Jimmy Bryant passed away in 1980 due to lung cancer, just as I was discovering his music and incredibly fast playing technique. There was no internet back then so information was very thin on the ground. But even today when I have discussions with fellow players, when I mention the name Jimmy Bryant I get a blank look.
To me this is outrageous, as he was possibly one of, if not the fastest guitarist ever! Even by today’s standards, there aren't many players that could match him.
Now I know this may sound like a very biased and bold statement just because I like him. Just read on and have a listen for yourself, you might be quite surprised at what you hear.
The Night Rider
I've heard rumors that back in the days when Jimmy was just starting to make a name for himself, it was assumed that his recordings were speeded up. When people actually got to see him perform, they were astounded to see that he could repeat this speed live!
Famous jazz guitarist Barney Kessel is quoted to have said:
"Of all the guitar players I have known, Jimmy Bryant is the fastest and the cleanest, and has more technique than any other".
Which is quite some accolade.
Albert Lee, a famous guitarist from England was massively inspired by Bryant and copied his playing technique in many of his recordings. He said that he loved Bryant's playing style, speed and incredible technique.
Bryant was born John Ivy Bryant Jnr, in Moultrie, Georgia on March 5th, 1925 and he was the oldest of 12. He actually started out as a fiddler, taught by his father. He was heavily influenced by jazz guitarists such a Django Reinhardt whom he listened to in hospital after a grenade injury to his hand in Germany.
The Day I Discovered Jimmy
I must have been in my late teens, a good friend bought me an Album (that’s what they were called back then) for Christmas called Country Cabin Jazz by Jimmy Bryant. I'd never heard of this guy, my friend simply told me to play it and I'll love it. So I did and the rest is history.
I foolishly loaned the album out and never saw it again and it is no longer available other than on import, but it comes at a very high price.
Although it was released in 1960 it covers a lot Jimmy's recordings from around the 50's where he worked with a pedal steel player called Speedy West. They compliment each other perfectly and once you hear some of the playing you begin to understand why he was nicknamed “The Fastest Guitarist In The Country”.
Although he is seen as a country player, the moment you hear him you realize there is a lot more going on. The early jazz influences stand out and from the moment you hear the first track called Frettin' Fingers and you just know this is something special.
Jimmy's Influence On Rockabilly
In late 1956 legendary Rockabilly artist Sammy Masters cut 5 tracks, even to this day these tracks stand the test of time, one of the reasons for this is the inclusion of Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar. Usually when you listen to music of that era you have a fair idea of what you're going to expect when the guitar solo comes along. This is most certainly not the case in this instance. The tracks in question are:
- Pink Cadillac
- Some Like it Hot
- Flat Feet
- 2 Rock-A-Four
I purchased a compilation album many years ago and it featured a track called Pink Cadillac by Johnny Todd, and I was always shocked at the guitar solo. I had no idea that it was Jimmy Bryant at the time and I recently read that Sammy Masters doesn't know where the name Johnny Todd came from.
Studying Jimmy Bryant, Where Do You Start?
Although Jimmy had a very unique playing style, a good place to start is to understand what’s going on within the music. The first thing that's going to stand out is the sheer speed, he is also very precise. I doubt that he would play using alternative picking, and as it is known that Jimmy was a fan of Django Reinhardt, so it's more likely he would have been using a technique which is sometimes referred to as “Economy Picking”.
I've worked on this technique myself the last couple of years and it does indeed help picking speeds vastly and is also very useful for country flat picking, which Jimmy also used a lot in tunes such as Old Joe Clark and Arkansas Traveler.
A lot of these country tunes tend to be based around major scales, that’s the easy part. Not only do you have to generate the immense speed that Jimmy was known for. He also renowned for going off on a tangent and using some really unexpected jazz scales and arpeggios, which is what initially made his playing stand out for me.
I've discovered that a good style to study to help you get in the ball park of what's going on is bebop, There are a few good books out there that cover this and I shall post some articles in the near future. Bebop players use a lot of arpeggios due to the frequent chord changes, then you can apply chromatic notes to connect them as the chord changes come.
The picking technique alone is a few months study, the scales and arpeggios are a whole other beast and depending on how far you want to take this, there is a lifetime of study in there. Of course, you don't need to know everything, my philosophy is to try and learn the parts that are relevant to me.
Of course, a knowledge of jazz chords and substitutions will become essential for the jazzier Bryant pieces. This is an area that I’m weak in myself, but I'm working through a few books and will share my progress in the near future.
I've tried to source what gear he actually used, but the information is a little thin on the ground. He is known for playing his trademark Fender Telecaster, his amp studio amp was a Fender Tweed Pro with two 10” speakers.
In some tracks it sounds like the recording is double tracked, but I've read that these tracks were in fact played on a 12 string guitar with an unusual tuning. Again, I shall be digging deeper on this one and shall update this article as soon as possible.
Aside from some of his great albums include Country Cabin Jazz & Swinging On The Strings there are some even rarer recordings out there.
I've found a link to a Les Paul album featuring Jimmy, recorded in 1973 called Suntide Desert Jam, I've never heard it as it isn't available anywhere. If anyone has any more information on this I'd love to know more.
Do you share my love for Jimmy Bryant, please leave a comment.