Guitar Notes for Jazz & Big Band Library
I just got Jazz & Big Band and am reading the manual for the first time.
I thought I'd pass along some observations about guitars.
Since I play an archtop jazz guitar, I am not likely to use the J&BB guitar samples in my project, but I have some insight and observations.
First, I'm thrilled to have a sample set of a 10-string Brazillian nylon string classical guitar. My guitars don't go down a fifth to "A" below the low "E" and I'm sure I'll use this lower range for something. I fiddle around with mariachi sounds these days and the low "A" covers the range of the Mexican guitarron although the timbre is not quite the same.
Archtop Jazz Guitar:
At its simplest, the variations in archtop tones come chiefly from the kind of strings used. There are three main types, and J&BB only provides one.
Garritan offers one Gibson ES-175, which I presume to be strung with flatwound nickel-steel strings, and recorded through a guitar amplifier and then miked. This is the "Joe Pass" sound, and did not appear until after the big band era ended. It's thick and almost muted, as the roundwound strings produce a strong fundamental with few harmonic overtones.
The second kind of sound would be a similar archtop guitar with roundwound nickel-steel strings (which are the kind of strings most players would put on a Strat or Les Paul), recorded through an amp that is miked. This produces a different and much brighter sound with sharper attack and more higher-order harmonics. This would cover the jazz guitar sound of most artists who came up outside of the big band tradition in the late 60s or later, for instance Steve Howe of Yes, Pat Metheney, or Tuck Andress.
Finally there is the ACOUSTIC archtop jazz guitar, strung not with nickel-steel but with bronze round-wound strings (the same kind of strings used on your typical steel-string flat-top such as a Martin dreadnought). The guitar was not played through a guitar amp; rather its acoustic sound was miked in a recording studio. In the heyday of big bands, the guitar was not amplified at all in live performance. Hard to believe, but true. This is the authentic sound used in the big band era, most notably by the immortal Freddie Green of the Count Basie Orchestra.
This unusual sound, seldom heard anymore, is very harsh with a midrange punch, designed to cut through a horn section without amplification. It's not a solo sound; it more or less provides the continuo, analogous to what a harpsichord does in a baroque ensemble. It differs from the modern flat-top acoustic dreadnought guitar in that the dreadnought has a strong bass tone, whereas the archtop lacks the bass component and has an accentuated midrange.
The acoustic archtop in the big band was strictly a strummed rhythm instrument, and seems never to be featured for solos.
Now, I haven't discussed the endless variables guitarists talk about such as played with a pick versus played with the fingertips, the thickness gauge and tension of the strings, the type of magnetic pickups used, the variations in amplifier settings, or hand-carved solid spruce top versus plywood pressed maple top.
Finally, in the early days of jazz, right up through the beginning of the Great Depression, the continuo instrument was the four-string banjo, and not the guitar! The banjo was strummed and not picked and arpeggiated like the modern bluegrass five-string banjo.
When Garritan considers the second edition of the J&BB, I think they should look into adding a set of samples of the acoustic archtop with bronze round-wound strings. A modern Eastman hand-carved guitar would be a good choice; the only surviving original Gibsons, Epiphones and Strombergs are all in museums or in the hands of Japanese collectors, cost several tens of thousands, and are falling apart anyway.
Also, a four-string banjo would be extremely useful for Dixieland up through early big band.