Charlie Byrd was initially a plectrum or pick style guitar player but came to be interested in classic guitar and fingerstyle guitar playing in the late 1940s. By 1950 he had actually dedicated himself to the nylon string classical guitar as his instrument of choice. He studied in Washington, D.C. with regional jazz classic guitar player Bill Harris and later on along with classic guitar master Sophocles Papas. He likewise studied theory and harmony with musicologist Thomas Simmons. In 1954 Charlie Byrd attended a classic guitar master course in Sienna, Italy, taught by virtuoso guitarist Andres Segovia.
In 1961 Charlie Byrd took a trip to South America on a State Department recruited tour. There he obtained the inspiration to integrate Brazilian bossa nova guitar music along with American jazz components and his own classic guitar technique. Charlie’s very early recordings included compositions by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, Joao Gilberto, and other essential Brazilian guitarists and musicians.
Charlie Byrd is sonically unique and immediately familiar from his jazz guitar colleagues of the 1950s and 1960s with his use of classical music influenced fingerstyle techniques and nylon string acoustic guitar tonality. Initially a plectrum or pick style guitar player, he very often applied fingerpicking patterns based upon the classic, flamenco, and Spanish guitar methodologies and repertory to a jazz context. His fingerstyle articulation of jazz chord sonorities and improvised melodic lines caused an impressive and uncommon musical fusion!
Charlie Byrd’s very early background in swing and bop music combined with classic techniques and made his style one-of-a-kind among jazz guitar players surfacing from the typical swing and bebop schools of thought of the 1940s, and stayed so throughout his life-time. One example of his merging of classic and popular guitar music was his usage of the right hand index fingertip to strum chords and to produce prolonged tremolo movements as if along with a plectrum. In various other situations, Charlie Byrd plucked chords and chord partials to create impressions of saxophone-horn section figures or pianistic structures as in his solo on “Air Mail Special” along with The Great Guitars.
An additional aspect of Charlie’s uniqueness was his application of American jazz concepts and classical techniques to Brazilian rhythms and repertory. That is probably his best contribution to the form and a combination he tried to keep at the center of his music throughout his lifetime. Exactly what is distinctive regarding the bossa nova guitar music Charlie Byrd nurtured is the sultry feeling of the samba pattern and various other Brazilian tempos with their typical syncopation, as opposed to the pulsing feel of the majority of mainstream American jazz.
Although pieces like “Air Mail Special” proved he never abandoned traditional American jazz, his vision was carefully aligned with the South American guitar music he introduced to the U.S.A. in the very early 1960s. The Brazilian tempo feeling afforded Charlie Byrd and plenty of artists of the time a different and more exotic path to explore in their improvisations, still very much in style today and undoubtedly an essential dialect of jazz and pop music languages.
While soloing in bossa nova tunes, Charlie Byrd preferred jazz techniques. His solos were packed with contemporary blues licks, swing jazz figures, groove riffs, free modal lines, and bebop lines. These he phrased as American jazz lines played over Brazilian samba rhythms delivered with a classical tone and fingerstyle articulation. Charlie’s innate musicianship perfectly reconciled these apparently incompatible components, as exhibited by his many single note solos in the repertory.
Charlie Byrd often inserted chordal expressions and intervallic patterns into single note solos. He followed no particular style or template, choosing to broaden improvised lines with off the cuff arpeggiations, chord partials, or full chord figures as if accompanying himself. The harmonic source material usually originated from jazz along with its’ extended and altered chords and characteristic chord sequences and was true for Charlie Byrd’s core approach.