For Guitar Weenies

[I don’t know what Quora is, and I’m too lazy to ask Siri, Alexa, or Hey Google, plus I don’t want to be more technologically confused than I currently am, but Quora sends me a daily email both asking, then answering a question. Most often it’s about The Beatles, but occasionally it’s about some guitar-related esoterica. So here I am, sitting in my office in The Parsonage, minding my own business, and an email comes in from Quora asking “What’s the most important guitar solo ever.” Left to my own devices it would be either Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock version of the Star-Spangled Banner or Prince’s solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the induction ceremony for George Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But no, Quora has already provided the answer, or rather, another Quora victim has. Alex Johnston lives in Scotland and has played guitar since 18987, who identifies as a writer, editor, reader, father, Irishman, musician, and queer … Welcome to The Jungle!

Assuming that this question is about the electric guitar solo in popular music:

Unfortunately, the most important guitar solo ever was never recorded.

So we can never hear it.

But, for my money, the most important guitar solo ever was the one most directly responsible for making the electric guitar a popular instrument in the first place.

It was played at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Los Angeles on August 16, 1939.

On a song that, unless you’re a massive guitar fan, you’ve probably never even heard of.

So it wasn’t by Scotty Moore, or even by Chuck Berry, or anyone like that. It certainly wasn’t by any of their successors.

It was by this guy:

Charlie Christian.

Charlie Christian was born in Texas in 1916, and grew up in Oklahoma City. He came from a family of musicians; he and his two older brothers were all taught music by his father, Clarence.

At some point, Clarence was struck blind. He and the Christian boys turned to playing street music as a way of making money. Charlie began as a dancer, then took up the guitar.

At Douglass High School, his interest in music was encouraged by a teacher, Zelia Breaux, who influenced a number of musicians of Christian’s generation.

In his teens, he was taught jazz by his brother Edward and some friends. One of the tunes on which he learned to play jazz was Art Hickman and Harry Williams’ 1917 song ‘Rose Room’, an ode to the Rose Room at the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco:

In sunny Roseland, where summer breezes are playing
Where the honey bees are “A-Maying”
There all the roses are swaying
Dancing while the meadow brook flows
The moon when shining is more than ever designing
For ’tis ever then I am pining
Pining to be sweetly reclining
Somewhere in Roseland.

‘Rose Room’’s chorus, which starts at 0:33 in the above video, was becoming a popular tune for jazz musicians to improvise over.

Anyway, by 1939, Charlie Christian was already a respected musician in the Midwest. But it was time for him to move on.

He auditioned for the record producer and civil rights activist John Hammond, who was highly impressed with his skill.

John Hammond, who would go on to promote such people as Leadbelly, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, etc.

Christian had taken up the electric guitar, and used a Gibson ES-150, which he reportedly played so loudly that people who heard him and didn’t realise he was playing a guitar thought he was playing a saxophone.

A late 30s Gibson ES-150. I have always wanted one of these.

Hammond knew that the great bandleader Benny Goodman was always at least theoretically interested in good new players, and Goodman was not reluctant to hire black musicians.

The story of how Goodman and Christian met is the story of this guitar solo, and it’s been told again and again over the years. But here goes.

Hammond recommended Christian to Goodman. Goodman wasn’t particularly interested in hiring some guitar player he’d never heard of, and said no/maybe.

Hammond was undeterred, and in August 1939 he brought Christian to Los Angeles to meet Goodman.

Benny Goodman was famously intimidating—not a malicious bully like Buddy Rich, but a taskmaster. Musicians who worked for him used to talk about ‘The Ray’, which was a death glare he would give to anyone he thought wasn’t playing their best on the stand.

Hammond brought Christian to the recording studio to meet Goodman, and whatever Christian did, Goodman didn’t like it. (One version of the story claims that Goodman was unimpressed by Christian’s clothes.)

Christian claimed later that Goodman invited him to see the band later that evening, but he’s our only source on that.

What did happen next is not disputed.

Goodman may have thought he was inviting Christian merely to see the band, but Hammond brought Christian’s amplifier and stuck it on the bandstand. Christian showed up with his guitar, ready to play.

Benny Goodman decided, at this point, to let John Hammond and this rube guitar player from Oklahoma know who was boss, and he called the next tune because he was sure it would be one that Charlie Christian didn’t know.

The tune that he called was ‘Rose Room’.

A tune that Charlie Christian had been playing for years.

Christian waited patiently until Goodman indicated that he could take a solo.

He then played uninterruptedly for twenty choruses, each one bringing in new ideas.

The Goodman band’s version of ‘Rose Room’ that night lasted for forty minutes. By the end of it, Benny Goodman had a new guitar player.

Charlie Christian remained with Benny Goodman for the next two years. By February 1940 he was at the top of all the jazz guitar polls and was a member of the Metronome All-Stars Nine, along with Gene Krupa and Harry James.

Goodman did eventually record ‘Rose Room’ with Christian on guitar, in October 1939. It’s not twenty choruses long, unfortunately, and his amp has evidently been turned down to a more polite level, but he does sound like the most modern guy in the band:

But by the late 30s, Christian already had TB. His dedication to playing at every opportunity, including late night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, made his health worse.

In June 1941 he was admitted to a sanitarium in Staten Island.

In March 1942, he died, aged only 25.

The impact on jazz guitar of Christian’s guitar playing with the Goodman band caused countless numbers of young players to take up the instrument, comparable in kind, if not in scale, to the impact of the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on a generation of teenage future musicians.

He wasn’t the first player of the electric guitar, but he was the first genius of it.

His tone and approach influenced such people as T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel—and, through them, everyone that they went on to influence, down through and including Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and everyone they influenced.

He also influenced jazz outside the guitar, with his playing at the sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, with bebop pioneers such as Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk. Miles Davis cited him as an influence. His harmonic sense wasn’t quite as sophisticated as bebop’s would become, but his rhythmic sense was years ahead. (That solo above still has the capacity to surprise me.)

Charlie Christian is truly at the fountainhead of electric guitar playing.

If you play electric guitar, you have been influenced by Charlie Christian, even if you’ve never listened to him. His music is one of the main reasons why we play electric guitar at all.

And he wouldn’t have got the gig, and therefore the exposure, if it weren’t for that 40-minute version of ‘Rose Room’ he did with the Benny Goodman band at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Los Angeles on August 16, 1939.

So that’s why I think that that solo is the most important guitar solo ever.

Thanks for reading.

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