How to Play Like... Jimmy Bryant

In country music, no one has had a more identifiable—a more signature—sound than the late, great Merle Travis. (After all, there’s perhaps only one guitar style in history known only by the name of the guy who pioneered it—Travis picking.) And when it comes to handling just about any style with effortless aplomb, the world will be hard pressed to ever deliver a guitarist more capable than Travis’ good friend Chet Atkins. But while those two cats may forever be household names, there’s a slightly lesser-known picker whose flashy riffs seem to resonate more with contemporary rock shredders and bluegrass players than perhaps any country guitarist before or after him. Born in 1925, this crowd pleasing twangster was the original hot country shredder, and his sterling single-note lines surely inspired modern melodic masters such as Albert Lee, Steve Morse, and even, to some degree, Eric Johnson. We’re talking about the incomparable Jimmy Bryant.
Publish date:
Updated on

“Frankly, I’d rather play fiddle than guitar, because you can get more phrasing out of a fiddle,” said Bryant in the February ’72 GP, reflecting on a childhood spent as a violin prodigy traveling around the South in a duo with his father. “I learned phrasing from the late Stuff Smith. He could take one note and get [so much] out of it—he’d hold it, push it, bow it, and this you can’t do with a guitar.”

This dexterity on the fiddle (Bryant’s primary instrument until he discovered the guitar while recovering from an injury at the end of World War II)—along with a vocal ambition to become the hottest picker in the land—undoubtedly contributed to Bryant’s stunning fluidity on the electric 6-string, the instrument that made him famous. Though he initially couldn’t read music, Bryant’s ferocious mastery of the fretboard and acute ears soon landed him a position as a studio guitarist for Capitol Records. (Bryant ultimately played on everything from Kay Starr and Billy May songs to Monkees records and The West Side Story soundtrack.) It was in the Los Angeles studio scene of the ’50s that Bryant’s star began to rise—particularly after he partnered with pedal-steel phenom Speedy West to form what was arguably the hottest country duo in history.

To get a feel for his buttery alternating picking attack—his bowing, if you will—take a run through

Ex. 1, which is inspired by Bryant’s maneuvers on “Old Joe Clark.” Notice that the metronome marking is a half-note—the example has a cut-time, four-notes-per-downbeat feel. The faster the riff, it seems, the shallower Bryant’s picking was. (Spin “Little Rock Getaway,” probably the quickest theme the Georgia-born guitarist ever recorded, and you can hear that at this frequency—fast as a hummingbird’s wings—Bryant’s pick dips little more than the thickness of a high-E wire below the plane of the strings.)

Like his partner, West, Bryant also was known for flashy intros. Launching with a steel-approved major-6th chord, Ex. 2 presents a vibrant opening evocative of Bryant’s prologue to the catchy Western swing track “The Night Rider.” The song’s main theme occurs over a “rhythm changes”-type, 32-bar chord progression, and is similar to Ex. 3. (To complete the “AABA” song form, repeat the first eight bars as indicated, then play through to the end, and then obey the D.C. al Fine instruction by returning to the top and playing to the Fine designation.)

Show-off-caliber chops and stunt guitar antics aside, the reason Bryant’s tracks hold up so well today, 26 years after his death, is that their irresistible melodicism shines through in every measure, and the guitarist’s infectious pocket makes your foot tap no matter how fast the tempo. (Picture a turbo-charged Charlie Christian playing twangy boogies on a Broadcaster.) These appealing lines will please your grandma as much as they’ll turn heads at your local Guitar Center. They’re simply universal.