Tommy Shannon's Funky Texas Blues

August 13, 2014
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WELCOME BACK TO TEXAS, Y’ALL. THIS month’s example showed up on a list of songs to have ready for a recent gig at the Dallas Guitar Show with the awesomely talented Australian blues guitarist/singer Kara Grainger. In addition to learning her soulful, blues-drenched originals, a small “jam” would happen at the end of the set with other guitarists sitting in. Put the words “guitar” and “jam” together in the Republic of Texas, and there’s gonna be some Stevie Ray Vaughan. I hadn’t checked into “Tightrope” for many years, and as often happens when revisiting the work of Tommy Shannon, I was blown away with his in-the-pocket groove and killer tone. One of the great things about living in Austin is that on any given morning (if I can get out of bed early enough), I can go a quarter-mile from my house and meet Tommy Shannon for coffee. Today, the early bird caught the worm, and I got to talk to this bass giant about the track, and things in general.

Tommy told me he’s enjoying playing for fun these days, without pressure to “get a deal, or get a record,” and sits in at the Saxon Pub with former Storyville bandmate David Holt’s band. Recalling “Tightrope,” he says, “I came up with my part, Stevie wrote his part, and we just kind of fell into it naturally.” The tune itself is unique in that it starts with a catchy opening E pentatonic riff (Eb really, as SRV tuned down) that implies a blues in E, but then the verses hang on the V chord (B), creating the musical feeling of being suspended in mid-air—like walking on a tightrope. The chorus vamps between E and B, but now B is the I chord and E is the IV chord. This shift is followed by solos over a 12-bar blues in B. Although the key signature for this example indicates A major, the predominant B minor pentatonic scale (B–D–E–F#–A–B) fits comfortably within that key center. The example is written as a blues in B, but as mentioned, Stevie Ray tuned down a half-step– if you want to play along with the record, you’ll have to match that. You could play it on a 5-string in the right key, but the detuned positioning allows for bouncing off the open strings, which Shannon puts to good use for his funky, dead-note-infused approach. However, if this tune were to be called on a gig or jam session, chances are you’ll play it in B. Shannon’s tone is muscular and tight, and his bouncy, staccato attack bears a resemblance to the R&B work of Jaco Pastorius, or the Groovemaster himself, Jerry Jemmott—but when asked directly, Tommy said, “My biggest influence is Willie Weeks. He’s my favorite bass player in the world, and ‘Tightrope’ was definitely influenced by him.”

Example 1 is a close approximation of Tommy’s line during the two solo choruses in the middle of the song. The general feel could be described as a half-time New Orleans swing shuffle, but the bass line’s DNA is the two eighth-notes on beat one, a classic rhythm I refer to as “bom-bom.” Play “bom-bom“ on beat one, and everything you play after that sounds cool. In the first chorus, he interprets the basic verse groove in a 12-bar form, but in the second chorus he switches to a funkified box pattern. One characteristic move throughout the first eight bars is the use of the lower open E and A strings on the “a” of    beat two as the pickup to the root on beat three. While the lower 5th would be a more obvious choice, using an open string as a bounce point, regardless of whether it’s the “right” note, is an old-school upright bass trick. You can barely hear it at full tempo, but listening with Amazing Slow Downer reveals details that hint at the artist’s influences. The dead notes sprinkled throughout the piece have subtle dynamics, so don’t choke them too much— they need to breathe.

In the second chorus, Tommy changes to a box-shape pattern similar to many great R&B tunes like “Shotgun,” “Shake and Finger Pop,” and “Tramp,” to name a few. But Tommy funks it up, digging in down by the bridge to make his ’63 Jazz Bass bark with authority. The ascending chromatic octave lick leads into the IV chord with great propulsion, and Tommy really explores this during the track’s final vamp. To make this simpler, dedicate your index finger to pluck the roots and your middle finger for the octaves. On the IV chord, he adds some cool rhythmic drive by bouncing off the low E to F# and G—it’s nasty stuff, and he uses it again on the V and IV just down the road. The intro riff abruptly returns in what sounds like a not-quite-perfect splice–but this was back in the day when engineers had to wipe the residue off their razor blades and cut tape manually.

For me, it was eye-opening to go back to this song. Drummer Chris Layton’s massive pocket and dynamic underpinning, combined with Shannon’s pot-boiler groove, are the real stars of this track. Another surprise for me was reading the lyrics for the first time. Co-written by SRV and late, great drummer and songwriter Doyle Bramhall Sr., the lyrics are an honest confessional of bad choices and lost priorities—but redemption through the power of love prevails, with a call-out to help each other. It’s beautiful, heavy stuff, both lyrically and rhythmically.

Sadly, we never played this tune on the gig, but perhaps it was for the best. Grainger’s main set came off great, but “jamming” onstage with strangers in an unforgiving sonic environment often leads to what is known in the industry as a clusterfuck. A tune as specific as “Tightrope” can be tricky even in the best conditions; Freddie King classics like “San Jose” and “Goin’ Down” are better choices when you throw people together. No animals were harmed while performing the jam segment of the show. This time.

INFO

ED FRIEDLAND

Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas. edfriedland.com

LISTEN

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, In Step [Epic, 1989]

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