Previous answer

Back to Yahoo Jazz Guitar Group FAQ

Next answer

Press Alt+P, Enter for Previous

Press Alt+B, Enter to return to Main FAQ

Press Alt+N, Enter for Next

How do I get that Jazz Guitar Tone ...?

by YJGG member John Clarke msg #3354


One of the most fascinating things about the guitar is the range of sounds it can produce. The best players, armed with the instrument and amplifier of their choice, can produce a tone as unique as their signature or fingerprint. Much has been written in guitar magazines about tone production and individual style, particularly in the context of rock, R&B and popular music. But what about the jazz guitar ? The personal voice and expression of the improvising jazz guitarist is arguably one of the pinnacles of musical aspiration. Many commentators have dealt with the playing styles of the jazz guitar masters. But what about their tone ? Is it just a matter of acquiring a vintage arch-top and a Polytone or valve-powered amplifier ? As an aspiring jazz guitarist many years ago, I thought this was all there was to it, but I could not afford the hardware. What I now know is that all arch-tops aren't the same, construction, woods and pick-ups matter as much as for any guitar; and that much fine jazz guitar has been produced on other guitars. Even more importantly, I know that most of the tone comes from the fingers and soul of the player. The goal is a tone which is attractive in itself, so that it will enhance and not detract from what you are actually playing in terms of notes. Secondly, for a jazz musician, a `personal' voice is an asset. There's no `standard' tone, as can be the case in other types of music. To explore jazz guitar tone in more detail, let's look in Part I of this article at guitars. In Part II, next month, we'll look at everything else which affects tone, including amps, of course.


The Arch-tops The arch-top guitar, with its large curvaceous body, f-holes and superficial resemblance to classical stringed instruments was designed in the twenties by Gibson's Lloyd Loar. The design goal was volume. Dance bands of the day featured a rhythm guitarist, and to be heard without amplification they required a bright penetrating tone. The large resonant body and top produced this in plenty, especially when strung with heavy strings. But the laws of physics dictate that, in terms of energy, you can only get out what you put in. So if the note is going to be loud it will not last for long. Sustain, the holy grail of the contemporary guitarist, was not considered so important, and the stylistic developments which required it were decades away. These early arch-tops produced little memorable music in the hands of the dance-band guitarists, but there were some fine players who used them for solo and small group music of great sophistication. We will never know, because high fidelity recordings were not then possible, how those early arch-tops really sounded in the hands of such masters as Eddie Lang, Carl Kress or Dick McDonough. But don't let this stop you checking them out for their musical content, as their recordings are readily available.

The first Gibson arch-top was the L5, with the L50 and L7 following soon after. These guitars featured large bodies and carved solid spruce tops. The L50 was made until 1968, the L7 survived until 1970 and the L5 is still made to this day. These guitars have been used by such notables as Jimmy Raney, Bamey Kessel, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. They produce a warm punchy tone with great depth, perhaps a little too much when it comes to controlling feedback.

Feedback with a jazz guitar is highly undesirable, and is different from the controllable kind used to great effect by Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. Likely as not the strings which are feeding back with an uncontrollable and un-musical boom are not the ones you're playing. Because of the low frequency resonance of the large body, the lower strings are the most vulnerable. Arch-top players have solved the problem in a number of ways. Some have used a George van Eps string damper, which is a damping pad which presses down on the strings between the nut and first fret, thereby stopping open string feedback. Others have resorted to taping up the f-holes, which lowers the resonant frequency of the body, or of filling the body with foam or cotton wool. Another way is to use the heel of the right hand to damp those strings not being played. Other Gibson arch-tops of note are the ESI50, used by electric jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian, the ES175, and the Super 400. There were also many signature models. The Johnny Smith, The Tal Farlow, and the Barney Kessel models featuring in sixties catalogues but not selling in large numbers. The thin bodied Byrdland and the round-holed Howard Roberts arch-tops introduced in the seventies are also worth mentioning, as are some contemporary models by Epiphone, Aria, and Heritage.

Just as with Fender's Telecaster, one of the most successful and best sounding Gibson arch-tops was the cheapest - the ES175. The list of users of this model reads like a who's who of jazz guitar and includes Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Pat Metheny and avant garde-ist Derek Bailey. Its shorter scale simplifies the fingering of many jazz chords. The ES175 doesn't feature the awe-inspiring craftsmanship or beauty of the L5, L7 or Super 400, but it has a more even and thicker tone. Its stiffer laminated top was cheaper to build than the solid carved ones, but to many ears actually sounds better when amplified, although not acoustically. Back in the thirties makers such as D'Angelico, Stromberg and Epiphone vied with Gibson to produce bigger and louder arch-tops. The Super 400 was Gibson's answer. Longer by 1 1/2", and wider at the lower bout by nearly 2" than an ES175, it's a huge guitar. Players of Super 400s include Larry Coryell, Louis Stewart and Kenny Burrell. Another maker to feature in the arch-top market is Guild. Their X500 model is a fine instrument but with the two important exceptions of Johnny Smith and George Benson (in his earlier years), it never achieved the same level of star endorsement as Gibson. Both Guild and Gibson still produce arch-tops, but today's aspiring jazz players have some other alternatives which don't require a second mortgage. The Ibanez Joe Pass and George Benson models are excellent instruments as is the Aria Pro II played by Herb Ellis. But stay clear of the cheapest oriental makes which have little to offer other than pose value (although, an exception proving the rule is Jim Mullen's Aria, as he gets a great tone from it).

So, to sum up, if you're looking for sustain don't buy an arch-top. Also, if you like the acoustic tone of a Martin or Guild flat top you'll probably find the un-amplified arch-top overly hard and bright in comparison. Plywood topped guitars like the ES175 can sound positively `clanky', but plugged-in, those short firm notes, provide the building bricks of the fluid horn-like lines jazz guitarists love so much.

A spruce-topped L5, L7, Super 400 or Johnny Smith will give you the best deep "woody" tone, but be prepared to spend some very serious money for, second-hand, these are now rare collectors' pieces.

Laminated top models may well give a tone you prefer. A new or second hand ES175 is a more reasonable buy but still expensive compared to a top flight solid guitar. Watch out for new or secondhand Ibanez Joe Pass and George Benson models, which are outstanding value. The Heritage Company, founded by ex-Gibson employees are also producing new arch-top guitars of a comparable quality to Gibson's original ranges. They are not cheap, but do manage to capture much of that real arch-top tone.

Alternatives to an Arch-top

You can, however, get a good jazz tone without recourse to an expensive arch-top. Try the neck pick-up of a Telecaster with a fair amount of treble rolled-off. It's a warm thick tone used by Joe Pass on his early records, and also by the under-rated Canadian guitarist Ed Bickert. Don't forget also our own Jim Mullen, who got a superb tone from his Telecaster during his days in the Morrissey-Mullen band. One of the most individual contemporary guitar sounds is that of Mike Stern His guitar? A Telecaster, with neck-position humbucker fitted. The Gibson ES335 (Larry Carlton) and ES330 (Grant Green) produce an excellent bluesy jazz tone, but older models can be very expensive. Besides Gibson's Semis, look out for similar models by Aria, Epihone, Yamaha and Ibanez, the latter being popularised especially by top contemporary jazz guitarist, John Scofield. His Ibanez AS200, is a great sounding and playing instrument, and Ibanez should make and sell many more of them. Scofield's signature sound is commented on by all who appreciate his playing, even non-guitarists. He has been quoted as saying that the AS200 enables him to do things he can do on no other guitar. But don't expect it to sound like a Gibson 335 - it's totally different. Not better or worse, just different. An overview of guitar tone in jazz would be incomplete without a look at the acoustic players. I've already mentioned the arch-top acoustic pioneers such as Eddie Lang. Then of course there's Django Rheinhardt. Django's genius flowed out of a flat-top guitar built by Mario Maccaferri in 1932. It featured an inner resonating chamber to boost volume. Little was seen of the acoustic guitar in jazz until Charlie Byrd and Antonio Carlos Jobim popularised the Bossa Nova in the early sixties. But this music has never been widely recognised as top- flight jazz and this, perhaps, has something to do with the nature of the classical instrument's sound. A decade later saw the emergence of more acoustic jazz as new technology pioneered by the Ovation company produced good sounding acoustic guitars which could be amplified without major feedback problems. John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell and Bill Connors have ill produced interesting jazz on these instruments, and many more have experimented with the `un-plugged' sound. Finally, what about those giants of guitar music outside the field of jazz - the Les Paul and the Stratocaster. Amazingly, these guitars feature hardly at all in the inventory of guitars favoured by the major jazz players, perhaps for the following reasons. Firstly, it is well known that Strats and Les Pauls sound best played loud. Guitar volume in jazz has often been constrained, quite rightly, by the need for balance with acoustic instruments such as the piano, the saxophone and the double bass. Played at lower levels these guitars just don't sound that good. Secondly, the sustaining qualities of these instruments, which have made them so popular in rock and blues, seem to work against the production of clear chord punctuation and the well articulated jazz "line". In Part II next month, we'll look at everything else which effects tone - strings, picks, pick-ups, tone and volume controls, cables, amplifiers, speakers, and effects - and you thought getting a great guitar was all you needed !



Last month we looked at the role of the guitar itself in producing a good and individual jazz guitar sound. This month, we'll look at all the other factors affecting tone, including amps.


Strings, picks, controls, and leads

Strings - the first choice is round-wound, flat-wound, or half- round. Round-wound are brighter, warmer and retain these qualities longer than flat-wounds. They can sound squeaky with lots of treble, but this is not the reason many jazz guitarists prefer flat-wounds. Flat-wounds, compared to round-wounds, sound acoustically `dead' right out of the packet, but jazz guitarists often prefer their fuller sound and clean articulation on fast runs. Half-rounds are a compromise - the best, or worst, of both worlds depending on your point of view ! The other choice is gauge. Jazz gauges start where rock leave off. Rock/Blues Light, Medium and Heavy sets are 9, 10 and 11, whilst Jazz Light, Medium and Heavy would be 11, 12 and 13 (or higher, if you like Wes Montgomery !). For round-wounds, 11s are a good place to start, 12s for flat-wounds. Yes, manufacturer makes a difference too - they aren't all the same. Different alloys and winding techniques are used which affect sound and `feel'. There's no `best' here - you need to experiment until you find what's right for you.

Picks - here, also, heavy is better, and material makes a huge difference. You cannot go wrong with Jim Dunlop Jazz IIIs, but `Pick- Boy' do an old fashioned `mock' tortoiseshell pick which can sound good, too. Gibson and Fender picks tend to be too thin and hard for a good jazz tone.

Controls - both Volume and Tone affect tone, Volume especially if you have a long lead. Aim to have it on about `7' for your maximum volume, rather than full on. This loses a bit of treble, but more gently than using the Tone control. Use a bit of that too, but not with full treble cut if you want to retain any individuality in your tone !

Leads - all hi-fi buffs know leads affect sound, and guitar leads make a difference too. Choose a good quality make - ones with `Klotz' cable are especially good as this cable has a special construction which sounds good. Not too short or too long, about 10' is ideal.

Pick-ups A guitar pick-up is basically a magnet surrounded by a coil of wire. So they should all sound the same, right ? Not so, pick-ups sound hugely different. Single or double (`humbucker') coils, method of winding, number of turns, type of wire, type and shape of magnet all affect the sound. Placement of pick-ups also matters - screwed to neck, floating on pick-guard, or mounted on the body of the guitar near the neck or bridge also affects the tone. The first leading voice of the electric Jazz guitar was Charlie Christian. The Gibson arch-top he used was fitted with one of the first pick-ups, and it's a unique one which was named after him. The pick-up was constructed from two L-shaped magnets, the long arms of the "L" being bolted to the underside of the guitar's top. The short arms of the "L" form the pole-pieces, protruding through a hole cut in the top of the guitar at the usual neck position. A coil surrounds these and is covered at the top by a black plastic rectangle triangulated at each end. There's a notch in the pole- piece under the B-string, to improve the balance of the sound. These pick-ups gave a huge output of several volts, not in order to produce the "full-shred" some players require now, but to drive the relatively insensitive amplifiers of the day. They are rare and no longer made, but those around are prized for the special sound they produce. Apart from Christian himself the best known user of this pick-up is Barney Kessel, who has one fitted to his Gibson L7. The pick-up which superceded the Charlie Christian, and which was fitted to most jazz guitars until the hum-bucker was invented, was the Gibson P90. These can still be obtained, but seem to sound best when found on vintage instruments. They have a thick but sweeter tone than the Charlie Christian, their only disadvantage being susceptibility to hum.

When Seth Lover invented the hum-bucker in 1957, Gibson began immediately to fit them to the electric models of their arch-top range. The "Patent Applied For" (PAF) sound is one manufacturers have striven to duplicate. Models from Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Bartolini, Ibanez, Schaller and Kent Armstrong have been used by jazz players, on jazz instruments, and offer a warm clear tone free from background noise. Another popular pick-up from Gibson is the Johnny Smith model. The PAF - type hum-bucker usually requires holes to be cut in the top of the guitar. Not surprisingly, many owners of arch-tops not factory fitted with pick-ups have been reluctant to do this. The Johnny Smith pick-up is attached either to the neck, or, at the bridge position, to the pick-guard. These "floating" pick-ups are scaled down hum-buckers designed for a very even response. They sound different, partly because of this, but also because a hum-bucker mounted on the guitar top moves relative to the strings as the top vibrates. This combination of both string and top vibration contributes to a tone preferred by many players. A modern equivalent of the Johnny Smith pick-up is made by Bartolini, and is now the pick- up of choice on the best arch-tops. For those unwilling even to screw a pick-up to the neck of their cherished instrument, the De Armond company manufactured a pick-up with a control assembly which clamped to the strings between the bridge and tail-piece. A thin rod was connected to this clamp and ran parallel to the strings up as far as the neck. The pick-up was mounted on this and can slide up and down for optimal positioning. Although De Armond pick-ups are noted for their fine jazz tone the clamping arrangement doesn't work well and the rod is often found in modified form screwed to the neck. Amplifiers and Speakers

When it comes to amplifiers jazz guitarists are relatively un- demanding in terms of wattage, but more so in respect of tone. Valve powered combos used to be the norm, with models from Gibson, Ampeg and Fender predominating. Single channel units with basic tone controls are adequate and have been used nearly always in combo form with one or two 12" speakers or sometimes two or four 10" speakers.

Modern valve amps recreate the retro look, but use modern components for better reliability. There is also a big market in replacement speakers, these being specially constructed using the `old-fashioned' techniques and materials in order to get the sought-after vintage tone which rock and blues players love. They can sound good for jazz too, although the amplifiers of some of the best players have been loaded with very `high-tech' speakers from JBL and Electrovoice. Personal taste rules here, and it's worth experimenting. In recent years transistor amplifiers emerged with models from Roland, Yamaha and especially Polytone being popular with jazz players. So many guitarists use these Polytones now that a same-ness of tone has emerged. They are a safe bet, but not a good choice if you are looking for a more personal tone (see SJGS January issue for a controversial view on these un-deservedly popular amps). The early advantages of transistor amplifiers - size, weight, higher power, and better reliability have been eroded by modern valve designs with the same attributes, except for wattage, and jazz players don't need that. In any case, watt for watt, a valve amp will sound louder than a tranny. Effects The use of effects by jazz guitarists is very much a generation thing. The older players such as Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass and Jim Hall appear to have a loathing of any kind of signal processing, although 1 have heard Jim Hall use chorus on a recent Eddie Gomez album and Wes Montgomery used a tremolo effect on a few occasions. The younger players have, however, embraced new technology with open arms and use it to great effect. Jim Hall has commented that the stage at a Pat Metheny concert "looks like mission control". But if you like his playing you'll agree that his use of modulated stereo delay is instantly recognisable. Other guitarists using stereo set ups are Mike Stem and John Scofield. Mike Stem uses a deep and fairly rapid stereo chorus effect derived from a Yamaha SPX 90 sound processor augmented by a Boss digital delay. It sounds beautiful, especially when comping behind horn players such as Michael Brecker or Lew Soloff. When he kicks-in his overdrive pedal on top of this he can wail like the best of the rockers, but with the harmonic sophistication of a jazz musician. Scofield's tone is much more bluesy, and like Metheny, is recognisable after just a few bars. He uses an Ibanez stereo chorus, on a slower, shallower setting, coupled with a Pro-Co Rat distortion pedal set at a low "crunch" level. Once you've tried stereo guitar, the usual sound seems very flat. Any budding contemporary player should seriously think about buying two second hand amplifiers instead of one new one. Remember you're getting twice the power so 25/50 watt combos will do, and two of these are more portable than say a Fender Twin or Roland JC 100 for the same wattage. Heavy distortion in jazz guitar playing is unusual but John McLaughlin in his Mahavishnu period, and with Miles Davis, relied on it to produce "sheets of sound" based on a Gibson twin-neck SG derivative, Marshall amplification and a formidable technique.

The Future For guitarists, it seems, the future is in the past. The innovations are in recreating `vintage' tones more effectively, and ventures into new sounds using guitar synths have not really taken off. Guitar synthesizers extract pitch and other information from special pick-ups mounted under each string on a conventional guitar. The pitch and attack/decay characteristics of the original note are used to generate, or synthesize, a completely new note with the tonal characteristics of any other instrument or imaginable sound. Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and other contemporary players have experimented with guitar synthesis, but it has never really taken-off. In conclusion, many would maintain that a Gibson 175, fitted with a P90 or hum-bucker, and amplified via a vintage Fender or Gibson valve combo, is a difficult tone to better for jazz. The roll-call of great players deploying this combination testifies to personal tonal variation shining through what is fundamentally the quintessence of modern jazz guitar tone.

Content & site copyright 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Yahoo Jazz Guitar Group.
 All rights reserved. Last modified: 09/19/03.