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The Development of Western Swing Style Guitar

Fiddle-tune-based flatpick style guitarists generally discover swing style guitar at some point in their development. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a popular first swing tune. Django Reinhardt is an important “ear-opening” guitarist and his “Minor Swing” is also an often-played favorite. However they get into it, most guitarists eventually find their way to the unique Western version of swing music.

Western swing style guitar suggests many different images. For some, it is specifically the rhythm guitar style developed by the great Eldon Shamblin while he was a member of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Others include the rhythm and lead styles of countless guitarists who played with Wills and bands that developed from or were inspired by the Wills sound. Still others think of cowboy music, beginning with the Sons of the Pioneers and including modern groups such as Riders In The Sky. For some, it is contest-style fiddle backup on guitar, sometimes called Texas “sock” style. All these styles can rightfully be called Western swing style guitar.

The swing guitar sound is instantly recognizable and owes more to the swing and jazz world than it does folk music. Swing rhythm features steady four-to-the-bar strums with chords typically changing every two beats. A moving bass line often anchors these changing chords. It is similar to the left hand piano rhythm style called “stride,” but played on the guitar. Characteristic chord forms include sixths, ninths, diminished and augmented. The lead style also developed from swing and early jazz music of the 1920s-40s.

The four-beat swing sound developed out of ragtime and early jazz music. Swing was the sound of the roaring 1920s. Jazz Age dances such as the Charleston, Lindy Hop, and Fox Trot helped establish swing as the popular modern beat. Swing was dance music, first and foremost. The rhythmic long-short, long-short beat was a national craze. Southwestern stringed-instrument-playing folk musicians of the 1920s and early 1930s heard the dance orchestras of Paul Whiteman and others and began to incorporate this pulsing rhythm into their music. The open ringing guitar chord rhythm style so popular in Appalachian styles was slowly replaced in the West by the newer style. Left and right hand muting and the use of barre chords (with few open strings) allowed guitarists to emulate the modern jazzy pulse.

The new style combined the jazz sounds of radio, records and the big dance halls of the central and northeastern United States with fiddle tunes, square dance music, blues, and other rural folk music. The ethnic sounds of German, Czech, French, and Mexican Americans also were a great influence. Although we cannot say he was the originator of the style, Texas Panhandle fiddler Bob Wills is the most well-known Western swing bandleader. “Bob Wills Music” and “Western swing” have become synonyms for this infectious style.

Wills moved to Fort Worth in 1929 and formed the Wills Fiddle Band as a duo with himself on fiddle and Herman Arnspiger on acoustic guitar. Arnspiger appears with a Gibson L-4 guitar in numerous early 1930s photographs. The carved top, round sound hole, raised pick guard and tailpiece of this model make it very distinctive. That duo soon joined with another duo, vocalist Milton Brown and his younger brother Derwood Brown on guitar. Brown is pictured in 1931 with a small flat-top Gibson with an attached pick guard. The name of this band changed often, depending on who hired them. In 1930 the group got a job promoting lamps on WBAP for the Aladdin Lamp Company and they were known as the Aladdin Laddies. However, that job only lasted a few months. In 1931, with the Burrus Flour Mill as their sponsor, they became the Light Crust Doughboys. Some early photos of the Doughboys (see phot on this page) do not include the teenaged Durwood Brown, as he was an “unofficial” member of the band.

In addition to playing on the radio and touring as the Light Crust Doughboys, the group also played dance music in Crystal Springs every Saturday night. The music that they played in the dance halls was different than that which they played on the radio as the Light Crust Doughboys because the sponsor, W. Lee O’Daniel, picked the songs that the Doughboys played. The book Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing (University of Illinois Press, 1994) written by Cary Ginell and Roy Lee Brown (Milton’s youngest brother) states, “In addition to barnstorming for Light Crust Flour, Milton Brown and the band continued to play dances every Saturday night at Crystal Springs. O’Daniel had nothing to do with the group’s dance engagements and constantly worried about what those ‘disreputable establishments’ would do to Light Crust Flour’s reputation. The Light Crust Doughboys’ repertoire as the Doughboys differed greatly from what was played at the dance halls. On the radio, with W. Lee O’Daniel in charge, songs were limited to those with ‘high moral character,’ meaning old-time ballads about mother, home, religion, and family. Milton Brown sang these tunes with great affection, but he knew that people also wanted more up-to-date numbers, especially at dances. During rehearsals at Will Ed Kemble’s furniture store, the Doughboys listened to all the latest 78 rpm recordings, which Kemble sold. Through these records, Milton expanded his vocal repertoire to include popular and jazz tunes, some of which he had learned while with his vocal group in the late 1920s.”

In February of 1932 the Victor recording company came to Dallas from New York City to make recordings with local artists. The Doughboys changed their name to the Fort Worth Doughboys (to avoid any trouble between the band and W. Lee O’Daniel) and recorded “Sunbonnet Sue” and “Nancy Jane” for Victor. Both recordings feature acoustic rhythm guitar played in the open bass-chord style by Derwood Brown. It is very much in the style of eastern “hillbilly” guitarists of the period such as “blue yodeler” Jimmy Rogers and the influential Riley Puckett, who played with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers. Clinton “Sleepy” Johnson later replaced Arnspiger in the Doughboys (see the photo on the next page). Johnson played fiddle, guitar, and tenor banjo. Johnson’s playing on later fiddle/guitar recordings with Wills from 1935 and 1936 include “Smith’s Reel” and “Waltz in D.” These recordings feature the same open-chording style used by Derwood Brown. Johnson is shown with a small mahogany-topped Martin in photographs. Recordings of early Texas fiddlers in the 1920s also feature the “boom-chick” style. The syncopated Western swing guitar rhythm was not born until later.

The tenor banjo may well have been the first instrument to play swing rhythm in Western swing. The Tango Banjo was invented sometime between 1910 and 1915. It was so-called because it was used as a lead instrument in the then-popular American tango bands. As the popularity of tangos faded, the tango banjo became the tenor banjo and was used in the late teens and 1920s dance orchestras to supply dance rhythm at a volume to compete with drums, horns, and other instruments. Its short neck and high tuning (CGDA) made it a loud acoustic instrument. Many of the early Western swing bands featured a tenor banjo in their lineup and some kept the instrument long after most swing and jazz bands had replaced rhythm banjo with guitar.

By September 1932, Milton Brown had left the Doughboys because he was interested in leading his own dance band and playing the kind of music that W. Lee O’Daniel was not allowing the Doughboys to play. Brown formed the regionally popular Musical Brownies whose career was cut short by Brown’s death in a 1936 automobile accident. Brown’s rhythm section included brother Derwood on guitar and Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo. Brown was also the first to add piano to a Western swing band with pianist Fred “Papa” Calhoun. Additionally, Cecil Brower and Jesse Ashlock played twin fiddles and Wanna Coffman played the upright bass (bull fiddle). According to Roy Lee Brown, Milton told the bass player to “Slap it like they do down in New Orleans.” Later Brown added jazz-influenced Bob Dunn on steel guitar. The band’s instrumentation and repertoire marked the origination of the music that would later become known as “Western swing.”

Between 1934 and 1936, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies recorded nearly one hundred selections for Decca and Victor. Some music historians feel Brown’s band would have eclipsed Wills’ in popularity if Brown had lived. His band sound was decidedly more sophisticated than Wills’ early band although Brown never incorporated drums or horns as did Wills. Brown’s song selections came largely from the standard jazz and swing repertoire of the day. Wills’ early recordings included some of this material as well, but not to the same extent as the Brownies.

Wills continued with the Light Crust Doughboys on into 1933. The remaining two Doughboys, Wills and Sleepy Johnson, replaced Milton and Derwood Brown with Tommy Duncan (guitar and vocals) and Herman Arnspiger (guitar/tenor banjo) and continued to perform under the Doughboy name.

Later in 1933, Wills formed his Texas Playboys and over the next few years added drums, piano, horns, and the then-new electric steel guitar and standard guitar to the instrumentation of Western swing music. Wills’ group made their first recordings in 1935 for the Brunswick label. Rhythm guitar was not featured prominently in these first sessions. The 1936 recording of “Bluin’ the Blues” features a guitar solo by Sleepy Johnson on the jazzy acoustic lead. On mid-1930s sessions, two guitars and a banjo were often listed on the track listings, although the guitars were hard to hear in the rhythm section. The second acoustic guitarist on these recordings was often either Johnson or Leon McAuliffe, who would become best known as an electric steel guitarist. Wills’ brother Johnny Lee, who later led his own band in Tulsa, played the banjo. Herman Arnspiger continued to work with Wills up until the early 1940s, even after Eldon Shamblin [see below] was in the band.

The music in this early period of the Wills band was definitely swing-influenced but lacked the focus and drive the band would find by 1940. The horns played more in a 1920s Dixieland style and the arrangements sounded dated compared to mid 1930s dance orchestras. Perhaps due to poor recording techniques, the rhythm sound is very busy with piano, guitar, drums and banjo all fighting for a place in the music. No one had ever augmented a string band with horns and drums before. Wills was creating a new sound and these recordings were the first steps toward the new genre.

In 1937, Wills added a young Oklahoma guitarist named Eldon Shamblin to the Playboys lineup. Shamblin was a self-taught guitarist with considerable arranging skills. His rhythm style would ultimately re-define Western swing rhythm guitar. Shamblin’s first recorded guitar work with Wills was on the acoustic. Although his trademark rhythm style was not yet as obvious, his jazzy lead style was featured on several recordings in 1938. He recorded several harmonized duet solos with steel guitarist, Leon McAuliffe including the famous blues duet that is often heard today in “Milk Cow Blues” (see transcription on page 10). This duet was worked out over several months and was first recorded on “Bob Wills Special.” On the recording, Wills identifies the new sound with his call, “Ahh, twin guitars.” Eldon recalled that on these recordings and others, including the landmark 1940 sessions, he played an acoustic Gibson Super 400 Wills had sold him. Wills had bought two Super 400s in 1936 and gave one to Herman Arnspiger and the other to vocalist Tommy Duncan. Duncan stopped playing guitar with the band so it was offered to Eldon when he joined the band. Eldon bought it for $225, paid out at $2 a week.

Shamblin recounts that he developed his trademark rhythm style at Wills’ urging. During a 1940 recording session, Wills asked him to “put some runs” into his rhythm guitar part on “Take Me Back To Tulsa.” Shamblin remembers this was the only time Wills ever told him what he wanted from the guitar. The acoustic bass was a quiet instrument that didn’t compete well with the drum set, especially on recordings. Eldon also remembered that Wills would often hire a singer or other musician who had very little bass experience to play bass. Shamblin recorded with the Super 400 guitar and kept a bass line running through the songs, often with a new chord every two beats. Eldon’s characteristic rhythm style is first heard clearly on the 1940-41 recordings of Wills’ classics such as “San Antonio Rose” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” Sometime later, he began playing electric and is pictured in 1941 playing a Gibson non-cutaway archtop electric (possibly an ES-150).

Shamblin’s solo guitar work has been incorrectly (in my opinion) called “Christian-esque” in numerous accounts of his style. Charlie Christian was the Oklahoma guitarist who single-handedly defined electric jazz guitar in the early 1940s. His classic recordings with Benny Goodman are still considered to be among the best jazz guitar solos ever played. A 1941 Metronome Magazine article said of Shamblin, “[he] comes closer than any other white plectrist to getting the solidity and swing and steady flow of ideas of Charlie Christian.” Although these men were both from Oklahoma, it seems unlikely that Shamblin heard Christian play before Christian’s first landmark recordings with Goodman in 1939. Shamblin recorded solo guitar with Wills as early as 1938 and was already playing in his characteristic style. In the 1978 interview cited above, Shamblin acknowledges Christian’s great playing, but doesn’t single him out as an influence. It would seem that Shamblin and Christian were both influenced by the great jazz soloists of the 1920s and 30s and developed their styles independently. Although Shamblin played solos on these early recording, he saw himself primarily as a rhythm guitarist.

During these years Wills carried a full line-up of horns. His sound rivaled that of the big bands of the era. It should be noted that the self-taught Shamblin wrote all the horn arrangements for Wills hits such as “Big Beaver” and “San Antonio Rose.” Billboard magazine listed Wills as the highest paid bandleader in the country. Hit recordings of “San Antonio Rose” by the Playboys and movie star Bing Crosby put the Wills band on the national map. The band moved to California and starred in numerous “B” Western movies over the next several years.

Eldon left the band to serve in the armed forces during World War II. This opened up a guitar position in the orchestra, so Wills added two electric guitarists, Jimmy Wyble and Cameron Hill. Both played on numerous 1945 recordings including the classic “Roly Poly.” The guitar solo on this Cindy Walker tune includes two guitar licks that have become Western swing clichés. Later recordings of “Roly Poly” generally include musical “quotes” from Wyble’s memorable solo.

In 1946 and 1947, the Wills band recorded many “live in the studio” songs for the Tiffany Transcription Company. These recordings featured the smaller “post-war band” and are available today in the multi-volume “Tiffany Transcriptions” series. In the 1940s, many copies of these transcribed performances would have been made. The records were sent to radio stations where they could be played as “live” performances. These recordings were less formal than a serious recording session and include many candid moments such as vocalist Tommy Duncan’s laughter at Bob’s constant vocalizing. Many Wills fans feel this material is among the best the band ever made.

Wills’ vocal antics should be addressed here. Some listeners have objected to his nearly constant talking, introducing and “Ahh-Haa-ing” during instrumental solos. Musicians trying to learn solos off the records hear Wills as an unwanted distraction that sometimes covers up a great lick on the recording. His recorded introductions however did much for the musicians that may not be immediately obvious. At the height of his popularity, Wills’ calls of “Take it away, Leon” and “Ahh, come in Tommy, sing” made stars out of his band members who might have otherwise remained anonymous to the public. Leon McAuliffe and Tommy Duncan both had solo careers after their stints with Wills. Wills’ call of “Herbie, Tiny, Eldon” during harmonized solos helped establish solo careers for Herb Remington (steel) Tiny Moore (electric mandolin) and Eldon Shamblin. An added benefit is that while album liner notes may not identify the musicians, Bob always did!

The guitarists on the Tiffany recordings were Lester “Junior” Barnard (1946 sessions) and Eldon Shamblin (1947 sessions). Junior’s wild bluesy sound was in stark contrast to Shamblin’s more controlled jazz inspired approach. Some observers have called Barnard the first rock and roll guitarist. His unique style featuring string bends, bluesy licks, and an overdriven amplifier tone was at least ten years before its time. He was killed in a 1951 car accident.

Very few of the Big Bands survived the war years. The Wills band was no exception. Wills’ post-war groups featured string musicians who played harmonized section choruses much like a horn group. Eldon Shamblin, Herb Remington (steel), Tiny Moore (mandolin, fiddle), and Johnny Gimble (fiddle, mandolin) were among the dynamic musicians who worked with Wills in the late 1940s. Although the band was in a decline as far as popularity went, these years produced some of Wills most exciting music.

Influences on Western swing style guitar came from many sources. French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt was known for his infectious guitar-driven swing music. His 1930s recordings with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France featuring swing violinist Stéphane Grappelli were studied closely by scores of Texas fiddlers and guitarists. The 1930s cowboy music group Sons of the Pioneers featured (beginning in 1934) a hot fiddle/guitar duo from Texas. Hugh Farr on fiddle and Karl on guitar created a Western version of the Reinhardt/Grappelli sound. Karl Farr’s rhythm and lead style helped set the swingy drive of Western music. The Pioneers’ appearance in many Western movies helped spread the Western sound. All subsequent cowboy bands have featured the swing guitar rhythm style.

The acoustic arch-top guitar chording of Freddie Green anchored Count Basie’s popular big band from 1937. Green’s great rhythm sound featured three-note chords formed mostly on the sixth, fourth, and third strings of the guitar. His influence on swing guitar was immense. Legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian made recordings beginning in the early 1940s with the Benny Goodman orchestra. His lead style had a life changing effect on many jazz and swing guitarists including jazz greats Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and nearly everyone else.

In the 1950s and 60s, country stars Hank Thompson and Ray Price kept the Western swing sound alive but otherwise this was a dark period for the style. Country singer Mel Tillis recorded a Bob Wills tribute album and a number of new albums featuring Wills were recorded in Nashville during the 1960s. Vocalist/guitarist Tag Lambert traveled and performed with Wills during these years and his style shows a strong influence of earlier Wills’ guitarists including Junior Barnard. Leon Rhodes, who played hot country/jazz guitar with Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadors and was the staff guitarist for the Grand Ole Opry for many years, was featured on some of the 1960s Nashville recordings. Despite the presence of great musicians including former Playboy Johnny Gimble and a who’s-who of session musicians, the Nashville sessions are generally lack luster and pale in comparison to Wills’ best work. The aging Wills’ “Ahh-haas” and other vocal interjections are obviously over-dubbed and the results are often “cheesy” and the songs definitely do not swing.

Country singer Merle Haggard helped start a revival of Western swing. His long-time guitarist Roy Nichols was heavily influenced by Wills music. Haggard’s 1970 Capital recording A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddler Ever: My Tribute To Bob Wills featured many former Texas Playboys including mandolinist Tiny Moore and Eldon Shamblin. Haggard later added both Moore and Shamblin to his band, the Strangers. Haggard continued to show his love for Western swing by hiring other swing musicians such as singer Freddie Powers and country-jazz guitarist extraordinaire Clint Strong.

Haggard’s 1970 Wills tribute album led directly to the United Artists 1972 release For the Last Time: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys two-album boxed set. This album featured many of the original Playboys including Shamblin. Wills himself was present for the first session and makes a few vocal contributions. This album is now available in CD format at a bargain price and contains lots of great Eldon-style rhythm guitar. Tommy Allsup, an excellent swing guitarist who continues to be involved with numerous swing related recording projects, was the producer. Nashville session steel guitar ace Buddy Emmons recorded an excellent Wills tribute for Flying Fish in 1976. Leon Rhodes guitar work on this project is memorable.

Asleep at the Wheel, led by guitarist/singer Ray Benson, recorded their first album in 1972. The band relocated to Austin, Texas and for over thirty years, kept the Western swing torch alive. More recently, their two Wills tribute albums featured many top country stars and scored a few hits with Lee Ann Womack’s “Heart to Heart Talk” (featuring Tommy Allsup’s tasteful introduction) and the Dixie Chick’s “Roly Poly.”

Numerous players in the 80s and 90s helped keep the Western swing rhythm style alive. Country super star George Strait recorded several of Wills’ famous songs in the swing style. Doug Green (Ranger Doug) of Riders In The Sky is considered by many to be one of the best acoustic arch-top rhythm players today. His band’s hugely popular recordings and television appearances have kept swing guitar front and center. The popular 1980s bluegrass band Hot Rize gave swing guitar more exposure with their performances as Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Band members Tim O’Brien and Nick Forrester both played the style well using vintage Gibson ES150 guitars. Forrester produced an instructional video on swing guitar for Homespun. Multi-instrumentalist Marcy Marxer who has performed regularly with Cathy Fink for many years has also produced a swing guitar video. Texas steel guitarist Tommy Morrell has produced a series of great instrumental recordings on his own label that feature great swing rhythm guitar. The contemporary band Hot Club of Cowtown features Whit Smith whose guitar style owes much to all the Western swing pioneers mentioned here.

Once in danger of being forgotten, Western swing style guitar seems healthy today. Most flatpicking recordings include at least one good swing tune. Swing guitar—Western style or otherwise—appears to be here to stay.

Here are some currently available titles:
Take Me Back To Tulsa (2002): Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Proper Records Boxed Set (4 CDs)
Let’s Ride With Bob (1999): Asleep At the Wheel, Dreamworks 50117
For The Last Time: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Capitol 28331
Hot Club of Cowtown – anything!
Tiffany Transcriptions Vols 1-10, Rhino, especially Vol 2 Greatest Hits
Other Resources:
The author has produced numerous Western swing guitar related materials including:
Western Swing Guitar Styles (rhythm), Mel Bay Publications MB94906BCD
60 Hot Western Swing Guitar Licks (lead), Mel Bay Publications MB95101BCD

Milkcow Blues Duet Solo
Here is a duet solo originally arranged and recorded by Leon McCauliffe on steel and Eldon Shamblin in acoustic guitar. I have arranged both parts for standard guitar. This solo was featured on several Bob Wills’ recordings including “The Bob Wills Special” and “Milkcow Blues.” It is now a cliché solo, always played in “Milkcow Blues.” This music comes from a soon-to-be-released CD/book combo from Mel Bay by Joe Carr about Western swing lead guitar styles.