Freddie Green: Birth of a Style
by David Ness
Frederick Willliam Greene, born 1911, anchored Count Basie's rhythm section
from 1937 until his death in 1987 with few interruptions. A self-taught
guitarist, Green (as he preferred to spell it) was a devoted member of
the band. Basie, in Good Morning Blues, tells:
Freddie Green rarely soloed but instead favored playing rhythm guitar.
Different stories purport to explain this: Harry Edison recounts in Jazz
Anecdotes that the rhythm section would fall apart if Green left his timekeeping
role to solo; so the band ripped the guts out of his amplifier to discourage
him from soloing (2).
Certainly Green heard more than just chords, as he wrote charts for the
Basie Band: Down For Double, Right On, and Corner Pocket. And you can
indeed hear an example of his playing more single-string ideas on the
tune Boll Weevil (from a recording of Brother John Sellers listed in the
discography of this article).
No matter what the reason, the fact that Green rarely improvised single
lines is not as important as his contribution to big band guitar playing,
where Green helped define the sound of the Basie rhythm section. His role
in that section was so important that we have a style of playing named
after him: the "Freddie Green style" is characterized by small
chords strummed "four to the bar!'
Hear the Difference
Rhythm sections of every level can share common problems, and one of
the most common is that many guitarists have never heard Freddie Green
play. Frequently a big band guitarist is strumming "bar chords"
(the first finger stretched across the whole neck). With the six notes
thus played (often doubling notes) and the bottom interval usually a perfect
fifth, the result is what the rock world calls a "power chord."
In a jazz context, these elements add up to a very muddy sound.
The Freddie Green style actually makes it very easy for a beginning guitarist
to play on big band swing charts:
Freddie Green's style is defined by an acoustic guitar quality: he was
more felt than heard. An acoustic guitar or a hollow-body electric will
get the closest sound. A student using an electric guitar should keep
the volume on fairly low, with the tone control on a more bass setting.
Have the neck pickup selected (usually chosen by setting the pickup selector
The percussive quality of the pick hitting the strings is a very important
aspect of this style. Freddie Green's playing was light, understated,
and rhythmically precise with a driving pulse. Think like any other member
of the ensemble: blend with the band; don't stick out.
For swing feel, hold the pick between your first finger and thumb of
your picking hand. The thumb alone can be used for more mellow sounds;
but the percussive, acoustic quality of the pick hitting the strings is
an integral part of the Freddie Green style.
Start with a three-chord blues to become familiar with your voicings:
practicing three chords in this repetitive form will speed the learning
process. Play chords on all four beats of the measure, accenting two and
four. Think of snapping your strumming wrist on beats two and four, and
practice with a metronome clicking on those accents. Use only down strokes
(toward the floor): strumming the chords both up and down is contrary
to swing feel.
Move on to jazz blues with more chords, playing in as many different
keys as possible so as to get really comfortable moving chords around.
But most importantly, listen to the Basie band with Freddie Green.
Freddie Green Chord Voicings
One way guitarists blend is using the correct voicings. Seventh chords
are the most common chords in jazz: a student who has mastered seventh-chord
voicings will be able to cover most chords in a big band chart.
As in improvising, the thirds and the sevenths of a chord are the most important. Play the third and seventh of the chord with the root in the bass; you can find sample seventh-chord voicings for the sixth and fifth strings in Example 1. Students should memorize all the notes on these two strings because all the roots of the chords are here; if you're unfamiliar with these notes, see Example 2.
Sixth String (E)
The chord forms or shapes in Example 1 are consistent all the way down
the strings: a D7 chord on the fifth string, fifth fret looks exactly
like an E7 chord on the fifth string, seventh fret. After a little practice,
these shapes should be easy for a beginner to recognize and move up
and down the neck according to the root of the chord. Encourage students
to understand the notes they are playing as soon as possible. While shapes
can be a good learning aid, they should not limit the understanding of
theory or knowledge of the guitar neck.
Sixth chords are also encountered frequently in jazz and are shown in Example 3. Note that the sixth scale degree takes the place of the seventh.
Sometimes a composer/arranger notates only a major or minor triad in the chart. The composer may have considered a seventh chord allowable (i.e., a BbM7 if notated Bb, a Bbm7 if notated Bbm); but the main criterion is how the seventh sounds with the surrounding music. The director or student can also analyze the score.
If a triad is called for, see the closed and open voicings in Example 4. In general, the open voicings will sound less muddy; and the inversions (especially first inversion) may be the most appropriate. While some of these chords are more difficult, it is not necessary to learn all of them: they represent a path for growth.
For instance, alternate-bass chords can confuse a beginning guitarist.
But if a chord in a chart reads Bb/F (a Bb major chord with an F in the
bass, as in the third chord of Example 4), the student can still
play any Bb inversion since the bassist is playing the bass note. This
applies to seventh chords with alternate bass as well.
First find a few triad voicings that are easy to grab, sound appropriate,
and are close to the other chords that the guitarist is to play in the
chart (promoting smooth movement).
It is eventually advantageous to learn all the triads and their inversions
on all string groupings. Inversions can help create movement: if a chord
is played for a long time, shift between different inversions; and you
will not change the harmonic rhythm. This can help the intensity of the
tune as well as your attention level.
While these triads also come in handy for rock and other styles, some
voicings may not sound best if strummed in the Freddie Green style. For
example, the first three voicings in Example 4 encompass the sixth, fifth,
and fourth strings: either strum less or find a different voicing. How
the chord sounds in the context of the tune should be the ultimate decision:
guitarists should use their ears as much as anyone else in the ensemble!
The "sus" or suspended chord replaces the third of the chord with the fourth scale degree. Example 5 shows a few common voicings.
Extensions & Alterations
Though extensions or altered notes may be marked in the chord, they are
not preferable in Freddie Green style: just isolate the third and seventh!
Players seeing a 9, 11, or 13 chord or an altered chord can play the seventh
voicing (Example 6).
Dominant-seventh chords are altered most frequently, with potential altered
9ths, 11ths, 5ths, or 13ths. Major chords may contain an altered 5th or
a raised 11th; minor chords sometimes include flatted 5ths. But in any
of these cases, one can play the original root-position seventh voicing
because it does not contain the 5th of the chord.
Doing so also makes it easier to play faster: there are only three notes
involved, and the shapes are the same. It is easier to swing: the whole
sound becomes lighter. Young improvisers have more freedom playing over
seventh chords without the harmonic constraints of alterations.
Once you have mastered the previous voicings, expand the possibilities by moving the third of the chord in the fifth-string voicings and placing it on the second string (Example 7). The fourth string will then be dampened or muted, creating a whole new set of three-note chords.
Another way to expand this style is to play different notes in the bass. Example 8 illustrates a common I-VI-ii-V progression on the sixth string, with alternate bass notes for the G and F7 chords which create smooth movement, making it easier to change chords. Example 9 shows two ii-Vs using alternate bass notes. Always confirm that the alternate bass notes fit the chord.
Besides making faster tempos more playable, alternate bass notes can
aid a guitarist in learning how to create smooth lines, whether in melodies
or bass lines.
Minor-Major & Half-Diminished Chords
Example 10 shows two additional challenges. Minor chords with a major seventh can be played by raising the seventh scale degree in any of the previous minor-seventh voicings. Half-diminished (or minor-seven flat-five) chords, notated via a circle with a slash through it, are played in Freddie Green style exactly the same as the minor-seventh voicings already examined: the fifth has not been included!
Path to Progress
The Freddie Green style surely suggests more information than this introductory
article can provide: the sources at the end of this article will offer
an excellent next step. Learning the chords provided here can easily lead
to more advanced comping techniques appropriate for smaller combos or
charts in different styles, and visualizing these chords makes it easier
to add extensions or altered tones. Fareed Haque's web page (listed in
the sources) includes a great lesson on building chords.
While guitarists new to the Freddie Green style will feel strange beginning
it, comfortable voicings will increase their excitement-and their concentration
on the groove. Members of the most famous Count Basie rhythm section said
on many occasions that they listened to Freddie Green for the time. He
was the time.
"Why have I stayed with Basie for so long?" Greene chuckled....
"Happiness". One word Green is content with his role in the Basie
Go check out some Freddie Green recordings, and start "chunking"
away on these chords. Hopefully you will find the same happiness as he
(1) Basie, Count and Murray, Albert. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography
of Count Basie. New York: Random House, 1985, pp. 283.
(2) Crow, Bill. Jazz Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990,
(3) Cerulli, Dom. "Freddie Greene." International Musician
Vol. LX, No. 7 (1962), pp. 26.
Selected Discography As a Leader
Mr. Rhythm (1955, RCA LPM 12 10, unavailable ) Co-Leader with Herb Ellis
Rhythm Willie (1975, Concord CCD-6010) With Basie
April in Paris (1955, Verve 8012)
Good Morning Blues (1937, Decca 1446)
LesterYoung: Blue Lester (1944, Savoy 581)
Brother John Sellers Sings Blues and Folk Songs (1954, Vanguard 79036-2)
Jim Hall: Star Licks Master Sessions video.
Fareed Haque home page: <www.fareed.com>.
Joe Pass: Hot Licks video.
Jimmy Stewart: Mel Bay's Complete Jazz Guitarist. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay,
1994, pp. 19-20.
David Ness is a freelance musician in the Chicago area currently
teaching Improvisation, Jazz Band II, and Jazz Combo at Stevenson High
School in Lincolnshire, IL and K-12 General Music for Illinois District
62 in Des Plaines, IL. Recent affiliations include guitar instructor at
Morton West High School (Berwyn, IL), guitar and combo instructor at Northwestern
University's National High School Music Institute, and instructor and
assistant camp director at Northern Illinois University's jazz camp. He
holds a Bachelor of Music in Performance (Jazz Studies emphasis) from
Northern Illinois University and a Master of Music (Jazz Pedagogy) from
Northwestern University, where he directed the Lab Band. Ness has been
a clinician for IMEA events at the district and state levels, is featured
on recordings on Southport Records, and has arranged music performed by
Danilo Perez, Shirley King, and Judy Roberts.