Freddie Green Comping

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I have the opportunity to play quite a bit of "Freddie Green" style comping on my gigs as the guitarist for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.   I've played "Freddie Green" style guitar with a variety of well known players, and shortly before writing this essay, I had played on a recording of old swing arrangements done by Nelson Riddle. The subject was on my mind quite a bit during the rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions.

What is Freddie Green Comping?

Freddie Green was one of thousands of guitarists who have comped "Freddie Green" style. Freddie Green was certainly a master of it, if not "the" master. But he was not the first or the only player to comp in this style.

The phrase "Freddie Green" style comping refers to a style of swing comping that is most often used in big band guitar playing. You see the phrase "Freddie Green Comp" quite a bit in charts if you do much gigging that requires reading, such as show work. The label "Freddie Green Comping" does not refer specifically to the person who shares that name, but rather to the style of 4 strum to the bar rhythm guitar. Likewise, when I use the phrase Freddie Green style guitar, I'm not referring exclusively to the way Freddie Green played.

The beauty of Freddie Green comping is that the basics can be explained so simply: hold down a chord with the left hand, and strike the strings with the right hand once per beat of the tune. The ugly side of Freddie Green comping is that when it is done badly, the guitar player can single handedly mess up the rhythm section.

Time

Rhythm guitar is about time, not about voicings. Voicings are a detail, but they seem to take up a great deal of space in discussions about Freddie Green comping. If you are just exploring the basics of swing rhythm guitar, pay no attention at all to the discussions of voicings. I suggest that to learn this style you should first concentrate on time.

Chunk-Chunk-Chunk-Chunk?

The words often used to describe Freddie Green comping are chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk. I don't think these words are all that helpful. If you really do play something that resembles chunk-chunk, you will most likely just muddy the rhythm section, and thus mess up the tune.

It seems to me that the words "choo-chit-choo-chit" more accurately describe the sound: choo on 1 and 3, and chit on 2 and 4. There are variations depending on how fast or slow the tune is going, or how busy the drummer is, but these are the basics. 1 and 3 have a longer sound, and 2 and 4 have a much shorter sound.

The Drummer

The guitarist's job is to help propel the rhythm forward by complementing the drummer. The guitarist is playing pitched percussion. Think of the guitarist as adding pitches to the ride cymbal on beats 1 and 3, and to the high hat on beats 2 and 4.

The guitarist must lock on to the drummer's high hat. 2 and 4 are what swing are about. The drummer's high hat (or snare in the loud parts) define 2 and 4 more than anything else. If you can lock on to the drummer's high hat -- meaning that you strike 2 and 4 (your chit beats) at exactly the same moment the drummer's high hat sounds, you will be swinging with the drummer. Create the "chit" sound by releasing the left hand almost immediately after the strings are struck.

The 1 and 3 beats (your choo beats) should lock on to the drummer's ride cymbal. This is all much easier if you play with the same drummer all the time. Drummers all define time in slightly different ways, and it often takes a couple of sessions with a new drummer to really lock on to his time.

Locking on to the drummer is more difficult than it sounds. The better the drummer, the easier he is to lock on to. Never forget that you are there to support the drummer.

Your 2 and 4 chits should be slightly accented over the 1 and 3 choos. Even if you played the chit with the exact same right hand stroke, the chits will already have a natural accent because they are cut short. The interruption of the sound creates the effect of an accent. This is nearly enough.

I create the accent by gripping the pick just slightly firmer on beats 2 and 4 than on beats 1 and 3. Then I use the exact same arm and wrist motion on all 4 beats. A firmer grip causes the pick to displace the strings more, thus creating more volume, and an accent.

Volume

One big issue with Freddie Green comping is the volume -- how loud should it be? Well, the answer is just loud enough. Not particularly helpful, I know, but completely accurate. Here are a variety of things to consider when deciding how loud to play:

The guitar part must be just barely quieter than the drums. The guitar part should be felt not heard.  If anyone in the audience (other than guitar players interested in Freddie Green comping) actually notice you, you're playing too loud. The guitar part is sometimes there more for the benefit of the other musicians -- to help drive the rhythm home for them -- than for the listeners.

As the band gets louder, so should you, but not too much. The sound you get from your guitar and amp also play into how loud you should be.

If you are playing this style professionally, buy a good volume pedal and keep your foot on it all the time. Let the volume pedal become almost a part of the instrument.

Sound

The realities of live performance dictate that you must use an amp to be heard. But the typical jazz guitar sound is much too "thick" to properly play Freddie Green comping. The big fat jazz box sound will simply muddy up the rhythm section because it will interfere with the bass player's lines.

You can get a passable Freddie Green feel from almost any type of guitar, but, in my opinion, the best sound will come from an archtop. I use an L5.

My amp of choice for this type of work is an Acoustic Image with a Raezer's Edge cabinet. It has a very clean sound. I notch out the mid and upper mid range (330 - 1k), with the built in EQ on the amp. You can probably accomplish something similar with most amps. This gives a sound that does not interfere with the bass player, is reasonably warm, and is still clear enough to cut.

Keep in mind the phrase "pitched percussion" when deciding on a sound. Create a sound that blends well with the drums, but also one that does not muddy up the bass player's sound.

Voicings

Don't get obsessed with voicings. Remember that you don't have to play voicings exactly like Freddie Green played to play good Freddie Green comping.

A couple of simple guidelines for voicings:

Use 3 or 4 note chords.

Avoid barre chords. They take up too much space in the sound spectrum.

Avoid 5ths between the 6th and 5th strings. This sounds muddy and  interferes with the bass player's sound.

Don't add too many extensions, unless they are indicated in the part. You will step on the piano player's voicings, as well as the horns if you go off on your own adding extensions. 

Swing

Swing your ass off.


      

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