Great Guitarists #9: Grant Green

Great Guitarists

Welcome back to the Great Guitarists series. We’re continuing along a jazz theme for now, with a sometimes underrated master of understated single line guitar soloing…

Grant Green

Green was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1935, and died in 1979, aged just 43. In his all-too-short career, he played on hundreds of records, including numerous solo titles – almost thirty cuts for Blue Note Records alone. Many of these were played as part of an organ trio (organ, guitar, drums) in a style known as Soul Jazz. This style was sometimes sniffed at by jazz purists, but has since gone on to be something of a cherished gem, and ripe pickings for sampling, especially in hip ho and acid jazz (Read Jorge Cervera’s defence of Grant Green and soul jazz here).

Although less well known than some of his contemporaries, such as Wes Montgomery, his friend George Benson and his main guitar influence Charlie Christian, Green nonetheless possessed a highly recognisable guitar sound, which can be heard in the playing of many guitarists today, myself included. Indeed, his mix of blues, soul and hard bop licks over a funky back beat has become the quintessential sound of upbeat jazz guitar playing.

Equipment and guitar sound

Green most famously used a Gibson ES-330, which is essentially the same shape as the brand’s better-known 335, but with P90 single coil pickups (not unlike an Epiphone Casino). Later on in his career, he played a Gibson L7, Epiphone Emperor and custom-made D’Aquisto guitars, all of which featured similar P90 style pickups. This type of pickup was one of the first kinds added to hollowbody guitars, and Green obviously enjoyed the full, clear sound they provided.

Interestingly, for a guitar player known for his fluid single line style, Green was known to roll the treble and bass entirely off on his amplifiers, to better emphasise the midrange for more bite and attack in his tone – try it with a P90 neck pickup, and see if you can recreate Green’s sound!

Essential listening

Idle Moments (1963) is a great place to start. It’s a slow, contemplative masterclass in cool jazz guitar,and one of my favourite jazz guitar records, along with Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell (more about that here).

There’s a couple of good options for live cuts, but the recently released collection Funk in France, From Paris to Antibes (1969-1970) (2018, Resonance) captures Green at his best. A few of the tracks see the trio lineup complimented by none other than the legendary Barney Kessel, which makes it essential listening for me!

It’s also worth seeking out some of Greenvs funkier efforts, such as… He also made an interesting album of Latin music (The Latin Bit from 1963, on Blue Note again), in which the main theme (the ‘heads’) were played in the usual samba or bossa nova style, but the solos are swung – give it a listen and make of it what you will!

As a sideman, he played on hundreds of recording sessions. Among my personal favourites are Herbie Hancock’s My Point Of View (1963, Blue Note) and Art Blakey’s Hold On I’m Coming (1966, Limelight). However, each record in Green’s expansive discography features great playing and lead lines that we guitarists would benefit from adding to our repertoire!

Just as Green (and countless other great jazz guitarists) did with Charlie Christian’s recordings, listen, learn, then find a way of making it your own…

Ten albums which helped shape me as a guitarist

Music

I was recently tagged in a Facebook challenge by my friend David, in which you post 10 albums which have informed your early musical tastes.

I find things like this almost impossible. It’s so personal, but based on hundreds of musical memories. How do you select just ten LPs from years of discovering & listening to new music? So I made my criteria a little more specific, and chose ten records which, as well as being ones I listened to frequently, also served as early influences on my guitar playing & songwriting.

Because I’m focusing on my earliest influences, this list looks rather narrow. I’d like to think that my guitar playing influences, as well as my music listening tastes, are much more eclectic than this list would imply. But then, these are my earliest influences, rather than the wider world of music that these albums (and countless others not in this list) opened up to me.

In some cases I chose a favourite album by artists who could have filled a ‘top ten’ list all by themselves. I also decided to omit quite a few 90s choices which were heavy-rotation at the time, but didn’t accompany my out of the 90s, so to speak…

And because I’m looking at albums, I’ve not included any classical or folk pieces. Although they were a huge part of what I was playing on the guitar back then, just as now, I learned these pieces individually, rather than via any one particular LP – perhaps that’s a separate list of its own for a future post…

Likewise, jazz was a genre I started digging deeper into in my very late teens, so they while it has certainly influenced my playing, it didn’t happen until later. As such, only one jazz record makes an appearance on this particular list.

So what you see below is perhaps better catogorised as ten rock & pop albums which had a lasting influence on my guitar playing. Also, because it was really tricky narrowing down to just 10 choices, I’ve included a few contenders which nearly made the cut.

Strangely, some significant guitar influences don’t appear in these picks, for various reasons – not least because 10 albums isn’t enough! I think it’s because I view some guitar player’s work over their whole career (or live performances), rather than limited to just one record.

Anyway, here they are. The list is (very loosely) organised by chronology of when I discovered them, where my memory makes that possible. Enjoy!

The Shadows – 20 Golden Greats (1977)

The album that started it all. I was six years old and going through the ‘tennis racket guitar’ phase. My Dad suggested I listen to some “proper guitar music” and player this album to me (on cassette, naturally). There was no turning back. That famous clean Stratocaster tone was under my skin.

As I reached my teenage years I soon learned that The Shadows & their legendary lead guitarist Hank Marvin were far from fashionable, and I expect many young players may never have even heard of them. But one way or another, the landscape of popular music would be very different without their influence.

The Moody Blues – In Search of the Lost Chord (1968)

My father is to blame for this one too. He has all seven of the ‘classic’ Moodies albums (from 1967-72), and any one of them could have been chosen for inclusion here. Why Lost Chord? It best represents the mix of influences on my playing, featuring both fantastic acoustic & electric guitar work, as well as an abundance of non-rock instrumentation like sitar, flute and some of the best played mellotron in the history of popular music (it was this band’s keyboard player, Mike Pinder, who introduced the instrument to The Beatles).

Another element I’ve always enjoyed in the music of The Moody Blues is that they were a five-piece band with four singers. They divided up lead vocal duties equally, and performed some beautiful harmony arrangements. Meanwhile, the drummer (the only non-vocalist) wrote poetry which the band performed as spoken word on each album. Sometimes a little dated, but very experimental & extremely fun.

Close contenders: ‘Days of Future Passed’ (1967), ‘On the Threshold of a Dream’ (1969), ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ (1969), ‘Question of Balance’ (1970), ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ (1971) & ‘Seventh Sojourn’ (1972), all by The Moody Blues

The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)

Of course The Beatles feature on this list. I chose this LP above some of their other groundbreaking albums (particularly the studio-bound later records) for two reasons. Firstly, the suite of sings which takes up most of side two of the record. Secondly, it features two of George Harrison’s best songs, Something & Here Comes The Sun.

Close contenders: ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967) by The Beatles & ‘Pet Sounds’ (1966) by The Beach Boys

Blur – The Great Escape (1995)

Blur were always more than just a Britpop band. Their music had an air of adventure & experimentalism that simply wasn’t present in the work of their contemporaries. This album shows how observational pop songs could still have a grungy & left field edge to them. As well as this, guitarist Graham Coxon has left his mark on my approach to creating parts in a band with only one guitar player (and no keyboards for the most part) that go beyond the obvious but still fit the tunes perfectly.

Close contenders: Blur’s preceding album ‘Parklife’ (1994) & ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’ (1998) by The Bluetones

Deep Purple – Machine Head (1972)

This album’s most famous song (Smoke On The Water) tells the story of its own creation. It is also my least favourite track on this LP, most likely due to over-saturation (are you allowed to play it in guitar shops yet?) bit there’s riffs & solos aplenty on this gem. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore undoubtedly influenced my early soloing style. I loved how his tone was almost clean, unlike every guitar player who followed in his wake. His single-note slide playing has also had on effect on the melodic approach I try to employ in my lap steel playing.

Close contenders: Aerosmith‘s ‘Toys in the Attic’ (1975) & ‘Back in Black’ (1980) by AC/DC

Gomez – Liquid Skin (1999)

Their debut album Bring It On won Gomez that year’s Mercury Music Award. This was their follow up, released the following year. Both albums are of a similar vein (coming so close together). I chose this one because I think I ever so slightly prefer the songs on this one. Alternative, inventive, experimental, but still melodic. And like the Moody Blues and The Beatles, this group had several leas singers and performed some sublime vocal harmonies.

Close contenders: ‘Bring It On’ (1998) by Gomez & ‘K’ (1996) by Kula Shaker

Sam & Dave – The Best of Sam & Dave (1969)

Classic soul tunes from the legendary Stax Records label. As great as Sam & Dave were as singers and performers, it’s the backing band which brings me back to this record time and time again. The Stax House band were Brooker T & The MGs, featuring Steve Cropper on guitar. Every song is an masterclass in creating parts which serve the song. Many of my own chops come directly from Cropper, especially his use of sliding sixths in his lead playing & fills. Check this record out – in fact, check out any album released by Stax in the sixties and early seventies.

Close contender: Otis Redding’s posthumous greatest hits ‘The Dock of the Bay – The Definitive Collection’ (1987) is another great example from Stax Records and features more amazing arrangements by Brooker T & The MGs

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin I (1968)

Any Zep album could have ended up on this list, particularly their first four eponymous LPs (known as I, II, III & IV). But their debut record, recorded in just three days, was one I kept coming back to again and again as a teenager. The group were part of a wave of British acts turning the blues on it’s head, alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. But unlike, Led Zeppelin felt more like a meeting of equally talented musicians, and (no offence to Hendrix or Jack Bruce) they certainly had the best singer in the then-unknown Robert Plant. Powerful, beautiful, but ultimately, accessible got a fledgling guitarist.

Close contenders: ‘Disraeli Gears’ by Cream (1967) & ‘Tres Hombres’ by ZZ Top (1973)

B. B. King – Live at the Regal (1965)

Unlike many live albums, which cherry-pick the best examples from numerous dates, this release was taken from a recording of one show at Chicago’s Regal Theater, on the 21st of November, 1964. It captures B.B. on top form, backed by a large band of superb musicians. This record provides a masterclass in phrasing, demonstrating King’s economical & tasteful playing, each note dripping with the blues. Highlights include Sweet Little Angel and Help The Poor.

Close contender: ‘In Session’ by Albert King & Stevie Ray Vaughan (1983)

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue (1963)

This record is the epitome of cool jazz. It sounds like it was recorded in the wee small hours, and it probably was. I’ve dedicated a recent post entirely to Burrell, who’s playing has just enough blues to make this jazz record accessible to a novice such as I was in my teenage years.

Close contender: ‘Julie Is Her Name’ (1955) by Julie London

Special mentions should also go to Queen’s Greatest Hits (I & II), because my family sometimes had a car growing up, and these albums were standard issue with all cars back then…

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this list, as well as your own. Get in touch in the usual way! Until next time…

Great Guitarists #4: Kenny Burrell

Great Guitarists

Today we look at the man behind one of my favourite jazz albums of all time…

Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell, at the Midnight Blue sessions, 1963

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1931, and into a musical family, Burrell has been recording and performing on the guitar since the start of the 1950’s.

Burrell’s recording debut recording was as part of none other than trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in 1951. He started recording solo records almost immediately after, often working in collaboration with other big names in jazz. His discography as band leader is enormous (well over fifty studio cuts). Yet Burrell still found time to work as a sideman for scores of artists, such as Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery and Benny Goodman (taking the chair once held by his hero Charlie Christian), and many, many more.

His main guitar influences are a mix of jazz (Charlie Christian & Django Reinhardt) and blues (T-Bone Walker & BB King). This blurring of the lines between jazz & blues continued throughout his career, in a style known as Hard Bop (or Soul Jazz). This sub-genre of jazz, of which Burrell is considered a key proponent, is considered by some to be a reaction to the Cool Jazz of the West Coast musicians. His warm tone came from his Gibson Super 400 (a fairly large archtop) combined with failing down the treble on his Fender amplifiers for a ‘fatter’ tone.

One of the reasons I really enjoyed listening to Kenny Burrell when I started learning jazz was how accessible he made the genre sound. His more blues-tinged works (see below) provided an aural link I found familiar as a blues player. However, I soon discovered that his phrasing was as sophisticated and intelligent as the other jazz players – he just made it sound effortless. Making such advanced playing appear so effortless, and therefore more listenable, is one if the traits which makes Burrell a great guitarist!

Essential Listening

It can only be Midnight Blue (1963). I’ve linked to the title track here – a masterclass in laid back, bluesy jazz – but do yourself a favour and spare yourself 45 minutes to enjoy the entire album.

To hear a different side to Burrell’s playing, try Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, also from 1963. Bebop plays more prominent on this album although Burrell’s tasteful restraint still shines through,and hearing him trade solos with Coltrane feels genuinely seminal. This LP is an underrated album which deserves more attention and acclaim.

Remember, don’t be shy about getting in touch with your thoughts on the series so far, as well as your suggestions for future features. Bye for now!