Freddie Greene and Those Rhythm Waves

These days the guitar needs the help of electricity before it can even begin to compete with its more obtrusive companions. But Basie's guitarist, Freddie Greene, centerpiece of one of the world's most admired rhythm groups, still plays acoustic guitar. He never plays a solo. Clearly he is destined to remain one of the backroom boys of jazz.

This youthful-looking 46-year-old seems content to sit year after year feeding the Basie band with accurate chords and an incisive beat. Because of the unspectacular nature of his band duties, he can hardly be expected to win polls or influence people. Nevertheless, he has now, somewhat late in his professional life, been so honored. British critics named Freddie their favorite guitarist in the recent Melody Maker poll - and a few readers immediately complained that the result was ridiculous. But DownBeat's International Critics poll placed Greene second among the world's guitarists.

First Time On Top
When I asked him how he felt about it, he replied: "How should I feel? This is the first time with me. I have run second or third before but this is the first poll I ever topped." I asked if he had done any single string work. "Well," he said, "I experimented with a couple of things when I joined Basie in 1937. About half a chorus, that's all. Then people started looking at me as if to say: 'What's happening?' So that was the last I did of that. There was so much going on that the only thing to do was to play straight rhythm. And it was my first band job. I thought: 'If that's what they want, why I'll do it.' "

The penetrating quality of Greene's chording has been noted and I wondered if there was anything abnormal about his guitar or method. The instrument is a Stromberg, 'cello-built, and Freddie plays it tilted almost flat. "I feel it better that way," he says, "And I have the strings up higher than the average guitarist because I find that you can be heard better."
When he joined Count Basie, Greene was just 26, a self-taught player from Charleston, South Carolina, who had been discovered by the perceptive John Hammond.

Greene's thoughts, mirrored on his face, are often betrayed on-stage by worried looks in the direction of any offending sound. The smile, which illuminates his features when the band begins hitting properly, came into play as he talked of Ellington.

The Duke
"I still like Duke's band. That feeling, that train of thought is still there. And those rhythm waves. You can distinguish the band the moment you hear it." Then he returned to Basie and a question about the celebrated Basie-Jones-Page-Greene rhythm section. "It just happened," he said. "We didn't work out any sound, you know. We created it while we played it. How does the Basie rhythm maintain its high quality? That's hard to say. Basie mostly gives us a foundation. He finds the tempo, plays around until he finally decides this will be it. Then, of course, every player is important. A section of bands has to move together to swing."

"Now you asked about people I admired. At one time Lester Young was my idol. I loved to play in the background for him. He seemed to ride it - it's those rhythm waves again." He pulled his ear and smiled ruefully, as though I might be thinking he was putting too much emphasis on this matter of rhythm. Which is perhaps natural, for Greene is one of the few survivors of the vanishing race of true rhythm guitarists.

Periodical: Melody Maker
Date: November 10, 1957

Our thanks to Mr. Ian Frew, of Stewarton, Ayshire, "bonnie" Scotland, for kindly supplying a copy of this article.

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