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If you were going to pick the perfect guitar to play jazz on, it might be something that Charlie Christian played, a wide, deep bodied, fully hollow archtop guitar.
But even used, that’s a big investment, which is out of reach for many aspiring jazz guitarists. But what about the humble, ubiquitous Fender Strat — can you use a Stratocaster for jazz?
The Stratocaster and its many clones can tackle jazz along with pretty much any musical genre, even in the standard configuration of three single coil pickups. Tone and pickup settings on the guitar, as well as the amplifier used and the player’s technique, allow it to produce a variety of jazz influenced tones.
Let’s look at what makes a guitar good for jazz, which Strats might work better than others, and how to get a range of jazzy sounds from Leo Fender’s second child.
What Guitars Are Good For Jazz?
One reason that big archtop guitars are associated with jazz is that they were about the only thing around when the genre started, and in fact, their development was influenced by jazz music.
Flat top guitars were the norm from the start of the instrument, but even steel string flat tops weren’t loud enough to be heard over a jazz band that consisted of multiple horns, woodwinds and possibly even a piano. Archtop guitars used the same construction techniques as violins to produce a louder, more focused sound.
And then came Charlie Christian. His adoption of a Gibson ES-150 with a magnetic pickup attached to the top and a matching amplifier in the late 1930s allowed him to keep up with the band.
He became an early proponent of electric guitar and helped to define the bebop and swing subgenres of jazz between the late 1930s and his death from tuberculosis in 1942.
This recording of “Rose Room” from 1939 gives a picture of the tone Christian was able to get from his guitar, something that set the tone for what jazz guitar would sound like in the future.
While the pickups evolved, the idea behind Christian’s guitar — big, acoustically resonant woody body matched with a warm, dark pickup — set the standard for jazz tone.
One issue with amplifying hollow guitars is feedback when the volume gets too loud. One solution was to try thinner guitars, and another was to use a central block through the body, creating a semi-hollow design.
The third solution was the move to solid body guitars, starting with the Gibson Les Paul, named for the American jazz and country guitarist. While Paul had come up with the idea of a solid guitar to reduce feedback in the 1940s, it wasn’t until Fender launched the Esquire and Telecaster (originally the Broadcaster, but changed after a trademark dispute with Gretsch) in 1950 that Gibson got really interested.
One common feature of many jazz guitars is the use of large single coils like P-90s or a humbucker for pickups. They generally produce a sound with less pronounced highs and a warmer tone, and that’s heard on jazz recordings throughout the ages.
Can You Play Jazz On A Stratocaster?
So let’s compare those characteristics to what a Fender Stratocaster has to offer. The Strat launched in 1954 with three thin, bright single coil pickups and a solid body made from 1.75 inches of ash and a maple neck and fingerboard.
It sounded completely different from the thick, hollow bodied guitars, packed with ebony, rosewood, and mahogany that came before. That means it’s useless for jazz, right?
Not exactly. While the Strat might not be a lot of people’s first choice for a jazz box, its most important trait has always been its versatility.
While it originally shipped with a three way switch, since 1977 the Stratocaster has used a five way switch that allows each pickup to be selected, as well as two hum cancelling pickup combinations: neck/middle and middle/bridge. Custom wiring layouts can expand that tone even further, something we’ll look at more later on.
While the single coils that come on a Strat are generally a lot brighter than, say a P-90 or a similar large single coil, their different voicings and their different positions under the strings make them able to create a range of sounds.
That is even more true when you use the tone control to help shape the sound by rolling off high frequencies.
Then there’s the vibrato, or as Fender has always called it, the tremolo — technically speaking, tremolo is the effect caused by a rapid, normally subtle, change in volume, while vibrato is the effect caused by a rapid, normally subtle, change in pitch.
While most often associated with the whammy bar sounds of surf music and Jimi-Hendrix-esque divebombs, with the correct setup and technique, it can pull off a credible Bigsby imitation, giving chords and sustained notes a rich sounding shimmer.
This video from Fender shows some tips on how to set up a Stratocaster tremolo.
Is A Strat The Wrong Guitar For Jazz?
It’s important to remember that you can play pretty much any style of music on any kind of guitar. The beauty of music is that there isn’t always a right and wrong way to do something, just different approaches.
But there are some limits to that, as well. You would have a very hard time imitating the exact tone of someone like, say, Tal Farlow, whose 1960s Gibson signature model was based on the massive ES-350 he’d played on his most famous recordings, on something like, say a Yngwie Malmsteem signature Stratocaster, with its radically scalloped fretboard.
It could be done, and if you handed Malmsteen a Farlow signature guitar, he’d sound like himself, just like Farlow would sound like himself playing Malmsteen’s Strat. But it would take expertise and some trial and error to make one instrument do a reasonable imitation of the other.
The one big issue is that while everyone acknowledges Strats are versatile, they’re much more closely associated with rock and blues than with jazz. The bright, clear tone allows the guitar to be heard over other instruments, especially when pared with a bit of distortion.
That sounds worlds away from the warm, woody, dark tones coming from totally clean amps that feature on most jazz tunes, but it doesn’t always have to be.
How Can You Get Jazz Tone From A Strat?
While the body style and pickup configuration definitely contribute to the tone found on jazz recordings, the amp used and the EQ settings have a lot to do with it, also.
While Strats have a reputation for being bright guitars, the neck pickup has always been the warmest and darkest of the three, great for rhythm playing. Using the tone knob to roll off the higher frequencies also helps to warm up the sound from the pickup.
Another way to have a somewhat warmer, rounder tone is to select the neck/middle pickup combination. This is hum canceling and it offers a thicker sound — not exactly the same as a humbucker, but a similar effect.
Your amp choice and EQ settings are really critical to getting a jazz sound, though. One main characteristic of a jazz guitar amp is a massive amount of clean headroom.
When you’re working down a diminished scale you want to make sure every note is clear, not fuzzy from overdrive, after all.
Many jazz guitar amps, including the famous Roland Jazz Chorus, are solid state, which allows you to turn the volume up without risking distortion. Using the EQ settings on your amp or on a separate guitar pedal also allow you to dial down the highs and make the tone darker.
How To Modify A Strat For Better Jazz Tone
One of the best things about the Stratocaster is that it can be customized almost infinitely. Whether from the factory or done by a player, the options are nearly endless.
You can switch out pickups, including adding humbuckers, which moves the tone much closer to a traditional jazz guitar. You can add new switching arrangements, including ones that allow the neck and bridge or even all three pickups to work simultaneously.
Some players add new tone control circuits, as well. One mod, covered here, is to add a small switch connected to a capacitor.
That mimics one of the positions from the original Telecaster switching setup, which selected the neck pickup with an additional capacitor added, putting out a bassy, dark sound. Originally, Leo Fender thought guitarists would use that to imitate an upright bass.
He went on to drop that idea and later made the much better choice of inventing the solid body electric bass instead. But the darker tone is exactly what the doctor ordered for many jazz guitarists.
After some players started picking up Telecasters with that wiring setup to play jazz in the 1980s, other players picked up on it and started modding their Strats to have the same tonal possibilities.
A final modification is easy and will do a ton to give your playing a jazzier sound: switch to flatwound strings. Jazz guitars came from the factory with flatwound strings, and most jazz players liked it that way because the strings are much less prone to handling and playing noise as your fingers run up and down the fingerboard.
A set of flatwound strings for the Strat and a slight increase in action to account for the larger string gauge will have your Strat sounding jazzier than ever before.
A truly wonderful thing about music is that you get to create it for yourself. So while there are plenty of rules about what makes a “good” jazz guitar or even a “good” jazz tone in general, there are also plenty of exceptions. That’s true not only for guitar but just about any other instrument including drums and cymbals.
While you can hear similarities between jazz guitarists of the past and today, things have always evolved. Charlie Christian chose the ES-150 because it was one of the first guitars available with a magnetic pickup, after all, not specifically for the tone.
What makes a good jazz tone has a lot to do with chord choice, the scales and arpeggios you use to build solos and your technique, not just the gear you play it on. When you start to master a genre, you’ll begin to see how you can get the right tone out of just about anything.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.