Until 1910, there were no guitars in jazz. The six-string Spanish guitar came into vogue in the late '20s; by the dawn of the Swing Era in the mid '30s, nearly every big band had a guitar player, although mainly for steady rhythm playing.
There were, however, a few early renegades, most notably Eddie Lang. Born Salvatore Massaro, Lang was a single-note virtuoso who became jazz's first in-demand session player and guitar hero. In 1926, Lang and Joe Venuti cut some classic guitar-violin duets, predating Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli by seven years. After cutting some historic 1928 duets with guitarist Lonnie Johnson, Lang joined Paul Whiteman's Orchestra in 1929, featuring a young Bing Crosby. When Crosby went solo in 1932, Lang became his full-time accompanist until Lang died the following year.
Belgian-born Gypsy guitarist Reinhardt played with unprecedented speed and dexterity even though he'd lost the use of two fingers on his fret hand after a 1928 fire. Django became one of the Swing Era's greatest virtuosos, and is still revered by contemporary players.
In 1939, Charlie Christian made the next major leap in jazz guitar, opening a Pandora's Box when he plugged into an amplifier and wailed with the projection and fluidity of a sax player. While others had experimented with electric guitar, it was Christian who galvanized a generation of guitarists, including Barney Kessel, Tiny Grimes, Slim Gaillard, and countless others.
After Christian, several key figures exerted a towering influence: bop-inspired modernists Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney in the early '50s, aggressive hard-bopper Wes Montgomery in the late '50s, harmonically sophisticated Jim Hall in the early '60s and mid-'60s Wes-inspired soul-jazzers Grant Green and George Benson.
The innovation continued with Joe Pass 'solo virtuosity in the late '60s, John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell's early '70s fusion, Pat Metheny's heartland-flavored folk-rock-jazz and John Abercrombie's ethereal late '70s excursions. The early '80s brought John Scofield, Bill Frisell and James Blood Ulmer; stylists like Wayne Krantz, Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale arrived in the early '90s. Recently, ambitious risk-takers like Dave Fiuczynski, Jeff Parker, and Liberty Ellman have been predicting jazz guitar's future.
While jazz guitar has always remained close to its roots, it continues to evolve, making exciting innovations along the way.