In August I got an email from a reader, and I quickly cranked out an article sort-of answering his question. Last weekend I played a gig (with my friends, the Careless Lovers that really gave me a better perspective on this issue. With that perspective, I wanted to take another crack at the subject and start over from scratch.
YoungWoo Joh, from Orlando, FL recently sent me an email asking me about the interaction of rhythm guitar and piano. Specifically, he was wondering how not having a piano would, could or should change what he does as a rhythm guitarist in his band (the instrumentation of which is clarinet/sax, trombone, guitar, bass, washboard and vocals). Here's his original question:
"I had originally just been chunking through the changes (a la 4/4 rhythm guitar), but I've come to feel that lacking both a piano and third horn makes it feel like something is missing. In response to this, I've made my (guitar) playing a little more rhythmically creative, though always going back to the 4/4 as the basic rhythm. In addition to that, I've slowly been working up my chordal vocabulary (inversions and extensions) in order to imply movement and for the occasional fill.
The thing is that all of this is sort of being done experimentally, and I was hoping you could give me a little more insight on what else I could be doing on guitar to help fill out the sound."
Swing = Four-Beat
The four-beat pulse is the primary mission of the rhythm guitarist in Swing-era jazz. I've argued in the past that the firm foundations of that pulse in the rhythm section are what makes syncopation in the rest of the band really POP and stand out in relief. Thus, serving the beat is paramount.
I find that stray 8th notes and additional shuffling tends to muddy the four-beat pulse. Therefore, I try to avoid them as much as possible. In my own playing, I am almost always in a Swing-Era band with a full rhythm section of guitar, bass, piano and drums. In such settings, I find there rarely to be much excuse or justification for messing with the pulse. Most often, when I would see someone adding rhythmic variation it seemed to be due to a lack of knowledge or understanding or experience in the genre. Excessive shuffling 8th notes often seem hack-y to me.
To be fair, I do occasionally add 8th notes just as a product of natural movement, and I don't think it is possible or advisable to literally only play quarter notes. But that quarter note pulse is still the goal.
Getting out of my standard 4-piece rhythm section was very illustrative on this subject. I was subbing on guitar our good friends from Seattle, the Careless Lovers, whose instrumentation is very similar to YoungWoo's situation: trombone, trumpet, guitar, bass, and drums. Because there's no piano or second guitar, there is no second chordal instrument to comment while the other holds down the rhythm, and there's nothing but a bass line beneath a guitar solo. It's a more challenging role compared to simply playing 4-to-the-bar rhythm. Also worth mentioning, the first night of the gig we played as a quartet, sans drums, and then adding drums the next two nights.
While I had been very idealistic about eschewing any rhythmic variation, the gig gave me a good practical appreciation for the value of doing more than just 4-to-the-bar. I found myself naturally adding little accents here and there the first night, but I felt even more free the next two nights. I rarely changed my basic rhythm pattern from 4-to-the-bar, I did accents here and there. Even more so, I found myself playing melodic figures to fill holes or answer back to the horns. I usually just threw in a single-note figure, although I would use Reuss-style block-chord figures as well.
A good example would be the pauses in the melody of first 8 bars of "Blue Turning Grey Over You" (here played by Louis Armstrong). Bars 4 and 8 are pretty empty, leaving a nice big whole ripe for filling. I found myself waiting for the pauses and filing it with a triplet run on the bass strings.
One of the reasons I felt so free to play answer phrases, which necessarily requires to stop playing rhythm for that moment, was that the other members of the rhythm section were filling out the beat so well. Brett Nakashima's bass playing so solidly set the pulse that I was able to branch out. It was even more true when drummer Hal Smith was added in. Because Brett and Hal covered the beat so firmly and unambiguously, I was able to throw in single-note answer figure without the rhythm breaking down. If your rhythm section isn't supporting you enough, you won't be able to do as much.
Of course, discretion is the better part of valor, and that means there's a practical limit to how much you can add without completely abandoning one's role as a rhythm guitarist. Like swiss cheese, if you make too many holes, the whole thing will fall apart.
The O.G. - Eddie Lang
What I realized later is that I was just subconsciously doing my best Eddie Lang impersonation. I'll be the first to admit that while I really steep myself in Swing-era music and playing, my knowledge of pre-swing jazz is not nearly as encyclopedic. Of course I've listened to all of the important recordings and players, but I'm just not nearly as steeped in it (For example, I know exactly who is each Goodman sextet session or when the important sidemen joined or left the old testament Basie band, I can't say the same about Bix or Trumbauer.)
I've listened to the Lang/Kress duets, the Lang/Lonnie Johnson duets, and the Lang/Venuti duets, but I've not really listened (consciously, at least) to a lot of full band recordings with Eddie Lang, especially not ones where was clearly audible. Then, I found this: "I'm Coming Virginia" from 1927 by the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra. You can hear Eddie is all over the place - there is almost none of what we think of as 4-to-the-bar rhythm guitar.
Evolution = Specialization
As jazz evolved, it streamlined. The free-wheeling multi-horn group improvised ensembles common in pre-swing fell away, being replaced by arranged ensembles. Likewise, the rhythm section became streamlined as well. The roles of each member of the rhythm section became more and more defined, and specialized. The flourishes of Lang were mostly covered by the right hand of the piano, and as the Swing-era went on, the left hand of piano became de-emphasized and lightened as the rhythm guitar took that role.
Back to YoungWoo
For your situation, given it's similarity in instrumentation to the Careless Lovers, you'll probably be well served by looking to Eddie Lang for inspiration. Single note figures and runs will help to comment back on the musical action. You probably shouldn't go for something as busy as Lang's playing on "…Virginia", you could easily borrow some of Lang's ideas. As far as soloing, Reuss-style block-chords will fill up the most space, but you'll probably find just adding some chords in between single note licks helpful.
But, I would also argue the more time you spend breaking from four-to-the-bar rhythm, the less "Swing" the result. Given that you've got a washboard, I'm guessing your comfortable with a slightly more early-jazz vibe.
Alright, I hope that is somewhat more helpful than my first pass at the subject. Cheers!