10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like T-Bone Walker

September 18, 2007
Born May 28, 1910 in Linden, Texas, T-Bone Walker became proficient enough on banjo (his first instrument), guitar, mandolin, violin, and piano to begin gigging by the age of 16. He later cited Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, and Blind Lemon Jefferson as early influences, but insisted that his blues came from a much deeper place: “The blues? Man, I didn’t start playing the blues ever. That was in me before I was born, and I’ve been playing and living the blues ever since.” (Quote from Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya [Dover Publications], edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff.)
Soon after dropping out of high school in the late ’20s,Walker found a kindred musical spirit early on when he met Charlie Christian in Oklahoma City, and both youngsters later went on to study with the same guitar teacher and perform together. Initially, Walker found work at carnivals, where he sang, danced, and backed professional blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Next he landed sideman gigs with Cab Calloway and Les Hite, before he and his wife relocated to Los Angeles in 1935. Soon thereafter, T-Bone acquired his first electric guitar and began honing his flamboyant stage act in the rowdy nightclubs of the city’s Watts district. When he began assembling his own bands, Walker always hired the best jazz musicians he could find, and the top-notch results bolstered his expanding popularity.
Though Walker’s guitar playing wasn’t featured on a recording under his own name until he cut “I Got a Break Baby” and “Mean Old World” for Capitol Records in 1942, he soon went on to rule the electric 6-string vinyl frontier for the decade between 1945 and 1955, during which he cut over 100 sides for the Black & White and Imperial labels, including his most famous song, “Call It Stormy Monday,” which made him a household name. As Walker’s brand of big-band blues became less fashionable during the late ’50s, he opted to break up his band, but continued to perform and record (for Atlantic throughout the ’60s and ABC Paramount in the early ’70s) until a hard lifestyle and persistent ulcer took their toll both physically and musically. T-Bone played his last concert opening for John Lee Hooker in Pittsburgh in June, 1974, suffered a stroke on New Year’s Eve that same year, and passed away on March 16, 1975.
It’s interesting that T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian—two of the most influential guitarists of all time—spent considerable time playing together during their formative years, then followed such different stylistic paths. Their singular yet overlapping styles (Walker jazzed-up single-note lines and comped sophisticated chord progressions like Christian; Christian, conversely, occasionally bent blue notes like Walker) make it apparent that some degree of osmosis had transpired between the two future legends, just as it has for the tens of thousands of disciples who later devoured T-Bone’s records. Let’s see if we can foment a similar reaction in your playing and infuse some T-Bone mojo into your style. First, you gotta …

1. Think Outside / Inside the Box

One can only imagine the atmosphere of sheer excitement T-Bone Walker generated when he first plugged in and electrified the blues. He was the first forward-thinking blues musician to openly embrace the electric guitar as a completely new instrument—first a Gibson ES-250 (1930s-1950s), then an ES-5 (’50s-’70s), an ES-335 (early ’70s), and a Barney Kessel model (’60s and ’70s), all typically played through Fender or Gibson amplifiers. Of course, Walker’s pioneering contributions to the genre extend far beyond the gear he used. Ironically, Walker’s popularization of and reliance on what has since been branded the pedestrian “blues box”—the now well-worn, box-shaped pentatonic minor and blues scale, which T-Bone favored as home base during his single-note solos—was actually way “outside the box” during his heyday. Though many of Walker’s licks have become commonplace today, he was the guy who first brought them to life. He also raised the bar considerably by borrowing additional notes (namely the 3, 6, and 2/9) from the parallel pentatonic major scale to add grist for his solo mill, and broke new ground in the genre by embellishing his dominant-7th chord voicings with jazzy extensions including the 9 and 13. “He was the first guy I ever heard play blues using a ninth chord,” confirms B.B. King, one of T-Bone’s most successful disciples.

2. Be a Consummate Showman

One certainly can’t ignore Walker’s larger-than-life presence, both on and off stage. From his sharp East Coast suits to his Buicks and Caddies, to his unique way of holding the guitar at nearly a right angle to his body, to his flamboyant stage moves, Walker was the first bluesman who had the whole package, and audiences absolutely ate it up. ’Bone could whip a crowd into a frenzy by laying back one minute, then playing the guitar behind his head while doing the splits. Walker’s female admirers would respond by showering the stage with money, gifts, and other more risqué items. Yow!

3. Pass the Torch

Most of Walker’s wildest stage moves were eventually adopted by showy blues-rockers such as Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan (except for those splits!). Of course, the innovator’s well of influence runs much deeper than mere stage calisthenics. By all accounts, Walker was always encouraging, supportive, and generous with his knowledge of music, and was more than willing to share his playing secrets with anyone who asked. According to his daughter Bernita, “If you came to him and said, ‘’Bone, I sure like that chord you hit,’ he would say, ‘Come here. Let me show you how to do it.’ That’s what Johnny Guitar Watson, Pee Wee Crayton, Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix did.” T-Bone’s disciples were products of this generosity, and most of them would be quick to agree that they wouldn’t have been as successful without it. B.B. King sums it up nicely: “He was a teacher to me and many others like myself.” The moral? When you learn something new, pass it on.

4. Bend the Rules

T-Bone’s slinky and sensuous string bends (which he first learned from his mother) were virtually unheard of at the dawn of electric blues. By restringing his ax with a plain, unwound G string (another first?), Walker could easily bend up a whole-step to match identical pitches on the adjacent B string, up a half-step to create chromatic passing tones, or anywhere in between. In addition, this revolutionary technique also allowed Walker to control the ramp time (how long the bend takes to peak) by gradually raising the pitch for emotive, “lazy” bends, or produce melodies by bending and releasing in time.
Example 1a depicts four distinctive one-beat pickups, each played on beat four approaching a tonic Bb on the downbeat of the following measure. Drop any one of these into bars 1-4, and/or 7 or 8 in a standard 12-bar blues progression in Bb and they’ll sound great (though they’ll work equally well in any measure). Ex. 1b demonstrates Walker’s “lazy” bends applied to a horn-like riff played over the IV chord in bars 5 and 6, with the second bend held, then released via a reverse grace-bend. Finally, Ex. 1c covers bars 9 and 10—normally V- and IV-chord territory, but played here as a IIm-V (Am7-D9) progression—with a displaced version of our first lick, plus microtonally bent b3s (Dbs) in two octaves surrounding a syncopated, gradual 6-to-b7 bend over the V chord. Curiously, Walker’s playing was completely devoid of finger vibrato. (Guess he left that one for Mr. King.)

5. Invent a Signature Turnaround

Walker cultivated a bum-per crop of blues licks for future generations to harvest, and perhaps none were more instantly recognizable than his signature turnarounds. The next three examples fill the final vacancy in our 12-bar Bb blues progression—bars 11 and 12—and each one features a variation of Walker’s practically patented and widely imitated blues-box-plus-6-and-9 moves. (SRV made this move his own by tacking a hammered-and-pulled root-b9-root sixteenth-note triplet, plus a b7 [Bb-Cb-Bb-Ab] onto Walker’s trademark 9/C.)
Example 2a reveals Walker’s basic strategy: Establish the root, b3, n3, 5, and octave-root (Bb, Db, D, F, and Bb), and walk down the b7 and 6 to the 5 (Ab, G, and F) in bar 11, then crest on the 9 (C) on the downbeat of bar 12 and drop back to the root plus one or more additional I-chord tones. Ex. 2b begins with a two-note pickup and follows a similar M.O., minus the grace-note hammer-on, and with the addition of a b3 (Db) target plus some rhythmic displacement of the remaining notes. Skip the 6 (G) on the “walk down” this time, then cap it with the same 9-to-root move as before and slide off of the added 5 (F). Our third variation, Ex. 2c, adds another eighth-note to the previous pickup, which has been inverted. Here, we target the 3 (D) on the downbeat, then repeat the last example verbatim, with two exceptions: This time we omit the b7 (Ab) in favor of the 6 (G), and leave off the final 5 (F). Move them around and you’ll soon discover that these ain’t just turnarounds.
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