If you have been paying attention, you might have noticed some of the same guitars in the hands of different jazz guitarists. There is good reason for this. These guitars have specific tonal characteristics that lend themselves to the style. Which one you choose will depend on what you need as a guitar player with regard to tonal consideration, versatility, and playability.
Some of the guys that are strictly straight-ahead jazz players will probably want to stick to a hollow body archtop, while others playing jazz and some of its more modern offshoots might prefer a solid body. Today, we will go over the pros and cons of a few of these to help you make a decision.
Gibson ES 175
Everyone from Wes Montgomery to Jonathan Kreisberg has used this guitar for all of their jazz recordings and it is no wonder why. Because the guitar is hollow, it provides that nice, fat tone that jazzers seem to love. It has also got a very comfortable neck and comes equipped with two ‘57 Classic humbuckers.
This guitar does tend to run a pretty penny, however. It is unlikely that you will find one under $2500. Furthermore, as a hollow body guitar, it does not necessarily lend itself to high-gain situations and, therefore, it is not a very versatile guitar.
Ibanez Artcore AKJV90D
This guitar is a great cheaper alternative to the more expensive hollow bodies. Most archtop hollow bodies tend to run a pretty penny, and the cheaper ones often fall way short. I added this one to the list, however, because I feel it is a happy medium. This guitar has got nice round tone, is very easy to play, and is actually quite nice to look at!
These run around $750 new, but I have also seen them go for $500 used. As with the previous example, this guitar lends itself better to straight-ahead jazz situations over other contemporary styles where high gain might be required.
Gibson ES 335
Ah, now this one is indeed a classic. The Gibson ES 335 is a bit of both worlds as it lends itself to both, straight-ahead and modern contemporary styles. It is only semi-hollow which means it can handle more gain/volume without causing too much feedback, but it is also capable of producing a nice round tone for jazz.
Even in a jazz context, I have always loved adding a bit of drive to these for lead tone. Of course, it is not quite the same as the 175, but it is still a favorite of many of the greats such as John Scofield, Larry Carlton, and more. There are different versions of these, but I have seen prices range anywhere from $1500 to about $4000.
The Fender Stratocaster is one of the most versatile electric guitars there has ever been. There have also been many, many companies who have all done their own thing with this classic design. Indeed, it can be found in a number of different styles such as jazz, rock, blues, funk, and even heavy metal! This guitar has a wide array of tonal possibilities and it is no surprise that so many players from all walks of life love it.
Since it is a solid-body guitar, it will not give you quite as fat a tone as some of the previous guitars mentioned, but you can still get a nice warm sound if you roll off some of the tone and get your EQs right. I particularly love using that setting for comping and maybe letting some of the “spank” come out for lead playing.
These guitars range anywhere from $200 to several thousand dollars in price. As far as popular guitars go, this one is definitely a household name.
Much like the Fender Strat, the Telecaster offers much of the same versatility with slightly different tonal characteristics. This guitar is known amongst country players for its wonderful twang, but it is just as capable of handling high-gain rock situations, funk, and yes, jazz. It is no wonder why it is a favorite of giants like Mike Stern.
Additionally, much like the Strat, this design has been adopted by many different companies who have all made some wonderful versions of it as well. As is also the case with the Strat, it is a solid-body and, while it does not provide the same roundness in tone as some of the hollow and semi-hollow guitars, you can get some really nice jazz tone out of it with some EQ and tone manipulation.
This guitar is also a big household name amongst popular guitar models and, for that reason, has a wide range of pricing options. I have seen these go from $200 to several thousands of dollars.
Honestly, there are so many options and variations of classic designs that it is impossible to tell anyone what the right choice is. As such, I felt it would be necessary to list a few more options that I might also suggest to a friend or student.
Eastman - This is a very popular brand of string instruments that makes some great cheaper alternatives for hollow bodies.
Sadowsky - These guitars are absolutely gorgeous, play wonderfully, and sound unbelievably good. The downside is that they can run a pretty penny. I do not believe I have seen them go for less than $4000.
D’Angelico - These are classic guitars that come in a wide array of different designs. They make some really fantastic hollow and semi-hollow versions. It is easy to see why a player of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s caliber swears by them.
What makes one guitar better than another?
The right guitar for playing jazz or any other style really depends on the player. We have all got different opinions of what sounds good and how we like our guitars to feel. This list does its best to rank what I believe are the most commonly used and adored guitars in jazz music - but you won't truly know whether a guitar is the best until you've had the opportunity to play it yourself.