The Guitars That Freddie Green Played
by Carl Severance September, 2002
Freddie Green started out playing the ukulele and then switched to banjo during his childhood when the instrument was experiencing a surge in popularity around the United States. His early musical experiences involved playing in a rhythm section consisting of banjo, tuba and drums.
In the early 1930's, Freddie moved to New York and eventually found work performing in nightclubs. The banjo craze had ended somewhat abruptly being overshadowed by the guitar when a nightclub manager suggested that Freddie change instruments.
Freddie played many guitars during his long and productive career as a professional musician. Before long, Freddie must have learned that the best quality and craftsmanship was not only necessary for good sound quality, but also for durability, as he subjected his instruments to year after year of rehearsals, performances, recording dates, and travel.
Photographs from the late 1930's typically show Freddie playing a sunburst Epiphone Emperor guitar. During the 1940's and 1950's, Freddie seemed to play Strombergs exclusively, usually sunburst. These large 18-19" arch-tops were revered for their volume and cutting power in an era when electrical amplification was not yet commonplace, especially in big bands.
In the late 1930's, many manufacturers began offering larger arch-top instruments for sale as direct competition with Gibson's popular Super 400 model. This market segment became commonly referred to as the "orchestra" models. These guitars are generally very expensive and can be difficult to find today. In fact, the Stromberg Master 400 is considered to be the "Holy Grail" among many guitar collectors and often commands prices in excess of $40,000 (USD). Most of the major guitar manufacturers virtually ceased producing these orchestra guitars as the Big Band era came to a close and the electric guitar gained in popularity.
By the late 1950's, Freddie's Strombergs quickly appreciated in value after production ceased due to the death of the father and son team who built them. Apparently Freddie became concerned about subjecting the Stromberg to the punishment of touring the globe and sought a new instrument that wasn't as valuable. Eventually he made an endorsement deal with Gretsch and began to play their 18-inch Eldorado (usually blonde) non-cutaway until the end of his life. Although Gretsch offered the same, or a similar model to consumers sporadically over the next few decades, this model was not produced in great numbers. It appears that Freddie played the same Gretsch instrument for close to three decades until his death in 1987. A former employee of The Gretsch Company remembered Freddie returning to the factory in Brooklyn, NY only once or twice for repairs, including a broken headstock.
Freddie's Instrument Setup
A key factor that contributed to Freddie Green's sound and volume was the fact that he set his string height, or "action" very high. It is said that one could almost slide a finger between the strings and the fretboard. This set up increased the pressure of the strings on the bridge and subsequently transferred more energy into the top and body of the instrument, increasing its volume. This high action also made Freddie's instruments virtually unplayable by other guitarists.
Freddie Green strummed his four-to-the-bar chords using a standard tortoiseshell plectrum (or pick).
Please read Michael Pettersen's article, "Guitar Selection and Set Up for the Freddie Green Sound" for more information.
Freddie is said to have experimented with electric amplification and outfitted one of his Strombergs with a floating pickup for a brief period. Supposedly, members of the Basie band harassed Freddie about his new electric sound and even went so far as to remove components of his amplifier before a gig so that it wouldn't work, forcing Freddie to play acoustically. Accounts from band mates of the time suggest that these antics influenced Freddie to ultimately abandon amplification, and return to his signature acoustic delivery of sound.
In 1935, the Epiphone Company introduced several new arch-top acoustic guitars and topped their line with the 18 3/8-inch Emperor model. This model was considered the flagship of the company's Masterbuilt line, which was redesigned and expanded to meet the increasing popularity of the guitar during this period.
The Emperor featured a carved spruce top, multi bound f-holes, raised bound tortoise pickguard, multi-bound body, carved maple back, maple sides, 7-piece maple neck, 14/20 fret bound ebony fingerboard with pearl split block inlays, adjustable ebony bridge, Frequensator tailpiece, bound peghead with pearl vine/logo inlay, and 3 per side gold tuners. The model was available in Cremona Brown Sunburst or natural finish.
The acoustic arch-top version of the Emperor was discontinued around 1957, but in subsequent years the name has been used to name several electric models, such as the Emperor II, Emperor Regent, and Joe Pass Emperor. These instruments have very little in common with acoustic arch-top version that Freddie Green used. Under the ownership of Gibson, Epiphone offered a Japanese-made Emperor acoustic re-issue in limited quantities for a short time during the mid 1990's.
Charles and Elmer Stromberg only built about 640 guitars in their Boston guitar shop up until the early 1950's, but many of the guitars, particularly the Master 400, were revered for their exceptional quality and loud volume. The Master 400 was Elmer's crowning glory and was one of the widest arch-top guitars at 19" across. A unique design feature of this instrument was the single, diagonal top brace (most archtops employ an "X" brace).
The Master 400 was expensive compared to other orchestra models available at the time but it was a highly detailed and well-crafted instrument. Freddie Green was even said to have complained about the price. Very few of this model remain in existence today so their cost is exorbitantly high for most musicians.
The Master 400 featured a carved spruce top, bound f-holes, Art Deco-inspired bound pickguard, heavy tailpiece with 5 cutouts, carved maple back, maple sides, maple neck, pointed end ebony fingerboard with split-block pearl inlays, large decorated celluloid veneer headstock with "400" engraved, gold plated parts, and sunburst or natural finish.
Freddie is known to have played other models by Stromberg as well. The Master 300 was the same size and basic design as the 400, but offered fewer details and ornamentation. Stromberg also made a smaller 17 3/8-inch model called the Deluxe.
Ralph Patt, a guitarist who performed with Neal Hefti, Les and Larry Elgart, Benny Goodman, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and others during the 1950's recalls:
Note: In recent years, a Florida company began to build and market guitars under the Stromberg name. These guitars are in no way related to the original Charles and Elmer Stromberg instruments used by Freddie Green.
Following the death of Charles and Elmer Stromberg in 1954, Freddie apparently became nervous about the elevated value of his Stromberg and was reluctant to expose it to the rigors of travel. As a result, he signed an endorsement agreement with Gretsch in October 1958 and began using their Eldorado model as his touring instrument. It's even possible that he began using the Eldorado a few years prior. But from then on - nearly 30 years - Green's trademark instrument became the natural (blonde) Gretsch.
The Eldorado's was a well-appointed, 18-inch wide, acoustic archtop guitar. It featured maple back and sides, double bound f-holes, rounded black pickguard, stairstep bridge, "G" tailpiece, gold plated parts, 5-piece neck of maple and rosewood, ebony fingerboard with humptop block inlays, available in sunburst or blond.
Ralph Patt Recalls:
The Eldorado was available by custom-order only between 1955 and 1970 and replaced the Synchromatic 400 model from previous years. According to their Web site Gretsch now offers a Synchromatic 400 reissue.
Here is an interesting article about some of the guitar manufacturers and design trends that were prevalent during the height of the Swing Era. This site also has many nice images of archtop guitars, some similar to what Freddie Green played throughout the years.