Turk Van Lake Rhythm Guitar Articles from Metronome Magazine 1957-58

Rhythm guitarist Turk Van Lake wrote a series of articles on guitar for "Metronome" magazine in the 1950's. Five of these articles were specifically about rhythm guitar and appeared in July 1957, September 1957, December 1957, February 1958, and June 1958. Here are all five articles, edited for clarification.
- Michael Pettersen May 2004

"Turk Van Lake Discusses Rhythm Guitar" - July 1957

The subject of rhythm guitar comes under great controversy. Players of most instruments other than guitar are inclined to consider rhythm playing old-fashioned. Since the Bop period, tempo has increased, therefore making it increasingly hard for a rhythm player to keep time in 4/4. It may be true in small combos that rhythm guitar is outmoded, but I would like to point out a few facts that might encourage young players not to overlook a very important part of guitar playing.

  1. Count Basie has relied almost exclusively on Freddie Green throughout these many years and Freddie is currently enjoying some of the most successful work in his career.

  2. Barry Galbraith is probably the leading all-round guitarist and is one of the busiest and best sounding players in New York City.

  3. Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt were both excellent soloists as well as rhythm men.

  4. Playing rhythm will sharpen one's sense of time and result in greater scope of music.

  5. The fault of many big bands - past and present - lies in the fact that they rarely use a four man rhythm section, mainly because rhythm guitar is not as audible as a horn. And leaders are too deaf and insensitive to appreciate the real purpose of rhythm guitar, to create a "feel" for the other members of the rhythm section and the band in general.

I feel it is my duty to explain what happens. Many present day electric guitar soloists think it is a waste of time to play rhythm - instead they spend hundreds of hours on single string technique - preferring to play a zillion notes in what I consider "fair time" [average rhythmic feel] instead of gaining rhythmic experience, which would help sift out all the unnecessary notes and give greater strength to a more simple melodic and rhythmic line.

Not one orchestra of the big band swing era was without a rhythm guitar, yet leaders and management today refuse to acknowledge this fact, and try "bringing back the big bands" with trivial, meaningless gimmicks. From Ellington, Lunceford, Goodman, Basie, Shaw, to Herman, the four-man rhythm section prevailed. The stronger the rhythm section, the more conscious the dancers will be of the beat and therefore will be excited inwardly, which will almost necessarily incite and excite them to dance. The musicians in the band will benefit from a stronger pulse and will more accurately observe the dynamics of the music. The entire subject of rhythm guitar is vast. Almost everyone is affected by it even if they don't know it!

A simple approach to rhythm guitar is the concept of a child's see-saw. The idea of balance on both ends is the answer - the guitar being on both ends. When starting to play, don't worry about being heard. The main idea is to be felt. Learn to hear your own instrument before you expect anyone else to hear it. Two other major considerations: string action height and pick type. The distance from the fingerboard to the string should be high. This usually requires a gradual increase in the height depending on left-hand strength and development of calluses. In later columns, it will probably be a good idea to compile the string height of various outstanding players. [Editor's Note: This was never published.] The pick should be fairly large and hard, but flexible enough to give a good tone rather than a rasp.

At present, there is not one piece of literature that deals with the subject of rhythm guitar. It has been left exclusively to the players to discover the techniques involved in rhythm playing. One of the chief purposes of this column will be a full discussion of the guitar in the rhythm section. In the next few months, we expect to reveal a few untold secrets never before in print.

"Turk Van Lake Discusses Rhythm Guitar" - September 1957

For a more detailed look at rhythm guitar, let us analyze the rhythm section and its component parts. It is extremely important for the four members of a rhythm section to have a similar conception of where the beat lies. There is more than one conception of the beat - and certainly most of them swing, but the thing to avoid is mixing these conceptions. It is certainly a very important prerequisite for the players to be matched, i.e., they must have the same conception of where the beat lies. Let us see what each member of the section has to do in order to work well with the others.

The Bass performs two essential duties: keeping time and playing notes that are fundamental to the harmony.

The Rhythm Guitar must play and blend with the Bass. A crisp, muffled sound is preferable to a "stringy" tone because it cuts through better and it blends well. A medium or high string action will produce this sound because it eliminates the buzziness caused by the strings striking the frets if the action is too low. Heavy gauge strings give depth to the sound. A short stroke, using mainly the wrist, will cut down the distance the wrist has to travel and will provide more evenness of the beat. Also, experiment with inside chords (using strings 5, 4, 3, and 2) for mellowness. Guitarists should also observe dynamics. There is absolutely no reason why a rhythm section should not vary its volume just as reeds and brass.

The Drums - key man in the entire group - must also play time and should never play so loud as to destroy the blend between Bass and Guitar. In turn, he should add to the blend and color of any arrangement. There are times when the tune calls for a "kick" or a "bomb", but this choice comes from the required good taste of the drummer. The tuning of the Drums, an art itself, and the choice of cymbals are both pertinent to the sound of the rhythm section.

The Piano is the melody instrument of the section. This does not imply that the Piano cannot or should not strive to blend with what is going on in the rhythm section. Cooperation by all four members can result in the best rhythm section sound and feel. Remember that a good sounding rhythm section requires many hours of concentration, and elimination of anything that "bugs" any player in the section.

Just give a listen to some early recordings of the Count Basie "All-American Rhythm Section", and listen to each player, bearing in mind the blend, the cooperation, the tone, the dynamics, etc.

If all goes well, I will present some advice from several fine rhythm guitarists in the next few columns.

"Turk Van Lake Interviews Rhythm Guitarists" - December 1957

Interview with Griff Howe [Rhythm guitarist for Eddie Grady and the Commanders]

Q. Who were your main influences?
A. Freddie Green and George Van Eps.

Q. How did you achieve your style?
A. The voice leading of Van Eps and the sound of Freddie. I shopped around for the same kind of guitar [as Van Eps and Green], listened to a great many Basie records, used my ear a great deal, and noticed that the guitar sounded like a guitar in the rhythm section.

Q. What gauge of strings do you use?
A. Heaviest gauge.

Q. What is the string action height?
A. Action should be fairly high but not ridiculous. As high as can be comfortably played.

Q. What type of pick do you use?
A. I used to use a triangular shaped pick, but have changed now to a firm, blunt, heavy pick (probably the Allan Reuss model.)

Q. What is the future of rhythm guitar?
A. One can't gauge it by dance bands - they are not a real indication. There is at least one rhythm guitar on practically each record date and the recording companies wouldn't spend money unnecessarily. The meatest argument is the fact that the best work requires this type of guitar playing.

Q. What is the rhythm guitar's role in the rhythm section?
A. The guitar is not merely a time beater like a drum, but gives the section harmonic flavor and an even flow of harmony in the orchestra - rich sound instead of a dry thump. There is no musical sound in the rhythm section without rhythm guitar.

Q. What advice can you offer to young guitarists regarding playing rhythm?
A. There is definitely a revival due to Freddie Green. Consider the chord system employed by George Van Eps as the easiest approach. By becoming familiar with that approach the chord changes can be made more rational - with good voice leading. The ordinary chord books are not too good. Van Eps has written the best exercises. The amount of notes is not important - 3 or 4 are sometimes better than 6 string chords. This way the guitar is contributing the notes that are missing in the orchestra. Try to get a Braille feeling when trying to get the sound you want. [Editors' note: Mirek Patek sent an email to http://www.freddiegreen.org offering this insightful comment: "I think what is meant by "Braille feeling" is the use of lighter pressure on the strings. (Braille was developed as an alphabet for blind people, who read it by lightly touching the surface with embossed dots.) In other words, use three note voicings but press lightly on some strings. This technique is exactly what Mark Allen describes in his DCMN article". ]

Playing time is continually interesting and more intangible than playing a lot of notes on the electric guitar. It is mysterious and makes any band sound better. Recently, a bandleader wanted to cut guitar from his orchestra, leaving the piano. But he heard the guitar in the rhythm section all the time, and only heard a few plunks from the piano. So he kept the guitar and dropped the piano because he got the sound he wanted. This same leader used kids who couldn't play rhythm guitar on an electric instrument, and finally had a player buy an acoustical guitar.

Interview with Steve Jordan [Rhythm guitarist for Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and others]

Q. Who was your main influence?
A. Allan Reuss. He was teaching after he left Benny Goodman around 1939.

Q. How did you achieve your style?
A. Listening to records and trying to duplicate the sound that attracted me, plus a great deal of practice.

Q. What gauge of strings do you use?
A. Heavy bronze strings.

Q. What is the string action height?
A. Action should be high enough for a loud rhythm section sound.

Q. How do you use the pick?
A. The pick should be controlled by wrist action. Never attack the strings, merely push the point of the pick across the strings.

Q. What is the future of rhythm guitar?
A. I hope it gets good. It is going down the drain. How many gigs can Freddie Green get? Most Broadway shows don't use it because of the banjo. Name bands are out because they go for piano. Electric guitar seems to be more important. I would like to see it come back. A band is not loose enough without rhythm guitar. Although Duke Ellington says that a rhythm guitar would restrict him.

Q. What is the rhythm guitar's role in the rhythm section?
A. Listen to the drums and bass. Use open voicings and get a good instrument.

Q. What advice can you offer to young guitarists regarding playing rhythm?
A. Electric guitar is very important. Practice virtuosity and sight reading. Single string playing is where most of the work is. Have two guitars. One for rhythm and one for single string. Nothing is as good to hear as a good rhythm section. I still have great faith as is evident in the fact that I still do not own an amplifier.

"Turk Van Lake Interviews Rhythm Guitarists" - February 1958

Interview with Barry Galbraith

It was my extreme pleasure to visit with Barry Galbraith at a recent recording session. I took the opportunity to ask a few questions that are pertinent to my recent series of discussions concerning the merits of learning to play rhythm guitar. Barry plays both electric and rhythm guitar which puts him in the top class of all-around players.

Q. Who were your main influences?
A. Freddie Green and George Van Eps.

Q. How did you achieve your style?
A. Playing with Basie records helped a great deal.

Q. Does rhythm guitar help in other fields of guitar playing?
A. All aspects of an instrument must be studied. Gaps [in technique] are being bridged by newcomers. It is the evolution of playing that the new generation absorbs [the techniques] of the previous [generation], so that newcomers should not have any trouble playing both rhythm guitar and electric guitar. You should be a complete player of an instrument that has so many facets.

Q. What gauge strings do you use?
A. Heavy gauge.

Q. What is the string action height?
A. The height of the action depends on each instance, on each type of performance.

Q. What type of pick do you use?
A. A hard pick about one inch long and 3/4 inch wide.

Q. Do you recommend any special set of chords for rhythm playing?
A. For jump tunes, use chords on the inside strings and use no more than three strings. For ballads, use chords on the inside strings and use no more than four strings.

Q. What is your approach to blending in the rhythm section?
A. I think of the guitar as the top part of the bass.

Q. What is your advice to young guitarists on playing rhythm?
A. Rhythm guitar is one of the fundamentals of guitar playing and performs an important function in the band. It should not be considered unimportant. Pupils of mine who played good electric guitar, but never played rhythm, have found tremendous satisfaction in playing rhythm and have a new respect for it.
All of us can benefit by the astute observations made by Barry Galbraith. He has great perception that goes deep into the heart of the matter. I hope to have a similar talk with the master - Freddie Green - for a future column. [Editor's note: Alas, no such interview ever appeared.]

"Turk Van Lake Views Commercial Rhythm Guitar" - June 1958

Commercial playing (having financial profit as the primary aim) forces a sacrifice of musical taste and feeling in order to conform to the dictates of leaders, contractors, A & R men, and the like. Now jazz is played for money, too, but if a player wants more than a bare, uncertain existence, he must, as a requisite for commercial rhythm playing, try hard not to swing, or at least not try too hard. Commercial rhythm playing requires more of a stiff, tight, and unemotional beat. The sound is almost always stringy and scratchy, and fewer chord inversions are used than are used for jazz rhythm guitar.

In observing the good jazz rhythm player, notice that the right hand wrist will move from left to right over a span of four to five inches. Commercial rhythm players, who are composed mainly of electric guitarists, are "handicapped". They have spent so many hours perfecting the technique of the up-stroke that they have economized their wrist movement (and rightfully so) for their goal. The wrist of electric players is confined to almost a straight up and down stroke, resulting in a tight sound and feel.

One only has to listen to second-grade vocalists on recordings by all companies and, if the rhythm section can be heard at all, notice the sound and feel of the guitar. Occasionally, a good rhythm player will get this type of assignment, but it is only because the regular players have other commitments.

I would like to assure the readers that this article is not intended as an insult or slander. I am merely trying to draw a comparison by analysis. There are many wonderfully talented players both in jazz and in the commercial field. Each player has chosen his direction by choice or by necessity, and all deserve to be complimented. It is my purpose to help clarify the situation to newcomers and leave the rest to personal choice. Remember there are some wonderful rhythm guitar players who really cannot play a good electric solo! [Editor's note: I would place Freddie Green in this category.]

Editor's Postscript: This was the last Turk Van Lake column published by Metronome. Not surprising based on the author's bitter tone.

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