When tracing back the root of rock and roll invariably you at least pass through the big ensemble sound of the thirties. But before they could be heard above the din of the woodwind and brass sections guitars needed a jolt of electricity and they needed Charlie Christian.
Labelled by Gibson as “the first guitar hero,” Charlie Christian can be said to boast a number of accolades. An influential figure in guitars across genres, Christian sent shockwaves around the globe with his musical style. Could he also have produced the first guitar solo?
The first electric guitar may have arrived in 1931, as the ‘frying pan’ was played by Hawaiian jazz lap steel players. But quick development of the electric pickup proceeded throughout the 1930s, and Christian bought his Gibson ES-150 in 1936, a year after it came out.
It would only take two years before Christian began to find fame as a regional player. With his band operating out of Bismarck in North Dakota, the word was slowly spreading about Christian’s talent and as his model of guitar hung in a shop window it had a sign next to it which read: “As played by Charlie Christian.” The guitarist had gained some notoriety.
Christian would eventually join the Benny Goodman orchestra in 1939 but not before an audition which would highlight the lack of importance the guitar possessed in jazz. After the guitarist performed ‘Tea For two’ with the band, Goodman was left unimpressed. But John Hammond, jazz impresario and genuine musical genius, spotted his talent he made sure to sneak Christian and his electric guitar on stage for an appearance at the Victor Hugo Restaurant. It was there that Christian really made his name.
As Goodman began to let loose on stage Christian matched his clarinet riff for riff and soon began improvising over 20 choruses on his guitar. He had inadvertently become the world’s first electric guitar soloist. So much so that the lines and patterns Christian used that night eventually became Benny Goodman tunes. It was a tour de force.
Although many will argue that Christian wasn’t the first man to give the electric guitar its first solo but he was most certainly the man to be so good at it that he made it stick. With its imprint now firmly on music, Christian had set up the instrument’s dominance over the 20th century. The guitarist would record most of his work in a brief two year period between 1939 and 1941 (some of which can be heard below) before dying way too young at just 25 years old.
All in all, although you may be able to argue he wasn’t the first guitar soloist, there’s an angry bunch of Hawaiians who would agree, you can never argue that anyone but Charlie Christian is the first guitar hero.
Source: Open Culture