Shamblin Man

Most of us have gone down multiple online rabbit holes, digging ever deeper into topics – however odd – that interest us.

One of my latest dives was around the remarkable guitarist Eldon Shamblin, revered by players but maybe not so widely known by casual fans.

His story has some charming shaggy-dog qualities, but his impact is world-class. He did, after all, more-or-less perfect a particular style of playing, mostly around Western Swing, and helped popularize the then-underdog electric guitar.

So let’s start at the beginning…

He was born on April 24, 1916, in Clinton, Oklahoma, and passed away on August 5, 1998, in Tulsa. His musical journey spanned several decades, with a few key evolutionary moments along the way.

In his teens, Shamblin honed his chops by studying the techniques of Eddie Lang, sometimes called “the father of jazz guitar.” Young Eldon performed in clubs in Oklahoma City and had his own radio show as a singer and guitarist. In the 1930s, he spent three years as a member of the Alabama Boys, a Western swing band.

In 1937, he joined the band that made him famous: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. His role as the band’s arranger and its first electric guitarist was pivotal.

In those early Playboys days, recording technology couldn’t really capture the bass. Consequently, bass players were often really singers more-or-less, just plucking on the standup bass, knowing no one would really hear them. Enter Eldon, who devised a way of playing that covered those parts on guitar – combining the bass runs with sophisticated chord changes that really helped the tunes swing, hard.

“Take Me Back to Tulsa” is an early, masterful example.

Shamblin served in the military for four years during World War II. He then returned to Wills and remained with the band until the mid-1950s.

His collaboration with steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe is particularly important. Together, they developed what would become their signature double-guitar style. Their instrumental compositions, including “Twin Guitar Special” and “Twin Guitar Boogie,” showcased their virtuosity and creativity.

As Mr. Wills himself said: “Swing out, boys. Swing out!”

Musicians knew then, and still know, how important Eldon is. As time went on, he added progressively more jazz and bebop flavors to his stew, creating a style that was both swinging and complex. He could whip out a stinging single-note solo, then dive back into some seriously complex chordal accompaniment: no easy feat.

And then there’s that meeting with a young entrepreneur who gave his prototype electric guitars to players he admired. Eldon liked Leo Fender’s new Stratocaster. His unusual gold-top version helped popularize the instrument, which he played for the rest of his life.

For a while, Eldon actually quit playing professionally and stayed close to his Tulsa home, teaching guitar, tuning pianos, and fixing electric organs. Fortunately, he found his way back onto the stage and into the studio with folks like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Joe Venuti, and Asleep at the Wheel.

When all is said and done, Eldon’s influence is a bit like groundwater: you may not know it’s there, but it bubbles up from time to time to nourish the ground around it. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Western Swing, you’ll find bits of Eldon in almost any kind of music, even now.

-Al Cattabiani

Photo: University of Missouri, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

2 comments on “Shamblin Man

  1. el-c smith

    thanks for this history lesson,that all pickers dig.

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