As much as I enjoy solo and small group performing, my favorite kind of guitar playing is big band rhythm guitar. On the surface, it may not appear very exciting. The guitarist in a big band rarely takes a solo. For the most part, you play quarter notes all night. On the other hand, you have to stay mentally sharp because the chords are coming at you a mile a minute, plus it's a lot of fun to be part of the whole big band sound. The guitar plays a very specific role in a big band, providing a clear pulse for the band and filling in the middle register of the rhythm section. The bass covers the low while the piano covers the high end. If you're doing it right, the listener may not even notice the guitar unless it drops out.
Although there are plenty of guitarists in town with better technique, I have an ace up my sleeve: I can read music. I'm living proof that you can be a guitar player and read music at the same time. Jazz band books typically have a lot of charts, and there's rarely time to rehearse any of them in depth. Another guitar player may have more impressive chops, but if he can't read music, or if he only has a rudimentary grasp of reading notation, it's going to take him a while to learn any given part. On the other hand, while I don't have lightning fast technique, I can read down most big band guitar parts the first time. This makes me very useful as a sub, because I can sight-read my way through a performance if necessary.
One of my goals is to be the regular guitarist for one of the big bands in Atlanta. Unfortunately, there is only one guitar player per band (and some big bands don't use a guitarist at all), so it may be a while before I earn a spot. In the meantime, I get as much experience as I can by subbing with the Sentimental Journey Orchestra and the Atlanta Swing Orchestra. I'm also working to get myself on the sub list with other jazz bands in Atlanta.
You get into many of these groups by simply hanging around long enough to be the last man standing. Essentially, I'm waiting for someone to quit or leave town. Sometimes I feel like a vulture waiting for a guitar spot to open. For now, I enjoy subbing, and I'm sure that my turn will come.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.