“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.
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.
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.