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Lonnie Johnson – inventor of the modern guitar solo

A hundred years ago (prior to WWI) the guitar was a general purpose instrument used mainly for rhythmic support, its unamplified steel strings strummed chordally rather than picked or plucked individually. Lightweight and portable, neither too expensive nor too loud (smoother than the banjo) – it was the ideal “parlour” instrument, handy for parties and sing-a-longs (especially in the absence of a house piano) and as harmonic accompaniment for more expressive solo instruments like the violin or clarinet.

In 1920s era dance bands and orchestras (the rock groups of their day) the guitar was typically played sitting down, and in behind with the rhythm section (bass and drums) – not up front in the solo section with the glamour instruments (trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, and trombone). But today, and indeed for many decades now, the electric guitar has come to occupy the ear-splitting foreground.

How did the simple “flat-top box” ascend from aural obscurity to global hegemony? Who was the first musician to step forward and perform a single note guitar solo in the manner of a fiddler or a horn-player? Evidence strongly suggests that it was New Orleans-born bluesman Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson (1899-1970).

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

In 1927, he was engaged to record instrumentally in Chicago with the hugely famous Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. An invitation to perform with the most successful jazz band in the business was a rare honor, accorded only cutting-edge elite players. Why did Armstrong ask Lonnie Johnson to sit in? It couldn’t have been for his vocal skills – Satchmo himself took good care of that. Maybe it had something to do with his peculiar (ie: previously unheard of) single-note, plectrum-style of picking.

The earliest known recorded performance of the single-note, plectrum technique (the prototype of what we today call “lead” guitar playing) – was by Lonnie Johnson on the 1927 Hot Five release “6/88 Glide” (perhaps using a roundhole Martin acoustic like the one pictured above). Hence, blues historian Gerard Herzhaft’s Encyclopedia of the Blues (1997) cites Johnson as “undeniably the creator of the guitar solo played note by note with a pick, which has become the standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock.”

How influential were Johnson’s 1927 Hot Five sessions? Many folks like to credit 1930s-era guitar icons such as Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Robert Johnson for first introducing the single-note picking technique. Simple chronology, however, indicates otherwise. Fifteen years younger than Johnson, Charlie Christian (b. 1916) 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, doubtless first heard Johnson’s distinctive technique on the Hot Five’s seminal 1927 disc. Indeed, Django and violinist Stephane Grapelli didn’t form their famous Quintette du Hot Club de France until some 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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