In early 1937, guitarist Freddie Green, then barely 26, took on a new job with one of the ascendant bandleaders of the day, Count Basie. Little could Green have known that he would hold down that guitar chair for the next half century. The Basie orchestra, with its All American Rhythm Section, quickly came to epitomize swing to both music fans and fellow musicians alike. Its influence was widespread within a matter of a couple of years, and the orchestra continues to thrive long after its contemporaries have faded into history.
Green was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 31, 1911, and spent his formative years living with an aunt in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. After a brief return to Charleston, he began his professional life, which took him back to Manhattan, where he became part of a musical community of Black musicians with diverse approaches to jazz. [See “The String Kings of Harlem Swing” in the July/August 2021 issue. —ed.]. He worked cafes and night clubs, with small combos and stride pianists, switching from banjo and ukulele to guitar in 1933. For the next three years, as the swing era came into focus, Green paid dues and developed his own rhythm feel, alongside a variety of musicians, before landing his big gig with pianist Count Basie.
Historians split the Basie band history into two eras: the Old and New Testament bands, loosely divided by the year 1950. The single constant in all of these aggregations aside from the leader was Green. He played an acoustic instrument until the very end; it was only after several decades that sound technicians even started putting a microphone on him. To say he was the most important big band guitarist in the history of jazz is perhaps an understatement, as his approach, sound, and feel are synonymous with rhythm guitar playing in jazz.
Here I will focus on Green’s approach and development during Basie’s Old Testament period. Using the blues in particular, I’ll pick out some ideas that are both key to understanding the jazz master’s style and helpful in building your own approach to swing rhythm guitar.
The Basic Ingredients
Exploring Green during the Old Testament years reveals the basic ingredients of the style for which he is so celebrated. In most photos from the period, Green can be seen in the standard big-band rhythm guitarist pose: seated, left leg over right, guitar resting at an angle on his knee. The angle could have been anywhere from 20 to 45 degrees, largely based on the acoustics of the venue. Basie eventually brought Green down beside the piano, but that was a late change in formation; most of the 1940s found the guitar player at the end of the trombones near the drummer’s hi-hat. This was functional, as the guitar and drums worked interdependently.
In film footage of the band from this period, Green’s hand movement is remarkably consistent. He held his picking hand in a loose, relaxed shape reminiscent of what jazz guitarist George Van Eps described in his 1939 method book. In this approach, the pick, which Green always used, is held between the thumb and index finger, while the remainder of the hand stays relaxed, enough so that a broom handle could easily be inserted in the space between the fingers and palm. Well into his later years, Green usually strummed over the fretboard, around the guitar’s neck-to-body joint, but sometimes as far up as the 12th fret. This explains, in part, his drum-like sound—less of a chunk or snap and more like a small tom drum. As was common practice at the time, Green often employed a figure-eight stroke, striking beats 1 one and 3 closer to the headstock and 2 and 4 closer to the bridge.
What is arguably most important about Green’s technique is what he did with his fretting hand. Though the guitarist became known for his one-note chords, throughout his career he fretted fuller forms. Having mastered control of the strings with his fretting fingers, he could emphasize any note in a chord while muting neighboring strings. By using his left-hand thumb to deaden the low E string—and his other fingers to dampen other strings—Green was able to make his guitar double as as a percussion instrument. Additionally, his fretting hand functioned as a damper, controlling decay, sustain, and release. Films show his left hand in constant motion, moving from chord form to chord form, while gripping and releasing the fretboard.
A Deceptively Straightforward Approach
Now let’s explore a handful of examples of Green’s style based on Count Basie recordings from the Old Testament era. Begin by using the full chord shapes and playing each example slowly, to help understand Green’s chordal concepts. Continue by pruning down the chords, emphasizing as few as one note in each voicing. The goal is to have control over the entire fretboard and use the guitar both percussively and harmonically. The subtleties of Green’s approach are nearly impossible to capture in standard notation, so a close aural inspection of recordings is highly recommended. Also, in many cases, it can be challenging to clearly define what exactly Green is playing. He never penned a method book, but we can present some well-educated guesses based on study of audio and video recordings.
Let’s start with the blues—the musical form and feeling which was so integral to the Basie band. Example 1 (below) comes from a March 1938 small band recording of “Good Mornin’ Blues” that managed to distill the spirit of the orchestra to five instruments. Here, Green plays fuller chord forms while already displaying a relaxed drive with his right hand. The chorus is a great example of how he approached the standard 12-bar form. Already we hear an emphasis on the D string, a hallmark of Green’s style. But in this smaller band context—and due to the absence of a piano—Green sounds notes on the G and B strings more consistently than later in his career. And though the chord shapes he used contained notes on the first string, he only occasionally ghosted those high notes.
Major and minor sixth chords were important to swing-era jazz. Bar 6, for example, features a typical variant of two beats of a dominant seventh chord, followed by two beats of the minor, but Green moves from Bb7 to a pair of different voicings for Bbm6, subtly changing the tonality and providing more internal movement. Beyond the harmonic choices, the original recording provides a great example of what Green later termed his foursquare rhythm: even, measured quarter-note strokes that manage to stay relaxed but propel the beat forward.
In January 1938, Green, along with Basie and few of his band members, appeared in a jam session onstage at Carnegie Hall as part of Benny Goodman’s famous appearance at that venue. While much has been made about Green’s unexpected chord solo on “Honeysuckle Rose,” the rhythm breakdown featuring bassist Walter Page is the focus of Example 2.
The first two measures show how Green often used different pairs of notes from the same chord to provide movement without switching shapes. For the Gm6 chord, he emphasized the notes on strings 2 and 3 in bar 1, but those on 3 and 4 in bar 2. Green would eventually shift all of this movement to the D and G strings, as that string pair was in less competition with the other instruments and could therefore cut through Basie’s increasingly complex arrangements. In general, as the band played more, Green began to play less, which is another characteristic of his style.
In terms of the picking hand, the recording suggests Green is changing up his strum pattern throughout this typical Basie breakdown. The long-short strokes (not conveyed in notation), which lend an almost boom-chuck feel, are likely the result of the figure-eight pattern. The backbeat (beats 2 and 4) is slightly more snappy than Green usually played, but there is plenty of even quarter-note feel throughout—all of which shows just how big his rhythmic toolbox was.
Example 3 is taken from a spring 1944 Armed Forces Radio Service version of the Basie band’s hit theme “One O’clock Jump.” After a four-bar piano intro, the rhythm section plays without the orchestra. The blues changes Green plays here are much more streamlined than those in Ex. 1. Each chord is severely pruned—sometimes to just one member, as in bars 9–12—allowing the soloist or other instruments to provide additional harmonic information. This example includes another device often employed by Green—the diminished passing chord—on the last beat of bar 8. Because Green is again heavily emphasizing the notes on the D string, there is both explicit (D string) and implicit (G string) chromatic movement. It’s a harmonic sleight of hand that leaves our ears to provide some of the resolution. Note also the use of two different F shapes in the final two measures; the higher voiced chord enables some nice ascending movement while providing emphasis on that important D string.
Though not indicated in notation, the quarter notes are again slightly different lengths. The short-long effect is likely the product of figure-eight strokes with the strums on the downbeats played towards the headstock. A good way to practice this technique is to start slowly and emulate Green’s sound, even exaggerating the width of the figure-eight pattern. Eventually that movement can be tightened and the tempo increased while retaining the feel and sound of this approach.
Paring Things Down
Throughout the 1940s, Green enjoyed extra work through small-group dates using key players from the Basie band. These occasions, with their less cluttered settings, allow the listener to get a better sense of what the guitarist was playing. A 1944 recording of “Ghost of a Chance” by the tenor saxophonist Lester Young has a great bridge (Example 4) in which Green’s guitar is quite prominent.
Green tends to emphasize just two or three notes of the fuller chord forms. In bars 5 and 6, instead of sliding the F#dim7 chord in minor thirds, a common jazz-guitar move, he plays around with subtle accent shifts using the same chord shape. There is some intriguing chromatic movement in bar 7 (Em–Ebm) and then again in 8 (Dm– Db), resolving to the top of the form in the final measure.
By the late 1940s, Green’s two- and one-note chords dominated his playing, and Basie’s 1947 recording of “Hey, Pretty Baby” typifies the guitarist’s approach during this period. Example 5 focuses on the first chorus underneath the piano solo. Note the economy of motion in the first two bars—simply moving the two notes of the I chord (Ab7) down by one fret gets you the IV (Db7).
In bar 3, Green mixes things up by using an inversion of the I chord, playing it as major, rather than a dominant seventh. This not only lends harmonic variety, it allows Green to maintain his focus on the D string. Take note of the diminished chords in bars 8 and 11, played on different beats each time.
This figure makes for a great comparison to Ex. 1, as the two are close in tempo and feel but were recorded nearly a decade apart. By this time, Green’s right-hand stroke was less of a strum and more of a gentle roll, somewhere between snapping the wrist and pushing the right hand slightly forward with the forearm.
I’ll conclude with a stock chord progression found throughout the Great American Songbook—in this case in the bridge of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” which the Basie orchestra recorded in the spring of 1949, less than nine months before the bandleader temporarily called it quits. Green can be heard occasionally peeking out from behind the bold arrangement, and his playing on the bridge a minute into the recording reveals the ideas used in Example 6. The movement from the ii chord (Fm) to the tonic (Eb) recalls the voice leading of Ex. 2. It’s a simple but effective way to navigate changes that every jazz guitarist sees regularly, with a reminder in bar 5 that by continuing to employ full chord forms you can occasionally add some additional harmonic movement, even when primarily sounding two notes.
There is so much to be gleaned from these streamlined chords and Green’s general concept of the guitar as a percussive timekeeping instrument capable of delivering as little or as much harmonic information as the playing situation demands. While the elements of this lesson are foundational for any jazz guitarist, Green’s approach offers valuable takeaways for acoustic guitarists of all stripes.
What He Played
Throughout his professional career, Freddie Green played archtops, the sizes of which ranged from 16 inches to nearly 19 inches at the lower bout. These instruments had 25.5-inch-scale fretboards and either parallel- or ladder-braced soundboards designed with volume in mind.
Photos of Green before Basie show the guitarist with a smaller New York–made Epiphone Triumph, which he replaced with Epiphone’s top-of-the line Emperor not long after he joined the orchestra. By early 1939, Green played a Stromberg Master 300, made by the legendary Boston guitar shop. It was this instrument that Green played throughout the 1940s.
In terms of setup, Green preferred heavy-gauge brass or bronze strings, with notoriously high action. While the action certainly helped with projection, it also gave Green more control over which strings to emphasize as he selectively reduced the number of notes in his chords. —NR
Thanks to Alfred Green, Mark Cantor, James Chirillo, Michael Pettersen, Jim Speros, and Jonathan Stout.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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