There are few figures in our pop music history that have provided such long-term excitement, had such far-reaching influence on artists of many styles, and caused such inspiration for the electric guitar as has T-Bone Walker. The list of stars that cite Walker as their chief influence seems unending. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown—all regarded T-Bone as one of their principle guitar heroes and influences. Chuck Berry commented that everything you see him do on the stage came from T-Bone.
Laying the foundation for modern urban
blues, the electric archtop-playing Walker
bridged a gap between blues and jazz guitar
styles, and played in a manner that borrowed
stylistic cues from both traditions. Although
he is credited with moving the acoustic blues
style to the electric guitar, his signature style
really came from combining that with the
influences of both jazz and the forties-style
jump-swing bands. Four or five players stand
out as the first ones who transferred the
blues to electric guitar, but Walker boasted
that he beat them all, and claimed to be the
first in the late thirties!
It is no wonder his harmonic vocabulary
reflects both jazz and blues: in his early
days he was mixing with the likes of Charlie
Christian, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson,
and other Texas performers. In the forties,
when he fronted his own bands, his choices
for sidemen were the best jazz players he
could find. Writers refer to his style as the
smoother “California Style” blues. Although
he has some of the grit of earlier blues players,
as well as that harmonic language, his
interest in chordal lines, jazz-style improvised
single lines, rhythmic jazz phrasing, and playing
with a smooth clean tone are all elements
more akin to jazz guitar playing.
His star burned the brightest through the forties.
Following that decade, his career was
slowed down by growing popular interest in
rock ‘n’ roll and declining health (probably
related to alcoholism). A devoted European
audience and tours to Europe helped keep
his career alive in the sixties. Health problems,
likely the complications of alcoholism, took
their toll when he died of a stroke in 1975.
Glamor shots over his career show him with
Gibson guitars: ES-250, ES-5 and, in the sixties,
the Barney Kessel Regular model.
Come on back next month for T-Bone, Part 2,
and even more signature Walker phrases for
you to woodshed!
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of
teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and
has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast.
An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at premierguitar.com (dealer: IslandFunhouse).
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