TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Gibson ES-150, Gibson EH-150 and 185 amps
KEY ALBUMS: The Genius of the Electric Guitar, Live 1939-1941, Celestial Express
SIGNATURE SONGS: "Seven Come Eleven," "Solo Flight," "Flying Home," "Air Mail Special"
HIDDEN GEM: "Rose Room"
HALLMARK: The father of modern jazz guitar
A pioneer in the truest sense of the word, Christian was the man responsible for several important "firsts" in jazz guitar. Playing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the '30s, Christian became the first-ever guitarist to be granted a prominent solo spot equivalent to those previously only given to saxophonists and trumpet players. Additionally, Christian immortalized the Gibson ES-150, which was the first Electric Spanish guitar. It was a non-cutaway model fitted with a single bar pickup, which later became known as the "Charlie Christian pickup" and was the standard for most jazz guitarists through the '40s and '50s.
Just getting the first spotlight solo in an orchestra setting isn't enough to make you a legend, you have to own it, as Christian did. Indeed, Christian's jazz licks were (and still are) required reading for any jazz guitarist. Some of his signature moves included long phrases of swinging eighth notes, combinations of ascending arpeggios with descending chromatic lines (often found within those long eighth-note phrases!), and short, rhythmic motifs, as well as blues-based moves that include string-bending—a rarity in jazz guitar.
Christian's speedy lines are made even more impressive when you consider that he used almost all downstrokes with a stiff pick held tightly between his thumb and index finger, and he rarely used his fret hand's pinky finger. These practices are all contrary to efficient and relaxed technique preached to new guitarists, but as the saying goes: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And Charlie Christian's chops and phrasing were anything but broke!