A New Hypothesis About Freddie Green's Guitar Technique

by Albert Romaǹ
Edited by Michael Pettersen - November 2003

Let me state that nearly all describable aspects about Freddie Green's rhythm guitar style have already been notated and accurately described. Mark Allen's "Dynamic Chords and Muted Notes" theory (DCMN) and Michael Pettersen's "One Note Chord" articles are jewels.

My contribution has two sections. First is the path I followed that is the basis of my Freddie Green hypothesis, i.e., "Tenor Banjo to Rhythm Guitar Hypothesis". It is my own true story. Second is my attempt to name and locate (on the fretboard) the audible notes, the semi-audible notes, and the almost inaudible notes/sounds that often surround the Freddie Green lead line. I call it "Listening to Unidentified Flying Sounds (UFS)".

My Freddie Green hypothesis may be considered too daring, and the reader may find inaccuracies. This is OK as I am exploring a murky, swampy area. But these playing concepts are not conjecture as I have used these concepts for years. When listening to Freddie Green recordings I often recognized previously discovered concepts, tricks, or moves. This does not mean I am always 100% certain of what Freddie is doing. Many times I don’t know what he is doing, and that’s great too! Take my ideas as conjecture if that suits you. I will be happy if you understand that I am not just a fool listening to strange sounds whose ears have been spoiled by the Spanish sun. If my hypothesis does not suit you, forget it. Just continue listening to Freddie Green.

After accepting the DCMN theory and the existence of One Note Chords/Two Note Chords, I wish to emphasize the following aspects of Freddie's technique:

  • The lead note was generally placed on the 4th string. Renowned jazz musicians that had direct contact with Freddie Green, e.g., Paul Weeden, Eddie Jones, and Bucky Pizarelli, have all reported this fact.

  • Freddie often jumped from chord shape to chord shape even if clearly sounding only a single note. This concept is perfectly described in the DCMN theory. Note that Freddie was almost always moving his left hand, changing chord shapes. This is very puzzling when the lead line did not seem to change, but this technique is well documented in the video footage of Freddie performing. Also in the recorded audio material, it is often quite easy to recognize a position change of his left hand.

  • Freddie struck the strings in such a way that the 4th string projected louder than other strings. Simultaneously, the other strings had weaker sounding notes, or muted percussive sounds, or were actually not sounded at all! This was accomplished by Freddie's left hand muting techniques, and his alternate right hand wrist action on different beats.

  • Freddie often added notes above the lead line as embellishments. These embellishing notes form a beautiful aspect of Freddie Green's style. They also reinforce the theory that he primarily employed chord shapes as the basis of his technique.

Now back to my hypothesis. I think that many superb guitar players cannot duplicate the Freddie Green style because they are not fully devoted to the style. It requires playing an old archtop acoustic guitar with good resonance, setting the action high, using heavy gauge strings and thick picks. It is also important that the rhythm section members play in the Basie style: the bass, the drums and the piano must be acoustic and must play in certain registers. The Freddie Green style will not work without cooperation from the other players. Also, great patience is required to learn the Freddie Green technique. To help me hear Freddie better, I often use a multi-band equalizer to emphasize the guitar part of a recording.

Applying one's existing knowledge to a desired technique is the normal learning process. I believe many guitarists will not forgo their acquired wisdom; they continue to play beautiful three, four, five, or six notes chords, and beautiful dissonances. But this approach will not reveal Freddie Green voicings and lead lines. It is not my aim to tell others "I am right. You are wrong". However, I have devoted so much time to studying Freddie Green that my discoveries should shorten the learning curve for many.

Tenor Banjo Hypothesis

Here is my musical journey; it is a journey that Freddie Green may have also traveled. I started as tenor banjo player and jumped straight to big band guitar work, aiming for the Freddie Green style. After a few years, I realized that Freddie Green had also switched from tenor banjo to rhythm guitar. (Guitarist Danny Barker wrote about banjo players moving from banjo to guitar; most were self-taught musicians. The banjo was replaced when acoustic guitar was found to be a "smoother sounding" instrument for recording.) I felt sympathetic to the musical journey of Freddie Green. Arcane technical details became clear to me because I had experienced the same evolution.

Important: Note that the tenor banjo is tuned with a perfect fifth between each string.

Most jazz tenor banjoist use these voicing types:

  1. Four note chords with no doubling of notes. See Example A.

  2. Four note chords with octave doubled notes. See Example B.

  3. Three note voicings on strings 4-3-2 or 3-2-1. The perfect fifth tuning makes it easy to repeat any three note chord form one string higher or one string lower. See Example C.

A common cliche for jazz tenor banjo is to play moving 4-3-2 voicings while adding the first string for "fire and color". See Example D. This technique is similar to the Freddie Green technique where he adds an upper embellishing note on the 3rd string to complement a moving line on the 4th string!

Example A: Tenor banjo "academic" chords (C G D A tuning, bass to treble).

Example B: Tenor banjo chords with octaves.

Example C: Tenor banjo progression that can be played without great effort.

Example D: Tenor banjo progression using the 4-3-2 voicing, adding an occasional note on the 1st string.

Here is my hypothesis: Freddie Green's rhythm guitar voicings and technique are a logical evolution from tenor banjo voicings and technique:

Example E: Rhythm guitar "academic" four note chords with 6-5-4-3 voicings. Note that each guitar chord form is a mirror image of a tenor banjo form in Example A!

Example F: "Gypsy Jazz" 6-4-3 rhythm guitar voicings; also used by Freddie Green as 6-4 only or 6-4-3.

Example G: Rhythm guitar voicings with octaves.

Example H: Common Freddie Green 6-5-4 voicings with the leading line on the 4th string. Possible upper notes on the 3rd string are shown.

Example I: A common Freddie Green progression using 6-5-4-3.

I studied Freddie Green's small group recordings to discover these chord shapes. I learned about "emphasizing" the 4th string, even when other notes were sounding on higher strings, thanks to my friendship with jazz guitarist Paul Weeden. Later, bassist Eddie Jones told me about the same principle, so I felt I was on the right path. I also studied video material that showed Freddie playing. This material provided insight about left hand positions and movements.

After a long search, I traveled from Spain to Gruhn's Guitars in Nashville to purchase a beautiful Gibson Super 400 archtop guitar built in 1947. This instrument helped me to recreate the Freddie Green sound, as has my setup using high action, heavy gauge strings, and a thick pick. The Freddie Green sound had been elusive until I obtained this guitar and adjusted it similar to Freddie's guitar. Recent recordings of my playing with a big band have verified that I am close to Freddie's sound.

To other guitarists, it was incomprehensible that I would play with such a high action and such heavy strings. So I gave up telling others about my Freddie Green experiments until February 2003 when I played with Basie saxophonist Frank Wess at the Terrassa Jazz Festival. Mr. Wess told me about the website www.freddiegreen.org. I immediately sent an enthusiastic e-mail to Michael Pettersen, and now here I am sharing my ideas and hoping that my research will not be considered garbage.

Listening to Unidentified Flying Sounds

Beyond my "Tenor Banjo Hypothesis" research, there is another very arduous task I have undertaken. I call it "Listening to Unidentified Flying Sounds", UFS for short.

Above the Freddie Green 4th string lead note, we often encounter beautiful notes that are not as loud as the lead line. This is very common Freddie technique. These notes are not leading notes like Freddie typically played on the 4th string. In my transcription work, I notate these upper embellishement notes with a white dot.

I am not talking about muted notes; I refer to notes that are audible, but have less "sound". There is a difference between upper notes with "less sound" and muted notes - muted notes are transcribed with an X. Among all the muted notes, try to distinguish between muted notes that do not have a pitch (like a percussive string sound that is just rhythmic) and muted notes having some pitch.

To aid my research, I often alter Freddie Green recordings by using a ten band graphic equalizer. The equalizer can reduce audio information below and above the guitar's frequency range, allowing Freddie's guitar to be heard more easily. Using this technique I often hear subtle sounds/notes played along with the 4th string lead line. These subtle notes/sounds are the UFS - Unidentified Flying Sounds - previously mentioned. These UFS might even be unwanted notes on the 1st string, but they can provide important information about the chord shape chosen by Freddie.

My primary research has been, and will continue to be identifying these UFS, accepting that they do exist, and giving names to these poor unbaptized notes. Also I attempt to locate them on the guitar fretboard and find as many examples as possible. My UFS research and video material research stretch back to 1986.

I believe my research has produced accurate transcriptions, not just hypothetical concepts. However, I understand that my research may not be considered transcriptions by some because it cannot be proven to be 100% accurate. I have been playing the Freddie Green style for years using my researched approach without knowing of the existence of www.freddiegreen.org and the theories posted there. My approach agrees with most of what has already been documented, and adds a little "fire" for Freddie Green lovers.

When I play in the Freddie Green style, I create a leading line on the 4th string, and I am also quite aware of the other subtle sounds/notes and ways of creating them that Freddie employed. Some may say that Freddie was only playing one note. But I have played and recorded in this style for years, so I know that this is not so! I am the proof that my theories can recreate the Freddie Green sound.

When studying the transcriptions on www.freddiegreen.org, note that Freddie used: 6-5-4 voicings, 6-5-4-(3) voicings, 6-4-3 voicings, one note "chords" with no UFS, one note "chords" with UFS, and weak notes on the 3rd string above the 4th string lead notes. All these provide evidence that Freddie primarily played from chord shapes.

I have mp3 files of my playing. For the curious, I will provide these files to prove that my research has created a rhythm guitar technique that recreates the Freddie Green sound. For not-so curious, just go on listening to Freddie Green!

Final Thoughts

Why would Freddie Green primarily use 6-5-4-(3) and 6-X-4-(3) voicings with the lead line on the 4th string?

  • The other instruments in the Basie rhythm section occupied much of the musical frequency range and "forced" the guitar to play in that particular 4th string register in order to be heard.

  • Using an acoustic archtop guitar "forced" the use of high action to avoid fretboard noise, and increased the loudness in order to acoustically balanced with the other rhythm instruments. The high string tension provided more acoustic power, and the high action added clarity to the notes. Note that Basie band members would not let Freddie play amplified because the rhythm section became unstable. Several Basie members mentioned this as the primary reason Freddie remained "unplugged".

  • Vintage archtop guitars, like a vintage violin or cello, have a particular optimal sound "zone" where the sound has a unique timbre and loudness.

  • High string action forces a particular way of fretting chords. Often used by tenor banjo players, the thumb is on top of the fretboard and the other fingers lie nearly flat. This is not the academic method of fretting strings with arched finger and the thumb located behind the fretboard. Less effort is required using this unorthodox method, particularly with high string action. This method often permits unwanted notes/sounds to emerge for any given 3 or 4 string chord shape. Muting strings does not require much effort as the underside of the fingers easily damp the higher strings. With minimal effort, a player can mute individual notes, mute strings, or half-mute notes...UFS!

  • Using high string action, 3 note voicings required less effort than 4, 5, or 6 note voicings.

  • The 3rd string has a higher tension than the other strings on some guitars. This would be a reason to use a 6-5-4 voicing with high action, avoiding the extra high tension of the 3rd string.

Do not overlook the evolution of the Count Basie rhythm section documented by recordings. It is accepted that Basie and Freddie Green played fewer notes as their playing matured. There is a great quote attributed to Basie; he told the members of his big band, "If you cannot hear Freddie Green, you are playing too loud!" Starting in the late 1950's, it is also a reasonable assumption that Freddie altered his chords voicings to fewer notes because his guitar was frequently close-miked for recordings and concerts.

Freddie Green's rhythm guitar technique is much more than a type of guitar, high action, thick strings, certain voicings, string muting, strumming a particular way, etc. I seek the feeling of four "living" beats as embodied in Freddie Green's music. His type of living, improvised leading line must be heard as if he were a soloist. Listen to the long notes, the short notes, the legato, the staccato, the glissando. Freddie creates a unique singing melodic line that makes his style difficult to document as "rules", and difficult to transcribe accurately. Any rule we create has so many beautiful exceptions! We may think that Freddie's leading note is always on the 4th string, then we will discover recording where this is not so. We may say there is a delicate dancing balance between beats 1, 3 and 2, 4 and create a theory on his wrist action, then we will find many examples where he does not follow this "rule". So, it is better not to get too stuck on "rules", but to study each Freddie Green recording as a new creation.

I dedicate this article to my "amigo" Paul Weeden, to my new www.freddiegreen.org friends, Michael Pettersen and Mark Allen, to George Gruhn, and to my wife Montse and little Pol who have suffered so many hours with my Freddie Green mania.

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