Cowboy Chords: An Introduction to Western Swing and Its Illustrious Guitarists

Western swing developed quickly in the 1930s and ’40s from a number of influences: Western life and cowboy culture, various and diverse forms of blues and gospel music, Dixieland jazz and swing, and an all-but-forgotten form of entertainment in traveling tent shows and vaudeville theatre.
Bob Wills and band

The first Western swing record I heard was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys’ Tiffany Transcriptions, Vol. 1. I was immediately amazed and hooked. I had been listening to Eddie Lang records and other 1920s and 1930s guitar albums by Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, and George Van Eps. Hearing the “Tiffany Transcriptions,” I had an epiphany: I could apply all of my various jazz studies into one dynamic format and start a cool band that lots of people anywhere would like. In my mind the possibilities were endless. Two decades later, I’m still finding new wrinkles in the music through my band, Hot Club of Cowtown.

Guitarist Carl Kress plays an archtop
Carl Kress

Western swing developed quickly in the 1930s and ’40s from a number of influences: Western life and cowboy culture, various and diverse forms of blues and gospel music, Dixieland jazz and swing, and an all-but-forgotten form of entertainment in traveling tent shows and vaudeville theatre. It’s the perfect guitar music. It can accommodate all levels of ability, from rudimentary first-position chords to virtuosic soloing and fretboard gymnastics—making it as fun to hear, or to play and jam on with other musicians, today as it was in 1936.

I’m not an academic historian by a long shot, but I have been a dedicated and determined participant. In this feature, I’ll give you an overview of the development of Western swing through the lens of its guitarists, all of which I’ve gleaned through extensive record collecting and listening, as well as first-hand encounters with musicians like Eldon Shamblin—and of course through playing the music myself for the last two decades.

Publicity photo of the Light Crust Doughboys band
The Light Crust Doughboys of the Burrus Mill & Elevator Company began as a radio act in 1931.

The Roots of Western Swing

In the 1930s, recorded music was still a relatively new format, and albums were hard to come by in rural Texas and Oklahoma. Radio was the main catalyst that brought a variety of styles to the public while promoting regional bands and dances. Musical radio programs, as short as 15 minutes and as long as an hour or more, were underwritten by local and national businesses, including cigarette makers, automobile dealerships, and even baking-flour companies.

The Light Crust Doughboys of the Burrus Mill & Elevator Company began as a radio act in 1931. They were fired after only a few weeks because the company’s general manager, W. Lee O’Daniel, didn’t like the band’s “hillbilly music.” But thousands of fans—who were also Light Crust Flour customers—wrote in, demanding the group’s return to the airwaves. A compromise was reached, and the Light Crust Doughboys, with personnel changes over the decades, are still playing today.

In the early 1930s, before the evolving style was dubbed Western swing, it was typically referred to as “hot string band” music. At first, it was played mostly for young dancers. I emphasize “young” because many older or family folk in rural Texas would have been happy with just fiddle-band or square dance–type music. The youth, as with every American generation before and after, wanted something they could identify as their own. Wild, raucous jazz that upset their parents was perfect.

Bandleader Milton Brown, who presided over His Musical Brownies, absolutely knew this. Brown could be credited with moving the music’s sound and repertoire away from old-timey toward the hot jazz dance-band style. Many other ensembles immediately followed suit, and a new genre was born. Brown’s updated set lists included tunes like “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Somebody Stole My Gal,” “Who’s Sorry Now,” and “I’m Confessin’,” made popular by Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bing Crosby, and other pop and jazz bands of the day. But Brown also played delightfully raunchy and risqué material: “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing,” “Garbage Man Blues,” and “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal You).”


Band photo of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies
Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies

Milton’s younger brother, Derwood Brown, played guitar in the band. Other than an occasional solo on a radio show or recording date where the acoustic guitarist could step up to the microphone and be heard in the controlled environment of the airwaves or a record, the guitar’s role was first and foremost to churn out four-to-the-bar rhythm, galvanizing the other instruments into a smooth swinging monster and propelling the singers and soloists to the brink of hysteria. Brown was more than adept at doing all of the above. He also employed bass-line runs between chords that dressed up and animated otherwise basic chord progressions.

This technique was shared by many of the accompanying guitarists of the day. Herman Arnspiger, who played in the Doughboys, and notably with Western swing pioneer Bob Wills, certainly did. Ready examples can be heard on Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys’ recordings of ”Harmony,” “I’ve Got the Wonder Where She Went Blues,” and the Jimmie Rodgers composition, “Gambling Polka Dot Blues.”

Listen closely to the background of Brown or early Wills recordings (say, from 1934 to 1936), and you will be treated to the tasty bass runs between chord strums throughout. Derwood can also be heard taking single-note solos on a few tracks. Like most of the guitarists in the early stages of Western swing, he played his blues-based licks very hard, a natural reaction to the typically up-tempo tunes and volume levels of the other instruments. Some guitarists would play punchy triadic solos—an impressive technique in its full harmonic sound and another way to obtain more volume. Singer and guitarist Bill Boyd played like this on some Roy Newman and His Boys tracks, including “Hot Dog Stomp” (1935).

Bob Will (in a dark shirt with tie and wearing a cowboy hat) and His Texas Playboys, all dressed in white shirts with dark ties and cowboy hats, onstage
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Into the Swing of It

Take a quick detour to the jazz world for more triad-based soloing: check out guitarist Dick McDonough’s 1934 version of “Honeysuckle Rose,” and while you’re at it, Emmett Miller’s 1936 version of “Right or Wrong.” Miller had recorded this once before, with the pioneering jazz guitarist Eddie Lang in 1929, and Brown introduced it into the Western swing repertoire in the early 1930s. Wills recorded it later and it became a standard. What is now called trad jazz has always been at the core of Western swing and consistently reveals itself.

The technically advanced tandem of Carl Farr on guitar and Hugh Farr on violin played with the Sons of the Pioneers, the most successful—if not most popular—Western singing group of all time. Their hard-swinging, jazzy approach is reminiscent of that practiced by the formidable duo of Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti. The Sons of the Pioneers performed on countless radio broadcasts, in movies, and on recordings heard by millions of people. Much of the Farr brothers’ work is appropriate musical support, but they were featured as soloists, too, and there are a number of compilations of the Farrs just playing instrumentals. Removing the cowboy vocals—as on “Farr Away Blues” and “Deed I Do,” among many others—renders a style that could have been considered pure jazz or blues.

Venuti and Lang were revered by every hot-jazz string musician of the time, and ten years later, next-generation musicians would still be quoting, note for note, whole phrases of theirs.Lang was a master accompanist, fluidly moving the chords around under the melody not unlike a piano player. His playing, which featured ingenious bass lines connecting the chords, interspersed with dramatic arpeggios, is exciting and advanced by any standard and can still demonstrate how to dress up a simple fiddle tune or otherwise mundane chord progression.

For a good sampling of Venuti and Lang’s seminal work, listen to their recordings “Going Places,” “Doing Things,” and “Wild Cat.” (See a full Eddie Lang transcription, “A Little Love, A Little Kiss,” in the April 2018 issue of AG.) Any list of essential Lang must include “Handful of Riffs,” with the amazing Lonnie Johnson on smoking-hot melody guitar—an unusual pairing for the time, as Johnson was African American, and sadly, interracial collaborations were extremely rare. Eddie Lang tragically died at the age of 30 in 1933 of complications from a tonsillectomy, but he continues to exert considerable influence on Western swing and on guitarists in general.

Guitarist Eddie Lang on the bandstand with an archtop guitar
Eddie Lang


Like Lang, Allan Reuss wasn’t a Western swing player, but he was an inspiration to guitarists everywhere through his widely heard and exceptional guitar playing with clarinetist/bandleader Benny Goodman and trombonist Jack Teagarden. An obscure 1941 recording of the pop standard “I Never Knew” under the name Peck’s Bad Boys is a joy to discover. Reuss’ smooth, driving rhythm guitar flows like a river, and he takes an awe-inspiring chord solo on his unamplified Gibson L-5 Premier. He is joined by steel guitar, and for all intents and purposes, this could have been released as a Western swing record.

Down in San Antonio in the 1930s, violin virtuoso Emilio Caceres made critically acclaimed hot-jazz recordings with his brother Ernie, who would later join the ranks of Goodman and banjoist/guitarist/bandleader Eddie Condon. Listen and compare Caceres’ influential version of “Jig in G” to the raucous mayhem of Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers treatment of the same tune.

Back to the Wild West

In early 1936 the Light Crust Doughboys really stepped things up in the six-string department when a new player, Muryel “Zeke” Campbell, came aboard to join forces with fellow guitarist Dick Reinhart. At that time, the band’s impressive string section also featured Cecil Brower and Kenneth Pitts on violins, as well as the virtuoso plectrum banjoist Smokey Montgomery.

Both Campbell and Reinhart were excellent swing guitarists, delivering powerful, smooth forward motion to the rest of the band. On “Ding Dong Daddy,” they both take solos on their new Martin D-28s—first Campbell and, later in the cut,  Reinhart. You can see an amazing film clip of this very band 20 seconds into the 1936 movie Oh, Susanna!, where they switch to an extremely fast version of “Tiger Rag,” and everyone solos. Campbell also plays acoustic lead to notable effect on tracks like “Dinah” and “Limehouse Blues.”

Sometime in 1937, Campbell acquired an example of the first commercially successful electric guitar, a Gibson ES-150 with its matching EH-150 amp (the same rig Charlie Christian used in pioneering the role of the jazz soloist in his work with Benny Goodman). Campbell’s soloing quickly evolved into a hip, melodic style—very lyrical and modern, instantly recognizable.With his new voice, he could relax and play with the beat, and he began adding harmonic ideas no Western guitarist had demonstrated yet.

Campbell’s solos with the Light Crust Doughboys on tracks like “Blue Guitars,” “I Had Someone Else Before I Had You,” “Dinah,” and “Beer Drinking Mama” surely warrant a reassessment of his incredible work, which has received surprisingly little recognition. Johnny Gimble, the legendary Texas swing fiddler and Bob Wills alumnus, witnessed Campbell firsthand as a teenager, and he confirmed with me on several occasions that everyone went nuts whenever the guitarist took a hot solo.

A Humble Legend

No list of Western swing musicians, let alone guitar players, is complete without the name Eldon Shamblin. Born in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Shamblin taught himself guitar and music by studying big-band charts and stock arrangements as a teen. During the desperate grimness of the Great Depression, he moved to Oklahoma City, where he played and sang on the radio.Eventually, he ended up in Tulsa, working with Dave Edwards’ Alabama Boys and at another radio station, where he arranged classical music pieces into little hot-jazz numbers.

Wills had been adding musicians to his ensemble to keep in step with the big-band craze of the late 1930s, and after hearing what Shamblin could do with sophisticated music like that, he imagined what the guitarist could do with a simple Western tune. Wills eventually convinced Shamblin to join the Texas Playboys as an arranger and guitar player, a position he would hold on and off for over 30 years.

Guitarist Herman Arnspiger remained in the band a number of years, as well, but with a more fiddle-like accompaniment approach. Shamblin, who was always humble, said that Arnspiger was great at the earlier style, and Uncle John Wills (Bob Wills’ father and original fiddle teacher) didn’t dig Shamblin’s playing at all. But everybody else loved Shamblin. His smooth sound of moving chords behind the melody, filling in with bass runs and ornate flourishes, shows Eddie Lang’s influence, but redefined in a style that was all his own.

Shamblin’s knowledge of harmony was far more evolved than most musicians in the Western music scene, and he often coached the other members of the band in navigating chords, even teaching them their parts one note at a time. He joined the band with an odd-looking Rickenbacker Electro-Spanish Model B electric guitar, but Bob Wills soon gave him one of two Gibson Super 400s he’d bought for the band, and Shamblin played this for 18 years until Leo Fender—a huge Bob Wills fan—gave him one of the very first Fender Stratocasters ever made. The Gibson Super 400 was acoustic, but it had a pickup mounted to it that ran to a volume pedal on the floor, another feature that would remain uncommon for years.


There are many great guitar moments from Shamblin on the recordings Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys made between 1933 and 1949. Listen to the bass lines Shamblin plays on “Time Changes Everything” and the ease and natural sophistication he adds to “Honey What You Gonna Do.” The instrumental “Taking It Home,” on which Shamblin teams up with Louis Tierney on violin, finds the guitarist playing loose and swinging. Shamblin takes a very nice melodic single-note solo on “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” and in the groundbreaking “Bob Wills Special,” he and steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe introduce the twin-guitar sound that would become a hallmark of Western swing.

Publicity photo for the Sons of the Pioneers
The Sons of the Pioneers

A series of radio transcriptions that Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys made between 1946 and 1948 (those “Tiffany Transcriptions”) absolutely captures the group’s joie de vivre and its diversity of material. The personnel were not always the same on each session, but the cohesion never falters, and everyone is clearly giving all they have on every song. They would play a hoedown like “Smith’s Reel,” then a Benny Goodman tune, followed by a classic Western piece and an electric version of a Cole Porter song.

These recordings are also excellent examples of how Shamblin’s three-part arrangements (guitar, steel, and electric mandolin) could sound like a big-band horn section. They are filled with incredible solos from Tiny Moore, Herb Remington, Junior Barnard, Joe Holley, Tierney, and of course Shamblin.

I hope I have stoked your interest in this fascinating and magnificent era of Western swing, with its brilliant guitar work, which still inspires me—even after playing it professionally on the road over a hundred nights a year for the last 21 years and counting.


Special thanks to Cary Ginell and Rich Kienzle for their liner notes and books, which guided me and taught me so much right from the beginning.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Whit Smith
Whit Smith

Whit Smith is a member of the Western swing group Hot Club of Cowtown and author of the Chordination series of instructional videos.

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