Great Guitarists #10: Mary Osborne

In this, the tenth installment of my Great Guitarists series, I’m a little ashamed to say we have only looked at male guitar players so far. So, to round off my first ‘dectet’ of influential guitar players (and keeping in a jazz theme, like the previous installments), let me introduce to you Mary Osborne…

Picture Credit: Gretsch, 1959

Osborne was born into a musical family in North Dakota, 1921. Both her parents were musicians and her father’s barbershop was a known gathering place for local players. Already playing live by the time she was a teenager, Osborne was influenced by the playing of early jazz pioneers Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. However, it was Charlie Christian who first captivated her, and mentored her for a while, fine tuning her great sense of swing.

Osborne’s career ranged from trios (her own, and the Winifred McDonnell Trio near the start of her professional career), as well as some work as a sideman (or sidewoman) for the likes of Buddy Rogers, Joe Venuti (whose act included vocalists Kay Starr and The Andrews Sisters), amog many others. In the first of two spells in New York, she was the guitarist in Minton’s house band, where bebop was invented during the jams the legends of jazz had there. Her career continued throughout her life, and she was still performing live up until her death in 1992, at the age of seventy.

Osborne (R), with Billie Holiday (L), 1958. Picture Credit: Nancy Miller Elliot

Equipment

Osborne purchased the same model of Gibson archtop that Charlie Christian played – the ES-150, an early version of the classic archtop ‘jazz boxes’ we know and love today. It came with a large spruce body and a single-coil pickup near the neck, itself containing a large magnet that helped deliver good definition and attack. She later played other guitars by Gibson, as well as models by Gretsch, such as the White Falcon. In the 1970’s, Osborne founded her own guitar company, Osborne Sound Laboratories, formed from the ashes of the Mosrite Guitar Company (whom her husband had worked for at the end of the 1960’s). Osborne Sound Laboratories made amplifiers personally tested by Mary herself, as well as a selection if interesting instruments (including funky looking solid bodies such as in the picture below). Sadly, they couldn’t penetrate the market due to the dominance of the big manufactures, such as Fender (despite their well-known quality issues in this decade) and the company folded in 1980.

Osborne Sound Laboratories guitars from the 1970’s. Picture Credit: VintageGuitar.com

Recommended listening

Osborne’s 1959 LP A Girl And Her Guitar (Warwick) stands testament to her talents in a golden era for jazz guitar. Her later record Now And Then (Stash, 1981) shows a player who survived longer than most of her contemporaries, and continued to play beautifully.

Also, check out The Mighty Two (1963, Roulette), an LP by the two legendary drummers Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa. Although this was conceived as an instructional album for budding drummers, several tracks feature six musicians accompanying both drummers through nine of the songs on the record. As well as featuring Osborne on guitar, you can hear Milt Hinton (bass), Joe Wilder and Joe Newman (trumpet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Dick Hymen (piano) and Tyree Glenn (trombone) – something of a who’s who in sidemen for the time. The ensemble playing is tight, and the entire LP is a unique artefact of jazz history.

Examples of using intervals in guitar playing, part 2: fourths and fifths

Welcome back to this overview of intervals in guitar playing! In part one, we looked at thirds, sixths and tenths. In this follow up article, we will be taking a brief look at fourths and fifths. Both of these intervals can be used more ambiguously, as they remain the same in the context of a major or minor chord (when sticking to notes in diatonic scale, at least – more on that later). Because of this fact, they can utilized in slightly different ways to the tones they sit alongside in common scales. Let’s take a look…

Fourths

Fretting the two highest strings together at the same fret creates this classic double stop, which can be heard all over rock’n’roll, but famously in the intro and solo for Chuck Berry’s Jonny B. Goode. Berry developed this style so he could recreate horn lines, as his live band was a smaller ensemble than many bands of the time (which would typically have more than one sax, trumpet, trombone, among other brass instruments). Every rock guitarist that followed has used phrases first made famous by Berry, from Angus Young to George Harrison. It is also a useful interval for slide guitar playing as it can be used over major and minor chords alike (you can see an example of me playing 4ths with a slide on this cover video of a well-known song).

In jazz, Wes Montgomery pioneered the use of stacked fourths, creating chord-based solos using 4th intervals on top of each other (for example, one chord would sound, low to high, as A, D, G, C), and the shape would move in line with the melody. George Benson kept up this tradition, but would also regularly employ diads (two notes played together) of 4ths in his lightning-fast solos.

Fifths

A fifth is an inversion of a fourth, and vice versa. Here, the strict definition can become blurred – think of the intro to the Deep Purple song Smoke On The Water and you’ll hear diads playing the entire riff in what sound like fourths (eg, the first pair of notes is a D, then a G on top). However, since the melody is following the G minor pentatonic scale (as the song is in the key of G minor), I’d argue that this riff is an inverted fifth (D being the perfect fifth of G), as the melody note is higher than the harmony note.

In rhythm guitar, a root and fifth creates the classic power chord heard in most varieties of rock music. Alternating the fifth with a sixth, and moving back and forth between the two, gives the famous (almost cliché) rocking riff used by artists from Chuck Berry to Status Quo and beyond.

Variations on ‘perfect’

The intervals we have discussed above – using the fourth and fifth notes in a diatonic scale, create what is known as perfect fourth / fifth. However, as with any note, we can raise or lower it’s pitch by a semitone for a new musical sound. Flat fourths & fifths are both referred to as diminished (and of course be found in diminished chords and scales). Raised ones are called augmented. As a fourth and fifth are only a tone apart, a diminished fifth is exactly the same thing as an augmented fourth – just in case you were confused!

Apart from being the famous Devil’s chord (famously used on the Black Sabbath song Black Sabbath), this interval often occurs in Blues-based music. The Pentatonic Blues Scale is based on intervals of R, b3, 4, #4, (or b5), and b7. Likewise, in dominant seventh chords (for example, C7), the natural interval between the chord’s major third (E) and flat seventh (Bb) is a diminished fifth/augmented fourth. Highlighting these notes over these chords creates a wonderful effect without having to overthink your playing too much!

Finally…

There are a few intervals we haven’t covered in these two articles. Off the top of my head, these would be seconds, sevenths, octaves and extended intervals used in jazz chords and arpeggios, such as ninths, elevenths and thirteenths. I plan to look at octave-based playing in a future article, because it is a staple of my own guitar heroes, such as the great Wes Montgomery. However, if you’d like me to look into some of the other intervals (such as sevenths, which is a really useful colour tone in jazz), do let me know!

Examples of using intervals in guitar playing, part 1: thirds, sixths and tenths

Single line lead guitar playing is great. But when you have six strings and four fingers to hold them down, why limit your playing to one note at a time? Throughout the history of guitar, players have used two notes (or more) at once, resulting in something halfway between a single note line and a full guitar chord. We do this for a few reasons:

  • It adds depth (useful in trio settings, for example)
  • To create a certain feel (which we will touch upon below)
  • To imply a chord through highlighting certain scale tones
  • To make certain phrases stand out

What is an interval?

An interval is he distance between two notes, in terms of pitch. Thinking of the C major scale (visualize the white keys on a piano), the root note (C) is 1, and the next note (D) is therefore 2, so the interval between C and D is known as a 2nd. More specifically, it is called a major 2nd because it is a whole tone away from C (whereas Db, only a semitone higher, is known as a minor 2nd). The next note in the C major scale would be E, which is called a major third (and Eb is the minor 3rd). I won’t bog us down in theory for this article, but if you need a more in-depth explanation, check out this video from Victoria Williams of mymusictheory.com.

It’s possible to use any interval when playing, especially lead lines. However, some are more effective than others. In this article, I’m going to stick to three types of interval: thirds, sixths and tenths, along with a few well-known examples in music. Go give some of these a listen and see if you can spot the intervals in use.

Thirds

Common in any music with a Spanish in Latin twist, particularly on acoustic guitar. Try going up and down a major scale by playing each note with another note ‘two places higher’ in the scale on the next string up. For example, starting with a C by fretting the G string at the fifth fret, you ‘think up two notes’, skipping D, and playing E by fretting the B string at the fifth fret. The next note in the scale (D) would be played at the same time as F. Going up the fret board/scale, the notes should match up above each other like this:

  • EFGABCDE (thirds)
  • CDEFGABC (base notes of the C major scale)
Picture Credit: GUITARHABITS.com

Check out this useful video by Pete Farrugia, which covers thirds and sixths in greater detail (see below).

It is also the most commonly used interval for twin guitar harmonies, such as:

  • Thin Lizzy – The Boys Are Back In Town (recurring twin lead line after the choruses)
  • The Eagles – Hotel California (harmony lines at the very end, during fade-out)

Sixths

One of my personal favourites, which I use a lot in my guitar playing. Sixths are essentially an inverted third, where the base note (eg, C) is played highest (such as one the E string at the 8th fret), while the harmony note (E or Eb) is played two strings lower (in this case, the G string, at the 9th fret for E, or the 8th fret for Eb).

Picture Credit: NZMusician.com

They can highlight major and minor chords, and sound great when you slide into them up and down the scales you’re using, as well as chromatically (think of the stereotypical blues ‘ending’). They’re great for soul playing too, implying a chord or scale with only two notes (as with tenths – see below). I’m not alone in this – examples exist across the various genres that the guitar is used for, including:

  • Steve Cropper’s guitar intro to the classic Sam & Dave song Soul Man
  • Chuck Berry on the intro to You Never Can Tell

Steve Cropper’s guitar playing uses this time and time again, on many classic recordings from Otis Redding to The Blues Brothers. He had a knack for finding the right guitar line that complimented the songs he played on, without overpowering them, and rightly deserves his own article looking into his style in greater detail (watch this space)!

Tenths

Tenths are essentially thirds, but with an additional octave between the two notes. This has the interesting effect of creating the impression of a chord, while still leaving a sense of space. It is the interval used in the opening phrase of the well-known classical guitar standard Lagrima. Here’s a chart to demonstrate where the tenth harmony for Bb (played alongside a D, two notes then one additional octave higher) across the guitar fretboard:

Picture Credit: PlayTheAxe.com

There has been a few examples of this in big singles recently. In each case, t tenths are used for the main guitar park in the songs:

  • Scar Tissue by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers
  • Love Yourself by Justin Bieber
  • Hold Back The River by James Bay

Tenths are also used in jazz. They provide a nice open-sounding stretch which is easy to play on guitar; they implied the chordal harmony while still leaving space for other instruments.

In summary

One thing that all three of these interval types have in common is their ability to reflect a major or minor chord. I think of them as the same interval, using a base note of C as an example again:

  • Third: C, played with an E (2 tones higher)
  • Sixth: An inverted third; C is played with an E a sixth lower (4 tones)
  • Tenth: A third, plus one additional octave between both notes; C, plus E (8 tones higher)

Each has it’s own feel and characteristic, and they are not always as interchangeable as you might think. Try playing around with them, across major and minor scales, then in your solos, and let me know how you get on!

Coming next: Part two of this subject will focus on intervals which can utilised over major and minor chords – fourths and fifths.

Why is there so much poetry in my blogs now?

You might have noticed that recent posts have featured poems (especially Haiku) rather than my usual guitar or music-related topics. Well, you don’t have to worry about this site turning away from it’s main focus. For one thing, my efforts aren’t very good!

Yet, in these uncertain times, I find myself composing small poems in my head and decided to try and write more of them down. I also recalled previous advice about writing one Haiku per day, in order to become better at distilling an idea into a short, succinct form. Now seemed as good of a time as any to put some of my poems out into the world, from those celebrating recent guitar purchases, or the bizarre thoughts that strike me while out walking. There were also a few other reasons, such as…

I’m not performing live at the moment

Due to COVID19, almost no one is gigging at the moment. Since March, I have managed one socially distanced gig in a garden with the Nick Gladdish Band, but otherwise have found myself with more free time on my hands, particularly on weekend evenings. All future gigs and musical projects are postponed. Also, not having much means (or space) to embark on live streaming or recording projects from home, I found my creative juices were becoming pent up, and seem to have manifested themselves via written ideas, rather than musical ones.

I decided not to be embarrassed about my poems any more

I recently discovered that a good friend has a passion for a very niche form of short story writing, which was as pleasing to learn as it was unexpected. The fact that I was happy for my friend made me realise that I shouldn’t have any shame in putting my own silly little rhymes and Haiku out into the world.

I enjoy writing them

Surely that’s the most important thing? I mentioned in my recent post about using the recent lockdown as a reminder to do the things you enjoy, when you can. For me, this is one of those things. Like a Sudoku, they serve to keep my sharp, in a creative sense, until I can start rehearsing my own musical compositions and playing gigs again.

This blog will still continue to be about guitar. music, music therapy and all sorts of arts-related subjects. Writing these articles are another way of channeling my creative urges, and if someone learns a little extra knowledge as a result, fantastic. In time, I will start to announce new tours, projects, albums, etc, as they start to emerge from our cultural hibernation – but expect to see the odd poem thrown in there as well, from time to time!