Jazz music is often associated with horns and woodwind instruments. So many of the biggest names in jazz music have pushed the boundaries of jazz on such instruments.
However, the guitar is an instrument that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to this specific genre. The following jazz songs are performed by some of the greatest jazz guitarists to ever touch the instrument.
Buckle up, because you’re about to take a fun ride of sonic exploration.
Table of Contents
“Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt
Perhaps the most legendary of all jazz guitarists in history is Django Reinhardt with his flavor of gypsy jazz. You’ve heard the story, Django lost facilities of over half his fretting hand.
Yet, despite only really using 2 fingers, Django Reinhardt has recorded passages that are insanely difficult and fast. One of the most famous instances of this can be heard in the song, Minor Swing.
This is usually one of the first songs many guitarists attempt to learn when diving into the genre. It has an iconic melody head with some guitar passages that dance across the fretboard.
Listening to this track will put you right in the middle of a 1930s cafe thick with cigarette smoke. Does it get any better than this?
“Rambler” by Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell is one of the most famous names in modern jazz and he’s been at the forefront of innovation. Just take a listen to his track, Rambler, which came out in 2018.
Frisell plays a major scale-based melody amongst a field of repeating oscillation echoes. The result is a serene listening experience that lures you deeper into depths of relaxing contemplation.
“Polka Dots And Moonbeams” by Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery is a name you’re probably familiar with if you’re into classic jazz music. He essentially helped to lay down what is now considered common vernacular in the genre’s classic jazz guitar vocabulary.
Many of his tracks are as smooth as whiskey accompanied by a fine cigar. Polka Dots And Moonbeams is a song that displays Montgomery’s mastery over octave shapes used in a vocal manner.
“Maybe Tomorrow” by Grant Green
Grant Green brought a different influence to the jazz guitar than what was previously common. His vernacular tended to include modern elements with influences spanning a wide range of different horn players.
The track, Maybe Tomorrow, finds Grant Green hanging back and opting for simplicity through much of its runtime. Nevertheless, his additions are perfectly suited for anyone looking to add smooth melodic lines to their repertoire.
“Sirabhorn” by Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny’s hair might be just as iconic as Pat Metheny himself. Of course, if you’ve actually listened to Pat Metheny, you know his playing style is just as recognizable.
Throughout his career, Metheny has had an incredible impact on music at large. Even guitarists outside of the realm of the label of jazz have been influenced by his approach to music.
The song Sirabhorn is a classic track from Metheny’s expansive catalog of music. In the live cut, you’ll see everything that Metheny is known for on full display.
“Night And Day” by Joe Pass
There might never be another guitarist that can play to the level that Joe Pass commanded over the guitar. The mastery of his craft allowed him to be insanely successful as a standalone soloist.
Songs like Night And Day show Joe Pass in some of his most inventive moments. In this track, you’ll hear inclusions of motifs taken from different sources of inspiration.
Joe Pass had the uncanny knack of seamlessly weaving catchy melodies with perfected rhythms simultaneously. Night And Day is a reflection of this, and not only in the title alone.
“A Go Go” by John Scofield
John Scofield has continually been one of the biggest names of modern jazz guitar. In a way, he’s the jazz guitar’s equivalent to jazz piano’s Herbie Hancock.
This comparison is seemingly justified in songs like A Go Go, which is a distinctly funky rag. A Go Go displays Scofield’s penchant for an improvisational approach that borders on jam band territory.
If doctors' offices had songs like this playing in the waiting room, people would be more willing to hang out.
“Autumn Leaves” by Joe Pass
Most beginner jazz guitarists will have encountered the song Autumn Leaves at some point. It’s usually one of the first songs many people learn when utilizing their newfound jazz chord knowledge.
Joe Pass absolutely destroys this jazz staple with his distinct flair for melodic weaving. Listen and you’ll discover how a master supports his melody with harmonic context as a solo guitarist.
“All The Things You Are” by Hank Garland
Hank Garland might have one of the most unique backstories when it comes to his career as a jazz guitarist. He was actually a prominent session guitarist for country music before making the transition to the genre.
Part of this was due to the fact that he felt unchallenged by country music the way jazz music did. All The Things You Are proves that jazz probably was a far more fitting home for Hank.
“Sunny” by Pat Martino
2021 saw the loss of the jazz guitar giant, Pat Martino, who left behind a massive catalog of noteworthy music. While he got his start in the early 1960s, Martino innovated his brand of jazz well into the modern age.
The classic track, Sunny, finds Pat Martino employing more of a simplistic approach. What results is an incredibly smooth listening experience that fits under the definition of the word “cool”.
“Nocturne” by Julian Lage
As far as jazz’s current generation goes, Julian Lage might be considered one of the greatest. The best part is, he’s nowhere near the end of his career and is sure to continue releasing landmark albums.
Nocturne is a popular Julian Lage track from his debut album, Arclight. In the song, he commands a moody phrasing complete with insanely complex harmonization and melodic runs.
What’s even more interesting is that Lage’s guitar of choice is a Fender Telecaster.
“Wavy Gravy” by Kenny Burrell
No, Wavy Gravy isn’t a reference to the hippy that used to appear at psychedelic shows of the 1960s. What it could refer to is the song’s distinct samba chop with angular melody lines.
Kenny Burrell truly shines in this track, utilizing both jazz vernacular and a hint of blues guitar stylings. Even his rhythm parts during the horn solo are worth studying for anyone learning how to comp.
“I Found A New Baby” by Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian is probably one of the most influential jazz guitarists from the age of classic American jazz. In today’s jazz climate, you’ll find more people who have been influenced by Christian’s guitar stylings than not.
Take a listen to the song, I Found A New Baby, and you’ll hear precisely what I’m talking about. Christian has a way of phrasing that is far ahead of its time and is vaguely reminiscent of bebop.
“Silver Lining” by Mike Stern
If you read guitar magazines from the 1980s, you’ll have a hard time avoiding mention of the name Mike Stern. The reason for this is that Mike Stern is undoubtedly one of the decade’s best jazz guitarists.
Wondering what makes Mike Stern such a noteworthy guitarist? Listen to Silver Lining and you’ll an evolved jazz sound morphs through different timings with a vaguely tropical feel.
“Lenny’s Mood” by Lenny Breau
Lenny Breau is a name that should be more well-known among guitarists of any genre. His fingerstyle pieces are incredibly dense with rich stylings of emotional display.
It’s no irony that listening to Lenny’s Mood will give you a front seat to what makes Breau so great. The warmth of his guitar and how he accompanies his own melodies is enough to get lost for weeks.
“It Could Happen To You” by Herb Ellis
If you’ve listened to some Dizzy Gillespie from the 1950s, you might have seen Herb Ellis’s name in the credits. Herb served as a sideman for a number of very famous musicians while also having an incredible solo career.
Non-jazz guitarists should probably be more familiar with the name Herb Ellis. Listen to the song, It Could Happen To You, and you might find yourself wanting to learn the style yourself.
“Athens” by Charlie Hunter
Listen to Charlie Hunter for the first time and you might make the same mistake that I did. If you didn't know, Charlie Hunter possesses the rare skill of playing both bass and guitar on the same instrument.
He does this by playing an 8-string guitar, but if you didn’t know any better, you’d never know. The song Athens is a funky track that comes from his classic album, Baboon Strength.
“Endless Summer” by John Scofield
Remember how I said that John Scofield can sometimes venture into jam band territory with his approach? Take some time to watch a live version of his song Endless Summer for a great example.
While the song obviously has its melodic motifs, Scofield continually takes the listener on a journey. The band travels through some pretty interesting platforms for somebody who’s considered a jazz guitarist.
Of course, it’s instances like this that illustrate that jazz should never be defined as having one specific sound. Instead, it encompasses everything with a spirit of improvisation and composition.
“Birds Of Fire” by Mahavishnu Orchestra
If you’ve never heard of Mahavishnu Orchestra before, don’t make the same mistake that I did. This is not the sort of orchestra that will lull you off to have a pleasant night’s sleep.
Mahavishnu Orchestra is best known for being the musical home of jazz guitarist, John McLaughlin. Birds Of Fire illustrates his jazz fusion style that’s steeped heavily in Eastern vernacular.
“Little Blues” by Lenny Breau
If you listened to Little Blues without knowing any better, you might think there are multiple people playing. You’d be astonished to learn that it’s just Lenny playing melodies and rhythmic comps, alone.
Little Blues is an insane piece of work with regard to the sheer amount of technique and skill being displayed. It might sound like a quaint, warm track, but there are some wickedly fast fingerstyle passages to be heard.
“Back At The Chicken Shack” by Jimmy Smith
You’re probably scratching your head a little bit at seeing Jimmy Smith being mentioned here. Isn’t he an organist rather than a guitarist?
Well, Back At The Chicken Shack (one of Smith’s most famous tracks) features guitarist, Kenny Burrell. This funky blues track is irresistible and Burrell’s jazz-tinged blues vocabulary is perfectly at home here.
“Skating In Central Park” by Jim Hall
Jim Hall is one of many jazz guitarists who were inspired by Charlie Christian’s playing at an early age. In turn, Jim Hall would, himself, be an incredibly influential guitarist among many featured in this article.
The song, Skating In Central Park, comes from the golden age of early 1960s jazz. Supported by the piano, Jim Hall creates a serene winter scene fitting the song’s title.
Listen to it with your eyes closed and you can almost see the scene unfolding right before you. It’s playful and peaceful at the same time.
“The Ramble” by Julian Lage
Julian Lage continued to show that he still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve with his album, Modern Lore. This album builds on the ground that Lage broke with his debut record, putting him further into the limelight.
The Ramble has a feel that would seem fitting for any virtuosic guitarist to be able to join up with. Julian really does do some fabulous dancing across the fretboard, embellished by some exquisite passages.
“Montreal” by Mark Lettieri
Mark Lettieri comes from an interesting background and is best known for his work in the band, Snarky Puppy. This group is known for blending jam band elements with the spirit and approach of jazz improvisation.
While Snarky Puppy has been incredibly successful, guitarist Mark Lettieri has found success on his own with his solo career. The song, Montreal, is a fine example of the rock-influenced daringness that Mark often takes with his approach.
“Racy” by Nels Cline & Julian Lage
We’ve already mentioned Julian Lage at length in this article, but his partnership with Nels Cline is truly something special. Nels Cline is perhaps best known for his work with the band, Wilco, and isn’t usually considered a jazz guitarist.
However, when you listen to these two playing together, you get to witness an unbelievable musical connection. The song, Racy, finds them chasing each other all over the fretboard while embracing purposeful dissonance that almost seems accidental.
“Sights” by Steve Cardenas
Steve Cardenas is another modern jazz guitarist that more guitarists, in general, should be aware of. While he’s had a stellar career, he’s spent a good portion of time as a music teacher at various colleges.
The song, Sights, is definitely a modern track but feels like it came from an era long ago. Even the band format is very much akin to something that would have taken place in the early 1960s.
“Rhythm Things” by Biréli Lagrène
Many guitarists attempt to emulate Django Reinhardt but fail miserably in pulling off that distinct sound. With that being said, Biréli Lagrène might be one of the closest to mastering that gypsy jazz style.
His track, Rhythm Things, shows that gypsy jazz has room for modern stylings. In a way, it illustrates just how much Lagrène has expanded on the stylistic foundation Django laid down.
“Metal Fatigue” by Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth might be one of the most perplexing jazz guitarists to have ever played professionally. As a guitarist, Holdsworth was no stranger to experimentation or to adopting new technology into his rig.
Part of what makes Holdsworth so unique is the bizarre chord choices he uses, often built from different scales. The song, Metal Fatigue, kind of emulates metal music while displaying many of Holdsworth’s signature characteristics.
“On Broadway” by George Benson
Some people would probably scoff at seeing a George Benson song listed in this article. As a musician, he essentially started off as a jazz guitarist before transitioning to becoming a sort of pop star.
On Broadway might not be a jazz song per se, but it is a track that often receives radio play. In the song, you’ll hear Benson’s signature way of playing guitar solos while vocally scatting the pitches simultaneously.
Anyone who has ever played improvised solos knows how incredibly important this skill is. Hearing Benson do it will make it readily apparent that he’s one of the foremost masters of the technique.
“Chitlins Con Carne” by Kenny Burrell
There’s a fair chance that you might be vaguely familiar with the song, Chitlins Con Carne. Stevie Ray Vaughan had a cover version of this classic jazz track on his album, The Sky Is Crying.
But, if that’s your only exposure to the song, you owe it to yourself to hear the original. This is smooth jazz with an easy groove that remains undeniably cool, even today.
“Lullaby Of Birdland” by Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel is one of music’s unsung heroes, specifically because of his role in The Wrecking Crew. He’s been a part of some of the greatest albums to have ever been recorded, including Pet Sounds.
However, Kessel was quite an accomplished jazz guitarist, which can be heard on his track, Lullaby Of Birdland. This swinging jazz track is an obvious homage to Charlie Parker and the jazz club that shared the same name.
Best Jazz Songs With Guitar, Final Thoughts
If there’s anything that this list illustrated, it’s that jazz guitar is not necessarily defined by one particular style. In fact, while many players take inspiration from others, it’s their own style that pushes the genre’s boundaries.
It just goes to show that jazz guitar is not boxed in by one specific sound. Rather, be like the greats and use these songs as a source of inspiration, not intimidation.
Jazz guitar is still very much alive today, and there’s always room for more dedicated guitarists with distinct styles.
Side note, do you want to learn to play guitar songs the easy way? Learn how here – results are guaranteed!