Hallmarks of Watson's Style
One of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s biggest influences on the 6-string was bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Like Brown, Watson played with a capo (or “clamp,” as Watson called it), moving it up and down the neck to change keys, allowing him constant access to open strings. Like B.B. King, Watson rarely played chords in live performance, sticking mostly to single-note solos and fills.
Watson loved the stinging sound of Fender guitars, and when he switched to Gibsons he continued to seek that brightness. His first Gibson ES-335, nicknamed “Fred the First,” gave him some of the top end he sought, but it was the Gibson ES-347 that delivered a more Fender-like sound when he needed it. It is likely he owned the version with coil taps, as he talked about having the “filter” down for a clean sound. His later use of SGs rather than Les Pauls was doubtless due to their greater clarity and top end.
Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s style ran the gamut from sophisticated, jazz-influenced lines to blatant, crowd-pleasing showmanship. But whether smart or flashy, his playing never left the pocket. Plucking the strings with his fingers and using a capo, he generated a vocal sound in the tradition of Texas pickers like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The important thing to remember is to “make that guitar sing.”
Fig. 1 shows how Watson would build tension and then release it over the turnaround in a slow blues in G. He begins with a classic Chuck Berry-esque series of 3rd-string bends before outlining all the notes of C9 in a syncopated, yet tasteful way. He finishes the last two measures with a descending line that comes to rest on the V chord, in this case D9.
Though he could play down and dirty blues with the best of them, Watson’s phrasing often evidenced more rhythmic sophistication than the average straight shuffle licks. For the bluesy phrase in Fig. 2, Watson stays within the comfortable realms of the 8th position and emphasizes C7 chord tones (C–E–G–Bb). Playing fingerstyle makes it easier to quickly alternate between the 3rd and 2nd string in measure 2.
The lick in Fig. 3 stays in the C blues scale, but shifts over to a funk groove. To emulate the “snap” favored by some of the Gulf Coast players, try placing a capo at the 8th fret and playing all the 8th-fret notes as open strings. Even though the groove is fairly straight, pluck the 16th-notes with a little bit of swing to keep things moving.