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Charlie Christian: Biography & Guitar Method

Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

Learn about the life of guitar player Charlie Christian, whose revolutionary playing style took the jazz world by storm and made the electric guitar a featured solo instrument.

Rocking Roots

A young rocker struts across the stage, his fingers flashing over the strings of an electric guitar. He's the star of the show, and an audience of thousands cheers his every move. It's hard to imagine that this rock star can trace his roots to a poor, young man from Oklahoma named Charlie Christian, but Christian's unique style transformed the role of the guitar in popular music and made it the featured instrument that it is today.

Early Life

Charlie Christian was born in Bohnam, Texas on July 29, 1916. His family moved to Oklahoma City in 1918. Charlie grew up in a poor but musical family. He learned to play the trumpet, and at age twelve made his own guitar from a cigar box.

Typical cigar box guitars
Image of cigar box guitars

By the time he was a teenager, Charlie was playing blues and jazz in the Deep Deuce, a section of Northeast Second Street in Oklahoma City known for its bars and jazz clubs. At first he learned from traditional blues and jazz guitarists, but he soon developed a style all his own.

A Revolutionary Approach to the Guitar

Until that time, the guitar was considered a member of a jazz band's rhythm section, which provided the musical backdrop for the band's featured soloists. Wind instrument (or 'horn') players were the stars of the day; meanwhile, the guitar languished in the background with the rest of the rhythm section.

Charlie set out to make the guitar a solo instrument. Traditionally, a jazz guitarist played chords to provide a background for horn solos, which performers would improvise based on the chord structure. Christian challenged that role by playing single notes rather than chords; in the process, he created melodic, horn-like solos which rivaled the efforts of the best horn players. In fact, Christian made his guitar sound so much like a horn that people who could hear but not see him often thought he was playing the saxophone!

Christian achieved this horn-like sound with the help of the Gibson ES-150, a new electric guitar with a special pickup. An electric guitar's pickup detects (or 'picks up') the movement of the guitar's strings and transmits information about that movement to an amplifier. The amplifier decodes the information and uses it to control a speaker, which creates the sound the listener hears.

The ES-150 featured a high-output pickup which would come to be known as the Charlie Christian pickup. Because the pickup had a higher output than other pickups of the day, it sent a stronger electronic signal to Christian's amplifier. This allowed Charlie to distort his guitar's sound. A guitar's sound distorts when the signal sent from the guitar overpowers the amplifier's components. Guitarists would continue to develop this technique, and a distorted electric guitar sound would become one of the foundations of rock and popular music.

Ad for Gibson ES-150
Image of Gibson ES-150 ad

The Benny Goodman Years

For all his talent and technique, Christian might have remained a regional sensation if not for jazz producer John Hammond. Hammond was impressed by Charlie's playing, and he arranged for him to audition for one most successful jazz musicians in the world: bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman.

On August 10, 1939, Goodman met Christian at a recording studio in Los Angeles. Goodman thought meeting Charlie was a waste of time, and the entire audition lasted only a few minutes. Charlie's association with the legendary Goodman might have ended there, but Hammond was a persistent man. He arranged for Charlie to sit in with Goodman's band that night, and Charlie's guitar playing held the audience spellbound for over 40 minutes. Goodman was impressed, and hired Christian to play with his newly formed sextet.

Christian soared to national fame while working with Goodman, and was named to the Metronome All Stars in 1940. The Metronome All Stars featured the most popular jazz musicians of the day (as selected by reader polls) and included jazz legends such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie. Goodman reformed his sextet in the fall of 1940, retaining only Christian from the original group. The new lineup went on to great success in 1941, and Charlie was once again elected to the Metronome All Stars.

Christian recorded professionally with the Benny Goodman Sextet, the Metronome All Stars, and as a sideman with other jazz musicians. Christian's classic recordings with Goodman were repackaged and released as the album Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian (1972).

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