Recollections of Freddie Green By Guitarist John Parrott

I saw Freddie play twice. Once was in the late seventies at a gym in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and the other was in the early eighties, after Basie's death, at a noon show at Milwaukee's Summerfest. Like other rhythm players, I was well versed in the three and four note chord method of comping, and like many other younger players, I was enchanted and baffled by the clear, beautiful, one-note pulse that Freddie gave to the Basie band’s recordings. Attendance was light at both gigs, and so I was able to stand within a few feet of Freddie and watch him closely for a full set each time.

I saw very few chord forms I could recognize, and those I could discern were played with unorthodox fingerings. For example, I saw him use his ring finger and pinky to play a Cm7 chord at the eighth fret Also, he regularly used his thumb to mute the low E string, and he let the side of his first finger mute the high E and B strings. His action was high, and his left hand slid up and down the neck of his Gretsch with a dancer's ease. His sound was coming mainly from the note he would play on the D string and the percussive swipe he would give the muted strings. Freddie coordinated his left hand's release of that note with a casual, glancing strum that had an effortless bounce quite different from the "pumping" rhythm styles, yet his tone was huge, and it fit the live band sound perfectly. Of course, I'd go home and try and copy what I'd seen, and the results were close to pitiful.

The notion of Freddie inventing a way of playing chords that would fit and help define the Basie band sound is wonderful, and if you think about it, the great rhythm players all put their own imprints on the music, even though they aren't as well-known. About a year after Freddie died, I had the pleasure of talking with Chet Atkins about rhythm guitar, and I mentioned what I termed Freddie Green’s “homemade chords”. Chet’s favorite rhythm guitar player was Henry "Homer" Haynes, of Homer and Jethro fame, who played on many of his early RCA recordings. Chet said that whenever he'd look over to see what Homer was doing to get that driving, beautiful, rhythm sound, he'd see unfamiliar chords and fingerings. "Homer would just grab a handful and go," as Chet put it, and when he'd go home and try to copy Homer, nothing good would come out of the guitar. That self-taught part of guitar playing, the idea of tinkering with a chord sound until it fits, is to me yet another delightful lesson from Freddie Green's huge legacy as a rhythm player, and I think it's a hallmark of the great guitar stylists.

Editor's Note: John Parrott is a superb rhythm guitarist based in Wisconsin. He performed with Jethro Burns after Homer Haynes passed away. John's great rhythm playing can be heard on many recordings, including "The Swing Sessions" with Don Stiernberg and Jim Cox.

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