Herb Ellis – Jazz Guitar Music Legend

Herb Ellis like many other leading American jazz guitarists (including Charlie Christian, Eddie Durham, and Oscar Moore) was born in the southwestern part of the USA. The blues, with a touch of country music, are a distinctive feature of his jazz guitar music sound and his guitar playing technique. This is most certainly due to the environment in which Ellis was brought up. Herb Ellis first played the banjo, although it is claimed he played the harmonica at the age of four, and took up the guitar at the age of ten. While he was at high school he played alto horn in the school band. Ellis studied at the North Texas State College and helped start a jazz guitar music program there. He met and befriended many now well known jazz musicians while at this college including Jimmy Giuffre, Gene Roland, and Harry Babasin.

Herb graduated in 1941 and joined Glen Gray’s band. In 1945 he joined the Jimmy Dorsey Big Band touring and performing with them for three years. Following this, Ellis formed his own instrumental / vocal trio called “The Softwinds”. This group, which featured Lou Carter on Piano and Johnny Frigo on bass, played together for five years. During this time Herb wrote several successful tunes including “Detour Ahead” and “I Told You I Love You – Now Get Out”. Ellis’s jazz guitar talent first became internationally recognized in 1953 when he took over from jazz guitarist Barney Kessel in the Oscar Peterson Trio. There is no doubt that during his five year stay with Peterson, and his subsequent four years accompanying the renowned jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, Ellis developed his musical abilities as a soloist and accompanist to the fullest. It was during this time that he also began a long association and friendship with bass player Ray Brown.

Following that time Herb Ellis led a career as one of the busiest jazz guitarists on the international jazz music scene. Over the years he played and recorded with “The Great Guitars”, a group that included pickstyle jazz guitarist Barney Kessel and fingerstyle jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, in a duo with jazz guitarist Joe Pass, and as leader of his own trios and quartets. Although for many years Ellis worked in the Los Angeles studio scene and was a regular member of the Don Trenner Band on the popular ‘Steve Allen Show’, he later returned to a life devoted to jazz guitar music once again appearing and recording regularly with Oscar Peterson. Herb died on March 28th, 2010 but fortunately for aspiring guitarists, he released several jazz guitar tab books and DVD courses that teach his single note improvised solos and chord melody solos as well as the guitar techniques he used to play them.


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