Stylistic hallmarks of Shamblin’s trademark rhythm guitar approach include a boom/chick pattern of bass note/chord, and an ingenious scheme that allowed him to change chord forms and voicings every two beats—even when the chord itself didn’t change. For example, in a song like “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” in which the chords change only once every three or four bars, Shamblin managed to squeeze in six or eight forms for a single chord, with each chord starting on a bass note different from the one previously played.
Though it’s common in bluegrass and other forms of string-band music for the guitarist to mete out bass notes on the strong beats of one and three, it is not common in jazz, where that duty falls to the bass player. It has been said that Shamblin developed his bass-plus-chords style at Wills’ request, to ensure that there was always a strong, moving bass element in the band that would heighten the sense of movement and excitement, even when the chords were fairly static.
Shamblin’s rhythm playing, as well as his nimble single-note jazz work, has influenced countless guitarists past and present, from country-guitar speed demon Jimmy Bryant to Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. For lead playing, both Shamblin and Junior Barnard (another Wills alumnus) were true fireballers, delivering blistering arpeggios mixed with linear fiddle-tune sequences and snappy country riffs.
There are more forms available, of course, but these inversions will get you through 90 percent of Western swing rhythm section situations. The D/F# in bar 2 and the A/C# in bar 3 may be unusual for you if you come from a rock or acoustic background, but these first-inversion chords are the glue that gets you to and from the more common root-position chords and second-inversion (5 in the bass) forms. Notice that the vocabulary is primarily triads and 7th chords. This style of playing lends an active rhythm sound to harmonically simple songs, such as fiddle tune instrumentals (“Sally Goodin”), which are based on long stretches of simple major or minor chords.
Example 2 employs the same idea of changing chords at a frequency of two per bar, but now we have incorporated a more insistent, melodic logic in the bass line that is decorated by jazzy chords. This progression fits many songs that go from the I to the IV, including the last line of the verse to “Smoke That Cigarette,” which begins with the famous lyric, “Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate ….” Note that where swing jazz eschews open strings and open-position chords, Western swing readily embraces them. In this context, “cowboy chords” is not a disparaging term (as it is in some jazz circles), and is just part of the vocabulary. Some new forms are introduced here: E7/G#, the fully diminished chord (seen in bar 4 as the A#dim7), the “inside four” 9th chord (B9/D#, bar 6), and the pedal-steel-like 6th chords (E6 and its chromatic neighbor, D#6) that complete the passage.
Example 3 combines elements of the first two examples, and is the “advanced rhythm” application of Western swing accompaniment, providing a mix of simple triads (G in bar 5), jazz chords (G6, G#dim7, Am7, Daug5, D9), and inversions (G/F, C/E, Cm/Eb). This progression is right out of the swing repertoire, and can be adapted to fit dozens of well-known standards.
Example 6 employs elements of chromaticism as well as another arpeggio-based approach—the two hallmarks of swing playing. However, in this example the chords don’t change, making it both easier (you don’t have shift your thinking every bar or every two beats) and more difficult (you have to extend your phrase-making thinking to create a line with a longer dramatic arc). Here, the first eight notes outline first a C6 chord and then a Bb triad over a C tonality, giving it the unusual-sounding flavorings of a b7, 9, and 11. Bar 2 is where the melody reaches its apogee and then descends chromatically until it jumps up by a skip to E, the downbeat of bar 3, to begin a bluesy-sounding ending tag.
Example 8 is related to Ex. 7 in that it is an alternative approach to the same chord progression. This time, we substitute a chromatic and angular line for the more-predictable fiddle-tune sequence heard in the previous example. In swing, it’s not enough to just play chromatically; you must also exhibit deft changes of direction in the melodic line or the chromaticism sounds a bit insipid. Note that the “out of key” notes are common swing and blues color notes, like the b7 (Eb), augmented 5 (C#), and b3 (G#).
Similarly, the line in bar 2 gives the C7 chord some colors not typically associated with fiddle music. The large C-Ab leap and the G-D drop add peaks and valleys to the melodic contour. (These skips may take some practice to execute with a strict alternate-picking approach.) The closing lick here is reminiscent of Examples 6 and 7, but provides yet another twist launching on beat four of the previous measure, making a leap of an augmented second (F-G#), and employing a slurred triplet in the final bar.
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