Charlie Christian’s musical career was very short and took place essentially from 1939 to 1942, since he died aged only 25. Nevertheless, he was highly influential on many levels. He popularised the electric guitar by playing a Gibson ES-150; he had the technique and tone to make the guitar accepted as a lead instrument in jazz; and he was a primary figure in the development of jazz from swing into bop.
One of the many problems an aspiring guitarist has in trying to emulate this jazz legend is that no film footage of the man survives. Still, fellow jazzer Barney Kessel jammed with him, and his recollections are invaluable. ‘He played probably 95 per cent downstrokes, and he held a very stiff, big triangular pick very tightly between his thumb and first finger,’ Kessel reported. ‘He rested his second, third, and fourth fingers very firmly on the pickguard. He almost never used the fourth finger of his left hand.’ The predominant use of downstrokes makes sense: Christian was not a particularly fast player, and his propulsive phrasing and his full tone would both be helped by constant downstrokes. On the other hand, many of his pieces are played at brisk tempos – and playing with consistent, smooth swing eighth-notes at these kinds of speeds requires a formidable plucking hand action.
It’s often said that Christian played off or over chord shapes, visualising shapes on the fretboard then ‘seeing’ the related diatonic or chromatic notes, as explored in some of the following exercises. Playing with big bands, Christian was often playing in guitar-unfriendly keys such as Gb, but basing licks on chord shapes makes it relatively easy to change keys just by shifting the shape to the relevant fret.
The following exercises show licks favoured by Christian. Of course, there’s far more to his playing than trotting off a dozen or so of his favourite moves – this guitarist was able to conjure up a seemingly endless number of variations on favourite phrases and melodic devices, and seamlessly join them together when soloing. Legend has it that during an early jam session with Benny Goodman, Christian impressive and surprised Goodman by launching into 20 or so solos over the tune Rose Room, all different and innovative.
Charlie Christian recorded a number of different versions of many songs. The songs referred to here are nearly all found on Charlie Christian: Platinum Series (Red Sauce Records, 2005). The one exception is Grand Slam, mentioned in Ex 10, which can be found on The Genius of the Electric Guitar (2001).