BY WHIT SMITH with ADAM PERLMUTTER
Western swing has certainly been an outlet for virtuosic expression on the guitar—like Karl Farr’s sophisticated, jazzy approach and Eldon Shamblin’s athletic single-note solos. But in the genre’s first decades, the 1930s and ’40s, the acoustic guitar was used primarily to deliver rock-solid rhythmic accompaniment, with nothing too ornate on display.
That’s not to say that this accompaniment is rudimentary. The celebrated early jazz guitarist Eddie Lang has been a hero to many Western swing guitarists, myself certainly included, and his influence is heard in the sophisticated harmonic approach that is typical of the genre. In this lesson, I’ll share a selection of these chordal and rhythmic devices, in both short progressions and longer structures—cool ideas to have under your fingers and in your ears, no matter what style you play.
Four and More
The duty of a guitar player in a classic Western swing group is first and foremost to play four-to-the-bar rhythm, not unlike how the jazz guitarist Freddie Green handled comping in his nearly half-century gig with the Count Basie Orchestra. This concept is shown with a I–V (G6–D7/A) progression in the key of G major in Example 1. To play it, use whatever grips are most comfortable for you—look at the accompanying video to see which ones I prefer—and beginning in bar 1, strum all in brisk downstrokes, squarely on each beat.
It’s important to note that the exact way you approach swing rhythm is a matter of personal preference. Every player has his or her own touch. Some like to hit beats 2 and 4 a little heavier than 1 and 3. My personal preference is to try to smooth things out a little bit, as I do throughout the video for this lesson—using, incidentally, my 1929 Gibson L-5, which has been refinished to blonde from sunburst. (I also have a 1928 L-5 that sounds lovely, and a 1946 model that I use on the road with Hot Club of Cowtown.)
In any case, just as important to Western swing as the four-to-the-bar rhythm is a relatively sophisticated harmonic palette. It’s important to know a bunch of different chord voicings and inversions (chords with notes other than roots in the bass)—and how to move them around and link them—because it’s fun and it sounds good.
In Example 2, for instance, note how I use inversions and a chromatic passing chord like C#dim7 for the progression of G9/B–C6–C#dim7–G/D, in which the chord roots smoothly ascend in half-steps. Speaking of inversions, in Western swing, instead of a G chord played as an open voicing or a third-fret barre grip, it is common to use compact voicings like those shown in Example 3, none of which is in root position.
Another typical accompaniment device in Western swing is to harmonize the notes of a melodic or scalar passage. Example 4a depicts the G major scale from the root (G) to the fifth (D) and back, all along string 6, while Example 4b harmonizes the scale with the I, IV, and V chords (G and G/B, C6, and D7/A, respectively).
Now have a look at how a typical Western swing rhythm approach works in a longer context. Sticking with the key of G major, Example 5 takes it cue from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ “Roly Poly,” which was an immediate hit upon the release of the original 1946 version and has since become a Western swing standard.
Your first order of business in learning Ex. 5 is to make sure that all of the chord grips are in your muscle memory. The good news is that a bunch of the same grips are used to make different chords. For example, in bar 3, the shape for the C#dim7 chord—which I recommend grabbing with your second, first, and third fingers on strings 6, 4, and 3, respectively—is identical to the shapes for D7/A in bar 5 and Bbdim7 in the following measure, albeit played at different frets.
You might have noticed that most of the chords in Ex. 5—and throughout this lesson—have just three or four notes (and occasionally only two). That works well because these chords contain just the essential harmonic information, typically without any doubled notes. The G/B chord in bar 2, for instance, is spelled, lowest note to highest, B (third), G (root), and D (fifth). To hear how clean and uncluttered this voicing sounds, compare it to any six-note G chord.
While not conveyed in notation in this lesson, Western swing accompaniment makes good use of muted strings for percussive effect. I play that G/B chord with my third, first, and fourth fingers on strings 6, 4, and 3, respectively, with string 5 muted by the pad of my third finger. When I strum strings 6–3, I get a punchy, driving effect. Also note that while in most bars in Ex. 5 I switch chords every two beats, I don’t always strum every note in a grip. I often hit just the root on beat 1 or 3, and this makes for a more interesting texture.
One last thought for playing Ex. 5, and for Western swing guitar in general: Remember that your most important role is to play that rock-steady rhythm, so it’s less of an offense to omit a chord here or there than it is to inadvertently slow down when switching between chords.
Switching Keys and Chords
Now let’s move to the more horn-friendly key of F major for a few more examples. A fun thing to do when you have a progression with one chord per bar is to play two different voicings per measure. For a basic series of chords traveling backwards on the circle of fifths—say D7–G7–C7–F—you could just play basic open and barre chords. But in a Western swing setting, for something with a more refined sound, kind of dark and tight, you could play voicings like the ones in Example 6.
If you see a Bb chord on a chart for a Western swing tune, you might be tempted to play a Bb barre chord at the first or sixth fret. But you might think about other options and instead start with a Bb chord high up the neck, with the third in the bass, then move down to a Bb6 chord with the root (Bb) in the bass, as in Example 7.
I’ll close things out with a figure depicting the sorts of moves you might find in a fancier Western swing accompaniment (Example 8). Things kick off in the pickup measure with a single-note, chromatically descending line that sets up some V- and ii-chord action via the C9/E, Gm7/F, and C7/G chords.
Bars 3–5 and 7–9 illustrate a cool concept—how to slowly get from the I chord to the V in different ways in a Western swing setting. In measures 3 and 4, I harmonize a descending stepwise line starting on the F chord’s third (A) and ending on the flatted seventh (Eb), then move up by a half step to land on the C9/E chord’s third (E) at the top of bar 5. Bars 7–9 take a similar approach, but in a lower octave and with leaner voicings.
With any luck, you’ll be inspired to use these Western swing accompaniment ideas in your music. Do remember that learning the chord shapes is perhaps the easy part, but developing the proper rhythmic feel can take years of careful listening and playing with seasoned Western swing and jazz players.
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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.