For only 90k, I could have a little piece of music history.
Ah, the elusive Holy Grail: the guitar of guitars; the icon of all icons. Of course, the term means different things to different people—different guitars to different guitar players—and I wouldn’t dare argue which of all the celebrated six-strings out there is the most holy (or should that be “the Holy Grailiest?”). But I do know I came face-to-face yesterday with a Guitar That Matters. To some, it could even be The Guitar That Matters.
If you’re not familiar with Freddie Green, or Stromberg guitars, or if you don’t care about arch-tops or big-band rhythm, you might as well move along—nothing to see here. But if any of those things have meaning to you, you’ll appreciate why my pulse quickened as I strolled around Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.
First of all, the place is wall-to-wall guitars. Some have histories, some are new, some need more love than others; but by and large, any would make a nice addition to my collection. Being a long-time customer, I’m a bit desensitized to both the staggering array of the inventory and the prices. Still, when I saw a 19-inch, 1940s-era, blond Stromberg arch-top in a display case, I felt a rush—but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Strombergs normally fetch a hefty price—anywhere from $15-60,000 is not unusual—due to both their quality and their rarity. Generally regarded in a class with D’Angelico alone, these highly coveted beasts were among the few “orchestra cannons” capable of cutting through an entire big band. Only around 640 were built, and the last was made in 1955.
This particular example, a top-of-the-line Master 400, had the makings of an exceptional instrument. The display case alone indicated, “Can’t touch this.” Peeking through the glass, the $90,000 price tag confirmed it. But what I didn’t pick up on immediately was the significance of the “FLG” monogram carved into the mother-of-pearl marker at the 15th fret.
As I admired the sheer enormity of both the guitar and the price, my friend Keith Gregory, a longtime Gruhn staffer, mentioned the instrument’s pedigree: it belonged to Freddie Green, rhythm guitarist with the Count Basie orchestra for nearly 50 years. This was even more special than I realized.
Freddie Green: The name is synonymous with big-band rhythm guitar. Freddie’s voicings set the standard for modern orchestral guitar; his tone and power were awesome; and his legendary timing was impeccable. Dennis Wilson, a trombonist and composer-arranger with the Basie band, was quoted in a 1985 People magazine article: “It’s as if in the Bible they said, ‘Let there be time,’ and Freddie started playing.”
In addition to his chops and tremendous musicality, Freddie was notorious for a few things:
- He didn’t like to solo. His mission was to lock with the drums and give them a musical voice. He once told an interviewer that he wanted his playing to sound “like the drummer is playing chords.”
- He rarely played all six strings. Green’s voicings centered around the 3rd, 4th and 5th strings, which gave his tone even more punch. It also helped him stay out of the way of the horns, without sacrificing any of the guitar’s musicality.
- He kept his action very high. Setting his strings high—up to 3/8” off the fretboard—meant he could play harder, helping him cut through the rhythm section and horns.
- He was loyal. In 1950, Count Basie downsized his band, including Green. Basie was quite surprised when he showed up at the next gig, and there sat Freddie, ready for the downbeat. Freddie told him, in so many words, that he had put too much of his life into the band and was in no mood to be fired. He continued there until Basie’s death in 1984, and then led the band for three more years, until his own passing.
Early on, Green was usually seen playing a big sunburst Epiphone Emperor. He purchased this Stromberg in 1940 (and a less ornate, sunburst Model 300, shortly thereafter) and played them almost exclusively until 1955, when the father and son team of Charles and Elmer Stromberg both passed away. At this point, the price of Stromberg guitars jumped, and Freddie became concerned about taking his valuable—and now irreplaceable—instruments on the road. He entered into an endorsement deal with Gretsch in 1958, playing 18-inch blond Eldorado models onstage from then on.
(From a 1959 Gretsch advertisement)
Since Freddie played a few guitars during his tenure with the Basie band, it might be hard to confer best-of-the-best status on any one of them. Is this Stromberg the Holy Grail? Maybe not … but it looks pretty all-powerful to me.
As for Freddie Green’s status among the greatest big-band rhythm guitarists—ever—there is no question about his place at the very top of the heap. He was, and remains, the gold standard. He might not be deity, but he was unquestionably royalty. After all, for 50 years he had the chair right next to the Count.