Basics of Freddie Green Comping

by Tim Berens
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Much has been written about Freddie Green comping. I have the opportunity to play quite a bit of this style on my gigs as the guitarist for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. I've played Freddie Green style guitar with a variety of well-known performers, and also played on a recording of old swing arrangements by Nelson Riddle. I have considered this subject quite a bit during rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions. Here are my thoughts.

Freddie Green was one of thousands of guitarists that comped in this style. Freddie Green was certainly a master of this style, if not "the" master. But he was not the first or the only player to comp in this style.

The phrase "Freddie Green" style comping refers to a style of swing comping that is most often used in big band guitar playing. The phrase "Freddie Green Comping" is seen quite a bit in charts if you play gigs that require reading, such as show work. The label "Freddie Green Comping" does not refer specifically to the person Freddie Green, but rather to the rhythm guitar style of four strums to the bar. Likewise, when I use the phrase Freddie Green style guitar, I am not referring exclusively to the way Freddie Green played.

The beauty of Freddie Green comping is that the basics can be explained so simply: hold down a chord with the left hand and strike the strings with the right hand on every beat of the tune. The ugly side of Freddie Green comping is that when done badly, the guitar player can single-handedly mess up the rhythm section.

Rhythm guitar is about time, not about voicings. Voicings are a detail, but they seem to take up a great deal of space in discussions about Freddie Green comping. If you are just learning the basics of swing rhythm guitar, pay little attention to the discussions of voicings. I suggest that to learn this style you should first concentrate on time.

These words are often used to describe Freddie Green comping. I don't think these words are all that helpful. If you really do play something that resembles "chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk", you will likely muddy the rhythm section and thus mess up the tune.

I think the words "choo-chit-choo-chit" more accurately describe the rhythm guitar sound. "Choo" on beats 1 and 3; "chit" on beats 2 and 4. There are variations depending on how fast or slow the tune is played, or how busy the drummer is, but these are the basics. Beat 1 and 3 have a longer sound, while beat 2 and 4 have a much shorter sound.

The guitarist's job is to help propel the rhythm forward by complementing the drummer. The rhythm guitarist is playing pitched percussion. Think of the guitar as adding pitches to the ride cymbal on beats 1 and 3, and to the high hat on beats 2 and 4.

The guitarist must lock on to the drummer's high hat. Beats 2 and 4 are what swing is about. The drummer's high hat (or snare in the loud parts) defines beats 2 and 4 more than anything else. If you can lock on to the drummer's high hat, meaning that you strike your "chit" beats at exactly the same moment as the drummer's high hat sounds, you will be swinging with the drummer. Create the "chit" sound by releasing the left hand pressure almost immediately after the strings are struck.

The "choo" beats of 1 and 3 should be in lock step with the drummer's ride cymbal. This is much easier if you play with the same drummer all the time. Drummers all define time in slightly different ways, and it often takes a couple of sessions with a new drummer to really lock on to his time.

Locking on to the drummer is more difficult than it sounds. The better the drummer, the easier he is to lock on to. Never forget that you are there to support the drummer.

The beat 2 and 4 "chits" should be slightly accented over the beat 1 and 3 "choos". Even if you played the "chit" with the same exact right hand stroke, the "chits" will have a natural accent because they are cut short. The interruption of the sound creates the effect of an accent. This is nearly enough.

I create the accent by gripping the pick just slightly firmer on beats 2 and 4. Then I use the exact same arm and wrist motion on all four beats. A firmer grip causes the pick to displace the strings more, thus creating more volume, and an accent.

A big issue with Freddie Green comping is the volume: how loud should it be? The answer is just loud enough. Not particularly helpful, but completely accurate. Here are things to consider when deciding how loud to play:

  1. The guitar part must be just barely quieter than the drums.

  2. The guitar part should be felt not heard.

  3. If anyone in the audience (except other rhythm guitarists) actually noticse the guitar, it is too loud.

  4. The guitar part is often times more for the benefit of the other musicians (to help drive the rhythm home for them) than for the listeners.

  5. As the band gets louder, so should the guitar, but not too much.

  6. The sound quality of the guitar (and amp, if used) also plays a part in how loud the guitar should be.

  7. If playing this style of guitar professionally and amplified, buy a good volume pedal and keep your foot on it at all times. Let the volume pedal become part of the guitar.

The realities of most live performance dictate the use of an amplifier. But the typical amplified jazz guitar sound is too "thick" to properly play Freddie Green comping. The big fat jazz box sound will simply muddy up the rhythm section because it will interfere with the bass player's lines.

You can get a passable Freddie Green feel from many types of guitars, but in my opinion, the best sound will come from an archtop. I use a Gibson L5.

My amp of choice for this type of style is a Trace Elliott Acoustic. It has a very clean sound. I notch out the middle and upper midrange (330 Hz to 1,000 Hz) with the built-in equalizer. This gives a sound that does not interfere with the bass player, is reasonably warm, and is still clear enough to cut.

Keep in mind the phrase "pitched percussion" when deciding on a sound. Create a sound that blends well with the drums, but does not muddy up the bass player's sound.

Do not get obsessed with voicings as a beginner. Remember that you do not have to play voicings exactly like Freddie Green to play good Freddie Green comping.
Here are several guidelines for voicings:

  1. Primarily use three note voicings on strings 6, 4, and 3; and four note voicings on strings 6, 4, 3, and 2.

  2. Avoid barre chords. They take up too much space in the sound spectrum.

  3. Avoid perfect fifths between strings 6 and 5. This sounds muddy and will interfere with the bass player's sound.

  4. Don't add extensions past the 7th, unless specifically called for in the chart.

  5. Don't add your own extensions, as they will likely conflict with the piano player's part as well as the horn parts.

Swing your ass off.

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