Right-Hand Man: The Rhythm Secrets of Count Basie Guitarist Freddie Green

by John Lehmann-Haupt

[Note: This article was condensed from the original and covers only the sections that directly relate to the style of Freddie Green. - Michael Pettersen September 2001]

Rhythm guitar - it may well evoke images of garage bands, with the sounds of flailed chords and muted bass thunks of solid-body electrics. But before garage bands existed, there was another rhythm guitar, one born of the banjo of the earliest jazz bands. And its acknowledged master was Freddie Green, anchor of the Count Basie Orchestra's rhythm section from 1937 until his death in 1987. He never soloed, and he never plugged in. He rarely even used a microphone. What he did do was pump out a rock-solid downstroke pulse on his big Stromberg archtop, locking in with drummer Jo Jones and bassist Walter Page to propel the minimalist flourishes of Basie's piano and the solos of Lester Young, Harry "Sweets" Edison, and others in swing era classics like "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "April in Paris". And while it sounds straightforward enough, the simplicity of Green's art was deceptive; behind it lay a keen understanding of his instrument and skills held in the highest regard by those who know the style.

"In terms of rhythm guitar, Freddie Green stands above everyone else," said Jay Berliner. "He really made the sound of the Basie band, along with Basie's little right-hand fills on the piano. He was the foundation." Berliner has been at the very top of the New York studio scene for 35 years. He described his early encounters with a style that didn't come to him overnight:
"I heard the Basie band a number of times and I always tried to figure out — why can you hear the guitar so well? The effectiveness of it really caught my attention. I also remember that early on in the studios I did a date with Bucky Pizzarelli. He was playing a six-string Danelectro bass guitar, and I was playing rhythm. I had a big rosewood Guild folk guitar with tremendous power. I was bashing those chords, but it didn't record properly; it was all washed out. I didn't know how to play rhythm then. So Bucky and I switched parts. Bucky had a small D'Angelico that had probably half the volume of my Guild. But he played the part, and when we heard the recording, there was the guitar as plain as day. He had studied it; he had figured out how it's done."

Berliner spelled out the essentials. "It's the voicings, it's the approach, and it's the feel," he said. "Take a blues; most people play standard barre chords. If you use that style in the context of a big band or an orchestra, the guitar's going to disappear. It's mud. The trick is to basically play three-note chords with wide voicings," he said. "It makes a tremendous difference." He played the following four-chord progression and the definition was unmistakable.

"It also makes sense from the standpoint of physics that there should be space between the notes," Berliner went on. "If you look at the way overtones work, the lower notes are farther apart, and the higher up you go, the closer together they get. And each note sounds as part of a distinct line. You don't just jump from chord to chord. It's voice leading. Often you don't play the root because it is usually played by the double bass. For example, here is a C7 voicing (G on the 6th string; E on the 4th; Bb on the 3rd; all other strings muted). There is no C in this voicing. And if you just play a plain major chord, you usually make it a sixth chord. That's another part of the style."

Right hand attack is critical, too. "With the pick, I'm looking for that middle string, " Berliner continued. "Freddie Green would really just brush the other notes." Berliner played through another progression, this time nailing the central note, the outer two slightly damped. It was a revelation; I suddenly understood the Freddie Green sound - up close, a brash honk of a line in an envelope at once harmonic and percussive, with pick sound and string slap adding to the mix. "It sounds simple, but it took years to really get it perfected," he commented.
And then there's rhythm. "Freddie Green's time was incredibly accurate and good," said Berliner. "It's about finding the pocket of various styles and tempos, or adjusting to certain drummers or rhythm sections. Sometimes you play a little behind the beat; not consciously, but you feel it just a little bit behind. Or if you're playing with someone like Oscar Peterson, you actually move up on top of the beat. It takes years to get your time to that level."

Wayne Wright is a guitarist who's played a great deal of rhythm in his career. He's backed up Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan, Les Paul, and Peggy Lee, to name a few. His mentor in rhythm was none other than the master drummer Elvin Jones. "I had terrible time when I was a kid," said Wright, "and Elvin Jones said to me 'Play rhythm, man! Have you ever heard of Freddie Green?'"

As he spoke, Wright began chunking through some improvised changes, snaking through some neat half-step substitutions and chromatic modulations; again, three-note voicings with clearly discernable lines. "Essentially what's going on is that interval of the tenth," he said, referring to the distance between the outer notes. "In the structure of the chord, there's the melody note, the bass note, and the one in between. I don't treat these as chords; I treat them as voices - all three."

Wright elaborated on the rhythm guitar's function in a group. "The first thing I do is lock in on the drums," he said, "whether we're right or wrong. Elvin Jones told me, 'If you're listening to me and I'm listening to you and we're wrong together, what's stronger than that?' The rhythm guitar is the catalyst between the impact of the drums and the tonality of the bass. This is the glue that keeps these guys together."

And the sound of the acoustic archtop is essential to the job. "Jimmy D'Aquisto told me that this type of guitar," said Wright, tapping his rare left-handed D'Angelico, "was designed to sound from the third fret to about the tenth fret. You lose some down here (he played a low note) and you lose some up here (he played a few high notes) - it's right here. " He played a few punchy midrange chords.

"And the sound's got to decay fast," he went on. "When you're playing rhythm, you've not only got to feel like the drummer feels, you've got to feel like he feels! You've got to feel the way he feels about the length of the beat. It ain't that much; it's like a chirp. Otherwise you can't get that pulse."

Like Berliner, Wright had been struck by Freddie Green's extraordinary projection. "When I was with Buddy Rich back in the 1970's," he recounted, "they had a tribute to the guy who did all the booking for everybody. So Freddie Green came in and sat down to play with the Basie band. There was no mic near him, but when I listened to the tape the next day the first thing that came through was that damned guitar!"

Apparently Green was canny about acoustics beyond his guitar, too. "I saw Freddie at a record date with the Basie band, sitting there, and I said, 'Where the hell's the mic?'" Wright recalled. "Again, no mic near him. What he had found out to do was find a sweet spot in the room that sounded good to him, and that's where he sat.

"He had the action way up. But don't ask him to play a scale. He said in an article that he had to give up a career as a single-line guitar player, and he was a good single-line guitar player."
Like many guitarists of his day, Green started on banjo. As Wright explained, "The rhythm section used to be tenor banjo, tuba or bowed bass, and drums." But with the advent of electronic recording and sensitive microphones, which replaced the acoustically driven horns of the earlier Edison wax cylinder machines, quality recordings of the guitar became possible, and it became a viable alternative to the raucous banjo. Wright described the impact of the early sound film "The Big Broadcast" (1932, starring Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, and others), which featured the clearly audible guitar work of Eddie Lang. "When that came out," he said, "the leaders all told their banjo players, 'You're gonna play guitar!' The next day, you found banjos in hock shops all over the country, and guys scrambling to survive."

Wright has an acute sense of the history of his craft and the players, but two names stand out for their lineal connection to Freddie Green. There's Allan Reuss, an outstanding rhythm player with the Benny Goodman Orchestra (and others), who actually gave lessons to Green. And there's George Van Eps, who is better known today for his extraordinary fingerstyle solos on amplified seven-string guitar. Van Eps was initially a masterful rhythm guitarist who both taught Reuss and preceded him in the Goodman orchestra.

I had thought that acoustic rhythm playing might prove to be something of an endangered species. But as it turns out, it is being kept very much alive by excellent players around the world. By its nature, rhythm guitar doesn't call attention to itself. But if you pay it heed, it's infectious.

Reprinted from Acoustic Guitar (www.acousticguitar.com), No. 65, May 1998, © String Letter Publishing, 1998
Permission granted by the author John Lehmann-Haupt

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