Thoughts on Rhythm Guitar

By James Chirillo

Dec. 5, 2006


How are you doing? I periodically check out the site and wanted to let you know how 'right on the money' I think your additions are. Particularly the One Minute Freddie Green and The Short and Long of Freddie Green. It is so nice to see available for general enlightenment a knowledgeable and accurate account of what is involved in playing good acoustic rhythm guitar. The reminisce of Lynn Seaton was great to read also. He's an old buddy of mine - we used to live across the street from each other in Brooklyn; ex-Basie drummer Dennis Mackrel had the apartment next door. Lynn would play Basie records where Freddie was recorded particularly well and we would just listen and marvel.

Besides the above, the impetus for my writing is a little while ago I was speaking on the phone with Gunther Schuller. He bemoaned the fact how rare it is for young guitarists coming up today to have any idea whatsoever regarding what is involved in playing rhythm. All this is to say I was reminded that in my earlier letter I promised to expand upon a few points/observations. Please do forgive how much time has gone by since then; it is better late than never, right? So let's get to the nuts and bolts....

What is the function of rhythm guitar? What are we doing up there in the first place? How do we do what we do? Why do we do all the work while the horn players get all the glory?

Given my earlier letter regarding Freddie's focus on playing a tenor harmony line, the guitarist, as we all know, is a member of the rhythm section. This means we are responsible for establishing and maintaining the underlying meter. What is meter? Meter is a regularly recurring accented pulse, followed by an unaccented pulse or pulses.* Think about that for a moment - 3/4, 7/8, 4/4 - whatever the subdivision, establishing a meter is simply to establish a regularly recurring accented pulse, followed by an unaccented pulse or pulses. We've all heard the description of Freddie Green as being the 'heartbeat' of the Basie band, and that refers, of course, to Freddie's solid and even (definitely regularly recurring) 'thunk' which gave the band its pulse. It was Freddie's 'thunk' that enabled drummers like Sonny Payne to concentrate a bit more on showmanship because he knew Freddie was laying it down - the meter, that is.

We've also heard the phrase "... plays with good time," or "... has good time." What does this actually mean? For a rhythm section player it can mean that the person is able to self-sufficiently establish and maintain the meter. In addition, it means, and all this of course applies to every musician, that everything played within the meter is rhythmically even. Now we approach the definition of rhythm. Is it the feel one plays with? No, someone playing with a good feel does not necessarily mean someone playing with good rhythm and vice versa. Rhythm is the arrangement of note and rest values within the meter.* Returning home one night from a job with drummer Eliot Zigmund, he put it simply: "I know by the first four bars of the gig whether anybody's listening to and playing with where I'm putting it." Rhythm is defined by where you put it. Everybody in the band should feel rhythmic figures the same way, place them in the same spot, and of course in order to do that must also be feeling precisely the same tempo.

I've heard Jim Hall has printed on his card: "Won't play loud, can't play fast." Whether he does or not, it's a great concept and I think the acoustic rhythm guitarist's card should read: "Rhythm is my business, quarter-notes are my life." We play quarter-notes; that's our job. We don't just help play the groove (a conception or feeling), we explicitly articulate the time just as a good drummer or bass player, and we should be able to do it whether anyone else is playing or not. We've got to be able to play a steady, even quarter-note no matter how slow or fast the tempo, no matter if the piece is a 'two-beat' or in 'four', or whether it alternates between both. I think one of the most difficult things to develop is the ability to play a steady, even quarter - or half - note whatever the tempo, while giving the beat a sense of propulsion, a sense of motion, without allowing the tempo to either speed up or slow down. That ability, to me, is one of the primary marks - if not the mark - of any good rhythm (or ensemble for that matter) player. How can one develop a finetuned sense of meter and rhythm, aka good time? There are undoubtedly many ways; all I can do is pass along what worked for me.

The first thing to keep in mind is that swing music, as the popular music of the day, existed primarily for dancing. What does this mean to us? Ever take notice of where swing dancers shift their weight, which beats form the foundation for their footwork? One and three. Swing dancing comes out of swing music - beats one and three form their mutual metric basis. One specific reason for the Jimmie Lunceford Band's success was their incredible, romping two-beat. The bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Moten, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman (how many of the great Fletcher Henderson arrangements are 'in two'?), Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, and even Glenn Miller, just to name a few, all had a solid two-beat. Only later, arguably with the advent of bebop, did more rhythmic emphasis begin to be placed upon the offbeats, as jazz began the move away from its popular/dance roots. Therefore, in order to play good rhythm guitar in the style of Freddie Green, our beat has to be firmly grounded in one and three.

Our first task then, is to develop the ability to play even half-notes. To do this requires an internal awareness of their subdivision, the quarter-note. I've found if one can play even half-notes at a ballad tempo, a true rhythmic conception of the quarter-note will have been thoroughly ingrained. You'll find you must be precisely aware of the quarter-note on beats 2 and 4, even when you're not playing them, so that your half-notes will be consistently even. From there it's simply a matter of developing one's ears, technique, and given a fast tempo, stamina. For this you need not practice on your rhythm guitar as the high action requires much strength and can be self-defeating considering what we're attempting to do. Always keep in mind that when practicing one must apply complete concentration with an unflagging discipline.

  1. Have a recorder in place (one which you can listen back to quickly with a minimum of fuss) to record your practicing together with your metronome set at 80. Start by playing (I suggest using only downstrokes, letting the pick rest on the next string) and recording just one octave of an ascending/descending scale or arpeggio of your choice, at the rate of one legato note for every two clicks of the metronome. Initially, you don't want to play more than that at a time until/unless you've developed the ability to hear your practice objectively and self-critically as you play, otherwise you'll probably spend more time practicing it wrong than getting it right.

    When we practice, and this may seem self-evident, the idea is to practice consistently correctly. Don't practice something by fumbling it 10 times then moving on after finally playing it right just once or twice. Always slow it down to the point where you can play it correctly, relaxed, and can be 100% in control of both hands 100% of the time. Then speed it up bit by bit while always playing it right. That way you build a firm foundation - that's the way to be able to play something perfectly after you've been given the downbeat.

    Listen back to what you just played - are your half notes falling square on the nose with every other beat of the metronome? A little ahead or sometimes a bit behind? It's entirely possible at first, if you've never before practiced such simple rhythmic placement in such concentrated fashion, that you honestly can't tell one way or another. When I first tried this, when I thought I'd been playing evenly, I wasn't. If you've already been playing for a number of years and never developed this awareness/ability from the outset, it's always more difficult to work through and correct an ingrained bad habit than to learn something new off a clean slate. It is possible - I'm proof - but it requires much more effort.

    When we practice, as when we play, we must always be listening - we should be aware of every sound we make and of every facet of those sounds. Absolute silence should be the empty canvas upon which we begin to apply color with the sounds we produce. Do the notes all possess an evenness of tone and are they played with a similar attack? Are they all legato, each note ringing into the next? Am I maintaining a consistent dynamic level throughout? When playing in a group, all this is compounded by the fact that not only must you be aware of every sound you make, but you must also be aware of every sound produced by each of your bandmates, and of course, your relationship to those sounds.

  2. After developing the ability to play evenly held notes with every other click of your metronome set on 80, set it to 40 and practice playing with every click. Again, you must mentally articulate the middle point of each click (beats 2 & 4), and when you listen back, you will see how close you are to owning the even half-note. There's a lot of room to jump into between each click, isn't there? If you practice with the intense and objective concentration necessary to execute this correctly, for even 15 min./day, you will hear an improvement in your rhythmic placement in a matter of weeks. Don't move on to the following exercise until you've got the previous one down.

  3. Next we begin to play alternating half-notes and quarter-notes. Set the metronome back to 80 and play a couple of halves (every other click) followed by four quarters. Do this a few times in a row, mix it up at your discretion and listen back to what you played. Most who are doing this for the first time rush their quarter-notes which also leads the following beats 1 & 3 to be in the wrong place. Practice until you can alternate them evenly while, as always, staying relaxed.

    This is what I was talking about when I spoke of the ability to give the beat a sense of motion, while keeping the tempo steady. When we play, the beat does assume a living, breathing quality and will change during the course of a piece. But there can be a point where the change becomes too much, too great one way or the other, and we are then simply playing the wrong tempo. As far as I'm concerned, regarding the rhythm section playing time: playing behind the beat is called dragging; playing on top or ahead of the beat, rushing. As Joe Cocuzzo, a great drummer who worked with Frank Sinatra among many others, said to me one time, "When I go [moving his hands as if playing drums and verbalizing eighth-notes]... boom [big arm motion on the downbeat], I want to know he's going to get there at the same time as me!" Can you imagine playing with a drummer or bass player whose downbeats never consistently land in the same place? I'd rather not.

  4. Yep, you guessed it: metronome set at 40, play alternating half-notes (each click) and quarter-notes as above. Don't try to play anything fancy, remember, we're trying to ingrain not only a mental recognition of, but the physical ability to play an even beat. Listen back, you'll be glad you did. Do it until your playing is consistently accurate; two even quarter-notes locking seamlessly into the space of a half-note.

  5. Repeat steps 2, 3 & 4 with the metronome set at 60. Always check your progress by listening back to the recording after a short practice interval. If you practice incorrectly for a long time and then check the recording, all you did was reinforce a bad habit.

The good part of all the concentrated effort is that once this is learned, you'll never lose it. You will always be able to distinguish between an even and uneven beat. Your chops may need a small refresher every now and then to maintain precision in execution, but you'll be aware if and when they need one. You will also have increased your sensitivity regarding smaller rhythmic subdivisions and will know if your eighth/sixteenth-notes are coming out right.

The last point I'd like to bring up regards the length of our rhythm notes. Presupposing the ability to play even quarter and half-notes at all tempi, how do we know how long each beat should be? How did Freddie determine which should be held (and for how long) and which should be short (and how short)? The short answer is when the bass player plays in 'two', the length of his notes on 1 & 3, together with the drummer's high-hat, tells me how long I should make 1 & 3 and how short I should make 2 & 4. You've always got to be aware of what they're doing. You don't necessarily have to play a long 1 & 3 when the bass or drums are doing so, but if you do, that's about how long to make it. You must always play within the rhythm of the drums, as Wynton Marsalis likes to say. When the bass is in 'four', you also should play an even, steady 'four' and the length of your notes should roughly match the length of the bass notes (we're talking acoustic, unamplified bass).

I focused a lot in this letter on proper practice technique because I've found, in many years of private teaching, with students of all ages, self-taught or otherwise, that most really do not know how to practice and most are not aware of the actual sounds they make. They can tell if they're playing the right note, and sometimes have an idea of what they're playing rhythmically, but they don't actually listen to or hear their own playing.

If you really listen to Freddie's sound, his beat, every facet of his playing, and listen to yourself with the same discriminating ear, applying what we've talked about while you play, you will begin to feel and hear when you're 'doing it right', and your playing will begin to gravitate towards what a rhythm guitarist's playing should represent, the heartbeat of the band.

* Definitions of meter and rhythm by Helen Hobbs Jordan (1907-2006), master musicianship teacher.

Guitarist James Chirillo performs regularly with Jazz at Lincoln Center. Based in the New York City area, James is a superb jazz guitarist and he is particularly passionate about rhythm guitar.

Check out an informative radio interview with James Chirillo here.

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