6-String Metronome

Great footage of the Basie Band, circa 1965. Freddie Green’s archtop comping comes through nicely in the mix. Green was the band’s metronome for five decades, arguably as pivotal to the band’s sound as Basie himself, or any of the all-star soloists that filtered through the lineup. Notably, he almost never took a lead — not because he wasn’t capable, but because he saw himself first and foremost as a member of the rhythm section. Green’s rock-steady, harmonically sparse chord playing is still a model for swing and bop guitar, particularly in contexts where guitar and piano occupy the same space.

I think most guitar players, regardless of genre, can take a cue from Freddie Green. Back in college, I used to play in the house band for a weekly blues jam. Every week, I encountered players who could wail on a solo, but often phoned it in when it was time to comp and pass the spotlight to other players. Besides being bad form (and a great way to earn the ire of the band), that lack of rhythmic attention usually creeps into solo lines that are long on notes but short on groove (i.e. tedious).

I’ve been seeking out jazz albums where the guitarist plays a primarily supporting role. Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh is a great example; the two iconic sax players take center stage, supported by Sal Mosca on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, and Billy Bauer on guitar. Bauer is one of the unsung guitar heroes of the swing-to-bop transition, having recorded with luminaries like Benny Goodman, Lennie Tristano, and Charlie Parker. He could play a mean lead (evidenced on his only solo album, Plectrist), but takes a backseat on the Konitz/Marsh meeting, providing warm chordal backing for the blowers. Rhythm-seekers should also check out Coleman Hawkins’ The Hawk Flies High, which features Barry Galbraith on guitar. Galbraith only has one short (yet tasty) solo on the album, but his rhythm playing throughout is solidly rooted in the Freddie Green tradition.