Secret Strings: 10 Most Underrated Guitarists in the History of Jazz

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Grant Green
By Francis Wolff
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Grant Green
By Francis Wolff
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Jimmy Raney
By Don Schlitten
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Freddie Green
By W. Patrick Hinely
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Attila Zoller
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George Barnes
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Lenny Breau

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“Like it or not, guitarists apart from Charlie Christian do not rank in importance in jazz as highly as horn players or pianists,” wrote guitarist Duck Baker in response to an informal survey sent to a few of our contributors asking who they thought were the most under-appreciated guitarists in jazz. “To say that Rene Thomas is underrated is true, but nothing like as significant as saying that Hasaan Bin Ibn, Fats Navarro or Bill Barron are underrated.”

Sure, bagpipes are right up there, but the guitar is the outcast instrument of jazz. Some people object to the guitar’s too thin and mellow tone, especially in the context of nervous hard bop. Others find the guitar too associated with rock to be a jazz instrument. Still more find guitar chordings to be shallow harmonic substitutes for the rich variety a piano provides. Of course, any tin ear who thinks any of those things needs to sell his or her record collection and take up staring at a wall for a hobby. The guitar is one of the most versatile instruments in the world.

The jazz world’s grudging acceptance of the guitar has led to some of its most unique practitioners being pushed to the margins. From the soul-blues of Grant Green, the best-known player on our list, to the avant-rock-influenced attack of Sonny Sharrock, to the Gypsy-tinged swing of Oscar Alemán, our list of 10 underrated guitarists was compiled with variety in mind. These aren’t comprehensive profiles, either; they are quick-hitting introductions to some of the greatest guitarists you may not know, written to encourage your record collection, and mind, to expand.

—Christopher Porter

Grant Green 6/6/35–1/31/79

Grant Green was among the most disciplined yet imaginative soloists of his generation. His single-line statements were rhythmically brilliant, and his use of staccato notes equally intriguing. Green’s earthy melodies were clean and fluid, his voicings impeccable and he was especially captivating on ballads. Though his initial fame came through his participation in soul-jazz and organ-combo sessions, Green eschewed blazing speed and notey forays for deft harmonic response, funky rhythmic dexterity and nimble melodic interpretation.

Green utilized several different guitars to get his dark-blue, instantly recognizable sound. During his early years, he favored a Gibson ES-330 with a single coil P-90 pickups. Later he selected a Gibson L-7 with a Gibson McCarty pickguard/pickup. He also used both an Epiphone Emperor and a D’Aquisto New Yorker.

Despite what’s been written in a number of jazz books, Green was born in St. Louis on June 6, 1935, not 1931, as his daughter-in-law Sharony Andrews Green showed in her book, Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar (Miller Freeman). Green began playing at 13, and his earliest musical preference was boogie-woogie. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson spotted Green playing in a St. Louis bar and was so impressed he recruited him for a tour, giving the guitarist his first break. Donaldson later introduced the guitarist to Alfred Lion, with whom Green forged a professional and personal relationship that extended throughout his life.

Sadly, Green had severe personal problems, most notably a recurring drug habit, that plagued him throughout his career. Green recorded more than 30 albums as a leader—many are brilliant, many are erratic—and his drug problems caused him to take off two years, 1967 to 1969. He cut his finest releases during the early and mid-’60s for Blue Note, including Grantstand, a 1961 date that features Green heading a fabulous quartet that includes Yusef Lateef, Brother Jack McDuff and drummer Al Harewood. Born to Be Blue (1961) is another sparkling session, as are Idle Moments (1963), The Latin Bit (1962) and Feelin’ the Spirit (1962). A later-period Blue Note gem is Live at the Lighthouse (1972).

The hip-hop generation knows Green best via funky samples from Green Is Beautiful (1970) and The Final Comedown (1972), the soundtrack to a Billy Dee Williams blaxploitaition film. Iron City, a late 1967 trio date for Muse, represents his best non-Blue Note session, although His Majesty, King Funk (Verve, 1965) is a prime example of Green’s fondness for soul, funk and pop tunes.

On Jan. 31, 1979, Green collapsed in his car of a heart attack. He was in New York to play an engagement at George Benson’s Breezin’ Lounge. Green is buried in St. Louis; he is survived by six children. They include the guitarist Grant Green Jr., who maintains his father’s classic single-line style.

—Ron Wynn

Jimmy Raney 8/20/27–5/10/95

Jimmy Raney was different from the other jazz guitarists who came up during the bebop revolution in New York in the 1940s and ’50s. He was a complete composer as well as a talented player, and he was a quiet man looking to play an explosive style of music. Raney kept his amp turned down and found his own way of playing jazz.

Jim Hall described Raney’s playing as a cross between Charlie Parker and Béla Bartók. Raney didn’t play the staccato riffs and lightning-fast bursts of notes that many bop players favored. Raney played long, legato melodic lines that seemed to ignore measures, took surprising twists and turns and often resolved in unexpected places.

Raney was born in Louisville, Ky. His father was a journalist and his mother played a little guitar and she showed young Jimmy a few chords. He later took classical lessons, and Raney landed his first professional job when he was 13. Raney managed to work quite a bit in Louisville during WWII because the draft took most of the older players, but he was playing mostly hillbilly and pop tunes. Then a teacher introduced Raney to Charlie Christian; Raney said he almost fainted.

That same teacher recommended Raney to bandleader Jerry Wald and the young guitarist was off to New York. Wald’s pianist, Al Haig, took Raney to Harlem and introduced him to Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum.

After returning to Louisville for a bit, Raney eventually landed in Woody Herman’s Second Herd. He left within a year because he hated the relentless touring schedule and he didn’t get much of a chance to solo. But he did meet saxophonist Stan Getz in the band and that relationship would put Raney in the spotlight.

In October 1951, the Stan Getz Quintet, with Raney and Haig, recorded at Boston’s Storyville club. Two Raney compositions, “Signal” and “Parker 51,” appeared on the original 10-inch discs and were included in Mosaic’s The Complete Recordings of the Stan Getz Quintet With Jimmy Raney. When the records came out, many thought they were among the finest jazz recordings ever made. Many still do. Raney’s unique style, by then pretty much developed, helped define the group’s sound.

Raney joined vibraharpist Red Norvo’s trio in 1954 after Tal Farlow left; he can be heard to great effect on Red Norvo, Jimmy Raney, Red Mitchell (Fantasy/OJC). He also lead his own sessions—check out the inspired A (Prestige/OJC, 1955)—but soon the jazz work seemed to fall off. Raney played on a number of studio sessions and soundtracks, and he backed singers and played in Broadway pit bands, but the work reportedly depressed him and he sought relief in alcohol. Raney returned to Louisville in 1964 and stayed there in semiretirement until the ealy ’70s, when he reappeared on the scene. He played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1971 and made his New York club comeback the following year. In 1974, he played Carnegie Hall with his old friend and bandmate Haig.

From 1975 to 1990 Raney released a series of excellent albums, including The Influence (Xanadu, 1975), Stolen Moments and Duets (both with his son, Doug; both Steeplechase, 1979) and Wisteria (1986) and But Beautiful (1990; both Criss Cross).

Raney managed to keep playing despite struggling for the last 30 years of his life with Méniére’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that affects balance and hearing. By the end of his life, the disease had spread to both ears, making him almost tone deaf. Yet his playing remained brilliant. His friend and collaborator Hall heard Raney near the end of his life at a concert in Louisville. Raney told Hall he could barely hear anything except the drums. Hall said Jimmy Raney played perfectly—as he always had.

—Tom Cole

Freddie Green 3/31/11–3/1/87

Depending on which accounts you read, Freddie Green never, or rarely, soloed. But as a rhythm guitarist, he was the best.

The first time I saw the Count Basie band was a startling experience. It was 1964, or maybe ’65. The rhythm section began playing several choruses of blues, and the good feeling of swing lulled the audience. Then the horn players eased their instruments into position and—pow!—hit a solitary fortissimo note. The joke was on us as they eased the horns back down and the rhythm section, unfazed, kept rolling blissfully along. The tune was probably “Splanky.”

The rhythm section was Basie, Green, drummer Sonny Payne and a bassist whose name I don’t recall. (It may have been Buddy Catlett.) Even back then, there was considerable history onstage, as Green had been in the band for more than 25 years. I saw the band a couple more times after that, and each time I was amazed at the sound of Green’s guitar cutting through the ensemble. Actually, “cutting” may not be the best description, since the guitar was sometimes felt more than heard. But it was a definitive presence, oiling the sonic space between drums and bass.

Born in Charleston, S.C., Green initially played banjo. John Hammond introduced him to Basie in 1937 in New York, setting the stage for the pianist’s classic “All-American” rhythm section: Green, bassist Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones. Green stayed with the band until his death in 1987, three years after Basie’s death. For a portrait of the early days of the classic rhythm section, check out GRP’s Count Basie collection The Complete Decca Recordings, where you’ll find Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Buck Clayton, and Harry Edison, too. God bless ’em all.

The Web site www.freddiegreen.org offers lots of stories about Green’s comping technique, which basically involved three-note chords, voice leading and what one writer describes as the “choo-chit-choo-chit” sound (not “chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk”) of four beats to the measure.

The guitarist’s recorded legacy rests almost entirely with the Basie band or with various Basieites, though he cut two albums of his own: the appropriately titled Natural Rhythm (RCA Victor, 1955) and Mr. Rhythm (Koch/RCA Victor, 1956). But I’m partial to a couple of Basie band collaborations: First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (Columbia), recorded in 1961, and Sinatra-Basie (Reprise), recorded in ’62. The former includes Green’s “Until I Met You” (aka “Corner Pocket”). As always, Green’s guitar slices right through.

—Owen Cordle

Rene Thomas 2/25/27–1/3/75

Rene Thomas was among the first wave of European modernists to hold their own among American jazz heavyweights. After gaining an early endorsement from fellow countryman Django Reinhardt, Thomas was part of a Belgian migration, including Francy Boland and Bobby Jaspar, that moved to Paris in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Thomas’ Parisian association with another underheralded guitar legend, Jimmy Gourley, showed him the innovations of Jimmy Raney. As Thomas told French critic Alain Tercinet: “In Paris, in the early ’50s, to play well you had to play like Jimmy Raney if you were a guitarist, or like Stan Getz if you played tenor saxophone.” Thomas dutifully followed suit, but soon developed his own approach, centering on daring harmonic variations that maintained a clear relation to the melody line. Part of the 50-volume Jazz in Paris series, Thomas’ The Real Cat (Gitanes/French Universal) reveals that the already engaging guitarist evolved rapidly between ’54 and ’56, with the latter sessions demonstrating phrasing and harmonic sophistication roughly on a par with his American contemporaries.

The guitarist first traveled to North America in 1956, in large part to continue working with Jaspar, who had become his closest associate in Paris. In New York, Thomas sat in with the likes of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, with the latter using him on Brass Trio (Verve, 1958).

Thomas settled in Montreal, but he maintained enough of a New York presence to land an Orrin Keepnews-produced session, Guitar Groove (Jazzland/OJC, 1960), the quintessential Thomas album. While the sting of his hard-bop lines are attributable to his use of the Gibson ES-150, the same rare guitar model used by Charlie Christian, Thomas’ voice was now plainly his own, even when tackling “Ruby, My Dear.” (Thomas was one of the first guitarist-leaders to record a Monk tune other than “’Round Midnight.”)

By 1962 the musical maturity of Thomas and European colleagues Jaspar and drummer Daniel Humair allowed them to prevail upon a jazz star like Chet Baker and push him to play with a harder edge than normal. The results are documented on one of the trumpeter’s best recordings, The Italian Sessions (RCA Victor, 1962), on which Thomas shines, particularly on a spark-shooting solo on Rollins’ “Pent-Up House.”

After Jaspar’s untimely death in ’63, Thomas returned to Europe. He frequently collaborated with organists Lou Bennett and Eddy Louiss and touring Americans like Getz. Among the delectable, hard-to-find-stateside items in Thomas’ discography are two 1965 tracks on the Lee Konitz compilation From Newport to Nice (Philology), featuring a quintet with pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink. To hear Thomas in full double-time flight on “All The Things You Are,” spurred on by a great drummer like Bennink, is to understand why the guitarist is so highly regarded on both sides of the pond, and why his death in 1975 came much too soon.

—Bill Shoemaker

Bill DeArango 9/20/21–

Arguably the original and greatest bop guitarist, Bill DeArango continued to evolve as a player after he left the New York scene at the height of his popularity. He remains an advanced and daring musician to this day.

DeArango was born in Cleveland, and he initially worked with Dixieland bands around the city. But the guitarist was soon impressed by 1930s giants like Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Lester Young and Roy Eldridge, and it was a synthesis of these advanced players’ influences that helped DeArango develop his almost fully evolved boplike style long before he had heard of Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie.

Upon his discharge from the Army in 1944, DeArango moved to New York, where Ben Webster quickly hired him after hearing him sit in with Don Byas at the Three Deuces. Between 1945 and 1947 DeArango recorded with a host of outstanding jazz artists including Webster, Ike Quebec, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Slam Stewart, Trummy Young, Charlie Ventura, Charlie Kennedy, Sarah Vaughan and Gillespie.

DeArango’s phenomenal technique is what initially impressed listeners in the mid-1940s. Aside from Reinhardt, no jazz guitarist could equal his chops. More importantly, he was an original and innovative stylist. His best-recorded solos from the 1940s are on Dizzy Gillespie’s The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (RCA/Victor); he’s fantastic on “52nd Street Theme.”

In 1948 DeArango left New York and returned permanently to Cleveland. Since then he’s recorded very little. In 1954 he cut DeArango, a 10-inch Emarcy LP containing standards. In the 1960s and ’70s he operated a music store, which allowed him to keep up with the latest developments in jazz and rock. DeArango began to integrate elements from rock into his style, and was also playing free jazz.

His daring work in the 1980s can be heard on Kenny Werner’s 298 Bridge Street (AMF, 1981) and Jamey Haddad’s Names (Ananda, 1983). Joe Lovano, a Clevelander and huge DeArango fan, appears on both of those albums, and the saxophonist also plays on DeArango’s brilliant 1993 CD Anything Went (GM), which contains both free selections and standards on which the improvisers take many liberties. DeArango’s use of an octave pedal on Anything Went creates jarring lower-register effects.

If DeArango had remained in New York and continued to record he would probably be recognized among the finest jazz guitarists of all time, which he is in any event.

—Harvey Pekar

Attila Zoller 6/13/27–1/25/98

Like 20th-century classical composer Béla Bartók, Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller incorporated his country’s folk melodies into his completely contemporary work.

Zoller, who moved to the U.S. in 1959, was a gymnast in his youth and almost made the Hungarian Olympic swim team. After an upbringing in classical music playing violin and trumpet, Zoller taught himself guitar because there were too many trumpet players in Budapest to make a decent living. Pianist Don Friedman, Zoller’s friend and collaborator, says the guitarist told him that at first he tuned the instrument completely wrong. After figuring out the correct tuning, Zoller had to relearn everything he’d taught himself.

His consuming desire to not play like other guitarists is evident in the quartet Zoller co-led with Friedman in the mid-to-late 1960s. The group is one of the most accessible in the original free-jazz movement in part because of Zoller’s interest in unusual melodies rooted in his Hungarian upbringing. Friedman says the guitarist took the part of a horn, or a Gypsy violin, in the quartet. The band’s approach combined composition and free improvisation, and can be best heard on Friedman’s Dreams and Explorations (Riverside/OJC, 1964) and Metamorphosis (Riverside/OJC, 1966).

Friedman says Zoller would sketch out pieces with some melody and counterpoint lines but with no real harmony or chord changes. The guitarist would give the sketches evocative titles like “Blizzard” and tell the other players to use that as inspiration for their improvisations. Friedman says many players, including Pat Metheny, have told him how much they listened to the group’s records and how much they inspired them.

Zoller was not only interested in pushing his instrument’s expressive possibilities, but also in overcoming its technical limitations. In 1971, he was granted a patent for a bidirectional pickup for guitar and bass. He invented a pickup for the vibraharp that was manufactured and sold by the J.C. Deagan Company, and he developed bass strings for LaBella. While he was inventing and teaching, Zoller cut the occasional album; highlights include the Enja discs Memories of Pannonia (1986) and his last album, When It’s Time (1995).

Though he could be mercurial, the big and intimidating man could also be playful: he used to walk the bar at NYC’s old Half Note—on his hands. Zoller also wanted to share his musical interests with others. In 1972, he moved to Vermont, where he started a jazz camp on an old property that he renovated largely by himself. Financial difficulties forced him to sell off much of the property and he spent his last years living in a fixed-up shack on the land he still owned. His Vermont Jazz Center remains today, a testament to his legacy.

—Tom Cole

Oscar Alemán 2/20/09–10/10/80

There were only a few great soloists among the acoustic players who preceded the electric guitar. The dominant approach of strumming chord solos was developed to high art by the likes of Dick McDonough, George Van Eps and Bernard Addison. The towering figure when it came to real lead lines, however, was the Gypsy genius, Django Reinhardt.

After Reinhardt, Oscar Alemán was probably the best lead soloist of the pre-electric-guitar era. A black Argentinean from an impoverished background, Alemán moved to France in 1931 where he made an enormous impression on the many American players in the 1930s Paris scene. Alemán has been condemned to live forever, it seems, in Django’s shadow. Of the many reasons for this, none have to do with Alemán being an imitator or even disciple of Reinhardt’s—though as a leader he certainly emulated the sound of Django’s definitive quintet, and with considerable success.

Alemán was unique among jazz guitarists in his preference for a metal-bodied resonator-style guitar, a model favored by bluesmen both for volume and, according to Delta singer-guitarist Son House, for its superior qualities when self-defense became necessary during roadhouse brawls. Presumably it was the former quality that attracted Alemán: he would have had little need to wield a club when backing Josephine Baker’s performances for cultivated Parisians who had love, not war, on their minds. Duke Ellington was so taken with Alemán’s work that he wanted to hire him, but Baker nixed the idea—a decision that was unfortunate for jazz.

The Nazi occupation chased Alemán back to Argentina, but by then he had made a handful of spectacular sides that included two in a hot-club-style lineup with the young Svend Asmussen on fiddle. On record, Alemán’s low-register guitar sound cuts even harder than Django’s, driving solos that are models of tension and release, while his between-the-beat phrasing swings so hard it has to be heard to be believed.

Back in Argentina, Alemán continued to utilize the hot-club format during the ’40s before moving into other musical styles. His classic work was reissued on a couple of TOM LPs in the ’70s, and Acoustic Disc recently put together a great two-CD set, Swing Guitar Masterpieces: 1938-1957, which covers the same ground more thoroughly.

There may not be a great deal of jazz-oriented Alemán on record, but there is more than enough to justify his reputation as the guitarist who could out-swing Django.

—Duck Baker

Sonny Sharrock 8/27/40-–5/25/94

Sonny Sharrock was an experimental, rampaging guitarist who loved free music. He approached the instrument more as a saxophone and percussive weapon than a lyrical accompaniment tool. A onetime singer who performed in doo-wop groups for seven years, Sharrock easily delivered explosive splintered riffs, whiplash phrases and crackling accompaniment.

Sharrock was self-taught, though in 1961 he briefly studied formal guitar composition at Berklee—until he was tossed out. His first major collaborations came in 1966-’67 with, separately, saxophonists Byard Lancaster and Pharoah Sanders, the latter with whom he cut the blazing Tauhid (Impulse!, 1966). Sharrock also played on Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson session, before getting a heavy dose of mainstream exposure during a stint with flutist Herbie Mann. Live, Sharrock would often astonish Mann’s fans by blasting off into a stylistic stratosphere miles beyond what the flutist and other group members David “Fathead” Newman and Roy Ayers were playing. Sharrock contributed blazing solos to many of Mann’s Atlantic albums, too, most notably Memphis Underground (1969) and Live at the Whiskey A Go-Go (1968).

Because his style was so unusual, Sharrock didn’t get that many recording opportunities as a leader, and these releases were often on small indie labels with extremely limited distribution. Sharrock didn’t enjoy much exposure or opportunities during the ’70s, but he made a comeback during the ’80s thanks to his work with the Bill Laswell-led groups Material and Last Exit. Last Exit featured Sharrock’s fractured playing matched against Peter Brötzmann’s frenzied saxophone solos. Sharrock later teamed with legendary drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Charnett Moffett on Ask the Ages (Axiom, 1991). Sharrock’s jarring 1969 session Black Woman (Vortex), cut with his wife Linda and produced by Herbie Mann, has recently been reissued as part of a joint CD release Black Woman/Freedom Sounds (Collectables). Guitar (Enemy) is a phenomenal 1986 solo session with Sharrock offering an array of jagged, swirling and powerful guitar solos and accompaniment. Seize the Rainbow (Enemy, 1987) is a challenging record with consistently shifting, dynamic musical contexts. Highlife (Enemy, 1990) is the closest Sharrock came to conventional rock music, while Faith Moves (CMP, 1989) is a lush, almost pastoral duets album with guitarist Nicky Skopelitis. Sharrock’s final work on disc is a soundtrack EP done for, of all things, the Cartoon Network: Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

Sharrock had recently inked a deal with RCA in 1994 when he died of a heart attack at 53 while exercising in his New York home.

Contemporary types like Jean-Paul Bourelly and James “Blood” Ulmer are kindred spirits to Sharrock, who remains perhaps the least copied great player in recent jazz history.

—Ron Wynn

George Barnes 7/17/21–9/5/77

A gruff, burly man who was frequently pictured smoking a big fat stogie, George Barnes was an important swing-era guitarist who forged his own melodically buoyant style at a time when every other guitarist on the scene was totally preoccupied with the rhythmically charged approach of Charlie Christian. He was also probably the first to play electric guitar, preceding Christian by six years.

As Barnes told writer Bob Yellin in a 1975 interview for Guitar Player: “In 1931, my older brother, who is an electronic genius, built me a pickup and an amplifier before they were even out on the market. He did this for me because he knew I wanted to play solo lines which could be heard in a band. The first electric guitar came out the following year.” To put that in context: Eddie Durham first played electric guitar with Bennie Moten’s band in 1932 and later with Count Basie’s band in 1937. Floyd Smith recorded his famous “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” electric-guitar solo with Andy Kirk’s band in 1939 and Charlie Christian started playing electric guitar in 1937 while leading his own group in Oklahoma City, two years before he cut his first historic sides with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Chicago native Barnes started his recording career by accompanying blues vocalists like Big Bill Broonzy and Blind John Davis. After touring the Midwest in the mid-’30s Barnes landed a job in 1938 as a staff musician at Chicago’s NBC studios. Following a stint in the Army, he worked as a studio musician exclusively with Decca through the ’50s. In 1962 he formed a duo with guitar pioneer Carl Kress, who supplied sophisticated chordal accompaniment to Barnes’ giddy, blues-drenched single-note lines. Their combined greatness can be heard on a pair of 1962 recordings on the Stash label: Two Guitars and Two Guitars and a Horn, with Bud Freeman.

When Kress died in 1965, Barnes teamed with Bucky Pizzarelli and the two worked together through the early ’70s. Check out Barnes and Pizzarelli on 1971’s Guitars: Pure and Honest (A&R) for an album true to its name. Other key musical partners in Barnes later years included trumpeter Ruby Braff and violinist Joe Venuti, the onetime partner to Eddie Lang, whose ebullient sound was a perfect match for Barnes’ own; the inspired twosome can be heard on 1976’s Venuti-Barnes Live (at the Concord Summer Festival) (Concord).

—Bill Milkowski

Lenny Breau 8/5/41–8/12/84

A sensitive, soft-spoken and enigmatic man, Lenny Breau made up for what he lacked in personal bravado with stunning virtuosity on the guitar. An outstanding jazz improviser on both acoustic and electric guitars, Breau’s kaleidoscopic style combined aspects of Merle Travis-style country fingerpicking, classical and flamenco right-hand strumming techniques, remarkably fluid bop-oriented single-note lines and lush Bill Evans-like chordal voicings. As Breau told Martin Webb in a 1974 Guitar Player interview: “I’m approaching the guitar as if it were a piano—in a musical sense but not in the sense of technique. So there’s always two things going on at once. What I’m trying to do is get all the different kinds of colors, shades and ranges out of it that I can.”

Though largely underrated throughout his career, Breau earned the respect and admiration of such bigger name guitarists as Chet Atkins, George Benson, Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton. Like Joe Pass before him, Breau developed the ability to simultaneously comp chords and improvise single-note melodies, creating the illusion of two guitarists playing together. His fluent use of artificial harmonics has been the envy of many guitarists and has had a profound influence on such players as Larry Coryell, Bireli Lagrene, Vic Juris, Philip DeGruy and countless others. Breau’s desire to extend the range of his instrument led him to begin using a 7-string guitar with a high A (as opposed to George Van Eps’ low A for deeper basslines), which allowed him to soar into the upper register with dazzling results.

Born in Maine to country-music performers, Breau started out playing guitar in his parents’ traveling group as a teen. Atkins became a key mentor, helping to secure a recording contract for Breau with RCA in 1968. Breau’s mélange of musical styles, though brilliant and unprecedented, ultimately caused him to be uncategorizable. Rather than being feted during his lifetime for the true genius that he was, Breau eked out an erratic career that was hampered by his heroin addiction and gypsy lifestyle, which ended in 1984 when his dead body was found floating in a swimming pool in Los Angeles.

The Canadian Guitarchives label was formed in 1995 specifically to release private tapes of his performances. Breau at his best can be heard on 1969’s Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau (One Way), 1968’s Guitar Sounds of Lenny Breau (RCA) and the superb 1983 duet set with bassist Dave Young, Live at Bourbon St. (Guitarachives).

—Bill Milkowski

Originally published in July/August 2002

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