Rhythm Guitar: Lessons I Have Learned

By Jerry Krahn
Edited by Michael Pettersen

Since purchasing a 1946 Epiphone Broadway, I have been hooked on Epiphones. Often Epiphone guitars are considered to be somewhat inferior to Gibson guitars, the Gibson L-5 in particular.  This may have to do with Gibson purchasing Epiphone in the late 1950s and making Epiphone into an entry-level brand.  All of my Epiphones, the 1946 Broadway, 1949 Emperor, 1943 Triumph, and 1939 Blackstone have the definitive archtop sound and are "cutting cannons", real workhorses.  On any given day, I would put them up against any archtop, particularly in a live setting where the "chunk" needs to cut through. 

Of course, every archtop built in the glory days was different.  My Emperor is a bit more lush and sophisticated, with shimmering highs and warm lows.  Set up with heavy strings, the Emperor can carry an acoustic trio, sans acoustic bass.  Set up with light strings, it makes a great solo guitar.  Proper set up and maintenance help any guitar reach its full potential.  And let's not forget that the technique and "hands" of the player have a major influence on the sound of any guitar.

When asked to shed some light on "my sound", I was flattered.  The sound of a guitarist consists of four areas: 1) hands, 2) musical knowledge, 3) instrument, 4) technique.  I believe that tone begins in the hands - a warm, sweet, pleasing sound is as much a blessing as it is a result of practice.  To improve tone quality, try this: play one note and keep playing that note.  Focus on each hand to get a pretty, fat, and solid tone.  Try the same with one chord at a time. 

Musical knowledge is a constant learning process.  Listening to players, studying recordings, private lessons, all help to hone in on the notes and chords to play and when to play them in order to make good music. 

Your guitar has to work for you.  Pay attention to what the musicians are saying about "your sound".  Can they hear the guitar? Is it cutting? Is it warm?  If you suspect guitar problems, check the action, strings, and proper neck alignment.  Have a professional repairman inspect it.  Or maybe that guitar is just not working in your hands.  Try other guitars. You may find THE one that you can connect with on a higher level.  You don't have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars.  There are many less expensive archtops available that will do the job. 

For me, technique is an area of constant struggle.  Study and try traditionally correct technique, but if a more unconventional style works for you, that's OK.  The end musical result is more important.  Freddie Green is a great example of unconventional technique producing a superb sound.  Find and use the "sweet spots" around the neck joint and at the end of the fingerboard.  This is where the tone is full and warm for the pretty stuff, and where the rhythm strokes take on the desired "cutting cannon" punch.  When the music style dictates tonal and percussive changes, try playing at different spots between the fingerboard and bridge.

The D'Addario Flat Tops work very well for me. Flat Tops are D'Addario phosphor bronze strings polished smooth. This polishing produces a smooth, flattened playing surface, but does not sacrifice the warm tone and sustain associated with phosphor bronze strings. Flat Tops are excellent for recording and greatly reduce finger noise. They sound broken in when new, which reduces string squeak, and they do not have that pristine "flat top guitar" sound which is not appropriate for most archtop applications.  I have found the Flat Tops to be long-lived and to resist breakage. 

Here is a favorite trick: use graphite from a pencil to lubricate the nut, the bridge slots, and the top of each string at the nut and bridge.  I believe this allows the string to move in the slots with reduced friction, especially at the bridge, the most vulnerable point.  I also believe that the string wants to find a path of least resistance as it passes through the bridge.  After the bridge is adjusted for optimal intonation, the string can move the bridge and slots ever so slightly to diminish the friction.  Using this graphite trick, I often can play loudly for ten sets (or more) without a problem. 

String life is also dependent on the amount of grease and oil in your hands.  I wipe the strings down with a product called Finger Ease after every set.  Note well: Do not get Finger Ease on any other part of the guitar; use a cloth underneath the strings.

Guitarist and teacher Jack Grassel turned me on to the Moshay pick, a plastic teardrop shape with a hole in the middle. I stopped my pick search (which seemed to waste a lot of time) when I tried the Moshay.  I am willing to try new ones.  Jack now recommends the "Surf Pick", similar to the Moshay in shape, but made of wood.  I look forward to trying it.

Though the archtop became part of my "arsenal" later in life, I had a great introduction to this type of guitar early in my life.  My dad played drums so the love of rhythm was passed down from father to son.  While in my early 30's, a wonderful teacher, Pat McKee, introduced me to big band rhythm guitar by studying Barry Galbraith.  I didn't know it, but whenever I had heard the piano-less band of Les and Larry Elgart, it probably was Barry on rhythm guitar. 

Any classic Sinatra recording is a lesson in rhythm guitar playing.  Listen to the ballads.  Al Viola played on many Sinatra sessions.

Check out Bucky Pizzarelli when he is part of any rhythm section.  He is in the pocket, he is harmonically great, and he plays amazing chord solos.  Note that Bucky uses a lot of voice movement on G and D strings. 

Other influences have been Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt, Ed "Snoozer" Quinn, Oscar Moore, Steve Jordan, and of course, the premier rhythm master, Freddie Green.    I must again mention jazz guitarist Jack Grassel whose instructional book "Guitar Seeds" planted many "seeds" for my chord proficiency.  Along with Jack, another Milwaukee guitarist, Don Momblow, was instrumental in guiding me to play tastefully, swing hard, and do it all from the soul.  Contemporary guitarists that influenced me were Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, George Benson, and Pat Metheny.

When facing a "plug in and play" live performance, I have not noticed a huge difference in microphones, nor do I typically have the time to try different mics.  The Shure SM58 and SM57 do a fine job. [Editor's note: I use the Shure KSM137 to mike my Epiphone Emperor - for live sound and for recording.]  It is more important to have a guitar that sounds good through a PA system and a sound engineer that understands the unique qualities of the archtop rhythm guitar. 

A recording studio or concert hall venue is a different situation.  I will let the resident sound technician handle the microphone selection.  Studio ED in Nashville has recorded four Titan Hot Seven CDs and three of my solo projects.  According to reviews, musicians, and listeners, Studio ED has done a fine job of capturing the essence of my guitar.  For solo projects, two mics, each an Audio Technica 4033,  are used;  one mic is placed near the f-hole, the other at the center of the fingerboard.  This technique is used for recording the guitar in stereo.  When recording the guitar in mono, the same mike is placed in front the guitar.  An experienced recording engineer will take the time to walk around and listen to the guitar, searching for just the right mic placement.  A small recording booth that is "guitar friendly" also enhances the recording quality.

Playing an archtop acoustic guitar in a live situation can present problems when the ensemble is loud.  Even in the heyday of recordings that feature rhythm guitar, one can sense that the guitar was driving the band, but it is often hard to hear. 

I work on the Traditional Jazz/Hot Jazz circuit with the Titan Hot Seven.  The group plays soft, tasty numbers as well as high energy, loud, and exciting selections.  I jokingly refer to it as "arena" jazz. 

In a small venue equipped with a small PA system that is operated the band, I personally adjust the PA, usually with satisfactory results.  Careful adjustment of the high frequencies, middle frequencies, and low frequencies allows me to crank up the level. (Editor's note: Typically, I reduce the low frequencies as acoustic feedback tends to occur first in this frequency range.)  

Larger venues, indoors or outdoors, that have a large PA system and sound engineer, are a different story.  Most sound engineers do a fine job, but some some do not.  The most common error is using too much high end for the archtop, even when asked nicely not to do so.  I have learned to live with this annoyance. 

For years, I tried to rely on stage monitors, but I have given up on that technology.  Instead, I find a better tactic is to focus on the sound directly from the guitar, and if I am fortunate, I will also hear it in the room.

I always use a foam windscreen on the microphone.  It took me time to realize the mic was slowly dinging up the guitar.  The foam windscreen prevents that damage and the annoying "bang" when the guitar accidentally hits the mic.  I recently discovered a pleasing mic position.  Place the mic at a 90 degree angle to the guitar top, pointed between the bridge (high E string end) and the lower f-hole.  This miking position helps the my solos "pop out" and it eliminates the sometimes-present "woof" at the f-hole.  My archtops tend to have that "woof" around the note "A".  Placing cloth, rubber, or some other soft material beneath the bass side of the tailpiece can eliminate much of that "woof".  Remove it when not needed. 

When playing solos, the best solution is to have the band play softer which also enhances the group's dynamics. For me, high action, heavy strings and a stiff pick are a must.  If I feel the need to use a set of medium gauge strings, I will bolster the guitar's sound with a .014 E string and .018 B string.  Single string lines often require an upward movement of the pick, close to the bridge. Though not my favorite way to play lines, it does produce a "cutting solo".  It also produces a Django-like sound.  David Rawlings, performing partner of singer Gilliam Welch uses a 1930's Epiphone Olympic for his amazing single string lines.  Keep your ears open for any acoustic guitarist that has a great sound.

It is very rewarding when audience members tell me that they enjoyed the acoustic archtop.  I also enjoy when someone looks for the guitar's pickup, finds there is none, and then realizes that only the guitar is producing that distinctive sound... along with some chops of course!

Now that you know how to get a little more "oomph" from your instrument, hold that rhythm section together, propel the entire band, enjoy your solos, and lock into that groove as only an archtop rhythm guitarist can do!

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