Western Swing: Roping in the Rip-Roarin’ Riffs of Cowboy Jazz

Texas just has its own way of doing things, from politics to barbecue to music. So when big band swing jazz swept through the country in the ’30s and ’40s, the Lone Star state gave it a Texas-sized welcome, and then proceeded to put the cool, urban, sophisticated music up on a rotating spit and slather it with a heapin’ helpin’ of cowboy hubris, fiddle fixins, and rough-and-tumble virtuosity. The resulting concoction was called Texas Swing—or Western swing (as it is more widely known)—and it became an instant hit around the southern Great Plains, and across the country. It was as if these south-central U.S. musicians took a big mouthful of five-alarm chili, washed it down with whiskey, and then tried to play the fire out using whatever music was available—swing, country, bluegrass, and more. And boy howdy, could some of those boys play. So pull up a stool there, pardner, and prepare to get schooled in the ways of swing—Texas style.
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Genre Giants

Many established bands and pick-up combos alike played Western swing, but three loom large in the genre’s early history: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, and Spade Cooley. These artists virtually defined the genre, much as Bill Monroe did with bluegrass, and provided a showcase for the best instrumentalists the region had to offer. These bands also standardized the repertoire, the instrumentation, and the roles of the individual instruments involved. In some cases, they popularized instruments, such as the lap steel guitar. By commingling cowboy songs, fiddle music, two-step dance tunes, and popular swing standards of the day, these early pioneers cherry-picked the best elements from a variety of styles—the string-band fiddle sound, the straightforward chord progressions of folk music, the melodic and harmonic invention of swing, and a dash of hard-edged blues for spice—and created a refreshing rebel sound that still sounds amazing today.

Eldon Shamblin

One of the best-known guitarists of that first generation was Eldon Shamblin, who was from Oklahoma and joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys when the band was already famous. But Shamblin’s rhythm playing added a new angle to the sound, and later became synonymous with the style that defined Western swing guitar, an approach that differed from his swing jazz counterparts.

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.

Sock It to ’Em

Let’s get into the groove with a couple of loping, sock-style rhythm progressions [see “The Sound of Two Hands Socking” below], and then work up to a gallop with some single-note swing lines. Ex. 1 shows four bars in the Shamblin rhythm style, where the bass line ascends for four notes and then descends until the final chord. Notice that in this simple I-IV-V (with a jazzy IIm7 thrown in), no form is repeated—it employs eight different chord forms.

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.

Junior Barnard

Along with his contemporary Eldon Shamblin, Junior Barnard was another gifted jazz guitarist who helped define the Western swing guitar style. Barnard was a flashy lead player, as proves Ex. 4, which features an excerpt based on his style. You can hear this passage in the well-documented song “Goodbye Liza Jane,” a jazzed-up version of an old folk and string band chestnut. Here, Barnard plays a wonderful solo that is equal parts fiddle, bluegrass, and Charlie Christian. This excerpt starts slow, with six quarter-notes (the last two of which get just a hint of a bend), before unleashing a blistering swing-cum-country lick to close out the phrase. Search YouTube for a film clip of “Goodbye Liza Jane” to see Barnard dishing out this tasty morsel like it ain’t no thing.


One of the key approaches that separates swing from folk, country, and rock is the use of arpeggios to outline chords. In Ex. 5, you can see a melody clearly outline the D7b9 chord in an arpeggio with its first seven notes (each of which is a chord tone) before chromatically passing through A# to play the notes of the G7b9 chord. The lick that begins on beat three of bar 3 is a classic country move, complete with a triplet flourish on the penultimate beat of the phrase. This seamless combining of country and jazz is typical of Western swing, and is a gas to play.

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.

Fiddlin’ Around

A Western swing guitarist is just as likely to find himself playing a fiddle tune as a jazz standard, and when the nod comes from the leader to step up and play a solo in a fiddle vein, it’s good to incorporate something from that instrument’s style. Fiddle tunes often feature melodic sequences—ascending or descending scale-like patterns of repeated notes. Ex. 7 starts out with a familiar sequence that could fit any number of fiddle tunes (such as “Arkansas Traveler”), but smoothly morphs into a chromatic country lick to finish off the line. Note that the ending lick, which begins on the downbeat of bar 3, is a variation of the lick in Ex. 5.

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.

The More the Merrier

The great thing about Western swing is its policy of inclusion. In modern Western swing groups such as Hot Club of Cowtown and Asleep at the Wheel, you’ll just as likely find them borrowing from rockabilly and bluegrass as they do from cowboy songs and big band standards. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen re-released a rippin’ version of “Hot Rod Lincoln” that featured rapid-fire flatpicking on the guitar’s low strings, and Asleep has made it their signature song (with Ray Benson’s virtuoso guitar taking the bluegrass-inflected Lester Flatt-style run to new heights). Example 9 presents an accessible version of this lick to get you started—accessible because its phrases have “exit points” that get you into the new chord change smoothly. For instance, the last note of the E7 sequence (the last eighth-note of bar 2) is an open string, which allows you to set up for the A7 melody that follows. Little conveniences such as this will allow you to quickly work the riff up to speed. Soon, you’ll be able to say, “Look out, boys, I got a license to fly,” and they’ll all pull over and let you by.