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Who Was the First Lead Guitarist?

Lonnie Johnson – the inventor of the modern guitar solo

A hundred years ago (before World War I), the guitar was a general-purpose instrument used mainly for rhythmic support, its unreinforced steel strings not plucked or strummed individually, but strummed in chords. Light and portable, neither too expensive nor too loud (smoother than the banjo) – it was an ideal ‘parlour’ instrument, comfortable for parties and singing (especially if you don’t have a piano at home) and as harmonic accompaniment to more expressive solo instruments like the violin or the clarinet.

In the dance bands and bands of the 1920s (the rock bands of their time), the guitar was typically played seated, with the rhythm section (bass and drums) behind it – not in front of the solo section with the glamor instruments (trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and trombone). But today, and indeed for many decades, the electric guitar has come to the fore.

How did the simple “flat-top box” rise from sonic obscurity to global hegemony? Who was the first musician to come forward and perform a monophonic guitar solo in the manner of a violinist or horn player? Evidence strongly points to New Orleans-born bluesman Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson (1899-1970).

Born into a musical family, young Lonnie studied violin, piano and guitar. As a teenager, he played guitar in his father’s New Orleans dance band. A highly skilled instrumentalist, he was also a talented singer, and in 1925 he won a contract with Okeh Records (for whom he eventually recorded about 130 sides).

In 1927, he was engaged to make instrumental recordings in Chicago with the extremely famous Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. It was a rare honor to be asked to perform with the most successful jazz band in the business, only top elite players were given. Why did Armstrong ask Lonnie Johnson to sit in? It couldn’t be because of her singing ability – Satchmo himself made sure of that. Perhaps it had something to do with his unique (ie: unheard of) monophonic plectrum style.

The earliest known recorded performance of the single-note plectrum technique (the prototype for today’s “lead” guitar playing) was by Lonnie Johnson on the Hot Five’s 1927 release “6/88 Glide” (perhaps using a round Martin). acoustic, as in the picture above). That’s why blues historian Gerard Herzhaft, in his Encyclopedia of the Blues (1997), cites Johnson as “undeniably the originator of the tone-on-tone and pick guitar solo that has become a standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock.”

How influential were Johnson’s 1927 Hot Five sessions? Many credit 1930s guitar icons such as Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Robert Johnson for first introducing the technique of monophonic picking. However, simple chronology shows otherwise. Charlie Christian (b. 1916), 15 years Johnson’s junior, recalled listening to Lonnie’s records on the radio while growing up in Oklahoma during the Depression. Gypsy jazzman Django Reinhardt (b. 1910), a huge Louis Armstrong fan, no doubt first heard Johnson’s signature technique on the Hot Five’s 1927 disc. Indeed, Django and violinist Stephane Grapelli founded their famous Quintette du Hot Club de France only a few years later, in 1935. And Delta bluesman Robert Johnson (no relation) didn’t record a lick until 1936-37 (the legendary Dallas/San Antonio sessions).

Yes, the world’s very first lead guitarist was Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson.

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