Charlie Christian was born in Dallas, Texas in 1916. He would die at age 25.
In his momentary life, Christian would almost single-handedly invent the modern guitar solo—and establish the electric guitar as a weapon of choice in jazz and popular music. He would also help pioneer a breathless, virtuosic new style of jazz called bebop.
Christian’s story began in Oklahoma City. The son of a blind blues singer, Christian helped support his family by busking on the streets. When Christian’s father died, twelve-year-old Christian inherited his instruments.
Christian played in Oklahoma City for years, sometimes tearing up the fretboard so well that his mother had already heard about it by the time he got home.
Then, in 1935, Gibson produced its very first electric guitar, the famous ES-150.
It was this instrument that captured the attention and the imagination of the young Charlie Christian in 1938: The ES-150 beckoned to Christian with its distinctive F-holes, Cremona body, and the Gibson bar pickup that’s come to be known as the “Charlie Christian.”
In 1939, one year after Christian first touched an electric guitar, John Hammond got a tip from Mary Lou Williams about a 23-year-old boy from Oklahoma City who could play a mean saxophone-style solo on electric guitar. Without having even heard Christian play a single note (and Christian loved to play single notes), Hammond sent for Charlie and got him on a train to Los Angeles to play with Benny Goodman.
And so famously grumpy bandleader Benny Goodman stepped onstage one night to find a guitar amplifier on his bandstand and an Oklahoma farm boy waiting offstage in a purple shirt and yellow shoes.
The band took stage. Goodman called for the tune “Rose Room” and Christian fell immediately into place. The song just happened to be one of the first three jazz tunes the kid had learned back home. Christian’s solos shocked Goodman, who had no way of knowing that Charlie had blown roofs off venues with the tune in Oklahoma City. Spurred on by Goodman and his vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, Charlie played line after line after line, each more amazing than the last, until the crowd was on its feet screaming. Charlie played twenty solo sections in all. The band extended “Rose Room” for nearly an hour.
That night, the Benny Goodman Quintet became the Benny Goodman Sextet. Christian signed on to earn the 2013 equivalent of $9,840 a month playing guitar with one of the most famous bandleaders in the history of recorded music.
During the swing era, guitar solos were mostly rare, brief, technically unimpressive, and barely even audible because the guitar was so much quieter than drums and brass. At the time, soloist guitar players were basically unheard-of, almost unthinkable. Armed with the newly-invented electric guitar, though, Christian ripped out long, hornlike solo runs that you could feel in every row of the audience.
Before Christian, the guitar was mostly just a timekeeping rhythm instrument. Christian played solos that were complex for his day, with lots of unexpected turns and rhythmic surprises.
The only other person of his time to rival the technical virtuosity and musical intelligence of Christian was the Belgian Gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Christian’s Death—and the Birth of Bop
One year after he touched an electric guitar, Christian joined Benny Goodman’s band.
Three years later, Charlie died of pneumonia on Staten Island in New York. He’d developed pneumonia while recovering from tuberculosis. He was 25 years old.
During the final years of his momentary life, though, Christian had been playing in after-hours jam sessions at a club called Minton’s in Harlem, New York. These sessions brought together players like Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, and together these players forged a frenetic, demanding new jazz style called bebop. Christian loved playing with ground-breaking drum monster Kenny Clarke so much that he kept a spare guitar amplifier on the Minton’s bandstand.
Despite having died in 1942, Charlie didn’t retire. Jazz polls continued to crown him as king of the jazz guitarists for years after his death. If you’re ever in Oklahoma City, as of 2006 you can walk on Charlie Christian Avenue. Miles Davis named Christian as an important influence. And in 1990 the electric guitar pioneer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In just 25 years, Christian managed to obliterate everyone’s notion of what a guitar was and what it could do. He burst o to the scene and left just as suddenly as he came—but anytime one of us takes a solo, we owe a nod to the late, brief, and great Charlie Christian.