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.’”