How to Find the Best Jazz Guitar For You
As a guitarist, the biggest and most expensive decision you make is the purchase of a jazz guitar.
With so many makes and models, it’s harder than ever to find the best jazz guitar for you.
Choosing the right body, color, wood, and hardware leads to hours of research and agonizing over whether you prefer fire engine or cherry red.
To make this decision easier, I’ve put together an overview of the four most common jazz guitars to explore before making your next purchase.
One note before you dive into this article. It can be tempting, price wise, to order a guitar from the internet.
But, when choosing the best jazz guitar for you, there’s no substitute for playing a guitar in person.
Going to a store to play a few guitars then purchasing one there, or online, prevents any surprises when buying a guitar online.
Lastly, what’s been your experience with purchasing jazz guitars? Share your experiences in the comments section of this article.
Note: To keep things reasonable, I’ve narrowed the field down. For the players, I’ve chosen one or two guitars that they played on classic recordings, or their signature models. If you want to add to the lists, post your thoughts in the comments section.
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The Traditionalist – Archtop Guitars
When people think of jazz guitar, most of the time they picture an archtop guitar, and more often than not, a Gibson archtop.
The iconic look and sound of archtop guitars is hard to beat.
While archtops are the most popular models, they’re expensive, especially Gibsons, and can cause physical and feedback problems.
Spend time playing any archtop that you considering buying. See how it behaves at high volumes to check for feedback.
Play the guitar sitting and standing to see how it feels on your shoulder, back, neck, and arms. For some players, archtops are the most comfortable, for others, they cause physical problems.
Playing a guitar in a shop over a few visits helps you buy the best jazz guitar for you.
This is especially true with an archtop, as you get an idea for the sound and feel of the guitar before purchasing.
When it comes to the classic jazz tone, it’s hard to beat an archtop guitar.
From Charlie Christian to Lage Lund, countless jazz guitarists have turned to archtops for their signature tone.
If you have the money, feel comfortable with the body, and don’t have feedback issues, archtops are what jazzers turn to when buying their first guitar.
Archtop Guitar Pros
Here’s a partial list of the archtop guitar pros.
- Bigger body size is ideal for some players, more to work with.
- Create the authentic jazz guitar sound, especially for bop and post-bop players.
- Market has opened up to provide higher quality archtop guitars at lower prices.
Archtop Guitar Cons
Here’s a partial list of the archtop guitar cons.
- Larger body isn’t a good fit.
- Less tone variations than solid-body guitars.
- Feedback issues that may be tough to overcome.
10 Archtop Guitar Models
Here’s a list of some of the most popular brands and models of archtop guitars.
- Gibson L5-CES
- Gibson ES-175
- Ibanez AF95
- Ibanez LGB300
- Benedetto Manhattan
- D’Aquisto New Yorker
- D’Angelico EX-DH
- Epiphone Emperor Regent
- Gibson Super 400 CES
- McCurdy Kenmare
10 Jazz Guitarists Who Play Archtops
Before you purchase any archtop guitar, check out the recordings of these 10 guitarists to hear these axes in action.
- Wes Montgomery – Gibson L5-CES
- Pat Metheny – Gibson ES-175, Ibanez PM1000
- Johnny Smith – Gibson Johnny Smith Model
- Jim Hall – Sadowsky Jim Hall Model, Gibson ES-175
- Tal Farlow – Gibson TF Model
- Herb Ellis – Gibson ES-165, ES-175
- George Benson – Ibanez GB Signature Models
- Pat Martino – Benedetto Signature Model
- Russell Malone – Sadowsky LS017
- Sheryl Bailey – McCurdy Signature Model
Rock n Roll Rebel – Solid Body Guitars
Associated with rock and country, solid-body guitars have become the go-to model for jazzers such as Ted Greene, Ed Bickert, and more recently, John Scofield.
With feedback-free playing, tone variations, and a smaller body, solid-bodies are becoming more popular with jazz guitarists.
Lighter and with a smaller body, solid-bodies are a good choice for those that find that archtop and semi-hollow guitars cause physical issues.
For players that move between genres, solid-body guitars allow you to alter your tone quickly, letting you move between genres without changing axes.
While they’re smaller, lighter, and more versatile, they may not provide the authentic jazz tone you’re looking for.
If you can find a Telecaster with humbuckers, then you can get close to the archtop sound.
But, it’s hard to duplicate that warm, traditional jazz tone exactly on a solid-body guitar.
Try a few solid-body guitars before making a decision, as a Gibson Les Paul won’t offer a traditional jazz tone, but a G&L will be close.
Though not for everyone, solid-body guitars are making inroads into jazz guitar, and are worth looking at when choosing the best jazz guitar for you.
Solid Body Guitar Pros
Here’s a partial list of the pros when considering a solid-body jazz guitar.
- Lighter and smaller shape is easier on your body.
- Creates a variety of tones.
- No feedback issues.
Solid Body Guitar Cons
Here’s a partial list of the cons when considering a solid body jazz guitar.
- Too small of a body shape for some players.
- Can sound too “rock” and not enough like “jazz” for some.
- Doesn’t have the jazz look.
10 Solid Body Jazz Guitar Models
To help you explore solid body guitars further, here’s a list of some of the most popular models of jazz solid body guitars.
- Fender Telecaster
- Fender Stratocaster
- Gibson SG
- Yamaha Pacifica
- Godin LGXT
- Carvin HH1 and HH2
- Fender Jaguar
- Fender Jazzmaster
- Gibson Les Paul
- PRS McCarty
10 Jazz Guitarists Who Play Solid Body Guitars
Before you purchase any solid body guitar, check out the recordings of these guitarists who play solid-body guitars.
- Ted Greene – Fender Telecaster
- Mike Stern – Yamaha Pacifica and Telecasters
- John Scofield – Fender Telecaster
- John Abercrombie – Gibson SG
- John McLaughlin – Godin LGXT
- Allan Holdsworth – Carvin HH1
- Bill Frisell – Fender Telecaster
- Wayne Krantz – Fender Stratocaster
- Ed Bickert – Fender Telecaster
- Julian Lage – Fender Telecaster
Best of Both Worlds – Semi-Hollow, Semi Acoustic Guitars
If you’re looking for a guitar that isn’t too big, not too small, has a variety of tones, and fits musical genres, then semi-hollow body and semi-acoustic guitars are for you.
The main difference between these guitars, is that semi-hollow guitars (ES-335) have a block down the middle of the body, while semi-acoustic guitars are fully hollow (ES-330), but thinner than archtops.
Played by Emily Remler, John Scofield, Grant Green, and others, semi-hollow and semi-acoustic guitars give you a warm tone, but with a smaller size than an archtop.
While Gibson has the most famous semi-hollow and semi-acoustic guitars, the Ibanez Artist has come to rival the 335.
As is the case with archtops, vintage models offer a lot of benefits as compared to new makes.
But, if you can find a decent price, a new Gibson 330 or 335 usually plays and sounds as good as a vintage model.
Semi-hollow and semi-acoustic guitars are preferred by players who want a warmer tone and bigger body compared to a solid-body guitar, but without going for a full-size archtop.
Semi-hollow and semi-acoustic guitars are a large guitar, so try them first before purchasing.
If you have shoulder or back issues with an archtop, you might have them with these smaller guitars.
Better to be safe than sorry by testing a few semi-hollow and semi-acoustic guitars before purchasing.
Play them sitting and standing to see how they feel, how they fit your body, and how they affect your body when played for a decent amount of time.
Semi-Hollow, Semi Acoustic Guitar Pros
Here’s a partial list of the pros when considering a semi hollow or semi acoustic jazz guitar.
- Goldilocks guitar – smaller than an archtop but bigger than a solid body.
- Less feedback than an archtop and “jazzier” tone compared solid body guitars.
- Reasonable price range for most guitars, especially for the quality.
Semi-Hollow, Semi Acoustic Guitar Cons
Here’s a partial list of the cons when considering a semi hollow or semi acoustic jazz guitar.
- The size is too big for some players.
- Less toel options compared to solid body models.
- Body shape is awkward for some players when sitting down.
10 Semi-Hollow and Semi Acoustic Jazz Guitar Models
Here’s a list of some of the most popular brands and models of jazz semi hollow and semi acoustic guitars.
- Epiphone Dot
- Hohner HS35
- Gibson ES-335
- Heritage H-535
- D’Angelico NY-DC
- Benedetto Benny
- Ibanez Artist – Semi-Hollow Model
- Guild Starfire V
- PRS S2 Mira
- Godin Montreal Premiere HG
10 Jazz Guitarists Who Play Semi-Hollow and Semi-Acoustic Guitars
Before you purchase any guitar, check out recordings from these 10 jazz guitarists who play semi hollow and semi acoustic guitars.
- Emily Remler – Gibson ES-330 (Semi-Acoustic)
- Larry Carlton – Gibson ES-335
- John Scofield – Ibanez Artist and JSM100VT
- Grant Green – Gibson ES-330 (Semi-Acoustic)
- Ben Monder – Ibanez Artist
- Kurt Rosenwinkel – Gibson ES-335
- Wolfgang Muthspiel – Heritage Millennium Eagle
- Andreas Oberg – Benedetto Bravo
- Brian Setzer – Gretsch Black Phoenix
- Mike Moreno – Gibson ES-335
The Personal Touch – Custom Jazz Guitars
The final jazz guitar is the custom built guitar, one that’s made to your specs, preferences, body type, and playing style.
If money’s no object, custom guitars are the best choice, as you choose the wood, hardware, size, shape, inlays, and every other aspect of the guitar’s appearance.
Being able to choose these items is a huge plus, but the price is usually beyond what most players are comfortable paying for a guitar.
But, don’t let this deter you from exploring custom jazz guitars.
You can find luthiers that have long waiting lists and you use that time to make a deposit and save the rest while the guitar is built.
As well, some makers will have guitars come back to them, which they sell at a reduced price to other customers.
While a guitar like this won’t have all the design specs you want, it can be close, affordable, and have the same level of craftsmanship.
If you’ve dreamed of owning a custom built jazz guitar, start looking around.
You might find a maker who’s willing to do a deal, sell a used custom guitar, or has a waiting list that’s long enough to save up for as the guitar’s being built.
Custom Jazz Guitar Pros
Here’s a partial list of the pros when considering a custom jazz guitar.
- Pick the wood and hardware you prefer.
- Work with the Luthier to design your dream guitar.
- Have the guitar build exactly for your body and hand shape-size.
Custom Jazz Guitar Cons
Here’s a partial list of the cons when considering a custom jazz guitar.
- Usually much more expensive than factory guitars.
- Popular Luthiers often have very long waiting lists.
- Don’t have a chance to test drive the guitar before your purchase.
10 Custom Jazz Guitar Makers
To help you explore custom jazz guitars further, here’s a list of some of the most popular custom jazz guitar makers.
- Buscarino Guitars
- Koentopp Guitars
- Brian Moore Guitars
- Moffa Guitars
- Benedetto Custom Shop
- Bill Collings Guitars
- Foster Guitars
- American Archtop
- Klein Guitars
- Parker Archtops
7 Jazz Guitarists Who Play Custom Guitars
Before you purchase any custom guitar, check out recordings from these jazz guitarists who play custom guitars.
- Kurt Rosenwinkel – Moffa Guitars
- Lenny Breau – Kirk Sand Guitars
- Craig Wagner – American Archtops
- Tim Miller – Canton Custom Guitars
- John Abercrombie – Brian Moore Guitars
- Pat Metheny – Linda Manzer Guitars
- Gilad Hekselman – Victor Baker Guitars
Finding the Best Jazz Guitar For You
Now that you’ve explored the four main types of jazz guitars, head down to your favorite guitar shop and test drive a few.
Remember, ordering online is convenient, but you can’t be sure about the quality or sound of a guitar ordered online.
So, play a model in the shop before you order it. Or better yet, buy one from the store that fits your tastes and feels right to you.