The Improvised Counterpoint of Freddie Green
On June 25, 2007
Rhythm guitar is an instrumental role that can found in almost every popular style of music. As well, the approach to rhythm guitar playing is fairly similar across a variety of genres. For example, in bluegrass, the rhythm guitarist mostly strums big open chords on an acoustic guitar; in rock, the rhythm guitar player typically pounds out power chords; and in jazz, rhythm guitarists usually comp chords through an often complicated set of changes. In each case, the rhythm guitar part mainly functions to fill up the sonic space with purely harmonic content.
As basically harmonic filler, some may think that the particular notes played by the rhythm guitar part are not very important as long as those notes fit into the chord. The rhythm guitar’s foremost job, as its name implies, is to simply keep the rhythm. On a lot of country albums, the rhythm guitar is equalized to the point where it almost sounds like someone is playing a washboard; all the bass frequencies are rolled off and only the sound of the pick hitting the strings is what is left to cut through the mix.
The duties of the rhythm guitarist do not always have to be relegated to mere timekeeping, however. In the guitar parts of Freddie Green, for example, we can see rhythm guitar playing transcend its original function as solely a rhythmic and harmonic element. With Freddie Green, the rhythm guitar becomes an integral melodic and contrapuntal thread to the musical fabric.
Before getting into the music, let me first just explain a little about Freddie Green. He was the rhythm guitar player with the Count Basie Big Band for about 50 years (1937-87) and also played in a number of small-group recordings during these years. Green has been nicknamed “Mr. Rhythm” for his signature style of rhythm guitar playing, which consisted of an almost unwavering use of four quarter notes to the bar. His choice of pitches is known for being as sparse as his choice of rhythmic values. Michael Pettersen, who has built an entire web site devoted to Freddie Green, recently boiled down Green’s comping style to what Pettersen calls the “one-note chord” theory. This “one-note chord” theory basically argues that Freddie Green was not playing full three- or four-note chords, as many other jazz players have assumed. Instead, Green was mostly playing only a single note per beat. In other words, Green did not play an endless string of chords over the harmonies of the song, as most rhythm guitar plays default to doing, but rather created little melodic lines that he wove through the changes.
To me, Pettersen’s “one-note chord” theory rings true when listening to recordings on which Green’s guitar can be clearly heard. If we take for granted, then, the notion that Green is playing lines comprised of mostly single notes instead of chords, I think our approach to thinking about rhythm guitar has to be revised as well. By having a linear-oriented rhythm guitar style, Green arguably creates his own little inner-voice melodic line. Of course, Green isn’t the only member of the ensemble to have his own melodic line.
The bass part for many late swing-era jazz tunes consists of what is called a “walking bass line” made up of a single string of constant quarter notes. Since Green’s guitar part also consists of a similar string of quarter notes, we may perhaps conceive of Green’s rhythm guitar part as a “walking tenor line.” As such, Green thus provides a contrapuntal partner to the bass line. We might even hear the rhythm guitar and bass parts as acting as some sort of rhythmically-condensed second-species counterpoint. I seriously doubt Green thought of his playing as descendant from the linear theories of J.J. Fux (the father of academic counterpoint), but it seems to me like the net result of Green’s rhythm guitar playing is to create the effect of an improvised counterpoint to the bass line.
Let’s listen to a few tunes to get an ear for this improvised counterpoint. Below are some tunes off the Count Basie and the Kansas City Seven album from 1962. The excerpts have been edited to feature only the rhythm section parts (guitar, bass, piano, drums) so that you can hear Green’s playing more clearly. I have included my own transcriptions of the bass and guitar part (click on the music icon) as well as a link to iTunes in case you want to hear the whole song with the full arrangements.
|”Oh, Lady Be Good”|
|”Tally Ho, Mr. Basie!”|
Can you hear how the bass and rhythm guitar lines interlock and interact to outline the harmonies? The more you look and listen to the guitar and bass parts, the more you’ll find traditional contrapuntal techniques in Green’s playing: pedal points against the bass line, 4-3 suspensions at cadences, parallel thirds and sixths with the bass, etc. At the same time, of course, Green’s counterpoint is much more free than the bounds of classical theory allow. You will find parallel dissonant and open sonorities, voice crossings, unresolved dissonances, etc. Yet our ear does not revolt against these supposed transgressions. Freddie Green’s playing sounds natural and free-flowing. It is jazz, of course, a genre known for making its own rules (if any).
Freddie Green based his entire career on playing these improvised melodic lines in counterpoint with the bass. It is surprising, therefore, that such a technique is not more common in other popular genres. Can you think of other groups, songs, players, etc. that exhibit this kind of rhythm guitar playing? I think the “one-note chord” style would be particularly appropriate for more distorted guitar playing, where multiple notes have trouble sounding clearly due to the interaction of multiple overtones and harmonics. Rhythm guitar players using lots of distortion typically end up resorting to just playing power chords, because power chords (i.e. open fifths) are one of the few sonorities that will sound good under distortion in a low register. But maybe less is more. I guess that’s kind of the nature of the riff, which sometimes acts in counterpoint to a bass line. But it doesn’t happen often enough if you ask me.