Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Roots of Rock n Roll Guitar: Oklahoma ?

Listening to rockabilly guitar players always produces a distinct sense of their hybridness, a feature that is central to the genre. Attempting to investigate and pin down the roots of rockabilly or 1950's rock and roll guitar can be an exercise in futility; the trail invariably forks and splits, leading one in several different directions. In this post I will address only one of the variants that impacts the development of rockabilly guitar styles. This style is western swing guitar and here the trail leads straight back to Oklahoma and Texas during the 1940's.

The roots of Western Swing guitar can be traced to the 1920's and 30's a period in which jazz styles or "race music" as it was sometimes referred to had considerable influence over the swing bands that were popular in the south, and particularly in Texas and Oklahoma. The prototype is found in BoB Wills' early band, The Light Crusty Doughboys, which featured the upbeat guitar of
Muriel "Zeke" Campbell. Bob Will's later band The Texas Playboys gave rise to the very greatest Western Swing guitar players, whose style of play was a hybrid mix of country, jazz and the boogie woogie sound emerging in the 1940's. The string of guitar players who played for Will reads like an All Star line up of talent: Eldon Shamblin, Jimmy Wyble, Junior Barnard and Noel Boggs. Just for a sample give a listen to this short clip of Junior Barnard' chops.

It is significant that all these guitarists originated in Oklahoma with the exception of Wyble, who is from Port Arthur, Texas. Oklahoma City in particular was a seminal city for the development of western swing guitar where the "territory bands" were famous in the 1930's. It is no coincidence that the legendary Charlie Christian is from this same region and that western swing guitar left a formative mark on his style, nor that he was in contact with Bob Wills' guitar players while still in Oklahoma, particularly Noel Boggs. This experience became the foundation for the amplified be bop style he would later evolve and for which today he is most famous for.

Jimmy Wyble, pictured above alongside Charlie Christian, is perhaps the best example of a guitarist who worked in both genres, western swing and jazz. Wyble followed a jazz path after his brief association with Bob Wills, recording later with Barney Kessel and worrking with Benny Goodman, as well as getting work as a studio musician.


  1. I love this because it's a connection that you don't often hear about.
    And actually, I've heard that there are a lot of similarities between how Bob Wills and Benny Goodman ran their shops.

  2. Absolutely, great comment. I do think most of the impact was coming from jazz as it influenced tempo and improvisation in Western Swing styles. I often have wondered if Wills knew Goodman and Count Basie and some of the other better known big bands, surely they crossed paths and no doubt were listening to each other.

  3. Yeah, you know they were aware of each other and it wouldn't at all be surprising if they crossed paths because they were all hardnosing the highway.

    In the liner notes of the "Original Guitar Hero" album Les Paul said he drove to Oklahoma to meet Charlie Christian after hearing him on the radio at his Mom's house in Wisconsin.