Returning once again to the work of Tommy Shannon, this month we focus on a track from Johnny Winter’s 1969 eponymous debut album for Columbia. While Shannon is not one to shy away from playing the solid, dependable lines that are the bedrock of blues music, he has been known on occasion to step out of the box with cool and unusual ideas. On the slow-burning “Be Careful With a Fool,” Shannon plays rhythm guitar—on bass—behind Winter’s smoldering lead work and vocals. It’s not a radical idea; many bassists play guitar, too, and I would bet many of us have taken a stab at this approach before. But here it is, in all its glory, recorded in 1969 on one of the most significant blues-rock albums of all time.
Shannon is playing the classic guitar power chord (root plus the 5th) and alternating the top note between the 5 and 6 with a shuffle rhythm. While easy enough on the guitar, on bass there are some keys where the stretch might prove too big—but this blues in C puts the pattern within the span of most players’ fingers. There is a great live video shot for Danish television in the early ’70s of the Winter trio (with Uncle John Turner on drums) performing this in the key of Bb. Shannon transposes the exact same part for the vocal choruses, but eventually he reverts to bedrock playing for the guitar solo. The video illuminates his right-hand technique clearly: He strums the power chords with his index and middle fingers, starting on an upstroke (hitting the G string first) and using the back side of the fingers for the downstrokes. While creating a nice percussive rhythm, it also keeps his hand in position for the single-note runs that are integral to the part.
Example 1 (above) is a close approximation of Tommy’s bass/rhythm part, and it gets right into the nitty-gritty with the power-chord rhythm riff. Play the bottom note (root) with the index finger, play the 5 with the ring finger, and extend your pinkie to hit the 6. In bar 1, Shannon uses a classic triplet riff on beat four to lead us into the quick IV chord in bar 2. He articulates the lick true to form with a hammer-on to the A, and a slide from the high E down the D string. He uses an ascending triplet run to get back to the I chord, with a nice schmeer up the A string for flavor. Bars 3 and 4 repeat the rhythm riff over the I chord, and a few times during the performance, Shannon stretches the extra fret to get a high Bb up there—representin’ b7, y’all. Tommy uses the same triplet runs to connect the I, IV, and V chords in bars 5 through 10, and serves up a heaping helping of down-home blues turnaround for bars 11 and 12. On the studio recording, he drops down to the open E and plays a chromatic run up to low G for the end of the form, but on the Danish TV version he kicks the lick up an octave due to the key change.
Take your time with the technique aspect of this line; it can cause fretting-hand strain until you learn to relax into it. Notice Tommy’s strap height in the video—the bass is higher than what many players might think looks cool, but it puts the instrument in a much better place for you to try techniques like this. Don’t even think about playing this line with knuckle-dragger strap length.
Until next time, remember to make the music breathe, and give it life. While the blues is about tradition, it’s also about right now—what you are feeling at the moment you play it. Deal with it.