So You Think You’re a Guitar Player…

( A pleasant exchange about dancing in kitchens and big- band music led to this one; thanks, Girlie! )

My guitar student has been working on several jazz standards for some time now, and making remarkable progress.

Lately, we’ve been working on ” Take the A Train ” by Duke Ellington.  As are the others we’ve tried, it sounds very simple and accessible to listen to, but on closer examination have discovered the hidden complexities.

The ‘A Train‘ is very smooth and easy to listen ( or dance! ) to, and the chord progression seems very easy and playable at a glance; that’s why I chose it.

But then… we found that all these alternate chord voicings were being used, and that they actually frame the melody so well that you have to learn them, or just give up. Not just C, but C6; not just Dm7, but Dm7+9b5. And you have to, or it’s just wrong. And there are usually two different fingerings being used in different places for each of several chords.

You had better not get on the ‘ A Train’ unless you’ve got your tuxedo on, or at least a damned good suit. These guys played for blood.

This is Freddie Green.

He spent most of his life playing in Duke Ellington’s rhythm section.

He was known to play only one single- note solo in his entire life. He was a chord guy. He was the chord guy.

He played full-bodied acoustic guitars  ( Gretsch, Stromberg, Gibson) with heavy-gauge strings, and the bridge raised to about 1 inch high; and played with the instrument almost flat in his lap.

Which means he could leap tall buildings if he wanted to. He would have had the hand strength of any ten normal guitar guys.

The other jazz guitar guys were scared of him. He not only knew a lot more chords than they did, he would do really cool stuff with them, like accent different notes in the chords to get different shadings and tones.

Most typical light-gauge-strings-Les Paul– Strat- have-to-play-loud-or-you-can’t-hear-me guys don’t even know about this stuff. Freddie played an acoustic guitar with no amp, surrounded by horn players.  And cut through just fine, when Ellington wanted him to. Freddie liked to mix in with the bass and drums so smoothly that you couldn’t tell them apart.

So put down ‘Back in Black’, and try on the ‘ A Train’ …

Yeah, I know. You’ve got a lot to learn.

Got to go now…have to move the kitchen table out of the way…



A conservative casualty estimate. There were many conflicting versions of events, and the Russians could marginally get away with calling it a victory simply because they stopped Napoleon from advancing any further.

September 7, 1812; the battle of Borodino. This is an event of great national significance for the Russians, akin to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg for Americans. They can practically see the future of their country escaping drastic change by just a hair’s breadth.

Napoleon, by today’s standards, was a total nutjob. So were the Russians, of course; any day that these guys put troops in the field, they would probably lose 25,000 on an average. But that was OK.  Soldiers were considered the scum of the earth, and were expected to be more than happy to march in formation into a horrific death to please an emperor/ czar/ etc. They were easily replacable.  Many soldiers were conscripts, and they generally would rather serve in the army than rot in prison or be executed.

Napoleon was also considered to be a military genius, and his tactics were the practical standard well into the 1860’s.  He was especially fond of massed infantry attacks in column formations. They could move very quickly across open ground, but only the front rank could fire their weapons.  Artillery would rip huge gouges in the approaching columns, and if they could then be penetrated by cavalry, the formations would fall apart completely; but if they could manage to get across, then they would usually win the battle.

The Russians apparently make a huge deal out of the Borodino anniversaries. They have re-enactors. I am simply amazed at this. I can’t help but wonder who in the Russian economy can manage the disposable income to outfit themselves for this pastime. ( I speak from bitter experience.)  Putin, I suppose, all his staff, friends, family…that must be about a hundred  guys right there. But where do the rest come from?

Hmm…if the kids will work in the gulag for just a few more years, I’ll be able to get that snappy new shako hat I’ve been needing…

Actually, I understand this completely. I’m just glad to see that we’re not the only ones. Even if the kids have to double up in the gulag bunks for body heat…

Just kidding. They don’t have to do that. I’d send them sub-zero sleeping bags from LL Bean.

But then they’d have to work off the price of those too, so maybe another six months?…