The Dynamic Chord and Muted Notes (DCMN) analysis of Freddie Green's Rhythm Guitar Style: What's in a "One-Note" Chord?

M.D. Allen
Brain and Cognitive Science Laboratory
Brigham Young University
August 2002

"Beauty is a consequential thing, a product of solving problems correctly."
- Joseph Eshrick

Introduction: Freddie Green as a minimalist artist

Principles of minimalism have been applied successfully to many art forms, particularly during the 20th century. Freddie Green is both the innovator and the premier player of the minimalist aesthetic in rhythm guitar playing. Freddie Green's minimalist style was brought to the attention of guitar players and jazz enthusiasts in a magazine article by Michael Pettersen - Distilling Big Band Guitar: The Essence of Freddie Green, Down Beat, October, 2000. The "one-note-chord" style that Pettersen describes, or the "minimalist" style, as I call it here, refers to Freddie Green's prevailing rhythm guitar technique, in which he plays a sounded note on the 4th string, while occasionally adding an upper note on the 3rd string and/or a lower note on the 5th or 6th string.

It is unfortunate that many previous articles about Freddie Green have highlighted more obscure examples from Freddie's recorded history, in which Freddie played traditional (non-minimal) guitar styles, and even solos. Although these rare events in Freddie's career are highly interesting, such biased coverage of Freddie's playing suggests that a rhythm player cannot use one- or two-note chords and still be considered a great rhythm guitarist. Along with Pettersen (2000), I make the counter-argument that minimalism is what makes Freddie Green great. In any event, it is clear that of all the millions of beats that Freddie Green played throughout his incredible 50 year performing and recording career, the majority were one-note-chords.

The purpose of this article is to explore the minimalist style of Freddie Green in further detail, and to propose a refinement of Michael Pettersen's analysis, which I call the Dynamic Chord and Muted Notes (DCMN) theory. This document is an attempt to answer my own question: Why do Freddie Green's one-note chords sound so good?

Why do Freddie Green's one-note chords sound so good?

The first, and perhaps most important, part of the answer to my question has to do with the superb musical aptitude that Freddie Green displayed, both in spontaneous jamming and in formal chart playing. He was brilliant in matters of harmony. His accompaniments range from consistently interesting to purely sublime.

The second part of this answer is the main focus of this article and has to do with the technical execution of the chords that Freddie Green played.

Let's start by reviewing some of the functional explanations for minimalist playing, as given by Michael Pettersen and others.

Advantages of minimal chords

Physical/technical advantages:

  1. They are easier on the fingering hand and wrist, especially for fast tempos and chord changes.

    a. They allow the player to keep the same hand configuration across a variety of chord changes.

    b. They require fewer wrist rotations to accommodate fingering inversions or other awkward fingering changes across chord types.

    c. They allow the player to hit the one or two most important notes of the chord (in terms of the harmonic role of the rhythm guitar part) with greater reliability and clarity.

Musical advantages:

  1. Chord changes become less choppy, i.e., smoother chord transitions.

  2. The chords themselves are less muddy. This can help the rhythm guitar presence be felt more strongly.

  3. It is easier to keep the rhythm guitar's harmonic lines out of the way of other instrument's lines (in terms of pitch range). That is, with minimal chords, the guitarist can both stay out of a register that is already "too crowded" with bass and/or piano notes, or move into a register that needs filling out. This is essentially what I describe as "dynamic" playing later in this article.

To illustrate the physical/technical advantages, consider the examples below. These are excerpts from my own recent transcriptions of Freddie Green playing with the Count Basie orchestra. They represent some of Freddie Green's more cliché chord changes.

The notation I use follows that found in the highly recommended book Swing & Big Band Guitar by Charlton Johnson, published by Hal Leonard, 1998, ISBN 0-7935-7381-5. The numbers below the chord diagrams indicate chord fingering, as suggested by Johnson. The numbers to the right of the chord diagrams indicate fret position and the circled numbers represent the harmonic position of the note that is played on the 6th string, within the chord. For example, B7 (1) denotes a (drop three) chord in which the tonic note (B) is played on the 6th string, whereas a B7 (5), denotes an inverted chord in which the 5th (F#) is played on the 6th string. This notation is very useful to learn, because it automatically tells you something about the chord shape. For example, when you see a chord X7 (5), you know the chord shape will look like this:

The first example, transcribed from a 1970 recording of "Ain't Misbehavin'", has a chord change with each beat. The full three-note version would be played like this:

Whereas the minimalist version would be played like this, though many guitarists might consider 3-note chords to be already quite minimal!

Notice that the three-chord version requires wrist rotations to accommodate fingering inversions from beats 1-2, and 2-3. This can sound choppy at fast tempos, or it might even be impossible to play. In the one-note version, on the other hand, no wrist rotation or complex fingering change is required. One can simply use the second finger, for example, to play all the notes, while muting the rest of the strings with the other fingers.

Here is another comparison example:

Here, the full three-note version requires a wrist rotation with all but one chord change, while the minimalist version is very smooth and easy to play. But is this all there is to playing Freddie Green's minimal chords?

Freddie Green's one-note chords might not be so simple

It is clear that minimal chords have functional benefits with fast chord changes. However, there are two important aspects of Freddie Green's playing that need to be considered:

  1. Freddie Green used one-note chords even on tunes with slow tempos and less frequent chord changes.
    This suggests that Freddie's motivation for using minimal chords was not solely for ease of playing. The fact that he used one-note chords at slow tempos means that he must have done it for other reasons as well.

  2. From video recordings, we can see that often times when Freddie Green plays only one clear note per beat, he actually fingers full chord shape changes anyway, as if he were playing standard three-note chords.
    For example, in the video "Count Basie - Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual", Rhino Home Video VHS - R3 2582, Freddie can be seen making chord shape changes, when the single or double note chords that he is playing clearly do not require any such hand-configuration changes. The strongest example, perhaps, is found in the tune "Squeeze Me." In this tune, there are many measures in which Freddie plays only a single note on all four beats, yet he consistently changes chord shapes between beats 2 and 3, in conformity with the actual chord changes of the tune.

For example, there is a measure in which F7 and B7 are played, each for 2 beats. The chords F7(5) and B7(1) share the same A note on the 7th fret of the 4th string. So you hear Freddie play four single A notes:

Yet he makes chord-shape changes with his fingers as if he were playing full three-note chords along with the chord change from F7 to B7:

A change from F7(5) to B7(1) requires a switch from a 213 fingering to a 123 fingering. If one were concerned only about notes on the 4th string (for one-note chords), or only notes on the 4th and 3rd strings (for two-note chords), then no hand-shape change would be necessary.

To illustrate, compare the full-chord change, and the attendant fingering change:

with the minimal chords, where no fingering change is required:

There are many other examples of full-chord-shape changes in Freddie's "one-note" playing through out the video session.

Why full chord shapes?

This raises a question: why did Freddie Green bother to make full hand-configuration changes?

A vestigial explanation

One simple explanation is "force of habit." As Michael Pettersen points out, Freddie Green tended to play full note chords earlier in his career, and perfected his minimalist approach over the years as he matured, though there are also many clear instances of minimalist playing in even his very earliest recordings. So it is possible that he made the chord-shape changes because he learned to play using those voicings.

A "note-finder" explanation

Another possibility is that perhaps he retained full chord shapes in his later playing style in order to guide his fingers to fret positions where good harmonizing notes are most likely to be found on the 4th and 3rd strings. That is, if you play any of the known inversions of a chord that is being played by the band, you automatically get a hand-full of notes that will work with the melody.

A musical/functional explanation (the DCMN)

It is, of course, useless to speculate why Freddie Green made full chord shapes while only sounding one or two notes. Unfortunately, there is very little that Freddie said about his playing style in existing interviews. Nonetheless, there are two possible explanations that, while perhaps not Freddie's reasons, seem to be worthy of examination. If nothing else, these considerations have helped me to better approximate the fullness and richness that I hear in Freddie Green's minimal chords. I will elaborate on two of these principles in terms of the Dynamic Chords Muted Notes (DCMN) theory.

Dynamic Chords (DC)

Freddie Green seemed to always play at least one clear note per beat on the 4th string. He would then typically add upper or lower notes as he saw fit. It also seems that Freddie added these additional notes "on-the-fly," or in a dynamic fashion. For example, it is very common to hear two or more versions of the same chord progression within a tune. Freddie plays the same one-note chords, i.e., the same sequence of notes on the 4th string, but chooses different arrays of added upper and lower notes with each version. This attests to the dynamic nature of his chord formation. Freddie seems to always have had his left hand poised for a full three-note chord, and then made "executive" decisions with both the left and right hands about which additional notes would be included, and to what extent.

Consider the example below. With fingers in the dominant7(1) configuration at the 8th fret, there are three of Freddie's typical chord choices for C7 available. Xs indicate "muted notes" which I distinguish from "muted strings"; more on this distinction follows. With fingers in this 1,2,3 position, the number of notes that are actually sounded can be readily altered according to one's preference at the moment.

Muted Notes

I draw a distinction between fully sonorant notes and less sonorant, more percussive notes. Fully sonorant notes are created when full pressure is applied to the string against the fretboard. Less sonorant, more percussive notes are created when weaker pressure is applied to the string; this produces an audible pitch, but the pitch has a lower amplitude and less clarity than a full pressure note, i.e., less sonority, more frication. I call these less sonorant pitches "muted notes," and further distinguish them from what I call "muted strings," where no pitch at all is produced, e.g., where light pressure is applied with the more fleshy part of the finger tip. Thus, there is a gradation of sonority that runs along a continuum ranging from a "fully sonorant note," to a "muted note," to a "muted string.

It is easy to verify for yourself that when you apply some left hand pressure to a string and strike it with a pick, it makes a pitch. If the sonority is not immediately noticeable, it will become more apparent as you slide your finger up or down the string and hear a pitch change. In fact, if you use the tip of your appropriately calloused finger, it is hard to avoid making a pitch. Avoiding sonority is even harder when playing with a good big band guitar that is set up similar to what Freddie Green used—namely, a large, non-cutaway, carved archtop guitar, with heavy gauge strings and high action

Because even muted notes produce pitches to some degree, it is possible that Freddie retained "shell" chord shapes so that the muted notes he played would produce pitches, however weak, that were consonant with the written chord.

Does correct fingering for muted notes actually make a difference

The real question, is whether it is really worth making full chord shapes while playing minimal chords, especially when accuracy and smoothness become premium at faster tempos. I think this is an empirical matter; try it out yourself.

For example, suppose you are moving from a D7(5) to a C7(1), but you are only playing one clear note (F# to Bb on the 4th string).

Now it would be easier to keep the 7(5) chord shape and play something like this:

But according to DCMN principles, a chord shape change like this is appropriate:

So what are the real consequences of one choice over the other? Does playing a muted C# instead of a muted C matter that much in real life playing? How much do those muted notes cut through? Sometimes it really does seem to make a difference to me, subjectively. But other times, to be honest, it doesn't.

Additional insights on muted notes

Dave Johnson, in an email message to Michael Pettersen, has offered further insights on why muted notes might matter:

Regarding the fingering of the one or two note chords: I think that three or four notes are fingered, and different pressure used to allow notes to sound--or not sound--in a controlled way. The notes, that are fingered but almost fully muted, contribute sympathetically to the sounded note(s). To illustrate power of sympathetic resonance, consider how a tune played in D major with 6th string tuned to D has a different sound than same tune with 6th string tuned to E, even if--or maybe especially if--the string is not used. The string resonates sympathetically with the played strings.

A further fact to consider is that Freddie Green had an extraordinarily high action—with about a 10mm gap at the 12th fret. Not only did this greatly increase the responsiveness of the top plate of his guitar, which therefore increased the likelihood of producing audible pitches with muted notes, it also gave him a wider range of pitch intensities that he could exploit while playing.

In any event, while we may not have a perfect insight into Freddie Green's rhythm technique, facts about his guitar set-up, together with the DCMN theory and Dave Johnson's theory of resonance, seem to go a long way in answering the two main questions that I have raised here:

  1. Why do Freddie Green's one-note chords sound so good?

  2. Why does Freddie Green often make full chord shape changes while playing one-note chords?

Striking a practical balance between minimalism and the DCMN

As mentioned above, DCMN principles seem to spoil some of the advantages that minimal chords offer, in terms of smooth, fast playing. However, there are ways to take advantage of both DCMN principles and minimalist principles, depending on the particular demands of the piece being played and on one's particular taste at the moment, e.g., do I want to play smoothly, or do I want muted notes to be fingered correctly? It is my opinion that Freddie Green used such a flexible approach.

To give an example, Freddie plays the B7 to E7 progression from "Ain't Misbehavin'" as in the example below. Hint: for the B(7) shapes, rather than making a "mini-barre" chord, arch your first finger somewhat, pressing firmly on the 4th string, so that the rest of your fingertip presses less firmly on the 3rd string. With practice you can get gradations of sonority from the 3rd string with varying levels of pressure, by changing the degree of the arch in your first finger.

This approach effectively avoids violating DCMN principles, i.e., the MN part, by simply not striking the 6th string. Moreover, it retains the "smoothness" advantages of minimal chording in that it allows you to keep basically the same hand configuration (2nd finger up) throughout the measure. This seems to be a good practical approach for this particular measure.


It is highly conceivable that my perceptions about Freddie Green's technique are inaccurate, including the impressionistic examples I have included above. Furthermore, it seems a bit presumptive to claim that I know what was going on in Freddie Green's head, either in terms of his conscious decisions or his intuitions. However, I have discovered that applying the DCMN principles to my own playing, when I play in a minimalist style, improves my sound. It is also my impression that DCMN principles applied to minimal chords allow me to more closely approximate what I hear Freddie Green playing on many recordings.

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