The Unsung Hero of the Band, the Rhythm Guitar Player


By j.Tobin Small


May years ago I had the privilege of playing with one of the strongest players that I have ever known. Wilf Fink played in many small country and western bands, Money was scarce and most musicians had a number of different jobs in the band. Wilf sang very well and played the rhythm guitar. He had arms like fence posts and a grip on the guitar neck that was very powerful. He played every bar of every tune from start to finish. The fiddle players of ten doubled on the bass and the drummer just stayed out of the road and didn’t mess up the time. Traditionally the third or forth player could of course be any stringed instrument at all. Drummers were optional.


The ES-175 debuted in 1949. With a comfortable body size and stylish pointed cutaway, it quickly became the most popular guitar of the jazz world. A fine instrument for both comping and soloing. 

As country and rock, and blues guitar playing began to intermingle, many styles started to show up. Many people have very strong opinions about who was the first to do anything. Who was the first Jazz Guitarist? Les Paul? At the very bottom of every tradition is the rhythmical pattern. The “torture” playing of Chuck Berry and others set the scene for the whole tune. Blues musician Colin Taylor from Stratford, Ontario, played great tortures and great rhythm. He always has the feel of the tune just right. At the earliest stages many rock players did not bend strings, or use many tricks. Leads were a number of chords strummed in various patterns, no string bending here. It is safe to say that Bo Didley invented a whole style of music based on one very heavy rhythm pattern.


The Playing of melodic lines an making up leads no doubt started in the early days of jazz and blues playing; but the chorded steel guitar of country and western music leads must have contributed heavily as well. Following the melodic line of the human singing voice is still popular today (George Benson). This very difficult musical feat was carried off in a number of tunes by John Till while playing with Janice Joplin.


No doubt, part of the mass appeal of the guitar is the ability to get started with a limited number of chords. Within these chord structures, of course are all the lead notes, but to play them in a very musical way is a very demanding art indeed. All of these techniques may well come in time, but the constant pursuit of chords is the basic work of the guitarist. Many strong rhythm players never do play lead.


When Big Band Jazz and Swing music was popular, the guitarists all played in the rhythm section, piano, bass and drums rounded off this integral part of the band. In many recordings of this period the important role of the guitarists can be heard. It is very subtle and understated in many cases but the presence is always there. The driving force behind every great big band is a very solid rhythm section. The guitar player in this situation is no doubt at the very centre or pivotal position in the big band. Depending on the composition this is a very busy chair, playing time, changing chords, playing accent licks with the sections, backing the soloists, taking some lead parts, observing dynamic levels and at all times concentrating on keeping the tempo, as the reeds drag and the valves speed up, not to mention other members of the rhythm section that may have some funny habits as well. One of the most important big band section guitarists of the Big Jazz Band Era was Freddie Green who displayed all of these abilties to an amazing degree

Freddie Green of the Count Basie Band was described in this way in the “Encyclopedia of Jazz” by Leonard Feather, Green, Frederick William (Freddie). B. Charleston S.C., 3/31/11. To New York City to finish school: musically self-taught from age 12, he was working in small a Greenwich Village club when John Hammond heard him, recommended him to Count Basie, whom he joined in March 1937. He had been Basie continuously ever since. Never played solo, never played amplified guitar, but constantly in demand for recording sessions!


The playing and writing of Robbie Robertson is a study unto itself. He is a master of playing compositions at exactly the right meter. The CD produced by Daniel Lanois and Robbie Robertson entitled “Robbie Robertson” has some very important examples of how important rhythm can be, “somewhere Down the Crazy River” is an example of a composition that has no lead, but is at the perfect tempo.


Like many things rhythm is one of the most important things that a musician must possess. There is a real art to carry it off well and make it work. Like many things its apparent simplicity is the thing that gives it the real power. Without it, music is not music!

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