I'd like to share with you some examples of the Charlie Christian solos that resonate with me musically. There are many opinions to be shared amongst us jazz guitarists. One thing we all seem to agree on however, is that one of the first prodigies of jazz guitar is none other than Charlie Christian.
As a guitar-playing teenager, I spent my time playing Rock-n-Roll music. Later on, I became interested in jazz music, and I began working to divine the most authentic way toward grasping this mysterious thing called "jazz." Following my teacher's advice, I went down to the record store to pick up some music. I had a list of players I had been instructed to investigate, and the name Charlie Christian was at the top of that list. One item I purchased was a collection of his work with Benny Goodman on Columbia called The Genius Of The Electric Guitar. Another one was a record that scrabbled together some amateur recordings of jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in NYC.
The Columbia record captured my imagination. I sat listening again and again the recordings, reading the liner notes over and over. I remember being particularly fascinated with a quote from Mary Osbourne where she likened his sound to that of a closely mic’ed tenor saxophone.
Charlie Christian died at 25. Tragically, he was under-recorded and there are precious few examples of his work for us to enjoy. His work with Goodman’s band, the Minton sessions, some rehearsal takes and a few amateur field recordings are all we have. I suggest you get your hands on everything and soak up as much as you can. Many examples of his playing are short, tantalizing breaks rather than extended solos. But they offer a wonderful glimpse into his style.
1. Rose Room
This solo is essential learning for any guitarist wanting to internalize some of Christian’s concepts. It’s also notable for having been one of the tunes that landed him the gig in Benny Goodman’s band. As the story goes, Goodman called the tune in an effort to "stump" the young guitarist. He presumed that Christian wouldn’t know the changes. Yet, some 40 choruses later, Christian was in the band.
The harmony of this song offers a great chance to hear him stretch out melodically. You can hear him sequentially using his chord shape/neighbor tone approach in a very methodical and compositional way. It’s also just a beautiful and sweet melody and well worth learning to have the tune in your repertoire.
This solo is a reasonable transcription goal for beginning/intermediate jazz guitarists. It is a perfect starting point to learn a complete solo rather than just grabbing snippets of lines. (If you were to grab but one snippet, I recommend the triplets line at 1:20.)
You can get your hands on a complete and well-done transcription of this solo here.
2. Topsy/Swing To Bop/Charlie’s Choice
The complete opposite to Rose Room might be this monumental solo on a song that has been known by multiple titles. Clocking in at 9 minutes, the take is 17 choruses long (9 of which are Christian!). It showcases him really taking chances and exploring more static minor sections, as well as cyclical passages.
Recorded at Minton’s, you can hear raucous applause throughout his inventions. The passage at 2:30 features a beautifully ear-bending chromatic line that manages to be both descending and ascending at the same time.
Have a look at the transcription of solo here.
3. Solo Flight
Solo Flight was a Charlie Christian feature, save for a couple of choruses by Goodman just before CC comes back in for the closing theme. It’s a tour de force of proto-Bebop change running. Hearing his incredible facility on this sophisticated form, his genius becomes apparent. He was without peer at the time!
4. Grand Slam/Boy Meets Girl
The second chorus opens at 0:53 with a compelling line. Built from a static figure anchoring a chromatically rising figure, it beautifully outlines the tonic chord. Learn it -- you’ll love it!
If you are digging around on the internet for recordings of these tracks and you have a reputable transcription, be sure to check whether the key matches the transcription as the tape speeds are all over the place on the various reissues. I found one version of this same solo that was in Eb (more or less) and was obviously considerably slower.
5. Breakfast Feud
There are quite a few takes of Breakfast Feud flying around out in the Swing-o-sphere. The one I am most familiar with (and feel is the best) is on the old Columbia collection. Starting at 1:55 on measure 5 of a blues in Bb, this short solo is almost two full choruses of jazz guitar perfection. Featuring some sly little string bends as well as a beautifully subtle diminished moment at 2:13, this solo would also be a great one to learn as entry into Charlie Christian's language.
To learn more about the man, you can watch this video:
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.