Guitar Selection and Set Up for the Freddie Green Sound

Type of Guitar:
The preferred guitar is a non-cutaway archtop with a thickness of 3 inches or more. The best are guitars made in the 1930's and 1940's by Stromberg, Epiphone, Gibson, and D'Angelico. Unfortunately, guitars of this type are very expensive. Even new archtop guitars are quite expensive.

The second best choice is a non-cutaway flat-top guitar. Though not usually associated with big band playing, a loud flat-top guitar is preferable to any amplified thin-line guitar or solid body guitar built for rock 'n' roll. The Freddie Green sound can only be obtained by using a guitar that is acoustically loud. If more volume is needed, amplify the guitar by using a high quality condenser microphone, not by using a pickup on the guitar.

Use heavy gauge phosphor bronze strings. A typical set has a low E string of .060" diameter and a high E string of .014" diameter. The D'Addario Company is a good source for this type of string set (

Action Height:
Action is the distance from the strings to the frets. Set the action as high as your left hand strength will allow. The higher the action, the harder you can strike the strings without fret buzz. This will produce more volume and let the guitar cut through the band. Typical "high" action will allow three stacked U.S. one cent coins (pennies) to be placed between the 12th fret and the low E string. This is about 5 millimeters or 3/16".

Note: As the years passed, Freddie Green kept raising the action on his guitar and eventually it was at least 10 millimeters at the 12th fret! Can't believe it? Look at some of the photos at that show Freddie playing.

Pick or Plectrum:
The type of pick employed can make a noticeable difference in the guitar's sound. Use a heavy gauge pick. A thick pick will produce a loud, fat sound. Thinner picks will not be as loud and will produce an unwanted "click". I use the Ultem pick by Steve Clayton with a thickness of 0.94 millimeter. It produces a brighter sound than the typical plastic pick.

This article is based on personal experience and years of experimentation. My big band guitar is a 1947 Epiphone Emperor. The strings, action, and picks described above provide a timbre that is very similar to that of Freddie Green.

Michael Pettersen September 2001

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