Thanks, Ethan, for putting this transcription out there – it’s a solo everyone should check out. I learned it years ago but never wrote it down. I went through and made some small corrections on things that I was hearing differently, mostly based on what makes sense on guitar. Also I put a suggested fingering (thus the roman numerals and numbers).
May 12 1941, Minton’s, with Kenny Clarke on drums, Nick Fenton on bass, probably Kenny Kersey on piano.
This video shows how the transcription looks on the guitar. I would invite anybody to make corrections or objections.
Interviewer to Wes Montgomery:
How did you get interested in the guitar?
Charlie Christian, like all other guitar players. There was no way out. That cat tore everybody’s head up. I never saw him in my life, but he said so much on records. I don’t care what instrument a cat played, if he didn’t understand and feel the things that Charlie Christian was doing, he was a pretty poor musician.
When I first heard Charlie Christian as a teenager, I was captivated by the rhythmic feel that he projected through the guitar. Many people comment on the strength of Christian’s beat: “Stompin’ at the Savoy” is in the pocket from start to finish. Peter Broadbent’s excellent Charlie Christian: Solo Flight – The Seminal Electric Guitarist is full of photos and interviews of people who knew Christian. Here’s a quote from guitarist Mary Osborne, talking about when she first saw him in 1938.
“His drive was just great. The swing and beat was so beautiful, tremendous, and this made the most impression on me . . . To play some of those things he had something going with his left hand, a fingering that must have made all that possible, because he moved so fast.”
(Broadbent, p. 62-63)
And here’s saxophonist Jerry Jerome:
I just loved playing with him ’cause he was a rhythm section by himself, and even when he played with rather non-professional type players he made them sound professional because they had to go with his very strong four-four beat he had.
(Broadbent, p. 83)
Christian played rhythm guitar as well (you can hear this before the “Stompin'”solo begins), and he was a more than acceptable bass player. One of the best sources of detailed technical information about Christian’s playing is Barney Kessel, who spent a few days in Oklahoma City with him in the Fall of 1940, and and who knew enough about guitar and the magnitude of Christian’s talent to make good observations. (Kessel was also from Oklahoma, born 7 years after Christian, and at this point was 17 years old, already gigging.) Kessel said:
Swinging – yeah. See, but even when I say that, there’s a lot of people that still don’t know what I’m talking about, because they would think that it means swinging your body or kind of grooving and boogying all out, and all that. It’s got to do with the pulse in your playing. It’s got to do with the fact that you play in such a rhythmic way – and I’m not talking about whether you rush or drag. I’m talking about if you play a stream of eighth notes, that you play it in such a way that your time is so flawless that you wouldn’t need a bass or drum for someone to sense what the tempo is. It’s got such clarity and it’s so articulated that without any rhythm instrument there, you definitely hear what the tempo is. Whereas with a lot of people, they don’t play evenly. They don’t play that way, so without a bass or drummer, the tempo is not clearly stated.
One interesting thing about the guitar is that there are many duplicated notes. This allows a player to develop a personal approach to the formations and fingerings that they use to get at any particular series of pitches. Christian’s solos are full of very strong physical formations that lay beautifully on the instrument. I believe that a great amount of the rhythmic force and clarity that Christian communicates is made possible by the positions of the left hand, that he discovered a vocabulary of fingerings that speak naturally with simple picking strokes.
There is no known video footage of Charlie Christian, but the consensus among players is that he used a majority of downstrokes with the right hand, and mostly three fingers with the left hand. A well-known quote, again from Kessel, describes some important details:
He rested his 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers on the pick-guard. He anchored them there so tensely that it was like there almost wasn’t a break in the joint. He almost never used the 4th finger of his left hand.”
(Kessel in Guitar Player, Oct ’70)
This description of the left hand makes sense, given the logical fingerings that can be used to play the solos, and is supported by the few pictures that we have of Christian in the act of playing. In certain circles of guitar playing, tucking away the fourth finger and putting the thumb over the top of the neck is considered improper technique. I would side with the contrary view, that this is an absolutely natural way to approach the guitar when the goal is strong articulation, groove, and rhythm. Using primarily three fingers does not at all limit speed or harmonic options — look at all the stuff drummers can play with two sticks! And the third finger easily spans four frets when the hand is angled towards the guitar’s body. This approach is clear in the video footage that we do have of Wes Montgomery and George Benson, who modeled their styles after Christian. I once had the pleasure of sitting with George Benson in his house and listening to this very solo on the record player, while he pointed out his favorite lines.
It’s hard to talk about Charlie Christian without considering the extraordinary social context of his career. By the time “Stompin’ at the Savoy” was recorded, Christian was a star, having been in the spotlight with Benny Goodman for nearly two years. At the same time, he was burning the other end of the candle as a member of the house band at Minton’s. There are some anecdotes about these worlds colliding – this one comes from Kenny Clarke:
When Benny Goodman was rehearsing at the Pennsylvania Hotel he would come occasionally with Charlie to sit in at the club. Clarke told me that the band would then play swing music to “accommodate” Goodman and that he remembered the clarinettist sitting in with Lester Young and accompanied by Thelonious Monk on piano and Charlie playing double bass.
(Broadbent, p. 116)
Whether this is apocryphal or not, it’s great to imagine the scenario. At the point of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Christian was 24, and had less than a year before tuberculosis took his life. Lester Young biographer Douglas Henry Daniels writes:
The deaths of his [Lester Young’s] former sideman Clyde Hart and of Jimmy Blanton and Charlie Christian, also from tuberculosis and all within a few years of one another, were especially sobering and underscored grim realities faced by African-Americans, who sustained a higher mortality rate from the disease than whites.
(Lester Leaps In, p. 247)
As an African-American musician working for Benny Goodman, Christian was at the heart of the controversy at the time about “integrated” bands. There’s a remarkable article (check out the title!) from Downbeat in 1939 on the topic:
How do American band leaders and side men feel about Benny Goodman’s adding Charlie Christian and Fletcher Henderson, Negro instrumentalists, to his band? That question aroused tremendous interest last month when Christian, following Henderson, was added. Goodman claims he wants to have the best band possible to assemble, and he chose Christian and Henderson, he said, because “they are the best on their respective instruments.”
“Should Negro Musicians Play in White Bands?” (Downbeat, October 15, 1939)
The same article quotes Teddy Wilson:
I think, musically speaking, it is of mutual benefit to both. The colored musician is the gainer where quality is concerned, and the white musicians are often further inspired by the rhythmic feeling of the Negro. . . Charlie Christian is the finest guitar soloist I have ever heard and his addition to Benny’s band must be musically effective.
The directness of these pieces is striking to us, as nowadays most folks prefer coded racial language. It would be valuable to have some first-hand words from Christian on his simultaneous role as pop star, creative music pioneer, and central figure in race-relations, but he was by most accounts not a very talkative man.
However, at least we have Ralph Ellison’s essay “The Charlie Christian Story,” which gives some insight into Christian’s character while also dispelling the simplistic notion of Christian as an untrained genius with no significant history before Benny Goodman.
The jazz artist who becomes nationally known is written about as though he came into existence only upon his arrival in New York. His career in the big cities, where jazz is more of a commercial entertainment than part of a total way of life, is stressed at the expense of his life in the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest, where most Negro musicians at least found their early development. Thus we are left with an impression of mysterious rootlessness, and the true and often annoying complexity of American cultural experience is over-simplified.
With jazz this has made for the phenomena of an art form existing in a curious state of history and pre-history simultaneously. Not that it isn’t recognized that it is an art with deep roots in the past, but that the nature of its deep connection with social conditions here and now is slighted. Charlie Christian is a case in point. He flowered from a background with roots not only in a tradition of music, but in a deep division in the Negro community as well. He spent much of his life in a slum in which all the forms of disintegration attending the urbanization of rural Negroes ran riot. Although he himself was from a respectable family, the wooden tenement in which he grew up was full of poverty, crime, and sickness. It was also alive and exciting, and I enjoyed visiting there, for the people both lived and sang the blues. Nonetheless, it was doubtlessly here that he developed the tuberculosis from which he died.
More important, jazz was regarded by most of the respectable Negroes of the town as a backward, low-class form of expression, and there was a marked difference between those who accepted and lived close to their folk experience and those whose status strivings led them to reject and deny it. Charlie rejected this attitude in turn, along with those who held it — even to the point of not participating in the musical activities of the school. Like Jimmy Rushing, whose father was a businessman and whose mother was active in church affairs, he had heard the voice of jazz and would hear no other. Ironically, what was perhaps his greatest social triumph came in death, when the respectable Negro middle-class not only joined in the public mourning, but acclaimed him hero and took credit for his development. The attention which the sheer quality of his music should have secured him was won only by his big-town success.
(“The Charlie Christian Story” The Saturday Review, May 17, 1958, p. 43, also collected in Shadow and Act)
Notes on the solo, Melodic content:
On “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” the contrast between the harmonically active bridges and the sparser, riff-based A sections reminds me of Monk’s quote: “It’s the inside of the tune (the bridge) that makes the outside sound good,” and Monk pieces like “52nd St. Theme.”
The crossing paths of Monk and Christian is well-known, but there is not much information available about their actual interactions. I certainly wish Monk would have gone a little further when he mentioned that “Charlie Christian spoiled me for everyone else” (Blindfold Test, Downbeat, April 21, 1966). Probably the most well known connection comes from the Kenny Clarke, where he tells of Christian giving him an idea while messing around on a ukelele, which he then developed with Monk into “Epistrophy.”
There are a few devices that Christian relies on heavily, and one thing that runs throughout this solo is what I would call a “minor 6th” formation (that is, a root position minor triad played on the first three strings, with the sixth added either above by the third finger, or below by the first finger). Some musicians call this a “half-diminished” structure, but older musicians tend to refer to it as a minor triad with an added 6th, because of the usual context as a minor IV chord (check out the melody and harmony of the 4th bar of one of Christian’s favorite tunes, “Stardust.”). By my count, there are 10 uses of this in the 3 chorus solo, but in remarkable and varying contexts. Consider, for example, the way Gbmi6 is used melodically in bars 14, 29, and 62 in the turnback to Db, emphasizing the 7th, b9, 4th and 5th of the dominant Ab substrate, producing a dark sound that resolves each time to some version of straight Db major. And contrast this to the way the same formation is used in bars 20 (F#mi6), 22, 23, 87 (Emi6), 24, 88 (Ebmi6), and 49 (C#mi6). In each of these cases, the melodic notes form the upper structure (3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th) of the underlying Dominant chord, producing a bright, overtonal sound. One interesting spot the end of the 2nd bridge (bars 55-56), where Christian uses both of these orientations in succession. First a partial (with some ghosted notes) Dmi6 over A7, and then a fully sounded Ebmi6 over the Ab7, dark moving to light in quick succession.
It’s easy to see on piano or guitar that this minor 6th formation descending is intervallically identical to an ascending dominant 7th formation (i.e. a Major 3rd and two Minor thirds ascending from the note C makes C7, the same intervals descending from the same note make Fmi6). And all Dominant 7th or Minor6th chords in minor third relationships can be seen as different colors of the same diminished “base.” (For example, take any of the three possible diminished structures, B,D,F,Ab, etc – Lowering any one of the pitches by a semitone will give you a Dominant 7th chord, and raising any one of the pitches by a semitone produce a Minor 6th chord). I can’t think of any examples of Christian playing straight through an Octatonic pitch set (i.e. C,D,Eb,F,Gb,Ab,A,B), but he does something that I think is much slicker, which is to get at the different available colors of the octatonic base by using transpositions of the same formations with inventive and natural voice-leading.
Another device that we find on these bridges is an exploitation of the 2nd and 3rd strings of the guitar, which are tuned in major 3rd relationship. Because of this, the 1st and 3rd finger alone can play a whole-tone fragment of four notes in a single position, which spans a tritone. Usually Christian uses this fragment as the b7th, root, 2nd, and 3rd of a Dominant 7th chord. The combination of this sound with the diminished sound mentioned above yields a great variety of colors (a mixture of binary and ternary symmetries). It’s easy to see that any particular (6 pitch) whole tone set and any particular (4 pitch) diminished set will have two pitches in common, which is a tritone. See how Christian uses tritones (bar 18) to link the whole tone formation of bar 17 into diatonic and diminished territory (19-20). He moves directly from one formation to the other in bar 22. Similar movements can be seen in bars 49-52, and 86-87. Of course, the harmonic effect of all of this is made possible by the precise placement of these movements in time, which has to do with rhythm.
Notes on the solo, Rhythmic content:
Christian gets right into some rhythmic inventions, with a reduction beginning in the 9th bar. The accented (moving) notes give us the rhythmic weights of 3,3,3,3,3,2,2,2,2 before the pentatonic finish.
In terms of feel, I’m reminded of the hemiola figure that Lester Young plays on the famous “Shoe Shine Boy” solo (notably also starting on the 2nd A section) in the 2nd chorus. The tension builds, releases, and then shoots back up with the high F at 14, a note that we don’t see again until much later in the solo.
One of the slick things about the the long streams of notes that Christian plays on the bridges is the voice leading and rhythmic placement of his resolutions. Bar 18 anticipates the B7 harmony by a beat which gives us a backpedaling type of feel until he delays the E7 with a chromatic approach at 21. On the 2nd bridge at 50, he interposes a semitone transposition for three 8th notes, setting the resolution to the E/A# tritone on the upbeat and hitting the D# a beat early. An explicit anticipation follows on beat 4 of 52. The feeling that I get from this constant churning of the beat is one of perpetual forward motion, a force that pulls the ear along with rhythmic momentum.
Perhaps the hippest phrase of all is the tongue (finger) twister at bar 88. To me this sounds like a flam figure you might hear on snare drum (sticking could be something like (L)R L R (R)L R L R R L (L)R , R L L R ). This is folowed by a “bomb” on the low E, and another harmonic anticipation at the end of 86. Then, false-fingering the Db at 89, the idea from bar 9 returns in almost exact reverse order (2,2,2,2,3,3,3,2,3).
Over three choruses, Christian moves many times between thorny figurations and simpler, riff-based passages with an uncanny sense of balance and proportion. The balance also applies to the harmonic material, from the winding chromatic passages to the blues-based material that is at the heart of the guitar’s history. To my ear, it all holds together because of Christian’s impeccable rhythmic flow and clarity of phrasing. This improvisation feels good, because it seems like everything is just played in the right place, at the right time.
Notes on the edited transcription:
This is not intended to be some kind of authoritative transcription for guitar. It is one possible fingering of the solo, based on some clues about Christian’s technique and style. I haven’t every looked at any of the Charlie Christian transcription books that are out there, but I’m sure that there are other versions of this solo in print.
The left hand 4th finger is not used at all in this transcription
Picking is not indicated (use as many downstrokes as possible)
Positions are marked with roman numerals
Fingerings are marked where they fall outside of the position, and at the beginning of each position change
All notes are picked unless marked
Most modern players would play the phrase in bars 13-14 in 10th position, moving to 9th position. Although is is somewhat counterintuitive in terms of efficiency, a better feel can result by playing it in 6th position, leaping up to the 9th. This also makes sense on a guitar like Christian played, without a cutaway.
You can tell by the timbre of the the notes that the Db in bar 31 is played on the 4th string, while the same note in bar 34 is on the 3rd string. This logically fits with the surrounding material as well.
The riff from 41 is could easily be played in 4th or 9th position, but I’ve chosen here to play it all on the B string, for better rhythmic attack.
In bars 58-59, you can tell from the direction of the slides on the notes and the timbre of the two different Db’s that Christian is doing something like sliding between 6th and 9th position (the two favored spots in this solo) with an outstretched 3rd finger.
The phrases in bars 65 – 68 use a kind of rocking motion of the left hand, even though the same pitches could easily be played in 9th position. This leads to a sense of call and response between the double stops and the single lines.
False fingerings in bars 73-75 and bars 90-92 imitate a saxophonic technique
(again, see video)
Personally, I’m a fan of live recordings. The live recordings of Christian have been issued and packaged in dozens of different configurations. The first version I had was called After Hours, which has another version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy” on it
(called “Flips Lips”). This track has also been titled “On With Charlie Christian.” It’s interesting to compare this solo to the more well-known version at Minton’s (“Flips Lips” was recorded at a different club in Harlem, Monroe’s). Kenny Clarke is not at the Monroe’s session, but Christian’s time is rock solid as ever. The other track from Minton’s with Clarke on it is called “Swing to Bop.” It’s revealing to hear Christian stretch for extended periods on a minor tonality. Check this one out and then go listen to Grant Green playing “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with Sonny Clark and Blakey.
It’s well known that Lester Young was Christian’s primary inspiration. There are two places to hear them together: live with the Kansas City Six at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve of 1939, and studio with Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton, Count Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones session on 28 October, 1940. For me, it doesn’t get much better in the world of guitar than Christian’s playing on “Pagin’ the Devil” with Freddie Green holding down the beat. The two other live tracks are “Good Morning Blues,” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” I also really dig “Ad Lib Blues” from the studio session, which captures an informal moment before Benny Goodman shows up.
Other casual moments that I enjoy from Goodman sessions are “Blues in B,” and “Waiting for Benny” (March 1941). Christian’s famous records with Benny Goodman showcase his talent beautifully, but it’s these live recordings and soundchecks that I listen to the most, because they reveal him more fully in moments of spontaneity, as one of the great improvisors of creative music.
Oct. 2012, Brooklyn