Pizzarelli was born January 9, 1926 in Paterson, New Jersey. He learned to play guitar and banjo at a young age. His uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick, were professional musicians, and sometimes the extended family would gather at one of their homes with their guitars for jam sessions. Pizzarelli cites as an inspiration Joe Mooney, a blind accordion player who led a quartet that included Pizzarelli's uncle, Bobby Domenick. During high school, Pizzarelli was guitarist for a small band that performed classical music.
Pizzarelli began his professional career at 17 when he joined the Vaughn Monroe dance band in 1944. Near the end of World War II, while in Austria as an infantryman fulfilling wartime military service for the Army, Pizzarelli was absent from Monroe's band (though he rejoined the outfit in 1946 and played for another five years with them). While in the military, he played in an unauthorized dance band.
In 1952 Pizzarelli became a staff musician for NBC, playing with Skitch Henderson. In 1964, he became a member of The Tonight Show Band on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. During his time spent performing for the Tonight Show, he accompanied guest bands and musicians playing through a variety of musical genres, including playing with Tiny Tim (after tuning the performer's ukulele) on the day that Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki on Carson's show. While not a big fan of rock and roll, he performed seven hits with Dion and the Belmonts.. George Barnes's solo on "Lipstick on Your Collar" by Connie Francis has been called as "the greatest pop rock 'n' roll guitar solo of all time".
From 1956–1957, Pizzarelli used the stage name "Johnny Buck" and performed with The Three Suns pop music trio. He toured several times with Benny Goodman until Goodman's death in 1986. During the following year, he and guitarist George Barnes formed a duo and recorded two albums, including a live performance in August, 1971, at The Town Hall in New York City. Beginning in the 1970s, he began recording as a leader, issuing many tributes to musicians of the 1930s. He performed with Benny Goodman at the White House in Washington, D.C., and he performed for presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and First Lady Pat Nixon.
"Jersey Jazz Guitars" was the name of a 1985 concert held at the Rutgers University Nicholas Music Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The ticket featured Pizzarelli, Les Paul, Tal Farlow, and Pizzarelli's son, John. The concert was aired on New Jersey's public radio station as part of their three-part New Jersey Summerfare Series. Pizzarelli and Les Paul had performed together before, as they were neighbors and friends. The show aired for one hour in August 1985, with son John adding his vocals on two selections.
His son Martin is a professional bassist who has recorded with his father and brother. His daughter Mary is a classical guitarist who appeared on her father's third album as leader, Green Guitar Blues, as well on as other recordings. Pizzarelli has also appeared on three albums of his daughter-in-law (John's wife), Jessica Molaskey.
Pizzarelli's first guitar was an archtop Gibson, an expensive instrument at the time. He plays a Benedetto Bucky Pizzarelli Signature seven-string guitar made by Robert Benedetto, who also makes guitars for Howard Alden and Frank Vignola. He learned to play the seven-string from George Van Eps. The extra string on Pizzarelli's guitar provides him with a bass line during performances. Pizzarelli also plays a custom seven-string American archtop guitar made by luthier Dale Unger, who also makes custom guitars for Pizzarelli's partner, Ed Laub.Lifetime Achievement Award, MAC Awards, 2002
Jazz Wall of Fame, ASCAP, 2005
New Jersey Hall of Fame, 2011
With Jessica Molaskey
With Martin Pizzarelli