As you’ll see when I’ll talk about my personal Jazz setup, trying to find a good guitar sound for this genre can be a frustrating experience. Before choosing what gear to use for your first Jazz gig, there’s an archetypical Jazz sound that guitar players have to consider.
Indeed you’re not forced to use a hollow body guitar with flat wound thirteen gauge strings if you don’t like that sort of thing.
On the other hand, you can’t expect to show up to a jam session with your eight-string Ibanez and a Metal Zone and expect the other musicians to accept your interpretation of the Jazz guitar sound. As always, you’re going to need balance.
The Jazz guitar sound has evolved and enriched through the years. You can play Jazz with overdrive or “weird” modulation effects.
Still, you need to understand the genre’s tradition and the role of the guitar within the band. If you can do that, you’ll be able to play some great and respectable Jazz music even with a Fender Strat, a Bluesy amp (like my Mezzabarba Z18), and a multi-fx unit (like my Helix FX).
Choosing to Play Jazz With “Unconventional” Gear
I wanted to be a purist Jazz guitarist when I was in college. I don’t know how many of you reading this will be able to relate to this, but I promise you I’m not the first guitar player to go through this experience. Indeed, I will not be the last one.
I started as a Rock guitarist when I was in my teens, and, as you can expect, I was not fond of Jazz at all. I don’t know whether that was due to my age or my general lack of experience with this genre. Still, I thought that Jazz guitar wasn’t really “guitar”.
Stupid and presumptuous, I know, but I was eighteen. Anyway, that all changed when I went to music college.
Suppose you’ve ever been to a music university, conservatory, or however you want to call these schools. In that case, you would know that Jazz theory and improvisation are the foundation of any modern academic music program.
You really can’t avoid it. So, after some adjustment time, I started to appreciate Jazz. Call it peer pressure, but I liked it so much that I studied nothing but Jazz for the entire duration of my Bachelor’s Degree program.
What’s the problem with that? Well, I didn’t study Jazz guitarists at all. Charlie Parker played the saxophone, Clifford Brown played the trumpet, and Oscar Peterson played the piano. I spent years transcribing solos from musicians that couldn’t even hold a pick. And I loved it.
I was improving drastically. Learning the vocabulary and the overall feel of Jazz is the most crucial part of studying it. And, unlike with Rock and Blues, it’s not necessary to focus on music played on guitar to get better at Jazz.
But at some point, I had to face the truth: I don’t play the sax, trumpet, or piano. I play guitar. So, I experimented with the stylistically accurate approach to the Jazz guitar sound. Can I be honest? I wouldn’t say I liked it. I found it sterile, unexpressive, and monotonous. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson don’t have an excellent sound.
It indeed worked for them, but it didn’t for me. I wanted my guitar to sing like Charlie Parker’s saxophone and punch like Clifford Brown’s trumpet. I mean, these were the musicians that made me fall in love with Jazz.
Still, I struggled to get that feeling when I was “forced” to play with a hollow guitar through the cleanest amp that humans ever conceived. But I powered through this and convinced myself that it would eventually work out. Guess what? It didn’t.
I remember I was going to spend almost $4000 on a “Jazz box” guitar (a fully hollow instrument with just one pickup and usually heavy flat-wound strings). I even went to the music store and put down a $200 deposit for it.
Then, one magical day, I casually listened to my favorite guitar player: Robben Ford. I remember randomly stumbling on this video, which I had already watched, probably a million times. Still, all of a sudden, EUREKA.
Is he playing straight-ahead Jazz in this video? Nope. But there’s much Jazz in the way he plays, and, most importantly, it sounded incredibly good to my ears.
So, why am I not doing the same thing? Why am I forcing myself to play with a tone I dislike to stick to a one-hundred-year-old tradition? I was unconsciously depriving myself of the pleasure of enjoying the sounds I was making.
That same day, I returned to the music store and spent my remaining $3800 on my Custom Shop 1963 Reissue Fender Stratocaster. Best decision I ever made.
My Personal “Jazz” Guitar Setup
To be fair, I don’t use my Strat just for Jazz. I tend to play everything with this guitar. That’s because I believe that guitar players should be able to adapt their favorite “sound-defining” gear to the musical context they’re in. So I prefer not to have different setups for different genres.
Anyway, I believe that a Strat-style guitar can be an excellent choice for Jazz. You’ll lose a considerable amount of bottom end and overall richness in your tone compared to a fully hollow instrument like a Gibson L5. Still, you’ll gain more expressiveness and tonal options to choose from.
The neck pickup is excellent for straight-ahead Jazz sounds. The warmth and softness you get when picking close to the neck are unmatched.
This is a great tone to play Bebop lines. It provides you with the clarity to make every note understandable without the harshness you get from the higher frequencies that tend to be too emphasized the closer you get to the bridge pickup.
If you add slight overdrive to the mix, you’ll go to “sustain land”. Bear in mind that I’m not talking about aiming for a bluesy overdriven tone. You don’t need that much drive to make your Strat sing in a Jazz context. I like it to be barely perceivable.
A good reference is that you should be able to play reasonably complex extended (or altered) Jazz chords with the amount of drive you choose to have.
Talking about chords, the neck pickup on a Strat is chord heaven to me. The resonating frequencies of this particular setup create the perfect conditions to lay down the harmony of a jazz tune.
I feel that you can get much closer to a piano-like feel with a Strat than with a hollow body. If you play around with the volume and tone knobs, you can get an unbelievable variety of sounds. I’ve done plenty of Jazz gigs without even touching my pickup selector.
The bridge pickup on a Strat is an entirely different beast. As I said before, there are a lot of harsher frequencies coming from it, and that’s generally not something you want when playing Jazz. Still, not all music is the same.
Maybe you could find yourself in a situation where you feel like your guitar should “scream” a little bit more. I mean, sax players are allowed to do that within a Jazz band; why shouldn’t we?
If you are lucky enough to play with open-minded Jazz musicians (good luck with that), you only have to care about the overall vibe.
And if you feel like you have to scream to valorize and enrich the general mood of the piece you’re playing, please go ahead and switch to the bridge pickup! You will not be disappointed.
What about the other three pickup configurations available on a Strat? Well, I’m not a fan. To be clear: I’m talking about playing Jazz. I love the in-between sounds, but I don’t particularly enjoy using them in this context.
On the other hand, this changes entirely if we’re talking about funkier Jazz. The fourth position (neck and middle pickups) is fantastic for funky syncopated rhythms. It might also be the most mellow lead sound you’ll be able to get out of your Strat if you add some overdrive.
In other words: experiment with playing some Jazz music using your Stratocaster. You might be surprised to find that it sounds just right.
Want to know more about Jazz Pickups? Here’s our complete guide on how to choose the right pickups for Jazz.
My Personal “Jazz” Amp and Pedalboard Setup
My mindset of having pretty much a single setup to face any musical context challenge does not include just my choice of guitars. I use my Mezzabarba Z18 for pretty much every situation I’m asked to play in, and Jazz gigs are no exceptions.
This little combo amp has eighteen watts of power, coming through a single twelve-inch Celestion Greenback speaker. The amount of volume produced by this beast is unbelievable. I’ve never had the chance to push the volume knob beyond two (out of ten), and I generally use it at around one.
Bear in mind that I’m not necessarily talking about small stages. I’ve toured with an Italian pop singer with this amp, playing big venues in front of thousands of people.
Still, the volume knob was never above two. Sometimes I’m forced to put it below one on “can you please turn it down?” gigs. I’m not too fond of these gigs.
My “Italian stallion” (like me, LOL) amplifier has a single channel with no master volume. Therefore, if you consider its deafening loudness, it’s almost impossible to get it to a high enough volume to add some natural overdrive to the guitar signal. So, I would call it an overall clean amp.
It is equipped with two 6V6 power tubes, similar to the more famous smaller Fender combos like the Deluxe Reverb. Still, unlike most Fender amps, the Z18 does not have onboard reverb.
When you add the absence of ambiance effects to the difficulty of getting the amp to naturally overdrive, it is no wonder that most people (including myself) consider this a “pedal platform” amp.
So, what pedals do I pair with my Mezzabarba combo? Whenever I play Jazz gigs, I always use my trusted Helix HX Effects and nothing else. This little monster of a pedalboard gives me everything I need and much more. Besides fantastic reverbs and delays, the Helix has unbelievably good quality modulation effects.
I love the Rotary and Leslie on this unit. These sounds can help your chords come to life, especially in a Jazz context.
You can quickly get your guitar to have more of an organ-like tone, which can be very helpful if you find yourself gigging without a keyboard or piano player. You can even add polyphonic pitch effects to enrich the harmonic content of your basic sound.
Even with more “standard” guitar pedal emulations, the HX Effects does a great job. The overdrives are excellent sounding. I almost exclusively use the Scream 808 (Tube Screamer emulation) and the Minotaur (Klon Centaur emulation).
These overdrives have very mellow characteristics, which fit perfectly within Jazz music. Still, you can get them to scream if you want them to.
But remember what I said before: you don’t need much overdrive to play Jazz. Some people would say you need none! The dynamics of your picking hand mainly control the amount of overdrive you want, in conjunction with your volume knob, which I suggest you start using as soon as possible.
Jazz is extemporaneous music, and, in theory, nothing is prepared. So, you have to be ready to react fast to your interactions with the other musicians you’re playing with.
Therefore, as well as having two or three different levels of gain available to you by pedal (or preset) switching, I think it’s much more effective and versatile to get hundreds of slightly different tones by using your volume (and tone) knobs.
After all, whenever you play Jazz (or any other style of music), you shouldn’t be concerned too much with your gear. The instruments you choose to use are just a means to an end: express yourself freely within the context of the most unrestrained genre of music available to humankind.
Let me answer some of the questions you might have on your mind after reading this article.
Question: What do you Think are Other “Unconventional” great Jazz guitars?
Answer: Well, besides a Strat, I suggest you consider a Telecaster-style guitar for your solid body Jazz experiments. Granted, I’m not the first guy that has ever said this. You can listen to some beautiful Jazz played on Teles. Julian Lage is the first Telecaster-using Jazz guitarist that comes to mind.
The Tele’s overall simple nature and straight-ahead “no-nonsense” sound make it a very reasonable choice for this genre of music. You can also get versions of a Telecaster that are semi-hollow, like the Thinline range of Telecasters.
This would be a more stylistically correct choice since the archetypical Jazz guitars have hollow body constructions. Les Pauls could be a great choice as well.
Question: Do I Need to Use Overdrive and Effects to Play Jazz?
Answer: Absolutely not. You don’t need to use them. If you like it, you can choose to use a more “standard” approach to the Jazz guitar sound; nobody will complain. As a matter of fact, even nowadays, you might get some weird looks if you decide to use overdrives and other effect pedals.
So, by any means, if you honestly like the straight-ahead “classic” Jazz guitar sound, go ahead and use it. You might not be getting a call from the most cutting-edge hip musicians, but at the end of the day, you are the one that has to be satisfied with your tone.
Question: Can you Name other Players that Have “Unconventional” Jazz Guitar Tones?
Answer: Of course. One of my favorite Jazz guitarists ever has to be John Scofield. Sure, he might not be famous for being the most straight-ahead jazz player, but he defined the modern approach to playing guitar in a Jazz context.
He always uses a bit of overdrive, and his sound is one of my most significant references whenever I want to play music with a swing feel.
Mike Stern is another notable Jazz player who has a unique approach to his tone. He is very heavy on Chorus as a modulation effect, and although you rarely hear that, he also uses very generous amounts of overdrive, maybe even distortion.
I have talked about the personal gear that I use to play Jazz, and I know that some of you might be a little surprised, and somebody else could disagree with my point of view. I get it. It’s not the norm. But who cares?
Jazz, like all music, is a language, and the most crucial thing in languages should be content. In other words: what you play needs to be valued more than your tone. Languages are meant to change throughout time, and that’s a good thing. If sounds don’t modify, then they’re bound to disappear eventually.
I encourage all guitar players that haven’t already done so to explore and study Jazz. It can be beautiful and liberating for you as a musician if you approach it sustainably. When playing guitar, you should never feel constricted to something you don’t like, especially if that’s something as important as your sound.
Experiment with music and be free. You won’t regret it.