When most players think of a jazz guitar, they picture a traditional hollow body archtop with f-holes. It’s smooth looks and equally smooth sound are cherished in jazz. But if you’re just getting started and looking for your first beginner jazz guitar, your choices don’t start or stop with an archtop.
Before you run out and buy a jazz guitar to take lessons on, ask yourself, “why do I want a ‘jazz’ guitar?”
“Many new players have this idea that if they buy a ‘jazz’ guitar that somehow it helps you play jazz better, or that it will make you sound jazzier,” said Chris Champion, a jazz guitar instructor with a resume that includes instruction at Arizona State University and University of South Dakota. “You can take any guitar on the planet and play great jazz music.”
That said, the key to buying your first jazz guitar is knowing what you want to accomplish in learning jazz. Are you looking to play gypsy jazz like Django Reinhardt? Or jazz fusion like John Scofield? Or maybe soul jazz like Wes Montegomery?
Once you know where you want to go with your lessons, then it’s time to talk guitars.
Ok, so we just said archtops aren’t the be-all, end-all of jazz guitars, but they are a great guitar for the genre. To start with, they give you warmth and fatness in the highs and in the lows that is most often associated with jazz guitar. They also carry heavy gauge jazz strings really well, even though pretty much any guitar you buy is going to come stock with light gauge strings (be prepared for needing a little setup work done).
On the flipside, archtops have a volume threshold with limited headroom so they have a tendency to feedback easily at higher volumes. But don’t let that scare you away from archtops. Instead of a full hollowbody, you may want to consider a semi-hollow archtop.
While archtops are the most popular guitar for the genre, they’re also typically more expensive. That said, there are some great archtops for under $500.
Ibanez Artcore AF75
The Ibanez Artcore series guitars are some of the best affordable hollow body archtops around. “Ibanez has a huge advantage because they’ve been building really high-quality stuff since the ‘70s,” Champion said. “It’s actually really amazing what they can do for under $500.”
Champion specifically calls out the AF75, which is not only great for beginners, but it’s also a really good workhorse gigging guitar. The AF75 is an all maple, full-hollow body archtop with a mahogany, set-in neck for a thick, full sound and comfortable playability. And its pair of ACH humbucker pickups offer a clean sound with just a hint of overdrive.
Epiphone ES-339 PRO
Epiphone’s ES-339 PRO is a semi-hollow body archtop with a center block that gives you a full-bodied sound with added headroom thanks to its Alnico Classic Pro pickups. It also has a reduced body size that is great for smaller-framed players and a SlimTaper D-profile mahogany neck that is easy to play.
For an even thicker sound, checkout the ES-339 P90 PRO with the P-90 PRO single-coil “soapbar” pickups.
From Buddy Holly to Slash, solid body electric guitars have long been a staple of rock ‘n’ roll. However, they’re also the go-to for jazz legends like Mike Stern and Lenny Breau. At the top of the list for solid body jazz guitars? Champion recommends the Fender Telecaster, which was the go-to for jazz chord chemist Ted Greene.
“Vintage-style teles had string spacing that was much more like an acoustic on the right hand. They were made for chicken-picking, so you can get your fingers between the strings,” Champion said.
Like archtops, Telecasters hold flat-wound, heavier gauge strings really well. While they’re most commonly known for their country twang, they also have a great thickness and broad tone capabilities.
Fender Player Series Telecaster
The Fender Player Series Telecaster puts a modern edge on the authentic tele tone at a price that won’t break the bank. It has a traditional solid alder body and a C-shaped maple neck with medium jumbo frets. It also has single-coil Alnico V pickups for crisp highs, and thick lows and mids.
Fender Special Edition HH Standard Telecaster
Greene’s telecasters were highly modified and he often replaced his tele pickups with humbuckers. For that fuller humbucker tone (and another $100), check out the Fender Special Edition HH. With similar specs to the Player Series Telecaster (alder body, maple neck, jumbo frets, etc.), the HH Standard is powered by a pair of chrome-covered humbuckers giving it a thicker, deeper voice and clarity.
Squier Classic Vibe ‘50s Telecaster
For beginners, Squier offers some great lower-cost options with Fender-quality parts and style. The Classic Vibe ‘50s Telecaster has the look and feel of the earliest teles, and also offers some very modern player-friendly features like a C-shaped neck with an easy-playing 9.5” radius fingerboard with narrow-tall frets. Its Fender-designed Alnico single-coil pickups bring incredible tone and warm midrange.
Much like archtops, acoustic guitars that are set up for jazz have a full warm sound, and often some added neck radius instead of the flat neck that is more common with classical guitars. Champion recommends taking a look at Cordoba classicals for jazz. As an added bonus for beginners, classical guitars have nylon strings that are easy on the fingers over hours of practice.
Acoustics like Cordoba’s C10 are crafted specifically to be a crossover guitar perfect for jazz, but as you can imagine are over $1,000. Here is a more affordable acoustic option from Cordoba for the beginner level.
With a solid Canadian cedar top and mahogany back and sides, the Cordoba C5-CE is well-constructed with classical tone woods and the benefit of a cutaway body for easy access to higher frets. The neck of the C5 is also slightly thinner making it easier for jazz chording and lines.
As a bonus, the C5-CE is an acoustic-electric with Fishman 2-band pickup system that is great for gigging.
Setup and Strings
As noted if you go the electric guitar route, you’re likely to need a setup when you buy since most guitars come with lighter gauge strings. The first thing you’re going to want to do is have heavy gauge strings put on and get a professional setup to keep a playable action and accurate intonation.
Flatwound strings are the go-to for jazz, and Champion recommends D-Addario XL Chromes, either light (12-52) or medium (13-56). At around $20 a set, it’s a moderate expense and well worth the investment toward your lessons.
Remember, there are a lot of options to get you started playing jazz guitar. Don’t limit yourself. Look around at what some of your favorite jazz musicians play and think about where you want jazz music to take you before you groove.