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Deep-Dive​ into Carl Kress’s Original Version of “Love Song”



Jazz guitarist Luca Codecà researches, transcribes, and performs the Carl Kress’s “Love Song” with the original tuning (video).

When I first moved to the United States, I knew I would discover interesting present-day jazz guitarists (probably hoping to listen to a new way to play the six-string), but I never expected to be so intrigued with the pioneer of the jazz guitar. 

The first week of my Master of Music in Performance degree at Utah State University, my professor Corey Christiansen asked me, “Do you know Billy Bean?” I didn’t, so I looked into him and learned he listened to a guitar player named Carl Kress, whom I didn’t know. 

The first Carl Kress tune I listened to was Love Song, recorded in 1939 with Decca, and I was astonished by the combination of the melody and the voicing of the chords. Also, the tone was very low, but why? I did some research: Carl Kress, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1907, is considered a pioneer of the jazz guitar, and like many guitar players of that time, he started playing the tenor banjo. According to Richard Lieberson, Carl Kress experimented with new tuning systems. Traditionally, the tenor banjo is tuned with the following notes: C-G-D-A. Carl Kress decided to raise the C string an octave and drop the A down an octave. When he switched to the six-string guitar, he kept using the original tenor banjo tuning system (strings are tuned by fifth), but by adding two low strings, he obtained a new setup: Bb-F-C-G-D-A (from the low to the high string). Compared to the guitar’s tuning, which is E-A-D-G-B-E, the Carl Kress tuning reaches lower notes, and that’s why Love Song has a different timbre than the guitar sound. Throughout the years, he experimented with other tuning systems such as inverting the two first strings: Bb-F-C-G-A-D. 

Carl Kress played in different setups such as in the Orchestra, as a studio musician, in several guitar duets (with Eddie Lang, Dick McDonough, Tony Mobola, and George Barnes), but I think that a special moment of his career was in 1938 when he recorded guitar solos including Love Song

I then decided to learn Love Song, and I bought the only transcription available, which is found in the book Masters of the Plectrum Guitar compiled and edited by William A. Bay. As soon as I looked at the score, I realized it was a transposition for guitar and not a transcription. But as I delved deeper, I found that the score was somehow wrong. 

To explain, the section A of the original tune is in the key of Db (from measure 1 to 26), and the transposition is in the key of E (1 and a 1/2 whole step up). In section B (from bar 27 to 82), the transposition goes in the same key of the original, creating a modulation that is not in the original tune. In section C (from bar 83 to the end), the transposition goes back to the key of E, restoring the previous 1 and 1/2 whole step difference from the original. 

On the internet, there are a lot of versions of Love Song, and all of them are played with the same mistake that is in the transposition. Therefore, I decided to transcribe all of it from the original version. 

As I said before, Carl Kress was using different tuning systems throughout his career, and unfortunately, we don’t have any information regarding Love Song. The deduction process I used was easy. First, I started with the same tuning system as Carl Kress when he switched from the banjo to the guitar: Bb-F-CG-D-A, but then I realized it wasn’t working. So I tried to invert the first two strings, thereby using the setup that Kress used at a later time: Bb-F-C-G-A-D. Although it is impossible to be completely sure about the tuning he used when recording the tune, Bb-F-C-G-A-D fits pretty well with the fingering. 

It is a pleasure playing the tune with the original tuning system. The tune sounds amazing. And even though no performance will be authentically close to Carl Kress’s original version, I am sure we all would enjoy playing Love Song with the original tuning. Enjoy. 

Article References:

Lieberson, Richard. “The Jazz Guitar Duet: a Fifty-Year History.” In The Guitar in Jazz: An Anthology, edited by James Sallis, 45—53. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Lieberson, Richard. “Swing Guitar: The Acoustic Chordal Style.” In The Guitar in Jazz: An Anthology, edited by James Sallis, 89—112. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. 

Luca Codecà is an Italian guitarist and music teacher from Italy. He moved to the United States to earn his master’s degree in music performance at Utah State University. His passion, as an educator, began at the age of 18 when he started teaching at Cluster Music School in Milan, Italy. Before moving to Utah, Luca traveled to Cambodia where he volunteered for 6 months teaching guitar to children and teenagers. Luca is currently living enjoys exploring and hiking the gorgeous state of Utah.

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