Western Swing 101
Country, jazz, and blues meld in one of America’s most treasured musical genres.
• Add jazz phrasing to your country solos.
• Understand how to work intervallic double-stops into your licks.
• Develop a solo over the changes to a Western swing standard.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Western swing is a unique fusion of musical styles and cultures, primarily encompassing country, jazz, blues, swing, and big band. The genre developed in Oklahoma, Texas, and California, and thrived in dance halls throughout the Southwest during the ’30s and ’40s. Though it’s no longer heard on mainstream radio, this distinctive and lively music still has a dedicated following and presence in small pockets of the country, where some fans would say the bands are swinging harder and hotter than ever.
Even a cursory listen makes it obvious that the musicians in the Western swing scene are extremely proficient and play with a fun, relaxed attitude. Infectious and quirky humor plays a big role in Western swing, and its practitioners favor technically risky and entertaining improvisation and complex chord substitutions, and often borrow phrasing from instruments not found in traditional country music.
Like jazz, Western swing has a handful of “standards”—tunes that form the bedrock of the style. Many of these tunes were written and performed during the earlier days of the genre, most notably by Bob Wills. Songs like “Roly Poly,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and “Corrine, Corrina” are great examples of the genre. Today, we’re going to use the chord progression from one of these classic tunes, “San Antonio Rose.”
The changes to “San Antonio Rose” in Ex. 1 are characteristically simple with a few dominant chords and a major 6 chord, all arranged in easy-to-decipher A and B sections. The progression also uses a secondary dominant chord (A7) in both sections. In this case, the A7 serves as the V of V. Let me break that down: We’re in the key of G major, which makes the V chord D7. Now, the V of that is A7. You can also think of this non-diatonic chord as a II7.
In this clip from The Ernest Tubb Show, guitarist Leon Rhodes and steel guitarist Buddy Charleton tear through “Honey Fingers,” an up-tempo tune full of intricate, harmonized lines.
As you can hear in the audio example below, the strum pattern is a little closer to Freddie Green (the legendary guitarist in the Count Basie Orchestra) than Chet Atkins. Strive for a solid, swinging four-to-the-measure feel and you’ll get really close.
Once you have the chords and rhythms down, it’s time to move on to the solo. Offering playful and interesting improvisational ideas, this technically challenging solo (Ex. 2) is written with Western swing in mind. But before we dive into the notation, we need to touch on the required right-hand technique. When playing this excerpt, I used a fingerstyle technique that’s fairly common in country and jazz. The easiest way to replicate this is to use the thumb, index, middle, ring, and sometimes pinky fingers on your right hand to get that punchy, plucked attack.
Another method is to use a thumbpick or adopt a hybrid-picking technique combining a flatpick and fingers. For the latter, grip the pick between your thumb and index fingers while using your remaining fingers to pluck the strings independently of the pick. Many great players prefer hybrid picking because it gives them the option to throw in the clear, articulated sound of a flatpick at any moment, and switch to alternate and economy picking as the music demands.
From here, I’m going to break down a few choice excerpts of this solo and talk about some of my favorite devices and techniques.
At the very beginning of the solo, I go straight into a 1–3–5–7–9 (G–B–D–F#–A) arpeggio that adds a cool extended-chord sound over the G6. Extended arpeggios are a great vehicle for bridging the gap between chord changes and scales, and they give you an easy way to build lines that include more than simple chord tones. I’d recommend working on all the major possibilities for 1–3–5–7–9 arpeggios. When you have those down, try adapting the ideas you discover to work in minor situations.
Go Your Own Way
Improvising gives you freedom to compose some new changes too! Before you get very far into the solo, you will hear some crazy chordal stuff that I overlay to spice up the progression and catch the listener’s ear. This technique is used fairly often in country, jazz, and Western swing. The soloist either plays arpeggios or block-style chords with a rhythmic delivery to build on the simple harmonic structure that the band is playing. You can find an example of this starting in the fifth measure over the G6. Here I’m outlining a totally different progression: G–Gdim7–C–Cm–G–Bbm–Am–F#7b5.
You have to be careful when and how to apply this, and generally you want to superimpose progressions that will add that sweet tension over very simple changes. You also always want to be able to bring it home.
Heavenly Harmonics & Singing Steel
The sound of the harmonic G6 chord implies a steel guitar tuning and really adds a great Western-swing element to the solo. I used these 12th-fret harmonics twice in the first A section—check out measures eight and 16. In the first instance, I did a slight neck bend. You’ve probably heard this technique before in many circumstances, maybe most notably Heart’s “Barracuda.”
he Time Jumpers keep the flame of Western swing alive with their weekly Monday-night gig at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley Bar and Grill. Here’s the band tackling the classic “My Window Faces the South.” Be sure to check out the solos starting at 1:30.
For the second harmonic chord, I added a behind-the-nut bend. It’s a playful trick: After you strike the harmonics, push down on the 2nd string behind the nut to raise the note up a half-step, and then release the pressure to return the string to its original pitch.Used sparingly, such techniques provide a great way to add a new texture, create some space, and collect your thoughts for the next phrase.
Slip, Slidin’ Sequences
In measure 25 there’s a nice sliding lick that’s based in G Mixolydian (G–A–B–C–D–E–F). It connects a series of three-note motifs over the 16th-note rhythm. If you accent the first note of each slide you get a cool, funky sound that plays with the time a bit. This technique pops up again in measure 31.
One of my favorite ideas in this solo happens in measure 29. I play a quick phrase using a series of perfect fourth intervals (and one naturally occurring tritone). Personally, I love the unresolved sound and blocky effect of the fourths, but you could really choose any interval here. Though it’s a very simple concept, it sounds super hip.
The entirety of this solo features some more interesting devices and techniques hidden within, and I hope you can get a chance to spend some time with it, add some awesome new licks to your vocabulary, and maybe even gain some new conceptual understanding of chords, scales, and theory.