About Me

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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 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Just a Shell

Last night, I subbed in a rehearsal with the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I jump at the chance to play with any big band. I love the music, and I enjoy playing big band rhythm guitar. The guitarist rarely plays a solo in a big band. You are usually a cog in the rhythm section. The bass plays the low notes, while the piano often plays high notes and fills in the gaps when the horns aren't playing. The drummer drives the band. The guitar usually plays strict quarter notes in the middle register. When I'm playing in a big band, I try to lock in with the hi-hat and the bass. Listeners might not notice you in the mix, but they'll notice if you drop out.

When you play with a big band, you usually don't play full chords like a folk guitarist might, and instead of letting the notes ring, you usually cut the chords short by releasing the notes with your fret hand in a constant pumping action. I've been working on "shell voicings." In jazz, there are usually two notes that really define the chord: the 3rd and the 7th. Other parts of the chord add a certain amount of color, and it's usually the pianist's job to add the "extra" notes. In laymen's terms, this means that, when you play shell voicings, you reduce the chords to just two notes. This takes a while to get used to. Most guitarists can automatically play full chord shapes, but it takes a certain amount of theoretical knowledge, fretboard knowledge, and practice to isolate the two fingers that are playing the "essential" notes.

Last night was a great opportunity to practice playing shell voicings in big band parts. I was pleased with how I did. The Sentimental Journey Orchestra's regular guitarist is out of town for the next few weeks, so I'll be subbing quite a bit, having a blast playing with a good big band and practicing my shell voicings.

The master of big band guitar playing was Freddie Green, who played with the Count Basie Orchestra. Acting as a human metronome to help drive the Basie band, Freddie Green played strict quarter notes and played nothing but 3-note chords and shell voicings. I read a quote somewhere describing Freddie Green as the greatest guitarist to never take a solo.

To get an idea of what a master big band guitarist sounds like, here are a couple videos to enjoy. Corner Pocket, featuring the entire Count Basie Orchestra, was written by Freddie Green. Listen for Freddie's unmistakeable, unwavering pulse as he backs up the band. I Don't Know features the Basie rhythm section and gives you a more close up view of Freddie's playing.



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