Billy Byrd is most well-known for playing with Ernest Tubb, who was famous for calling out, “Play it pretty, Billy Byrd!” Whenever that happened, Billy would play his phrases effortlessly while looking ahead smiling, always connecting with the listener. Many of his phrases are like the pillars country guitar is built on, and, because of this, Billy’s Gibson Byrdland is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
I was lucky enough to discover this record via steel-guitar great Joe Goldmark in the late ’80s. If I had heard it earlier in my guitar life, I might have discounted it as ’60s elevator music. But the ’80s were a golden time of discovery for me, and my mind and ears were grounded in a student’s humility to learn. As a result, I Love a Guitar—first released in 1959, and with the great Hank Garland on rhythm guitar—taught me how to play a melody. The album features 12 great tracks with Billy playing the melody, only the melody, and nothing but the melody. His sound and technique are subtle and virtuosic. He employs slides, trills, pull-offs, Django-like semi-tone string bends, and a concise phrasing that elevates his playing to the heights of a captivating vocalist.
The first thing I learned was how deceptively difficult his playing was to imitate. It took me weeks to nail “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” but after my cramming, I had a full toolbox of Mr. Byrd’s techniques that I still employ today.
Today, whenever I play on a studio session—or if I’m asked to play a show—I always learn the artist’s melodies for the songs I’m supporting. Nine times out of ten, my solos will incorporate the melody—if not feature the melody completely. The artist is always delighted, and is probably happier than if I pulled off the hottest guitar solo since “Eruption.” Try it and see. And then thank Billy Byrd.
Jim Campilongo’s new live album, Live at Rockwood Music Hall NYC,is available now.