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

A few ways to infuse some T-Bone mojo into your style.
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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.)

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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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6. Repeat Yourself

A master of syncopation, Walker was especially fond of the technique known as hemiola, which essentially involves superimposing repetitive three-note rhythmic groupings over four-note ones, and is often refered to as playing “three-against-four.” How can three consecutive eighth- notes create syncopation? You can check it out in these four examples that cover the IV-I changes (Eb9-Bb9) in bars 5-8 of our standard 12-bar blues progression. We’re still in Bb as the repetitious, three-note descending quarter-bent-b3/#9-to-root-to-5 motif (Db-Bb-F) in Ex. 3a commences on the and of beat one and spans three bars of the IV-I changes. Accent the first note in each group as written, and there’s your answer: Any consecutive 3/8 rhythm played over a steady 4/4 pulse will produce accents on alternating downbeats and upbeats.

For Ex. 3b, which could well be a template for at least half of Chuck Berry’s guitar solos, we borrow the last two notes from the previous example and enter mid-measure to create a hemiola comprising two consecutive eighth-notes followed by an eighth rest. Throughout, Walker keeps us on our toes by changing up the order of bent and stationary notes.

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Ex. 3c combines one bar of similar moves with a 3/8 version of the lick from Ex. 1a (another future Berry-ism) that rides across the IV-I change and concludes with a half-step bend and release, and a syncopated dip to a low 5 (F). Ex. 3d shows a shifting 3/8 hemiola that also starts on the and of beat one, but this one utilizes bent minor-to-major-sixth intervals (another T-Bone trademark often mistakenly refered to as “tritone bends”) divided into alternating quarter-plus-eighth (be sure to hold the bend for both) and dotted-quarter-note groupings. Tip: Try riding any of these 3/8 “runaway train” licks through an entire 12-bar blues progression (or two!).

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7. Breathe Rhythmic Fire

Though his guitar solos and vocals often took center stage, Walker had rhythm chops to spare. In particular, the Texan had a penchant for mixing swing and straight eighth- or sixteenth-note feels in both his solos and comping. In addition to devising dozens of comp patterns derived from the I, IV, and V ninth-chord voicings shown in Ex. 4a, Walker was also adept at churning out surprising blasts of chordal energy that rivaled a full horn section. You can construct a full chorus based on one of Walker’s nearly-frantic rhythmic outbursts by plugging each voicing from Ex. 4a into the two-bar rhythmic motif shown in Ex. 4b, and dropping the results into their appropriate slots in the 12-bar form. Use C9 for bars 1-2, 3-4, 7-8, and 11-12, F9 for bars 5-6, and G9 for bars 9-10. Nail these straight eighth- and sixteenth-note figures to a moderately fast quarter-note walking-bass groove and shuffle drum beat, and watch the fur fly. Tip: To rev up the turnaround in bars 11 and 12, end your last I-chord motif with a staccato hit on beat four of the first measure, then repeat the move in place of bar 12. (Mmmm ... Beck-y.)

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8. Kick Off with a Chord Melody

Walker frequently prefaced slow blues tunes such as “Love Is Just a Gamble,” “The Sun Went Down,” and “Evil Hearted Woman” with jazzy, four-bar chord-melody intros similar to the one in Ex. 5. Bars 1 and 2 outline the four basic chordal grips: We’re in the key of G, playing dominant-9th chords descending two consecutive whole-steps, then one half-step from the tonic, to form a I9-bVII9-bVI9-V9 progression, or G9-F9-Eb9-D9, with each chord played first in its entirety (you can consider those fifth-string roots optional), then fragmented into a descending arpeggio. Bars 3 and 4 reiterate the G9-F9-Eb9 portion of the progression enhanced with a 13 on the first and every other beat, plus a sharp break on D9 and a full-valued Ab9 that serves as a bII chromatic approach to the I chord. The whole deal is notated in a slow 4/4 meter, but Walker and his band were just as likely to break into a standard 12/8 feel upon arriving at the tonic G9 chord at the top of the progression in bar 5.

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9. Swing the Blues

The late Lowell Fulson, another staunch Walker disciple, once recalled how “’Bone used to tell me, ‘Swing the blues a little more, Fulson. Put a little life into it, a little pep. Rock into it.’” Walker’s 1950 recording of “Strollin’ with Bones”—an uptempo12-bar jump-blues jaunt in Bb that begins with T-Bone’s spikey, uptown electric blues licks sandwiched between a swinging two-bar, all-purpose unison horn-section figure in call-and-response fashion—certainly illustrates his point. This record must have had a big impact on a young B.B. King, who later adopted the format, albeit with a much busier horn chart, for his own theme song, “Every Day I Have the Blues” (See B.B.’s “10 Things” in the July ’07 GP). Ex. 6a shows the “Strollin’” horn figure arranged for guitar. Plug the quartet of bends into Ex. 6b, the cool blend of swing and straight eighths in Ex. 6c, and the variation on T-Bone’s classic turnaround in Ex. 6d into the open space in bars 3 and 4 of Ex. 6a, and follow the repeat signs to recreate Walker’s full 12-bar intro. Tip: Begin the pickup in Ex. 6c at the end of bar 2.

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10. Go Out to Play on Saturday

If there’s one T-Bone Walker solo you’ve gotta know, it’s his 12-bar chorus from “Call It Stormy Monday.” The late, great blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon called the song “a national treasure,” and it’s not hard to believe the speculation that Walker’s most well-known composition is perpetually being played somewhere on the planet at any given moment. Covered by countless artists, Walker first cut his slow blues for the common man in the key of G in November, 1947. Except for the IIm7-V9 chords (Am7-D9) in bars 9 and 10 and some signature chromatic bII9 (Ab9) passing-chord fills, Walker’s original version of the song features a straight-ahead 12-bar quick-change blues progression—the I9-IIm7-IIIm7-bIIIm7 moves (G9-Am7-Bm7-Bbm7) that worked their way into bars 7 and 8 of the progression over the years most likely evolved from Bobby Blue Bland’s version recorded with Wayne Bennet in 1962, and ultimately, the Allman Brothers Band’s definitive cover on 1971’s Live at Fillmore East. (When Cream performed the song at their 2005 reunion shows, they stuck to Walker’s original arrangement.)

Walker’s prophetic solo [Ex. 7], which foreshadowed decades of blues guitar still to come, has been notated here in a slow 4/4 meter to facilitate his mixture of simple and compound rhythms. The only time we leave the third-position G blues box is to cover the IV chord (C9) in bars 5 and 6. Highlights include a seamless blend of even eighth- and sixteenth-note feels with swing eighths and triplets in bars 1-3 (dig T-Bone’s “turnaround” lick in bar 2!), the slow-drawl swing licks that outline the IV-I changes in bars 5-8, sassy 6-7 (E-F) bends and double-stops played over the jazzy IIm-V9 subs in bars 9 and 10, an extended signature turnaround in bars 11 and 12, and, finally, a dramatic buildup from the tonic G9 to the IV chord to kick off the next verse. ’Nuff said!

Example 7 not shown due to copyright.