Freddie Green - Guitar Heroes A-Z

Known in the jazz world as “Mr. Rhythm,” Count Basie guitarist Freddie Green (1911-1987) believed that, within the context of a big band, the guitar should be felt more than heard. Born Frederick William Green in Charleston, South Carolina, Green started on ukulele and banjo before picking up the guitar in New York in his early 20s. Green joined Basie’s Orchestra in 1937 and quickly discovered that the best way to keep his job was to keep his playing simple. “I went into something [with more syncopation] and they said, ‘No, no, just keep time,’” said Green. “So who was I to say [anything different]? I just played rhythm.”

Green’s tenure with the Basie band lasted for over 50 years (seven longer than Basie’s!) until his passing in 1987. Throughout his career, Green generally grabbed three-note chord voicings on the sixth, fourth, and third strings and strummed them with the rock-solid quarter-note rhythm that made him famous. What many guitarists don’t realize is that Green, at most, only fully sounded one or two notes in each chord and muted the other strings for maximum chunk. (Again, he wanted to be felt.) This technique allowed Green to choose certain notes that would blend perfectly with the band while also becoming part of a nice melodic guitar line that complemented the harmonic progression at hand.

Green played a variety of acoustic, non-cutaway archtop guitars over the decades, including the Epiphone Emperor, Stromberg Master 400, and Gretsch El Dorado, all with heavy strings and high action. He almost always played acoustically. Legend has it that whenever Green tried to plug in, someone in the band would come along and snip the power cord to his amp, and he quickly got the message. For a taste of something he might have played on the first four measures of the Gershwin classic, “I Got Rhythm,” take a look the changes below. Notice that the solid dot in each chord grid shows which note rings, while the X’s refer to the muted notes. (The unused strings are muted by the fretting hand as well.) Also, observe some of the unusual fingerings included—they’re based on Freddie Green concert footage. Now, just start strumming ’em four to the bar, and “keep it simple.”