How Charlie Christian Defined the Electric Guitar and the Guitar Hero Myth

October 19th, 2016

This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on actor Kiefer Sutherland and his debut country-rock album, Jerry Garcia’s famed Doug Irwin Tiger and its encore appearance with Warren Haynes and the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

PHOTO: Guitar Player Archive

MAGIC CHRISTIAN: At the dawn of the electric guitar, the young and talented
Charlie Christian broke into the national spotlight to popularize a new sound that shook the world.

By Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna

PlayItLoudcoverThis is an edited and condensed excerpt from Play It Loud by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna. Copyright 2016 by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. Click here to order.

One could argue that, as the world’s first electric guitar hero, Charlie Christian forged the tragic archetype for the many six-string revolutionaries that followed him, among them Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Kurt Cobain. All were musicians who radically changed the face of music but died too soon.

Charles Henry Christian was born on July 29, 1916, in Bonham, Texas, to a family of musicians—including his parents and his two older brothers. His father, Clarence, was particularly gifted. It was said Clarence could play almost any instrument he set his hands on, but he favored strings and his first love was the guitar. He encouraged his sons to play music, teaching his older boys to play violin and mandolin. It was assumed when Charlie was born that he’d complete the family band.

Soon after Charlie came into the world, Clarence contracted an illness that made him gradually go blind. After dealing with the initial shock and depression of his condition, Clarence rallied, turning to music for therapy and a way to feed his family. There weren’t many formal jobs for musicians, black or otherwise, to be had in Bonham, so Clarence grabbed his sons, headed to the streets, and played in public places or door-to-door for change. Unable to make ends meet, and with starvation a very real threat, the Christians left Texas in 1918 for Oklahoma City, where they found support in their extended family.

When Clarence passed away in 1926 at the age of 36, he left his guitars to Charlie, who started seriously devoting himself to music. By the time he was 13, Christian was studying theory with local jazz musicians and developing his signature sound: a sophisticated and idiosyncratic approach to soloing that, with its single-note melodies, owed more to local saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans than to popular country blues guitarists of the time such as Lonnie Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson.

In many ways, the guitar was an unusual instrument for serious musicians to gravitate to. Still largely an acoustic instrument, it wasn’t loud enough to compete with horns. As a rhythm instrument it usually was overshadowed by the piano. But as Charlie discovered, it was perfect for street entertaining. It was portable, you could play the chords to all the popular songs of the day on it, and you could dance while performing.

Despite realizing the seeming limitations of the guitar, Christian was determined to become a master like his father and elevate the instrument in the process. The guitar was in the early stages of becoming a lead instrument in popular music, and though there were no guidelines and few six-string role models available, one thing Oklahoma City had no shortage of was musical inspiration and innovation.

In the Thirties, despite the Depression and the unprecedented Dust Bowl drought that sent thousands scurrying to other regions, Oklahoma City’s music scene was thriving. The town played host to the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, an extraordinary Southwestern jazz band featuring future jazz giants such as Count Basie, drummer Jo Jones, and Charlie’s hero, Lester Young. Equally important were Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, one of the very first country bands to synthesize big-city swing jazz with folk instruments like fiddles and steel guitars.

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