Journey Out West: A Western Swing Primer
Since the early days of Bob Wills swinging away in Texas dance halls, this genre has combined elements of blues, jazz, country, and more. Here’s how to nail its timeless sound.
• Combine elements of jazz, blues, and country into a swing-based style.
• Learn how to target chord tones in your solos.
• Understand how to use chord inversions to create movement in your rhythm parts.
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From the Texas dance halls of the 1930s, the home of the legendary Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, to the modern-day swing of the Hot Club of Cowtown, Western swing has remained a gem of country music. In this infectious genre, twin fiddles, bouncing double bass, driving guitar solos, and singing lap steel are all married to a beat that’s designed for dancing. It’s a blend of country, swing, jazz, and blues that is sure to put a smile on the face of any music aficionado.
Throughout this lesson, we’ll explore some of the traditional idioms from recordings of the ’30s and ’40s, as well as more modern sounds being played today by such torchbearers as Whit Smith (the Hot Club of Cowtown), Dave Biller (Wayne Hancock, the Lucky Stars), and Jeremy Wakefield (the Lucky Stars).
Ex.1 kicks us off by demonstrating the rhythmic comping style that’s essential to Western swing. Since much of the Western swing repertoire is based on simple harmony, our focus will be on how to create compelling movement between the chords. Here, we’re playing the chords to “Sugar Moon” in the key of G. Notice how the inversions help create smooth voice-leading.
Ex. 2 takes this chord navigation to the next step by adding passing chords. Rather than over-analyzing these passing chords, just think about the first two measures as “being in G.” The trick is to think about the destination of A7 hitting on beat 1. Once you’ve got these moves under your fingers, try applying them to different progressions in other keys.
Western swing guitar often features blazing underscore parts that happen during a vocal section, usually later in the song to add some interest after a chorus or solo. Ex. 3 is a full solo run-through over the A section of “Sugar Moon.” We’re targeting chord tones to outline the changes while adding chromatics for flavor.
We’re focusing on enclosures in Ex. 4. An enclosure is essentially an elaborate way to emphasize a chord tone by surrounding it with neighbor tones. In this example, we’re using a scale tone above our target chord tone and a chromatic note below it. (In classical music, this might be called an ornament or turn.) Once you understand the basic cell of an enclosure, you can apply it to any chord tone to great effect.
So far, our examples have paid homage to the more traditional camp of Western swing. Ex. 5 is a simple, yet effective passage inspired by the playing of Whit Smith. He often takes an idea and plays it over a few measures to weave across the changes. Here, we’re applying an ascending scale pattern to a common turnaround (G–G7–C–C#dim–G). We carry this idea across the next three measures before adding an enclosure again over the C#dim and resolving to G.
Ex. 6 is a brief visit to the blues. This is the sort of material you might hear from the fingers of Junior Barnard, who played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Junior and the guitarists of his time all appear in photos with big archtop jazz boxes, which would have been strung with heavy strings. As a result, a lot of the bends you hear on classic Western swing recordings are often half-step bends. In measure 2, you can see the repeated pattern involving a half-step bend across the top three strings. A common motif amongst Western swing players, this can also be heard elsewhere, such as in Louis Jordan’s R&B classic, “Caledonia.”
The Western swing sound wouldn't be complete without a soaring lap-steel guitar. In Ex.7, we’ll try to emulate some chord voicings that are common to a C6 lap steel. The 8-string C6 tuning is A–C–E–G–A–C–E–G, which spells out a C6 chord, or an Am7. Instead of just grabbing 6th chord voicings that are familiar grips on the guitar, I’ve endeavored to use the same voicings that occur on lap steel. For example, in measures 2 and 3 you have a whole-step between the 5 and 6 of the chord on the 4th and 3rd strings. This might feel a little awkward at first, but it sounds more authentic.
Ex. 8 is an example of twin-melody interplay in the first 8 measures of “I’m an Old Cowhand.” You’ll find twin-fiddle melodies all over Western swing, and it’s common to hear this arrangement applied to either two guitars, guitar and mandolin, or guitar and lap steel. Here, Guitar 1 plays the melody and Guitar 2 plays a harmony. Both parts embellish their melodies and take turns playing intertwining fills to decorate the principle lines.