Western swing, also known as Texas swing, is a sub-genre of country music that developed and flourished in the 1930s, reaching its heyday during the early years of World War II before becoming overshadowed by other more popular musical styles and fads that emerged in the post-war era. Western swing embraces many of the elements of traditional country music, and spices them up with others borrowed from big-band jazz, blues, bluegrass and folk, creating an appealing musical stew marked by generally upbeat tempos, swinging, syncopated rhythms, sweet, slick, harmonized melodies and inventive guitar-oriented riffs.
Trailblazing musical pioneers like the Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Hank Thompson collectively helped shape the style and musical delivery, which at the time was completely original and invigorating. Contemporary artists such as Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel and Junior Brown have continued to keep this nearly forgotten musical style and heritage alive for fans and curious newcomers alike.
A traditional Western swing ensemble commonly features mostly stringed instruments and percussion, and consists of bass (acoustic double bass or electric bass guitar), drums, pedal steel, fiddle and at least two guitars, usually one acoustic and one hollowbody archtop electric, played with a clean tube-amp tone. The combination of instruments will vary with each group or artist and can consist of literally any arrangement of musicians or instruments.
The inclusion of pedal steel and other slide-based instruments in the mix will create an overall “slippery” sound for the entire band. You’ll find that many guitarists who play with a slide-based instrument, such as a Dobro, lap steel, pedal steel or traditional slide, will include plenty of upward glissandos (slides and pitch shifts) into single notes and chords. The liberal sliding into and slurring of notes from the guitar complements and emulates the blurry sounds that are found in the pedal-steel playing of most Western swing music.
To begin exploring the style’s musical elements, let’s start off by slide-shifting through the variety of two-note A and E major chord voicings shown in Examples 1a and 1b. As you play through each figure, notice that we’re traveling up the fretboard and sliding through a series of chord inversions played as double-stops over a ringing open low A or E string, which serves as a pedal tone, with each double-stop preceded by an upward slide from its lower chromatic neighbor, one fret below. This decorative device adds a bluesy quality to chords and melodies alike, and figures prominently in the Western swing style.
Once you’re comfortable shifting and sliding into the variety of chord shapes and inversions in these two examples, the next step is to apply this concept and approach to other keys, chord shapes, progressions and fretboard positions. One of the most widely used chord types in Western swing is the dominant seven, intervallically spelled 1, 3, 5, b7. Examples 2a and 2b demonstrate how the lower-chromatic-neighbor embellishment approach from the previous two examples can be applied to three-note voicings of dominant seven chords, each approached from a half-step, or one fret, below.
You can see and hear as we move up the neck that we’re playing various inversions of the same two chords, A7 (A, C#, E, G) and E7 (E, G#, B, D), with the stacking of notes being different in each inversion. Western swing guitarists commonly slide and shift between chords and utilize a variety of voicings like this, so be prepared to slide and shift into plenty of double-stops, triads and partial chords as you begin learning music from the masters of twang and swing.
Ex. 3 takes this concept a step further and has us sliding up to targeted three-note chords on the top three strings, with minor shapes additionally inserted as passing chords. This time we’re playing our A-E progression as a shorter two-bar phrase, staying on each underlying chord for only one bar instead of two. You’ll want to develop a smooth transition of sliding into the various chord grips featured in this example, and the only way to accomplish that is through rote repetition and persistent practice.
Ex. 4 features another rhythmic sliding idea, and this time we’re targeting a couple of other common chord types found in Western swing: major six and major seven. This harmonic vocabulary is, by the way, largely due to the pedal-steel guitar commonly being tuned to an open E9 chord (E, G#, B, D, F#), which instantly captures a jazzy sound and harmonic flavor and also lends itself naturally to playing a variety of sophisticated major six- and dominant seven-chord types. This featured example conveys a little of this slippery jazz-flavored Western swing magic. Notice the use of chromatically moving three-note chords.
Ex. 5 is inspired by the Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys classic “Steel Guitar Rag” and offers a variation of what you’ll hear the pedal steel perform during the intro of this Western swing standard. Due to the pedal steel’s different tuning, it’s often challenging to emulate that instrument’s riffs on the guitar.
In this case, we need to make a few rather wide fret-hand stretches to perform the close-voiced four-note chords, but it’s worth the extra effort to make these chord changes come to life. Practicing this example will help strengthen your pinky and improve your fret-hand reach, while introducing you to some fresh chord voicings.
Ex. 6 demonstrates the use of lower chromatic neighbor tones in a single-note solo. Notice how we’re embellishing the notes of an A major triad (A, C#, E) in the first bar and E major triad (E, G#,B) in bar 2 by playing the notes a half-step and one fret below, using a pull-off/hammer-on triplet motif. This type of targeting and weaving around the chord tones while playing through a progression is a Western swing hallmark, and you should explore this kind of arpeggio embellishment as your knowledge of the style increases and your technical abilities improve.
Ex. 7 offers a more challenging Western swing-style lead phrase that again outlines an A7-E7 progression. Here we’re incorporating the use of chromatic lower neighbors, as well as diatonic (scale-based) passing tones. In bar 1 we’re sliding into chord tones of A from one fret below, followed in bar 2 by a rolling line, played over E7, that utilizes notes from the E Mixolydian mode (E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D) to create a jazzy-bluesy E9 sound.
Played over the same A7-E7 progression, Ex. 8, features another jazzy Western swing-style line that incorporates chromatic ideas to create an interesting note contour and a splash of melodic tension. We begin by blending a targeted chromatically descending phrase with an ascending chromatic slide idea that extends into the second bar, finishing with a ringing E7 arpeggio. This lick is similar to a number of phrases heard in guitarist Jimmy Wyble’s landmark solo in the Bob Wills classic “Roly Poly,” which I highly encourage you to listen to for reference and musical context, as doing so will give you a clear picture of how to authentically perform and feel these kinds of licks.
This lesson only scratches the surface of what this cool style of music is all about. Be sure to spend time playing through and studying these examples, and continue familiarizing yourself with the Western swing repertoire via recordings. As is the case with any new musical genre that you open your mind to, the more you explore, listen, and learn, the more ideas you’ll have to draw from and combine when you play and create your own music. Have fun!