Recorded Telephone Interview of John "Bucky" Pizzarelli
Date: July 6, 2006
Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli turned eighty years young in 2006 and continues to play superbly with skill, grace, and swing. Bucky has been a fixture in jazz and the studios since the early 1950s. He has performed with musical legends worldwide including Stephane Grappelli, Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Vaughan Monroe, Les Elgart, Larry Elgart, Doc Severinson, and future jazz legends such as violinist Aaron Weinstein and pianist Tony DeSare.
Bucky's extraordinary skill as a rhythm player places him in the league of legendary rhythm guitarists like Freddie Green, Allan Reuss, George Van Eps, and Barry Galbraith. He has written jazz guitar instructional books and passed along his musical talent to guitarist/singer son, John Pizzarelli, and bassist son, Martin Pizzarelli. Also he is a Faculty Member Emeritus of William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey.
My sincere gratitude to Bucky, friendly and full of joy and laughter, for sharing his thoughts about rhythm guitar and his memories of Freddie.
Note: The text below is an edited version of the recorded interview.
On Freddie Green
There was only one Freddie Green.
Freddie played with so many different people. He probably made more records than any guitar player in the business.
When I was learning to play, I listened to Freddie on Basie records. Rhythm guitar was widely used in big bands then. I'd say to myself "How do these guys do it? How do they make the guitar heard in a big band?" As I was growing up, I heard most of the rhythm guitarists and would think "This guy's doing it right and this guy's doing it wrong." Most guys were playing boom-chink-boom-chink, but Freddie was going boom-boom-boom-boom. He played an even four.
Freddie's guitar is constant...all the time...like a pulse. When you hear the rhythm guitar with Basie, it gives the chart a lift and sets up the whole band for when the brass come in.
You can't explain why Freddie sounded like Freddie. You could take the top ten guitar players in New York and have Freddie explain to them how he played, and still none would sound like Freddie. Turk van Lake tried to sound like Freddie and so did Sam Herman; Sam eventually became a music copyist. But no one sounded like Freddie.
Freddie Green played one-note rhythm chords way before anyone else. On my Freddie Green tribute CD, I play a lot of one-note rhythm chords. I finger a three note chord but only let one note sound, typically the D string. I always finger a chord form but you only hear one note. I press down hard only on one string. The other strings are muted. The other two fingered, but muted, strings will have a pitch because of the chord formation - like ghost notes. That's all it is. Effective rhythm chords can't have many notes. For example, if I play a bar chord G7 at the third fret, I get three G's. I don't need them - there are too many! By the time I hit the highest G, the beat has passed. So I just thump away on the lower strings when I play rhythm guitar. Most of the time you will only hear the D string. I remember at one recording session I played a D7 and hit all the notes. The arranger heard the A in the bass and said "Don't do that!" So I started to use one-note rhythm chords soon after that.
Freddie and I knew each other, but we weren't close friends. I heard him play many times and he heard me play, too. Basie was on The Tonight Show several times and played with the band; I sat right next to him. I'd also see Freddie at concerts where two or three bands would be on the bill, like during the JVC Jazz Fest in New York. Once I was playing with Dizzy and Benny Carter; the Basie band was also on the bill. Backstage, Freddie was sitting next to Count Basie. Freddie gave me a smile because I had an electric seven-string Gretsch at the time and he played an acoustic Gretsch. But man, was his string action way up there!
The final time I spoke to Freddie was in Switzerland. Don Lamond was the drummer with me and we saw Freddie backstage. Freddie said to Don, "Are you still thumpin'?" Don replied, "Yeah. I'm playing with Bucky and his son, John." Freddie said, "How about playing with us?" So Don played a whole set with the Basie All-Stars.
Freddie never said much and he never shared any playing tips with me. Once when I asked him how he learned to play rhythm guitar, he answered, "It took a long time."
On "Five For Freddie" - Bucky's tribute CD for Freddie Green
My new CD will be released in late 2006 on Arbors Records. The recording took two days - May 31 and June 1. We didn't use written arrangements - just lead sheets . We recorded at Nola Studios in New York City. The other guys were John Bunch on piano, Mickey Roker on drums, Jay Leonhart on bass, and Warren Vache on cornet.
Acoustic rhythm guitar is rarely used on records anymore. The whole idea for this CD was to have the rhythm guitar prominent. Now I don't play exactly the way Freddie did but I can do a pretty good imitation. The rhythm guitar is easy to hear in the final mix, just like we all wish Freddie had been recorded. Unlike Freddie, I also took a few solos, but I tried to play like him when I soloed.
For the session I put big heavy strings on my Epiphone Deluxe and as soon as the session was over, I took them off! My fingers were hurting. I like to play the guitar around the house but I can't do it with those big strings. But they do the job with a band!
Five of the tunes we recorded were written by Freddie: "Corner Pocket", "Up In The Blues", "Down For Double", "Bustin' Suds", and "High Tide." The other tunes were either Basie favorites and swing favorites of the band. "Groovin' High" is a tip of the hat to Dizzy and it has a lot of space in it. And when there is space you hear the rhythm guitar.
On Rhythm Guitar
My uncle, Bobby Dominick, played with big bands, like Buddy Rogers, Clyde McCoy, Bob Chester. He made a record called "Octave Jump" playing an acoustic Gibson Super 400. He also had a sensational Epiphone Emperor. He didn't play electric in those days. Bobby was a good rhythm player. Whenever he came off the road, he'd show me things that he learned from the best rhythm players he met while traveling. I was lucky to have that first-hand information given to me, where other guys would take three or four years to figure out how to do something on guitar.
My uncle used to give me tortoise shell picks. They sounded so good, but you couldn't play single string with them. They were very thick and made the guitar really speak. They went well with a Stromberg guitar, though I never owned one. Mundell Lowe let me use one when I was with Vaughan Monroe. He didn't like it because its sound was so deep. I used it for several weeks. It looked good - blonde and big. But sounded tubby. I didn't know how to handle it! Single notes sounded like a bass guitar. And I had to lay it down like Freddie in order to play it. It was so big I could not get my right arm around it.
I had a D'Angelico that was a copy of the Gibson L-5. I bought it from George Barnes years ago. It's a real beauty. Right now, I've got five nice rhythm guitars, including a Gibson L-5.
In a big band, I had to play rhythm guitar without a mic in front of me and without an amp. I never played electric rhythm - that was a no-no in a big band. Electric rhythm is awful. The band wants to kill you. During the big band days, it was a big deal just to play good rhythm guitar. Sometimes I listen to the Vaughan Monroe records that I played on and I'll think "Well, I did that OK, but I didn't do so well on that." I'm very critical of my own playing.
I once played a trio gig, guitar-bass-drums, for a party in honor of Willard Alexander, the booking agent. It was memorable because Bill Basie was there, listening intently to the music, and told me how much he like the trio. Basie loved guitar.
If rhythm guitar is left out, you miss the after-beat. You hear boom and you don't hear a chink after it. That's why some records don't sound good. Without the guitar, they don't swing. Listen to Frank Sinatra records - there is always a guitar in there. George Van Eps played a lot of those sessions and they sound sensational. And Allan Reuss played Sinatra sessions. Mitch Miller produced some of these sessions and said that Allan would often sneak in a little closer to the microphone during the actual take so that the guitar would be heard better on the recording. Good idea! When I was in Los Angeles, I tried to get a lesson with Allan Reuss but he wasn't available when I could make time. He was a great rhythm player. His time was perfect. Allan was a student of Van Eps and got the rhythm guitar chair with Benny Goodman when Van Eps gave it up.
Of course I listened to George Van Eps and studied his style. When I play chord solos, I use mostly three note chords and have one unused finger to add other notes. This is the method developed and perfected by Van Eps.
Rhythm guitar was very important during the 1950's, particularly for sessions run by Mitch Miller. There was a church with great acoustics on 30th Street in New York City that was used for a recording studio. When you hit the guitar there, it sounded all over the place. It was a huge sound. Les Elgart made all his records there. I made the first records with Les and then Barry Galbraith took over on guitar. I played on "Heart of my Heart." I was on the biggest hit for Les and you can't hear me! I made another nice record with Larry Elgart. The tune was "More Than You Know." We recorded it at Rudy Van Gelder's place. Believe it or not, I used my right thumb instead of a pick. It gave the right balance to the after-beat, a nice soft sound.
Barry Galbraith was a super, super player. Now Barry Galbraith did not play one-note rhythm chords. Most of the time with Barry you heard three or four notes. His chords were always beautiful and voiced properly. I never figured out how he played those great chords. Another great rhythm player was Zeb Julian, who could also play finger-style guitar. I first heard Zeb when I was in high school.
If you are a guitar player, you have to know how to play rhythm first. You're playing rhythm most of the time. Play a Broadway show, and you're playing rhythm. Single lines are secondary. The whole thing is to get the right rhythm sound. So many young players now don't own a rhythm guitar. They don't even know what one looks like!