Tommy Kay on Big Band Rhythm Guitar
When the editors asked me to write about guitars in big bands, I felt like a student with an assigned paper in ancient history. Having been away from big bands for a while, I wasn't aware of the sad situation that exists. From past experience, I knew it was rough for a guitarist in a big band.
A guitarist was employed when the band leader was propersous and could afford what was considered a luxury. In some cases, the leader required a vocalist who, just by coincidence, could also play guitar. To keep him busy, the leader would add a guitar chair to the rhythm section.
The major change today is that the number of big bands is at its lowest level. The majority of the ones remaining still use the same old formula: no money equals no guitar. The want ads still read: : Guitarist Wanted - Opening for a player with a good set of vocal chords.
Before my eyes fill with tears, I must say have been, and still are, some happy exceptions to this ridiculous practice which has caused so much panic for guitarists. Let's go back to earlier exceptions to the rule. George Van Eps with Ray Noble; Allan Reuss with Benny Goodman; Freddie Green with Count Basie.
Van Eps did some beautiful things with Ray Noble, but then Noble was a man of good taste and appreciated George's great talent. Ruess made wonderful sounds in the Goodman rhythm section, perhaps Benny realized that the rhythm section should have a musical sound just like any other section in the band. Count Basie just wanted to keep swinging all the time with a great rhythm sound. He still does with the ever-present Freddie Green. I heard the band recently at Birdland. It was better than ever and many a guitarist might well envy the way Freddie handles his instrument in that rhythm section.
One would think that any band leader employing a three man rhythm section would run out and immediately hire a guitarist after hearing Basie. But most only use a guitarist on a recording date. It seems that they are only conscious of good sound on recordings, and give no thought to the feel a rhythm guitar gives to the band when playing before an audience.
In the era following Ray Noble, it seemed that the guitar might stand a chance for survival. Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Les Brown, Raymond Scott, Claude Thornhill, and many others, all used guitar. Some of the guitarists were not only important to the rhythm section, they were also feature soloists. The late great Charlie Christian opened this door with his record of "Solo Flight" with Benny Goodman. It is still a must-have in all guitarist's record collection.
When the bottom dropped out of the big band business, the soloists from the big band era started to drift into small combos or radio or recording. Arrangers began to write more things featuring the guitar playing with other sections of the band, and they still write this way. Although some of the sounds expected from the guitar are more like a banjo with a hyper-ego or an undernourished mandolin.
Here again there are exceptions: Barry Galbraith, Tony Mottola, George Barnes, Mundel Lowe, Al Caiola, and others, have done fine work with large recording orchestras. Another bright spot is Tony Rizzi's wonderful work with Les Brown; he has good taste and ideas combined with a pleasant sound. Les Elgart's recent recordings have a good rhythm sound aided by the playing of Jimmy Raney.
The guitar is also being used in radio and TV shows where the orchestra is employed in a manner reminiscent of the big band era: The Lucky Strike Hit Parade; The Perry Como Show; The Dinah Shore Show; The Eddie Fisher Show; all use good four men rhythm sections.
Fortunately for the guitarist, he does not have to depend on big band alone for his living, and is more times than not a must in the small combo. But don't feel too bad, fellow guitar plunkers. Just remember another fellow plunker who sang about "The Big Rock Candy Mountain". Maybe someday we will find out about that sweet attitude. Come to think of it, he made that record with a small group.