Unmasking the Guitar: The Effect of a Vintage Drum Set on the Audibility of the Archtop Guitar in a Big Band Setting

On December 6, 2002, I had the opportunity to play rhythm guitar with a superb big band, the Arts Center Jazz Ensemble (ACJE). The ACJE is based at the College of DuPage Arts Center in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, USA. Led by Tom Tallman, the ACJE plays an annual series of five concerts. The December 6 concert was a tribute to Count Basie featuring trumpter Bob Ojeda; Bob played with the Basie band from 1985 to 2000. Here is an interesting insight from that concert.

The rhythm section was "all-acoustic": a grand piano, a double bass, my archtop guitar (a 1947 Epiphone Emperor), and a drum set from the 1940's with all skin heads and a 24" bass drum. It is common knowledge that an electric bass or electric piano can easily mask the sound of an acoustic archtop guitar. But I have never given much thought to the timbre of the drums before this concert.

The insight is that a vintage drum set with skin heads does not have the high frequency content of a modern drum set with Mylar heads. So the "timbre tessitura" or "frequency layer" of the guitar was relatively empty and the guitar could be heard easily. Eureka!

The result: I could stroke the strings in a relaxed Freddie Green manner and be heard. I didn't have to whack the strings ala Steve Jordan. My wife commented that easy it was to hear the guitar, even in the 1,000 seat theater.

The next week I did a demo recording with a different big band - "sampled" acoustic piano, electric bass, modern drum set, and my Emperor. I might as well not had been there; the guitar was completely buried by the other instruments.

Basie knew! Not only did the Count's piano style leave musical space for Freddie, but Walter Page's bass and Jo Jones's drums left acoustical space for Freddie's guitar. So bring back those skin drum heads and 1940's drum sets!

Michael Pettersen
January 2003

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