Charlie Christian (and That Pickup)

Despite being obsessed with Charlie Christian for decades, I’ve never played a Gibson ES-150, the guitar he made famous. I’ve never even messed with a “Charlie Christian pickup,” even though it’s been a fairly common retrofit ever since the late Danny Gatton installed one in his Tele’s neck position. But I’ve always wondered: Could the C.C. pickup work in styles other than jazz? How would it sound in the bridge position? (The ES-150 had only a neck pickup.) And most of all, how would it sound with nasty fuzz?

Lollar Pickups helped me answer those questions with a loaner of three humbucker-sized Charlie Christian pickups. These differ cosmetically from the originals, lacking the cumbersome mounting hardware and the ornamental top plate. But they’re convincing sound-alikes, with similar magnets, wires, windings, blades, and modest output. (Their DC resistance is just under 3k ohms). Here’s what I discovered!

Clearly, it’s not a pickup for every rock guitarist (though it’s perfect for a swing-era jazz sound). Still, I found its non-jazz sounds strange and compelling, and I can definitely imagine using them in the studio. What do you think?

While making comparisons, I spend hours reacquainting myself with Charlie’s recordings, of which there are only a few dozen. His career was absurdly brief — it was less than three years from his first recordings with Benny Goodman through his death from tuberculosis (and probably other bad stuff) at age 25. But that was long enough to forever alter the guitar’s history.

A few random thoughts about Charlie:

He’s got the best audition story ever. Charlie was born in Texas, but raised in Oklahoma City. He grew up poor as fuck in a place as racist as fuck. He played on the street for pennies with his father and brother. When Charlie was 12, his dad died. Charlie inherited his guitar. By young adulthood Charlie was a guitar hotshot, wowing whatever touring talent happened to pass through town. He came to the attention of John “Greatest Talent Scout in History” Hammond, who had discovered Benny Goodman. (Decades later Hammond would further the careers of Aretha, Dylan, Springsteen, SRV, and many others.) Hammond arranged an audition with Goodman.

Charlie reportedly showed up looking like the hick he no doubt was, wearing a pair of gaudy orange cowboy boots. The musicians chuckled — until Charlie plugged in. Goodman, figuring this would all be over in seconds, called “Rose Room,” a standard his band performed. Charlie started soloing and didn’t stop — the band played dozens of choruses. Goodman instantly hired him.

You can’t talk about Charlie Christian (or his contemporaries) without talking about race. Charlie didn’t play in Goodman’s famous big band, which was all-white. Had they been an interracial, group, no one would have booked them. Across the breadth of American pop culture, black people could rarely perform alongside white people, and if they did, it was usually in demeaning comic roles that reinforced racist stereotypes. Charlie played in two versions of Goodman’s small group, the Benny Goodman Sextet, which at various times included such African-American musical giants as pianists Count Basie and Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams.

While Goodman wasn’t the first white bandleader to hire black musicians, he arrived there far earlier than most of his contemporaries. You can debate the significance: Was Goodman brave to employ black musicians, albeit not in the main group? Or should he have leveraged his celebrity to fight racism? By all accounts Goodman was a mean old bastard, but I tend to give him credit here, given the times. It wasn’t until after the war that Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces — two events widely regarded as opening salvos of the civil rights movement.

Anyway, it’s no accident that we have no Charlie Christian video footage whatsoever.

We have absolutely no insight into Christian’s artistic development. From the listener’s perspective, Charlie materialized fully formed. His very first sessions with Goodman are as masterful as the studio recordings and jam session tapes from near the end of his life. You can’t point to a recording and say, “Aha! This is where he really busts out as a soloist,” or “This was the first time he employed advanced chromaticism over dominant chords.” He did his thing perfectly from Day 1, and he kept doing it till he died.

Charlie was a futurist. Charlie found fame at a crisis point in jazz history. War was looming. In just a few years most big bands would die like dinosaurs. Small combos were the future, as the impending bebop movement would prove. And Charlie was at the epicenter, jamming with young radicals such as drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Thelonious Monk at Minton’s, a Harlem nightspot widely cited as the birthplace of bop. You can hear many bop characteristics in the bootlegged Minton’s jam sessions that have survived, particularly this one:

This is a crucial recording. On Goodman sessions, Charlie might play the occasional 16-bar solo. Here he just goes off, probably not all that differently from how he’d done at that Goodman audition. What a bottomless pit of cool, forward-looking ideas. Those altered tones over dominant progressions, that asymmetric and unpredictable phrasing. And my very favorite Charlie technique: harmonically outlining chord changes a beat or two before the change actually occurs. This partially accounts for the bullet-train momentum of his solos.

Yeah, he sometimes relied on licks. Charlie definitely makes generous use of several stock fingering patterns, though he always adds enough rhythmic and melodic variation to keep things exciting. This example combines two of his most frequently used patterns: an ascending dominant 9th arpeggio starting on the chord’s third, and a chromatic walk-down. You hear the same moves constantly in the blues guitar work of T-Bone Walker, on whom Charlie was a major influence.

We don’t know much about how Charlie evolved into such a genius. And while I generally detest playing Fantasy Dead Musicians League, it’s so easy to imagine Charlie connecting with Charlie Parker or young Miles Davis. There are parallels between Charlie Christian’s life and that of double bassist Jimmy Blanton, would would also succumb to tuberculosis, three years later and two years younger than Charlie. But not before revolutionizing his instrument.

14 comments to Charlie Christian (and That Pickup)

  • David T.

    I just discovered this website (I used to love your contributions to Guitar Player, not to mention the P.J. Harvey album). Re. Benny Goodman, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who was trying to move things on at all in those days. Mainly because it’s impossible to say how we would have behaved under the same circumstances.

    Christian’s tone seems a fair bit brighter than the stereotypical ‘live from beneath a duvet’ archtop jazz sound. And the playing is astonishingly fresh.

  • What a great experiment Joe. Really interesting to hear great new tones from these pickups that time forgot, first the gold foils and now the christians. I wonder how much of the tonal differences come from the size and strength of the ‘magnetic window’ and its exact positioning along the strings.
    Isn’t this whole ‘balanced pickup set’ or bridge and neck pickup thing a relatively modern invention? The pickups in the early three pickup Strats were just three pickups made the same way off the winding bench. I imagine the in-between tones (when they got around to using a 5 way switch) are different when the three pickups are the same because the signal cancellations are stronger.

  • Peter

    What did he use for amplification, and what were the options back then at the dawn of electric guitar?

    • Well Joe already told you in his video. In those days the early electric lap steels and Electric Spanish guitars came as a set – an ES-150 and an EV-150 both for the inclusive price of 150 dollars.

      I suppose the thinking was that you needed both to be able to play them as an electric instrument. Certainly the electric lap steels (EH-150 for Electric Hawaiian) that preceded the Electric Spanish were mute without the amplifier. And the 5 to 10 Watt companion amplifiers were pretty much the only options there were. I’m not sure you could even buy a guitar amp on its own in those early days.

      I’m actually not sure if Joe is right about the EV-150. I have a feeling that when you bought an EH-150 you got the lap steel and the amplifier as a pair. When they brought out the ES-150 they simply sold it with the amplifier developed for the lap steel. But Joe my have better information on the ins and outs of that.

  • And … I think the ‘Christian’ pickup first appeared on the Gibson Electric Hawaiian lap steel. Really nice little lap steels they are too. Wish I could find one.

  • Oinkus

    Oh well thought I posted something ?

    • Oinkus

      Seems to have gone the way of the Dodo ? Long story short Reader Guitar of the Month in August premier Guiitar

    • joe

      Hi! Funny — a second after I saw that, I got a note from PG managing editor Tessa Jeffers, telling me the same thing. I have a picture of it that she sent, but I’m not gonna share — I don’t want to spoil the suspense. (But between you and me — nice one! Congrats.)

  • Oinkus

    The world is a crazy place ! Terry we would all like one of those lap steels too ! Thanks Joe ! Not sure if I will be allowed to tell the whole story behind that guitar but at some point it might come out. There were pics in the forums of it during the build but apparently if you add text to them it changes where they are located and you can’t see it anymore sorry. Derailing this thread , Charlie Christian was way ahead of his time and straight badass !

  • Looking again at the ‘A Sm-o-o-o-th One’ picture of the Goodman Sextet, that is actually a Gibson EH-185 amplifier behind Christian’s right shoulder, with what looks like a lap slide standing upright next to the handle, although it could also be the reed cap from Auld’s tenor. In production from 1939 to 1942 the EH-185 was the top of Gibson’s amplifier line at the time and had six valves plus a 5U4 rectifier, with a pair of 6L6’s driving a 12 inch loudspeaker. Rated at 20Watts! The Tweed cab had a folding lid over the controls and usually had racing stripes down the middle. Although Christian did use an ES-150, EH-150 pairing before upgrading in around 1940 to an ES-250 with the EH-185 amplifier. I wonder if Charlie was ever told to ‘turn that damn thing down’.

  • Martin Beer

    Interesting sound, the slight “furriness” on almost clean tones is quite distinctive. I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that John McLaughlin used an L4 with a CC pickup on Extrapolation, and hearing some of these tones, that could kind of make sense.

  • D

    That bridge pickup tone is almost similar like Josh Homme when he plays for Them Crooked Vulture, but probably it is just me.

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