Watch the Swing To Western Swing online guitar lesson by Ray Nijenhuis from Western Swing Guitar Guidebook
To get a thorough understanding of how to play rhythm guitar, Western swing style, we'll have to define Western swing. That is our first challenge. Why? Well, there's hardly any other style or music genre that is built on such a variety of sub genres and influences as Western swing:
Western Swing started in the state of Texas in the late 20's of the 20th century with stringed instruments; guitar and fiddle. Not only did they play fiddle tunes, they started to play the popular music of the day and gave them an upbeat treatment so people could dance to it. Blues, reels, New Orleans style, big band, hot and sweet jazz, waltzes, pop songs from the 20's and 30's, medicine show repertoire, polka's, Mexican, cowboy, boogie-woogie, yodeling, even Hawaiian songs, and so on. Whatever was popular at the time, the craze of the moment: you name it, they played it. That must have been quite a challenge. Let's face it. There was no YouTube to see how things were played, so those guys just played it to their best ability and thus bands like Milton Brown and the Lightcrust Doughboys developed their own style.
One band went a little further than most of the others: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. One of the things that set them apart was their adaptation of big band arrangements, doing so with stringed instruments. The invention of the electric guitar in the 30's played a major role in this: electric mandolin, standard and lap steel guitar were used to emulate a horn section. In 1937, Bob Wills added the 21-year-old guitar player Eldon Shamblin to the band, already known back then as "The Chord Wizard from Oklahoma". His knowledge of harmonies and arranging was exactly what Bob needed to take his band a step further. Shamblin became the band's arranger and in a way a teacher for his fellow band members. Because of his arranging skills, Eldon knew perfectly well what to play and what not. He was influenced by jazz guitarist Eddie Lang who himself was known for his use of sophisticated chord voicings. Actually, if you listen to Lang's 1928 duo recording of "I'll Never Be the Same" with pianist Rube Bloom, it'll be obvious what inspired Shamblin. During the piano solo, Lang starts playing a chord or inversion on every beat, just like Freddie Green would do years later with Count Basie. But after a few bars, Lang starts adding bass run and melodies to connect the chords! By 1940, Shamblin had more or less written the book on Western swing rhythm guitar playing with the landmark recording of "Take Me Back to Tulsa". During the recording session, Bob instructed Eldon to "play a lot of runs". He did so by connecting chords by means of inversions and moving basslines while keeping a steady rhythm. And so, in a nutshell, Western swing moved from campfire chords to sophisticated cowboy jazz also named "Jazz of the Midwest".
Since Eldon Shamblin was so important in defining Western Swing style rhythm guitar playing, this will be a large part of this course. We will examine the use of:
1. chord inversions (mostly triads, 6, and 7 chords) and the typical fingerings Shamblin used to allow him to add his "runs".
2. The concept of "interchanging a chord with its own 5 chord", which I will refer to as the "5 of rule", to create the extra ‘step’ between chords and inversions.
3. Playing a chain of dominant 7 chords (back cycling circle of fifths)
4. How to turn common chord progressions into Shamblin/Western swing style arrangements.
5. how to play exciting rhythm parts backing up a typical 8-bar fiddle tune. Building it up from two or three basic chords to the full blown Shamblin treatment.
The cool thing about the Eldon Shamblin rhythm style is that although there is a lot of chordal and melodic movement going on you will not be in anybody’s way!