Jamis Otis Wyble
January 25, 1922
January 16, 2010
Best Known For:
to Western swing and jazz, most notably
his etudes and explorations of contrapuntal
concepts and technique. Wyble was
also highly regarded as an instructor.
When imagining a guitar genius, one
might envision clichés of an eccentric
artist, probably with unkempt hair, a tormented
stare, and a whiff of madness. The
genius leaves behind a list of broken relationships
coldly sacrificed in obsessive pursuit of
art. But sometimes that mold is broken.
Sometimes the genius is surprisingly
humble, generous, and caring. Sometimes
a legacy is sustained not only by recordings
and musical breakthroughs, but also by lives
touched and changed. Such is the case with
Jimmy Wyble, an incredibly talented guitar
player and teacher who created a family tree
of musicians built on sincerity and patience.
He played country, Western swing, jazz,
and classical music, yet it’s tough to find
anyone who doesn’t mention Wyble’s personality
first when discussing his proficiency
on the guitar.
James Otis Wyble (January 25, 1922-–
January 16, 2010) was born in Port Arthur,
Texas, to Cajun parents who hailed from Port
Barre, Louisiana. He began playing guitar at
12 and received lessons from a machinist at
the oil refinery where his father worked. The
teacher taught Wyble to read music, along
with a few rudimentary chords. By his midteens,
the young guitar player was performing
with his teacher at parties and small dances.
Wyble’s early influences included bands that
passed through Port Arthur and Houston,
along with the work of jazz guitarists Eddie
Lang and Carl Kress, among others. The
mixture of Texas country and Western music
with Cajun influences provided the base, a
sort of roux, if you will, to which later jazz
inspirations would be added.
Student and close personal friend, Larry
Koonse, has amassed an extensive discography
and touring record, as well as being a
faculty member at the California Institute
of Arts since 1990. He says it’s possible
within just a couple of notes to recognize
Wyble’s work. It’s not so much the attack,
the phrasing, or the tone that is easily identifiable.
Instead, it’s the combination of
geographical and genre influences.
“He had an identity and sound that was
completely his own,” Koonse says. “It’s the
mix of elements that exist in his playing
due to where he grew up and the influences
that surrounded him. He definitely has
some of that New Orleans-style feel, even
Cajun mixed with this Texas swing style
that would be something you would identify
with Spade Cooley or Bob Wills. Mixed
with a New York jazz sensibility.”
Wyble moved to Houston after high
school and played with a variety of bands,
in addition to scoring a gig on KTRH radio
station performing short snippets of tunes
used in broadcasts. His teenage ability to
read music was crucial in scoring this gig
and was an indicator of his future proficiency
with charts and sheet music.
By the early ’40s, his friends and bandmates
were trading guitars for rifles and
shipping out to World War II battlefields in
Europe and Asia. Wyble, physically small to
begin with, had poor eyesight that exempted
him from the draft. However, he managed
to enlist in the Army and was assigned
to a marching band. Honorably discharged
after a year, Wyble returned to Houston and
began performing with a group of country
music pals, including Cameron Hill.
In a 2007 interview with Jim Carlton
published in Just Jazz Guitar magazine, Wyble
describes Hill as a “guitar player who didn’t
read a note but had a super ear. He could play
several of Charlie Christian’s solos, like ‘Flying
Home’ and ‘Soft Winds’ and we’d get together
and make a two-guitar thing happen.”
Along with Hill, Wyble received a big
career break when asked to join Bob Wills’
Texas Playboys in late 1943. The group
toured extensively and ultimately went to
CBS Studios in Hollywood to record versions
of Wills’ staples “Ida Red,” “Take Me
Back to Tulsa,” and “Roly Poly,” which stayed
on the charts for a number of weeks in 1946.
Wyble returned to Texas and enrolled at
the Houston Conservatory of Music, but
only studied a short while before joining
Spade Cooley’s band. During his tenure
in Cooley’s outfit, Wyble was featured in
a 1950 Fender advertisement, decked out
in Western shirt and dark rimmed glasses,
holding a black Esquire model with a white
pickguard and his name emblazoned on the
lower side of the body. Other photos from
the era show him with a blonde Esquire.
Over the years, Wyble played a variety of
guitars and chose whatever was best for the
particular application, as opposed to sticking
with a single trademark instrument.
In addition to the Fenders, he also played
Epiphones, Guilds, Gibsons, and Hofners,
and later in life, instruments by Roger
Borys, Paul McGill, and others.
Those later instruments are prime examples
of Wyble’s generosity and thoughtfulness.
Not only were they fine guitars that he
used in his practice and performances, they
were also gifts to the next generation.
“Jimmy’s plan was to have a few great guitar
makers make a guitar for him, but he had
them marked for his friends,” says Sid Jacobs,
longtime friend and instructor at Musicians
Institute. Wyble’s gifts were heartfelt gestures
to the people he cared about and also intended
to be working gear to benefit their careers.
This person got the Borys, that person got
the D’Angelico, and so forth. Larry Koonse
received a Paul McGill, among other guitars.
“The McGill is a very fine instrument—
a very pricey, handmade nylon-string
guitar,” Koonse says. “He invited me over
one day to show me the guitar and I was
playing it and just raving about it. It’s one
of the finest nylon string guitars I’ve ever
played, and it had a pickup in it and it
sounded organic with that pickup. It’s very
difficult to find a nylon string that feels
that way. And he said, ‘It’s yours. I actually
bought this for you because I know
you have this gig with the Billy Childs
Chambers Sextet.’ I was using a lot of nylon
strings and I really needed a fine instrument.
I had some good instruments but
nothing compared to this one. It really
upped my game. It was as if the universe
provided this to me through Jimmy Wyble.”
During the 1950s, Wyble quilted together
an impressive schedule of session work with
band performances and his own endeavors.
In 1953, he released The Jimmy Wyble
Quintet, an album that offered a more
diverse and complex texture than some
might expect from the former Western swing
musician, although Wyble himself didn’t
really consider it jazz. The album featured an
accordion, clarinet, percussion, and bass to
round out his inventive guitar playing.
By today’s regimented and corporately
programmed standards, few musicians
cross genres as disparate as country music
and jazz. However, in the ’40s and ’50s, it
wasn’t as much of a leap as it might seem to
a contemporary music fan.
“Many hillbilly guitarists had wide-ranging
influences,” writes Charles McGovern in
an essay entitled “The Music: The Electric
Guitar in the American Century,” collected
in The Electric Guitar: A History of
an American Icon, edited by André Millard.
The author includes Wyble in a group of
musicians who were all “legends in Nashville
and West Coast studios” and were “as much
at home with jazz, swing, and even bebop
tunes as they were with fiddle tunes.”
Wyble himself probably didn’t bother
with strict genre demarcations, instead preferring
to simply appreciate good guitar.
“He kept saying to me, ‘You’ve got to
keep an open mind to everything, listen to
everything,’” recalls student and platinum selling
guitarist Steve Lukather. “He said,
‘Eventually, it’s all going to rub off and
you’ll end up with a style of your own.’”