Fretprints: Ted Greene

Solo Guitarist Extraordinaire
Ted Greene photo by Dale Zdenek Trust, courtesy of D. Zdenek Trust.

Few guitarists enjoy the adulation bestowed on Ted Greene. A legend who coaxed unimaginable sounds from a humble Telecaster and famously avoided the spotlight, he left an indelible mark on a spectrum of players ranging from Steve Vai, John McLaughlin, and Robert Fripp to George Van Eps, Jay Graydon, and Russell Malone.

Born in Los Angeles on September 26, 1946, Theodore Howell Greene’s family relocated to Cleveland in ’51. His mother, a pianist, stoked his love for Gershwin tunes by playing for hours as he sat beneath the instrument, absorbing the music. The label of “genius” is often applied to Greene, and it’s not hyperbole; after demonstrating an aptitude for math in grade school, he was tested and rated with an IQ of 160. After the family moved to White Plains, New York, his father bought him a guitar in 1957, and he began lessons with Sal Tardella, a local jazz guitarist who taught him to read music and guided him through the Mel Bay series. He initially had difficulties with the instrument, but persevered thanks to his innate love of music and encouragement from his parents.

In 1960, Greene was given a Gretsch 6120. Born a lefty, he mastered the guitar right-handed and was drawn to the music scene in New York City. His primary interests were rock and roll, gospel, and R&B, and his early training involved learning sounds by ear from records and radio.

In ’62, the Greenes moved to Atlanta. The following year, Ted’s parents bought a new Corvette Stingray for the 17-year-old, so he could return to L.A. to graduate from a high school that let him focus on math studies. By then an accomplished guitarist, he played in local R&B bands like Natural Selection and Bluesberry Jam, and also began teaching. Later enrolling at California State Northridge as a business major, he also pursued common-practice classical harmony and theory in a hyper-focused course of self-study. Inspired by Jay Lacy, he became infatuated with the Telecaster and in ’65 purchased his first – a used ’53. Though he continued to use his other guitars – a ’59 Gibson ES-345, modified 355, and Les Paul goldtop with P-90s – into the early ’70s, the Tele became his preferred instrument. He also began exploring alternate tunings, started composing original music, and collaborated with his friend Joseph Byrd on The American Metaphysical Circus. He was later tagged by Byrd to create three tab arrangements, renditions of Bix Beiderbecke’s piano music, for Ry Cooder’s 1977 album, Jazz.

Greene’s take on “Summertime” reveals an integration of classical, jazz, film-score and show-tune elements. This rendition is tuned down 11/2 steps. The intro is a cinematic moment in the tradition of great chord-melody arrangers. His clever opening involves a series of modulations in which a theme is presented in Dm (the IV chord) in measures 1-2, imitated in Fm in 3-4, and enters the tonic Am (I chord) in bar 5. Note the keyboard-inspired classical voice-leading and fingerstyle execution in these measures. The cadence into Am is established with a very altered E7 in 8. This sets up a cycling pattern of Am6 and E7 in 9-12, Ted’s interpretation of George Gershwin’s original changes. Check out the wide-stretch cluster chords, E7alt (Fm6/E) and Am6, in 11-12, vestiges of the Johnny Smith influence, brought into his arrangement.

As Ted’s reputation grew, he was offered a position at Ernie Ball Guitars, where his work involved teaching pop songs. Gaining more prowess, he began composing classical pieces and expanded his studies to include J.S. Bach and Johnny Smith. He decoded Smith’s complex chords, cluster fingerings, and Drop D tuning, citing important milestones like “What’s New.” These were supplemented by a deep dive into the harmonic progressions of Bach’s chorale style, and Baroque polyphony. He gained additional jazz inspiration from Joe Pass, in the Gerald Wilson band, and developed his teaching concepts and diagrams. By ’71, he had been playing and studying for 14 years and had generated a tremendous amount of material from teaching and composing. With an enviable reputation and his voluminous notes, he decided to write a book.

Chord Chemistry, a classic documenting his musical formulas, was published in ’71 and became a bible of guitar harmony. In ’72, he upped his game by studying with the grand master of chord melody, George Van Eps. He not only gleaned advanced harmonic techniques, fretboard theory, and insights into solo playing from Van Eps, but developed his fingerstyle approach, which became an identifier of his sound. In ’76, he followed with the appropriately titled Modern Chord Progressions.

The books represented a turning point in guitar pedagogy and influenced countless players. They differed from previous guitar methods in that, beyond instruction, Greene championed experimentation and an intuitive mindset – something evident in his own playing.

That playing was brought to the world on Solo Guitar, a ’77 indie release produced by Leon White. It’s as close to stream-of-consciousness as it gets, with no overdubs or studio trickery. In its aftermath, Vai and McLaughlin shined a spotlight on his expertise. He subsequently devoted his life to teaching while occasionally performing in small local venues like The Smoke House, at John Pisano’s Guitar Night events, and for clinics. After decades of astonishing fans and listeners, and educating enumerable guitarists, Ted succumbed to a heart attack on July 23, 2005. He was just 58, but packed two lifetimes of music into his time.

Harp harmonics are staples of Ted’s style. He attained great comfort and facility with this difficult technique and could apply it at will to virtually any chord shape – as he did in this example from “Danny Boy,” played in Drop D tuned down 1/2 step. The intro is replete with harp harmonics (notated H.H.) and demonstrates his ability to mix the effect with standard chords. Note the deliberate arpeggiating patterns in measures 1-3. Here, he renders Eb and Abmaj7 chords over a Bb pedal point as alternating fretted notes and octave harmonics. In the next two bars, he plays telling shapes, Abmaj7 and Gm7, exploiting the Drop D low string, and Cm(add2) without harmonics. In the final measure, he freely mixes harp harmonics and standard pitches.

Ted’s influences are myriad. He cites as primary inspirations George Gershwin and other composers in the Great American Songbook, film composer Max Steiner, and J.S. Bach. He also factored in Tchaikovsky, New Orleans piano, ’50s and ’60s R&B, jazz guitarists Johnny Smith, Joe Pass, and Wes Montgomery, as well as Chet Atkins, T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, B.B., Albert and Freddie King, Scotty Moore, James Burton, Cliff Gallup, Hank Garland, the Beatles, the Clapton/Beck/Page dynasty, Roy Buchanan, and Danny Gatton.

Greene is cited in many books on jazz guitarists, however he’s more than the label implies. He had a deep knowledge and fluency with jazz scales and chord changes, but was not limited to a single genre. In performance, he was likely to veer into Baroque passages or a big-band reference in the middle of a standard jazz arrangement, or allude to bebop single-note melody before launching a walking-bass phrase, shift to 3/4 jazz/waltz meter, or emulate gospel/blues piano. His repertoire included standards such as “Summertime,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Watch What Happens,” and “Just Friends,” as well as traditional folk songs like “Danny Boy” and arrangements of pop songs like “Killing Me Softly” and “Sunshine Of My Life.” His intentions were clear in the way he focused on solo performance that left utmost freedom for harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic improvisation. Though a sought-after session guitarist in the ’70s and ’80s, he found group playing restrictive and confining, and preferred to work unaccompanied, or to accompany a singer in a duo.

Greene played mostly fingerstyle and exploited extended and altered chords as well as jazz substitutions, unusual voicings of triads and seventh chords, counterpoint, and a variety of related textures. Many of his insights are documented online in workshop footage, clinic performances, and private lessons. He emphasized smooth voice-leading in chord passages; in many instances, his playing resembled a keyboard or string quartet as much as a guitar. He used classical p-i-m-a (thumb-index-middle-ring) plucking for arpeggiated figures, but, when rendering single-note lines, preferred to use thumb and middle fingers for the alternating picking articulation of melodies, specifying that the conventional thumb-index picking didn’t suit right-handed playing. He advocated using one fingertip of the left hand to fret double-stops on adjacent strings in chord shapes, particularly in the higher register, which freed other fretting fingers and facilitated faster chord changing with fewer fingers. He sometimes fretted an additional bass note with his right-hand index finger while strumming the other strings with his pinky finger in a bidextral style. See the final chord of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (6:30). Among his most celebrated techniques are “harp harmonics” played on various chord shapes, captured throughout “Danny Boy” and many other arrangements. He played these in the manner employed by Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau, using the right-hand index fingertip and thumb to simultaneously sound the octave overtone (artificial harmonic) above a fretted pitch and the remaining fingers to pluck strings of a given chord. In more elaborate phrases, he alternated these harmonics with arpeggiated fretted notes to produce a harp-like melodic spelling of the chords. He freely interpolated harp harmonics into arrangements to create a cascade of chiming decorations of sustained chords as a different color. In his pursuit of the ideal sonic environment for each tune, Ted employed standard as well as dropped tunings; using half-step lower standard tuning on “Ol’ Man River,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “A Certain Smile,” Drop D a half step lower in “Danny Boy,” and standard tuning one and a half steps lower in “Just Friends” and “Summertime.”

Ted’s solo guitar playing reveled in a combination of textures and moods. In this example from “Just Friends” (tuned down 11/2 steps), he plays a rare lead line in single notes followed by his signature walking-bass phrases. The former depict his fluid bebop-inspired melody approach, informed by Wes, Smith, and Pass, documented in his Jazz Guitar Single Note Soloing books. It’s a long four-bar line, essentially in continuous eighth notes, delivered in a swing feel. The phrase segues into a series of free counterpoint lines that intersperse chord partials with a steady walking bass line, also in a swing groove. Note the chromatic passing chords in measures 5-8, which underscore his grasp of jazz harmony. The episode modulates to F# major in 9 where he takes liberties with the melody, abbreviating it to place emphasis on the independent bass activity. Note his skillful use of inversions throughout and the jazz-based C diminished chord to C#7 in 11-12.

Solo Guitar should be in everyone’s library. Also noteworthy is his duet with John Pisano, “When I Fall in Love,” on Conversation Pieces.

Many Greene solo performances are posted online, including a full 1993 clinic at Musicians Institute. Also worth the search are numerous informal lessons with deep discussions of harmony, rhythm, and melody posted by students.

My Life with the Chord Chemist, by Barbara Franklin, is a thorough biography that offers intimate glimpses into Ted’s life and musical perspectives.

Ted’s love for the guitar and personal relationship with his instruments were reflected in the naming of his main squeezes. Early in his career, he favored Fenders, particularly blackguard Telecasters with maple fretboards; his stable included a’52 (Lulu), the ’53 (Lala), and a ’51 (Lucky). He also played a ’54 Esquire (Banana Creme) and ’64 Jazzmaster (Mambo). Ted’s penchant for modifying Teles is part of guitar lore. He often routed the bodies under the pickguard and experimented with wiring and electronic changes. The most conspicuous was shown on the cover of Jazz Guitar Single Note Soloing, where a blackguard sports a neck humbucker, modern bridge, and four additional toggle switches. Another Tele was fitted with neck and middle humbuckers, seen on A Session with the Stars. His decades of research and work with Teles, Broadcasters, and Nocasters led to helping Fender design the earliest ’52 reissue.

Greene began collecting Guild hollow bodies in the early ’90s and amassed more than 20 including a ’54 X-375 (Bettina), ’55 M-75 (Francesca), ’56 X-550 (Luscious), ’58 X-175 (Danette), ’58 X-350 (Desiree), and Duane Eddy 400s from ’66 and ’69 (Duena and Carmine). He also owned several Gibsons – ’61 and ’66 ES-330 (Bernice and Stella), a ’52 Les Paul (Goldie), ’60 ES-5 Switchmaster (The Lady), ’60s ES-125 (Cherima), a 1970 ES-175 (Lucia), as well as a ’63 Gretsch Tennessean (Hazel), and L-5 (Donna) and D’Angelico (Carmelita) replicas.

Greene preferred Fender tube amps, often appearing with a Deluxe Reverb in solo performances. During the recording of Solo Guitar, L.A. studio guitarist and friend Dan Sawyer noted that he used a Twin Reverb, but favored the “direct” sound of plugging into the console in conjunction with the miked amp. He used no effects other than the amps’ spring reverb.

This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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