By Sean McGowan
Bringing together elements of early popular and country music, swing jazz, blues, and rural dance hall traditions, Western swing is pure vintage American music. Pioneered in the 1930s—most notably by Milton Brown and Bob Wills—and developed throughout the ’40s in the Southwest, the sound featured an abundance of great rhythm and lead guitar styles. In the ’30s, the driving rhythms and playful, exuberant songs offered a temporary respite for dance hall participants hit hard by the Great Depression.
Western swing thrives today in bands ranging from the ’70s-formed Asleep at the Wheel to more contemporary acts such as the Texas-based Hot Club of Cowtown and Southern California’s Cow Bop, featuring ace guitarist Bruce Forman. In 2011, Texas designated Western swing its state music.
In this Weekly Workout, you’ll explore some essential facets of Western swing rhythm and lead guitar.
Start out by getting the basic feel for the music and the most common approach to rhythm playing in this style. You’ll notice in the two examples that the guitar plays quarter-note rhythms throughout the tune. Of course, different players incorporate rhythmic variations and fills, but the function of the rhythm guitar is to drive the swing feel of the song, while outlining the essential harmony of the progression.
Other forms of swing music—namely the Kansas City jazz of Count Basie’s band, as well as Gypsy jazz—also incorporate this driving quarter-note rhythm. However, the feel of Western-swing rhythm, also known as Texas- or contest-style rhythm (named for the style of guitar backup played in swing fiddle competitions) features more of a bass-chord approach.
Generally, the bass note is played on beats 1 and 3, and are longer in duration than the quick, snappy chord voicings strummed on beats 2 and 4. This is in contrast to the style of longtime Basie guitarist Freddie Green, who strummed compact, even voicings on all four beats of the bar, and also to the heavy, aggressive sound of Le Pompe favored in the Gypsy style.
Try playing just the first bar of Example 1 and use a pick to play the bass note followed by the chord. Both are typically played with downstrokes, and the chord should sound short, snappy, and slightly accented. You achieve this articulation by releasing pressure, or “bouncing,” in a subtle way, with your fretting-hand fingers.
Now, work through a chord progression in Example 2. Western-swing rhythm guitar features a lot of moving chord voicings, but the progressions are usually simple in terms of the actual number of chords. It sounds like there are more chords due to guitarists employing different inversions of the same chord—meaning the third or fifth is featured in the bass—instead of staying on one static chord voicing.
The first bar of the progression illustrates a G chord moving to a G/B inversion, which connects to the following C chord quite naturally. Measures 3, 6, and 8 also feature inversions of the G chord. Classic Western-swing rhythm guitar blends a good moving bass line with colorful chord voicings.
Practice lightly bouncing the fingers of the fretting hand, playing the chords in the examples to achieve a short, tight, staccato effect. In contrast, the bass note (usually played with the index finger) will stay held down for a smooth, legato effect.
Now, work through another common chord progression in the key of G. In addition to chord inversions (note the first two measures in the music in Example 3 feature inversions of G), you’ll find passing chords. Passing chords connect two chords in the original progression, often with a chromatic approach (a half step above or below the “target” chord).
Measure 2 features a passing Db dominant-seventh chord (resolving down to C6), while the third beat of bar 7 features a C# diminished-seventh chord, also resolving to C6. Passing chords are commonly dominant or diminished in quality, but always use your ears as guides—minor-seventh chords sound great chromatically approaching other minor sevenths.
In Ex. 3, as well as the previous week’s example, you’ll notice the use of major-sixth chords, as opposed to basic major triads or more complex major-seventh chords. This is an integral sound in Western swing—check out the voicings for G in bars 1 and 7. You can also use major 6/9 chords such as the lush, Western-sounding voicings in bars 9 and 10.
The chord voicings are typically smaller and more compact than the larger voicings used in bluegrass or folk. This is especially true in up-tempo songs, and most guitarists use two- or three-note voicings, played primarily on the middle D, G, and B strings.
Practice each example slowly, and make sure to form each chord voicing completely before you pick/strum it
(as opposed to fingering the bass and then the chord).
This week features another chord progression in the key of G, in the style of Eldon Shamblin. He was a great guitarist and arranger, and had a tremendous influence on the sound and musical development of Bob Wills’ band the Texas Playboys, and subsequently, Western-swing guitar.
The first half of the example features all of the bass notes on the low E string, and all of the compact chord voicings on the D and G strings. This approach takes advantage of the mid and low registers of the guitar; bass notes are round and fat, while the chords can cut through a full band. Note, for example, how his voicing for a D7 chord uses an A in the bass (second inversion) with the third and seventh on top—you don’t even need to play the root of the chord.
The second half of the example illustrates a common descending bass chordal figure, featured in standards such as Bob Wills’ “Stay All Night.” Each chord voicing changes to adapt to the passing notes of the bass, implying some wonderfully sophisticated harmonic substitutions common in jazz. Notice the G chords in the final two measures are voiced as 6 and 6/9 chords, retaining the Western flavor.
If string-skipping with the pick between the bass notes and chords is too difficult at first, try playing the examples fingerstyle or use the pick for each bass note, and the fingers of the picking hand to grab the two- and three-note chords.
Now, it’s time to explore playing lead guitar in the Western-swing style. Early lead players, such as Shamblin and Junior Barnard, were close in sound and style to such early jazz and blues guitarists as Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker. The electric guitar was still relatively new in the late ’30s and mid-’40s and was treated as novelty in the context of traditional string and horn bands.
This week’s exercise, Example 5, is in the style of Christian’s work with the Benny Goodman sextet. Rooted in swing and early blues, Christian’s lines were especially influenced by horn players, and exhibited a rhythmic drive that propelled the song forward. This example mixes common blues vocabulary (measures 1-4) with more vertical, arpeggio approaches (measures 6-7). Notice how the major-sixth interval (in this example, A in the key of C major) is accented in the same way as the chord voicings. The first three phrases all start with an emphasis on the sixth approaching the root. Measures 13 and 14 actually outline a C6 chord (C-E-G-A) using a chromatic approach below each chord tone. This is a great device you can add to any solo in a swing or roots-blues style.
Example 6 and Example 7 blend chord voicings and use them in a lead style. The first four-bar example shows a lead line using double-stops, which emphasizes the major sixth (A) as well as chromaticism throughout. This line is reminiscent of the classic twin leads found in Western swing—played on two guitars, a guitar and steel, or two fiddles.
The last example is in the style of jazz guitar great Barney Kessel—like Herb Ellis, Christian, and Shamblin, Kessel had deep roots in Oklahoma and Texas, and could easily transition from jazz to Western swing. This example is essentially a blues line (the top notes), harmonized in “block chords.” This creates the effect of three or four horns in a big band playing sophisticated, yet blues-drenched solos in a shout chorus. Practice this slowly and then try taking it to other keys so you’ll be able to use it in your repertoire. Playing lead chord breaks is a great way to add contrast to your leads and conclude a single-note solo. The last chord is a Bb dominant-seventh with a 9th and #11th, which colors the ending with sophisticated flair.
For the “twin lead” style in the Extra Credit section, try learning and playing just one lead line at a time before putting them together in double-stops.
This may sound obvious, but listen to Western Swing! Particularly recordings by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This will help to get the sound inside your head and hands.
Sean McGowan is a jazz guitarist based in Denver, where he directs the guitar program at the
University of Colorado. seanmcgowanguitar.com
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.