From: James Chirillo, guitarist
Source: E-mail to Michael Pettersen
Date: October 2002

First let me say thank you for an intelligent and absolutely magnificent website. You hit the nail right on the head in your article Distilling Big Band Guitar: The Essence of Freddie Green. Amazing though it may seem to the unenlightened, and as you obviously well know, "All they want to hear is the fourth string" as Bucky Pizzarelli would say. One note on the fourth string is all the band needs to feel. Since it's probable you've not heard of me before, let me introduce myself by saying that I played acoustic rhythm guitar with Benny Goodman's last band, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks (for 9 years), Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestras (with Benny Carter), and was also fortunate to have known and played with Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Eddie Barefield, and Earle Warren. I still get on the bandstand every now and then with Frank Wess' band. All this is to say I know how to play guitar in a jazz ensemble. And after reading your article, I know that so do you.

Just to expand upon some of the observations you've made: first, the 'one note chord' is no theory - it's how he played, period. I asked Frank Wess a few years ago what it was like listening to Freddie's guitar on those hundreds of gigs they played together and after a moment's reflection he answered, "He was always playin' those little melodies." Of course; he was playing a tenor line to the bass player's bass line. Those two voices make explicit the entire underlying harmonic foundation. And with a propulsion, a lightness, and a sense of direction that only a linear concept (as opposed to a full chord/vertical) could possibly provide. It gives the band both an unflagging rhythmic drive and, at the same time, all the harmony a soloist needs to hear, without cluttering, restricting, or weighing down the efforts of either.

At a slower or medium tempo Freddie would sometimes interject 'two or three note chords' (played on the fourth and third strings, adding the sixth string for full three note chords) in the line he was playing, usually sustaining those 'chords' a bit longer than his normal rhythm stroke. (Eddie Durham, who was not one to exaggerate or overstate, did tell me on one occasion that he initially told Freddie to relax the left hand on each beat.) Freddie's very discriminating use of sustaining certain of these one, two and three note 'chords' in a phrase helped keep the beat from becoming overbearing, while continually propelling it forward in a way that is never entirely predictable. Listen to him on "Rhythm Willie", the Concord small group album he did with Herb Ellis. These techniques not only momentarily fill out the sonority of the rhythm section, but also contrast with his normal approach, making the return to the 'one note chord' sound fresh again to the ear. This subtle variation of density is the same concept applied to rhythm guitar playing that a good composer/arranger will utilize on a larger scale throughout the course of a piece. Can you imagine a band (or orchestra) playing everything in unison and staccato all the time? Aural fatigue will invariably set in. But again, the tempo is the determinant for all this subtlety - the faster the tempo, the more the concentration upon a strong single note line.

All of what you say regarding the proper set up (heavy gauge bronze strings, high action, a heavy pick) is right on the mark. The couple of things I haven't seen referenced in talking about Freddie's playing (in addition to the above-mentioned use of held chords) are: the infinite variations in weight he would apply to beats two and four - from a hard backbeat to a smoother, almost even four - and the contribution of the right hand index fingernail (just a bit of the upper/right quadrant of the nail, as you look at the back of the hand with the fingers pointing up) towards the quality of his sound. The particular feel of the piece, as in whether the composer/arranger called for the bass to play in '2' or '4', coupled with the rhythmic figures and dynamic level of the band, provided Freddie all the information he needed to determine how heavy a stroke to apply on the backbeats of each measure. Listen to his playing on Shiny Stockings, particularly as the band alternates between '4' and '2'. His instincts and impeccable time and taste lend an utterly unique conception and groove to every beat played. And the inclusion of some of the afore mentioned fingernail gliding across the strings together with the pick, gave a depth, a roundness and fullness to the sound of his guitar, that the pick alone can't do. Try it. Bucky Pizzarelli will tell you the same thing; you've got to get a little fingernail in your stroke to get a good Freddie Green rhythm sound.

As I've tried to focus in this letter on facets of Freddie's style I've discovered over the years, and as I'd be willing to bet he didn't concern himself with mics or amplification at the jobs he performed, I'll save my own comments and opinions regarding the effects of electronics on both rhythm playing and jazz ensembles for another time (read "don't get me started"). Maybe I'll also delve into the acoustics of why the fourth string, from approximately the third to twelfth frets, is the string of choice for rhythm playing and, if you like, how I feel it's best to practice playing time.

One final thought. If either of us had had the opportunity to ask Freddie Green himself, and given that he was in a talkative mood, would he have answered in the same terms that we have been using to describe his style of rhythm playing? I doubt it. Was he aware of all the subtle and marvelous techniques and concepts he applied each and every time he picked up his guitar? You bet your a--. Maybe not in those terms, but he was sensitive to sound and developed, intuitively and through trial and error, an unerring musical sense and feeling to which we can only aspire. And that's what playing music is all about - at least it is to me - the feeling.

I look forward to exploring more of your site and thank you again.

James Chirillo
Copyright 2002

Check out an informative radio interview with James Chirillo here.

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