What we recognize as the jazz guitar style can be traced all the way back to the beginning of the 20th Century. Guitars were around before, of course, but they were essentially rhythm instruments. Often providing the backing for clarinet, saxophone, or other brass instruments.
The reason for this was that you couldn’t hear them well enough to allow them to solo. They could be heard, however, with expressive strumming, so that was how they were played. Even as recently as the 1920s, things hadn’t changed. No one had to worry about finding the Best Jazz Guitars in those days.
Moving on to the 30s…
Things changed, however, with the invention of the first basic, and we mean really basic guitar amps. A portable banjo amp came in the late twenties, a rudimentary amp for guitar in the early 30s. But they made all the difference. Suddenly guitar players could be heard with a little amplification, and the jazz guitar style was born.
It wasn’t until 1947 when Fender brought out the first ‘real’ guitar amp that things were standardized. But a start had been made. It was helped along by the guitar manufacturers. They realized that if you made the body bigger, you got more sound.
The first classic, what we would call ‘Archtop,’ was made by Gibson back in 1898. But it wasn’t until the early 1920s it started to become popular. ‘F’ holes were added to give better sound projection at a later date, but in 1922 the Gibson L-5 arrived. As time progressed, the styles of jazz guitars changed. So, let’s take a minute to look at the different guitar designs that can be used for jazz…
The Jazz Guitar
A large hollow body design that became the quintessential style. Used by so many great players, Wes Montgomery being one. He played the Gibson L-5.
No cutaways; it was acoustic only until the late 1940s. It was called the most important guitar in Country and Western. But it was just as important in Jazz, if not more so. The L-5 was the first guitar to feature the violin ‘F’ hole design.
Over the years, there have been changes to the L-5. There have been slimline versions and versions with three built-in pickups. There have even been solid-body versions and versions with cutaways. You know Gibson. Not a company to leave things alone if they are working.
But it wasn’t the only great jazz guitar they made if it was the most well-known. Some preferred the ES-175 with its single cutaway. Steve Howe from Yes played one from his earliest years. Through all his exposure to various guitars, it was his favorite. I believe he still has his 1964 model.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘in-betweener’ guitar. Not as large as an Archtop, but bigger than a solid body. They had advantages in that they didn’t give feedback as much as the big old Archtops. And as the volumes were getting louder in the 40s and 50s, that became an important issue.
The tones were different as well, they had a warm, ‘jazzy’ tone, and they were versatile. How versatile?
One of the guitars to come from this design was the Gibson ES-335. Used by Larry Carlton and others for Jazz, it ended up in a whole new world in the 60s and after. Not a bad little old instrument!! Ask Alvin Lee.
Not as popular as the other styles with many jazz players, but they have had their moments. John McLaughlin has used a variety of Gibson solid bodies, as well as Mike Stern, with his Telecaster style. They have their advantages, powerful tones, and little in the way of feedback compared with other designs being just a couple.
There have been some established guitar manufacturers making us great jazz guitars, But there have also been some ‘new kids on the block.’ Ibanez was one who made a big impact. So, let’s start with them…
Top 5 Best Jazz Guitars on the Market in 2021 Reviews
1 Ibanez Artcore Series AS73 Semi-Hollowbody – Best Value for the Money Jazz Guitar
There were a few raised eyebrows when Ibanez arrived on the scene. Even more when some internationally recognized musicians started to use their guitars, but when you look closely at the AS73, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Anyone who has played an Ibanez will know there is a great quality about these guitars. They are designed and built with excellence in mind. This is a semi-hollow guitar with a Maple body.
The double-cutaway arched top styling makes it look a little like a 335, but the horns have more of a point. The standard ‘f’ holes, of course, complete the design. It is finished in a cherry red with cream edging to the body and the ‘f’ holes. A classic look well-produced.
It has a 22 fret mahogany neck which is set-in, and a bound Rosewood fingerboard. The neck has inlay blocks on the fingerboard and dots on the top edge. It has two special humbuckers and good quality chrome fittings.
A semi-hollow design gives a naturally mellow and resonant sound with a little bit of a jangle. This AS 73 is certainly all of that. And the arrangement of pickups and controls gives it a wide variety of sound options. Easy to see why this guitar is popular with genres other than for the jazz boys.
The Classic Elite pickups have been developed for a simple reason. What they haven’t been designed for is to blow your head off. These are there just to preserve the sound but get rid of the old 60Hz hum. In doing so, they created a guitar with its own sonic character.
How does it play?
A lot of the feel of how a guitar plays comes from the neck. The neck on this guitar has been well-designed. The slim shape allows your hand to move freely. And the Mahogany and Rosewood combination makes it feel smooth and comfortable.
A jazz guitar that nevertheless has a great variety for other genres and is easy to play with a great sound. It is going to suit beginners right up to the higher levels. It is set at a price point that makes this attractive and surely one of the Best Value Jazz Guitars for the money paid.
If you want to find out more, please take a look at our in-depth review of the Ibanez AS73 Artcore Semi Hollow.
- Semi-Hollow with two great-sounding humbucker pickups and good fittings.
- A versatile guitar that plays easily at a great price point.
2 Fender Player Jazzmaster – Most Versatile Jazz Guitar
Next up in our Best Jazz Guitars review, we have had to include this guitar, if only because of its reputation. Introduced in 1958, it was Fender’s idea to try and persuade the Jazz players to go solid body. Following on the back of the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster success of the late 50s, it felt like a winner. But it wasn’t really.
The irony is that it is a very good guitar. And whilst some jazz players persevered with it, the ‘big’ names didn’t. That’s probably who Fender was trying to connect with. However, in other rather unlikely circles, it was well-received. The surf guys loved it. So did Elvis Costello, as well as a host of indie, post punk, and alternative bands a bit later on.
The Player version
Obviously not the same as the original. Todays ‘Player’ versions are Fender’s attempts to recreate the past. Quite a few changes, but the essence of the guitar is the same, even if the sound isn’t quite what it was.
It has an Alder body which is Fenders goto wood for the Strat and the Tele and others. The off-set design is easy to recognize. Finished in Polar White, it looks good. There is a maple neck with a modern ‘C’ shape. It has 22 frets and a 9.5-inch radius fingerboard.
It sports the traditional six-saddle adjustable bridge that incorporates the floating tremolo tailpiece. With contours like the Strat, it is heavier and a bit longer, courtesy of the off-set shape. But that design made it better balanced for those sitting. Those who it was originally aimed at.
Of course, the originals didn’t have humbuckers as the Player series has. That had single-coils. But built-in is a potentiometer with a push and pull operation. That will split the coil of the bridge pickup, and bingo, you get a single-coil sound.
The sound with the humbuckers bears little relation to the original but is a warm and quite rich sound. Nice for gentle jazz. The Single coils? Well, we all know what that brings.
Good for Jazz, though?
Probably not the best if we are, to be honest. You may ask why then we included it? It is an iconic guitar, and it is a ‘Jazzmaster’ even if the jazz boys largely rejected it. But it is still a great guitar and vastly underrated. It’s also far more versatile than most other ‘jazz’ guitar options.
Of course, you can play Jazz on it. But there might be better options unless you are doing an album of Jazz versions of old Surfing tunes or My Bloody Valentine covers.
If the Player Jazzmaster isn’t quite what you’re looking for, then take a look at our review of the Fender American Professional Jazzmaster.
- An iconic guitar that is a recreation of the original Jazzmaster.
- Well-built with good materials and some nice sounds.
- Not the best for Jazz, though – shame really, considering it has the perfect name for it.
3 Glen Burton GE355-RDS”Memphis” – Best Budget Jazz Guitar
Are you in the market for a cheaper jazz guitar, maybe for a beginner, or something to learn on yourself? Do you like the shape and color of the old Gibson ES-335? If so, then take a little look at this.
This Glen Burton GE355-RDS”Memphis” has a semi-hollow double-cutaway design made from Maple wood. Traditional ‘f’ holes are cut in, and it is given that rather nice ‘redburst’ finish. It has certainly got that ‘335 look’.
It has a Maple neck with a truss rod, and a Rosewood fretboard with 22 frets. All are available courtesy of the cutaway. The neck is bound, and the frets are nicely finished. The ‘f’ holes,’ body, and the neck have a nice cream edging.
Hardware is not too bad without excelling. There are two chrome-covered humbuckers. These are controlled with two volume controls and two tone controls. There is a three toggle switch that lets you select a pickup or combination of pickups.
Up at the top, there are low-ratio die-cast chrome tuners.
Is surprisingly good for such a modest price. There are some reasonable softer tones that make it a nice guitar for some jazzy chords. Though it must be said the sharp top-end sounds are not so good. A little bit too thin.
This is an interesting guitar, and all things considered, quite nicely put together. It has some excellent features and is set at a very attractive price point. Of course, it is not going to challenge a quality guitar. You wouldn’t expect that. But if you don’t set your sights too high, this is a decent enough guitar for some Jazz, especially for a beginner.
Or, for another affordable version of Gibson’s classic 355, take a look at our in-depth review of the Epiphone Limited Edition ES 335 Pro.
- A good-looking instrument with some nice hardware.
- Has a nice mellow sound set at a very attractive price point.
- Some will require a better quality of instrument.
4 Ibanez GB10EM George Benson Signature – Best Premium Jazz Guitar
If you are talking about jazz guitarists in the modern era, then George Benson would be considered one of the best. In fact, some would refer to him as the definitive modern jazz guitarist. The Ibanez GB10EM is one of his favorite instruments.
When he burst onto the scene in the mid-60s, he brought with him a new era in jazz guitar playing. Working with Ibanez, between them, they produced a range of guitars that have been with us ever since.
The Ibanez GB10EM features three different kinds of wood on the body. The body material is Basswood, with a back made of Linden and Spruce for the top. It is finished in a stunning Orange. There is a single-cutaway and, of course, the standard ‘f’ holes.
The neck is made from Nyatoh wood, and it has a smooth bound Walnut fingerboard. Benson was specific about the design and shape of the neck. It delivers a smooth and easy action designed for comfort. But it is also built for speed when it is needed. Walnut again features for the bridge, for added sustain, and for the tailpiece cover.
Up at the headstock, some quality precision tuners, and a special George Benson logo.
The woods compliment each other. The warmth and depth of the Linden and Basswoods working well with the bright and crisp sounding Spruce. An important design choice as it highlights complex chord progressions and fast melodies and allows clean articulation.
The Magic-Touch mini-humbucker pickups on the GB10EM are attached to the pickguard. This enables them to sit above the body of the guitar, floating. The design idea behind this is to ensure they don’t interfere with the natural vibration of the guitar’s body. This in itself creates a very acoustic-sounding guitar.
This is a guitar with great tone and style and one that will play Jazz at any level, easily making it one of the Best Jazz Guitars currently on the market.
- Great build quality with excellent materials.
- Floating pickups give a near acoustic sound that is rich and warm.
- Some people don’t like ‘signature’ guitars.
5 Epiphone CASINO Coupe Thin-Line – Best Classic Jazz Guitar
To close, we are going to the company that produced the Beatles favorite guitar. The Epiphone Casinos that John and George had in the studio and in some cases on stage were different, of course. The originals had vintage P90s and were being driven through tube amps (real ones).
The Coupe thin-line is a physically slightly scaled-down version of the iconic ’60s guitar and is quite similar in size to Gibson’s 339. This makes it a great jazz guitar.
It is a thin line, arched top hollow body with a classic styling complete with ‘f’ holes. It has a Maple body with a Basswood top. There are the standard two dog-eared pickups, and the white scratchplate with the famous ‘E’ proudly displayed. There is no edging or binding, just a great natural finish.
The Mahogany neck is glued-in. It has 22 frets, all of which are easily accessible, courtesy of the double-cutaway design. The controls are as they were, with two volume and two tone controls and a toggle pickup selector. These are controlling the P90R and P90T pickups that give it a strong, authentic look.
Up top, they have kept it simple with chrome-plated tuners and the Epiphone name and logo. It has a Tune-o-Matic bridge.
The pickups that have been included are a great advertisement for the single-coil design. Crisp and sharp but controllable, they will give you soft and subtle tones when you need them. The thin line design helps to eliminate the feedback associated with hollow-body guitars. But it also goes to add that little bit of an acoustic feel to the sound.
It is a guitar that can go along with the demands of a variety of genres. But this particular Casino is a winner as a Jazz instrument. Lightweight, beautifully balanced, it sits comfortably on the knee. It also feels easy when you stand.
Lives up to the heritage…
Great to play and with an endearing sound and great style, it is a great example of what Epiphone can produce at a quite unbelievable price point. But then we already knew that. The classic Epiphone Casino is as much of a legend as any other classic guitar, and this plays worthy homage to it.
- A scaled-down version of the Casino that is lightweight and easy to play.
- Made from great materials and it sounds and looks great.
Best Jazz Guitars Buyers Guide – Going Jazz
If we are honest, jazz can be played on just about any guitar. But there are some instruments that lend themselves to the jazz style. Sorting out what is best for you is really deciding on how you want to play and with who.
We say ‘with who’ because if your jazz is going to be played with other acoustic instruments, you might only need an archtop guitar. Once you start playing with brass and electric instruments, it takes on a different momentum.
We have looked at body types in the introduction. This is important, and there are things to consider. One thing is the actual size of the guitar. Archtops and even some semi-hollow guitars can be quite cumbersome at best, especially for beginners. Do you need to project the sound, or will you rely on amplification?
These things will all influence your decision.
What about Tone?
Guitars are all different. You can have rich, warm sounds right through to cutting treble. What style of jazz will you be playing? Does it demand a softer, warmer feel, such as trad jazz? If so, then you need to pick a guitar that will give you that. If you’re after more of a fusion sound, then a solid-body guitar such as the Fender Jazzmaster we reviewed or even a good old Fender Strat will give you that.
This must be a factor for most people. We have looked at some quality but also deliberately included a decent budget range instrument. Usually, the more money you spend, the better the guitar will be. But that is not always the case. Set your budget and try to stick with it. We have only looked at five guitars. They are, in our opinion, the very best options but remember that there are hundreds to choose from.
Looking for a guitar to play more than only jazz?
And, if you need a little musical inspiration, you may also enjoy our informative article on the Best Jazz Musicians of all time.
So, what are the Best Jazz Guitars?
We are going to surprise ourselves. We aren’t going to choose the Epiphone Casino, much as we love it. Neither are going with the George Benson signature instrument, jazzy as it is.
But we are going with Ibanez and picking the…
The Artcore range is made for Jazz and has a great sound and great feel. And Ibanez are one of the best jazz guitar manufacturers around.
It is a great guitar at a great price, making it fantastic value for the money and our choice as the Best Jazz Guitar you can buy.
Now get those passing chord progressions down and enjoy your jazz!
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