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Sonny Rollins - Why a Guitar instead of a piano in his group


Staff member
A guitar is more limited than a piano generally . . . I think.

I prefer working with a keyboard player.
Anything worth doing that can be done with a guitar can be done with a piano. And more. Except play one in a canoe.


Artist in residence
Distinguished Member
Back in the late '50s or early '60s, Sonny used a trio consisting of tenor, bass, and drums. My friend Henry Grimes played the bass, I can't remember who the drummer was. I always thought that this was one of the best settings for Sonny's playing. The horn lines seem crystal clear, set against the sparse, slightly lonely sounding pulse of the bass and drums.

I find, and this is just my opinion based on my personal experience, that piano players can be a bit of an obstacle to the flow and feel of my relationship to how I want to play a melody or to improvise. If I'm playing with a piano player who is very sensitive and musical, this usually isn't a problem, but many want to keep you hancuffed to the rhythmic and harmonic dungeon wall. As I'm trying to fight my way free of the shackles, I'm thinking, "is this worth it?"

So I've been working with a trio for quite a few years now. My bassist, Calvin Hill, played for many years with Max Roach who also eschewed the use of piano in his quartet, so Calvin knows how to make things happen without piano. Sonny uses Bob Cranshaw, who can ably fill any gaps left by the guitar.

I think that the main crux of this biscuit is to have a musician who knows how to accompany and who is willing to alter their style to help someone else sound good......

A fairly tall order nowadays.

I view it from several perspectives.

As a pianist, I am expected to stay out of root position for the bass player's sake, off the melody note for the lead player's sake, and out of the way of all improvisations. Often that leaves no more than two notes. Usually, that is enough.

Comping is an art form. Evans and Peterson knew how to do it. All pianists should learn from them.

It isn't as difficult as it sounds, though. Until, that is, you come across the soloist who leaves no space, no room for collaboration, who thinks the rhythm section is there only as accompaniment and does not think of the unit as a band with multiple voices. There are too many of them.

Desmond was not one of them. All instrumentalists should learn from him.

As a trumpet and sax player, I sometimes have to play with pianists who don't know how to comp. Too busy. Piano solo from intro to finale. I'll give you room to breathe if you'll play like you understand what that means.

As a bass player, I just close my eyes and think, "Eb, G, Ab, A..."


Admin and all around good guy.
Staff member
Playing with intermediate-level combos, I prefer either a piano or a guitar, but not both. Pro guitars/pianists can make each sound good. Intermediate tend to muddy things up. Each instrument brings pluses and minuses though. And it really depends on what sound you're going for.

I really like the mini Big Band (or whatever that's called) and/or the four-horn combos. But that means there are a lot of venues that are too small to support that large of a group. So I've been looking a smaller combos. And for me, I can't carry a combo because my improv chops are not good enough yet.
I'd still rather have a piano player. I grew up in Wichita, Ks, where Jerry Hahn has taught for many years. Guitarists everywhere, but no pianists!

Of course, Sonny can play with whoever he wants too--he's Sonny...
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