Jim Hall: Modern Guitar Pioneer

On his birthday, it is worth remembering Jim Hall. In many ways he was a forefather of modern guitar. His classical composition training exposed him to many sonorities that would have been unfamiliar to more blues and standards-based bebop guitarists. He never stopped experimenting, whether it was with a DigiTech Whammy pedal, to produce harmonies he couldn’t reach with his fingers, or free improvisation with Bill Frisell or Pat Metheny. Here he plays as part of a modern classical ensemble. Thanks to the great LA guitarist Ken Rosser for posting this on Facebook and be sure to read his intro to it below.

“Here’s a side of Jim Hall a lot of people don’t know – “String Trio for Violin, Electric Guitar and Cello” by Donald Erb, 1966.
It was only a matter of time before art music composers would get interested in the electric guitar. Stockhausen wrote a large, multi-orchestra work in the late ’50s that used electric guitar, mostly as a “noise” and feedback-generating device. Morton Feldman wrote a solo electric guitar piece in 1966 that called for it be played unconventionally but the score was stolen in Christian Wolff’s guitar case along with his guitar. There’s a famous story of Johnny Smith recording the Schoenberg Serenade in 1949 but that was scored for a classical guitarist who couldn’t cut the part, and Smith, the legendary sight reader he was, was called in to cover it on acoustic archtop played with a pick at the last minute. There were a few other composers in the early 60s that basically saw the electric guitar as a vehicle for extended techniques but not so much for its melodic and harmonic possibilities.
As far as I know, this is a pretty groundbreaking piece in its place in history. The problem with composers writing for the electric guitar to stand as an equal with other orchestral instruments was finding players who had the discipline and precision of classical musicians but were also accomplished at this still fairly new, decidedly non-classical instrument. Even by the 1960s that was a very short list of players.
Donald Erb was a friend of Jim Hall’s and wrote this piece for him in 1966, where the electric guitar is every bit the musical equal of the violin and cello. Erb said that without Jim this never would have been possible.
These days, the use of electric guitar in chamber music is not such an unusual thing.”

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8 thoughts on “Jim Hall: Modern Guitar Pioneer

  1. I just discovered this while goggling Jim which i often do. Thank you. I remember this well – Don Erb came over to our apartment whenever he was in New York. Love this piece.
    Jane Hall

    • Thanks. I’m so glad you found the site Jane. Jim was an inspiration ever since I saw him play when I attended a taping o the Merv Griffen show.He was also lovely the one time I got to interview him.

  2. Jazz Abstractions with Gunther Shuller involved Mr Hall along with many other adventurous souls.
    My favourite jazz guitar record has always been Jim Hall Live with Don Thompson and Terry Clarke … stunning group improvisation … and not that it matters, but I was there listening as Don’s Revox tape machine captured the magic. If you haven’t heard this then DO IT!

  3. great article. the whammy pedal thing is eye opening for me. i would have thought
    rosenwinkel kind of owned that tone. turns out that whole octave down fifth up blend
    was started by the great jim hall. thanks for this!

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