. In fact, that might be a pretty cool experiment. I hope someone reads this who has never heard Charlie Christian, composes a bunch of lines then goes and compares notes with Charlie.
(Supplemental to all of this, there's a great section in Barry Galbraith's book The Fingerboard Workout that touches on this idea of using chord shapes to visualize melodic elements. It's on page 32 in my edition and the header says Cycle Of Fifths By Position. In ex. 1b Galbraith uses a line from Charlie Christian's solo on Rose Room to illustrate this concept. It's a really valuable piece of the puzzle for anyone still mystified by fretboard geography.) Read on Charlie Christian Top-5 Solos.
Use Gravity: Like Charlie Christian
"I'm the first person to walk on this hill. And this one. And this rock over here..."
He also would have been having that gear talk by himself. Maybe with some sock puppets. "Hey Lester Young, what tubes should I put in my Gibson EH-150 amp? You know, the one that came with this Gibson ES-150 electric guitar strung with the only electric guitar strings on the planet?" (Blank stare from Lester Young. Goes back to sorting his reeds...)
Suffice it to say, he was making it up as he went along with the gear that was available at the time. And what was available sounded pretty amazing. An archtop electric guitar with a single coil magnetic pickup paired with a 15 watt tube amp became pretty definitive for a long time after that. The lovely overdrive he achieved by driving the amp to be heard above the band probably wasn't intentional, but it sounded great.
What about technique? That wasn't exactly set in stone yet either. I can't be sure what his left hand was doing fingering wise (though we can infer a lot by studying his use of chord shapes rather than scales) but his right hand was a steady downward stroke that imbued every note with a beautiful burnished tone. He might have explored alternate picking had he lived longer, but he didn't so we are left with his legacy of inventive melodies rendered with the sureness that only measured down-strokes can deliver. (1000 Punk Rock bands can attest to that.)
So much of studying the greats of this music (and all music) often becomes reduced to investigating the influences of the person we're learning about in order to better understand how their style and sound was formed. In the case of Charlie Christian, we really are going to the taproot of jazz guitar.
It would be silly to say he was without influences as no one develops a musical identity in isolation. But he was largely without any guitaristic influences. Any aspiring jazz guitarist can dig right in to his recordings and start transcribing, absorbing and learning from his ideas without any doubt as to the origin of the ideas. It still sounds fresh today! Beginners can learn the basics of jazz guitar from him, and experienced players can be reminded of certain musical truths that can get obscured in the quest to find the newest, hippest ways to play jazz guitar. Sometimes it's best to go to the source.
Steve Raegele is a guitarist based in Montreal. He’s played many styles of music (except Bluegrass) in dozens of cities across 4 continents. He enjoys playing jazz, rock, R&B and improvising creative music. As a sideman Steve has played the music of Thom Gossage, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Nicole Lizée, Christine Jensen, and many others. His trio record, Last Century, is available from Songlines.
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