Given its predisposition toward a warm, clean tone, the sound of jazz guitar has earned a bad rap in some circles. The “jazz tone”—or “jazz no tone,” as a recording engineer friend used to call it—is often considered dull, flat, and muddy. Sadly, we often live up to (or down to) our reputations, valid or otherwise, so it’s possible that some jazz players have let themselves perpetuate such a sound, having allowed it to be considered the norm. Refer directly to any of the great players, however, the originators of swing and bop and cool jazz guitar of the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, and you discover a tone that’s a thousand miles from dullsville. I’ve always admired the lithe, loose, slightly bluesy and righteously groovy playing of Grant Green, so let’s study his tone as a case in point.
Although Green’s playing evolved through the years, as does that of any artist, many fans refer to his early Blue Note years as a benchmark, and his Green Street LP usually comes to mind first. Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, in 1961, it has a fat, natural, classic jazz sound that is utterly top shelf. The guitar tone in particular is silky, rich, and alive. Dull, be damned—this is a lively, expressive, musical voice.
Check out anything on that album for examples, but refer to “No. 1 Green Street” certainly, and you hear a tone that’s undoubtedly clean, but there’s just a little fur and sizzle around the notes that adds texture and depth. The single-note solo lines feel positively three-dimensional (no doubt a studio full of high-end analog recording gear helps a little, too, as does that simple, classic hard left/right panning of guitar and drums). Perhaps the second track, “’Round About Midnight,” or track five, “Alone Together,” open the window even wider on the guitar tone, being slow ballads that let you hear the space around each note. Green’s sound is warm, for sure, and possibly even leans toward the “dark” side of the spectrum, but it’s a far cry from dull or flat or muddy, with a crispness and edge to each note and a plummy, slightly rubbery attack that helps to make it a very comforting, inviting sound.
The third track, “Grant’s Dimensions,” even introduces a little distortion into the brew. It’s unintentional, no doubt, but listen to the way it thickens up those chordal sections toward the end. He’s got the amp dialed up for a creamy, round solo sound with a little bite and edge, and when he chops out those chords it all breaks up just a bit. Delightful stuff.
You’d be guessing all this chocolatey tone issues from a deep-bodied acoustic-electric Gibson archtop … and you’d be wrong. From his arrival in New York City in 1960 until the mid ’60s, Grant Green played a Gibson ES-330. It’s hollow-bodied, but a thinline double-cutaway model with the body lines of the ES-335 and a rim depth of just around 1 3/4 inches. Gibson had introduced its first thinline archtops in 1955, in the form of the ES-350T and the Byrdland, and brought the radical new ES-335 to the line in 1958. With a solid block through the center of the body to combat feedback and aid sustain and a neck joint around the 20th fret, the ES-335 was an instrument with jazz roots, but employed new features that would appeal even more to rock, country, and blues players.
As such, the ES-335 proved an immediate success in itself, while also helping to justify the veracity of the thinline concept in general. It made sense to apply the format to an instrument aimed at the jazz player, and the ES-330 of 1959 fit the bill perfectly. While it at first might appear to be a “down-market ES-335” with P-90s instead of humbuckers, the ES-330 is really an entirely different guitar. For one thing, the aforementioned fully-hollow body necessitates the use of a trapeze tailpiece in place of the 335’s stud tailpiece. For another, the two guitars have entirely different neck joints, 330s being made with a 17th fret joint (except for a brief period in the late 1960s). The three-fret difference shifts the bridge—and therefore the tonal center—of the guitar further back into the body, adding depth and warmth to the sound, and making the instrument perform more as a traditional archtop electric. Combine these elements with its lack of center block, and the cutting, edgy, slightly gritty sound of the P-90s, and you’re a world away from the ES-335 tone.
Green eases a voice from his ES-330 that shoots right to the heart of great, classic electric jazz guitar tone, yet there’s a clarity and definition there that is sometimes lacking in the big-bodied archtop sound. It’s a legendary jazz tone, for sure, and all the more interesting for the fact that it was achieved with different ingredients.
As much as Green’s guitar is affirmed in the annals of jazz, his amplifier choice is a little more difficult to quantify. Back in the day, jazz guitarists—and in fact guitarists in general who were doing anything less than the big rock stardom trip—were usually less attached to their amps than they are today. Jazz players in particular would frequently be presented with whatever house amp the studio or club had on hand for them to use, and had to learn to make do. They often didn’t develop the associations with an amp that, for example, Pete Townshend developed with Hiwatt or Jimi Hendrix developed with Marshall. That said, the good players certainly knew which amps worked for them and put a lot of thought into their sound, without a doubt, but the logistics of the gigs and the low wages too often attached to the jazz scene didn’t always allow them to dictate their gear requirements on a consistent basis.
Green is known to have played through a range of amps during his career, on stage and in the studio, including a tweed Fender Twin from the late 1950s, various Ampeg models, a big Gibson LP-12 from the later ’60s, and occasionally a Fender Super Reverb or Twin Reverb. All are predisposed toward the wide, round, clean sounds that jazz players demand, but push them a little—as a hollow-bodied ES-330 with P-90 pickups will do when you attack it right—and you can induce a little break up in these amps, too, which adds an enticingly silky sizzle to the tone. Grant Green, a dot-neck Gibson ES-330, a big, vintage tube amp, and a studio armed with gear from the golden age of recording: all the ingredients of a jazz tone to die for.