Western Swing Bass: An Interview with Dick Gimble
by S.K. Wallace
Favorite Career Highlights
“Recording and performing with my dad [legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble] which
has led to sessions and shows with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Floyd Tillman…
I really enjoyed playing on the seven or eight segments of Austin City Limits that
included Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Charlie Pride, Tom T. Hall, and others.
Performing with Carrie Underwood at the 2007 Grammys... July 4th at the
Washington Monument with the Texas Playboys… every gig I’ve been pleased to
play with my daughter Emily Gimble!”
Education and Experience
• 1965-68: Johnny Gimble, high school
• 1968-70: McLennan Community
College and University of Texas Jazz
• 1970-72: Nashville Studios
• 1972-81: Gigland in Austin, TX
• 1981- present: Music faculty at
McLennan Community College, Waco, TX
photo credit: Marilynn Gimble
• Faculty jazz ensemble at McLennan
Community College where I teach bass
and music business management
• The Gimbles (Johnny, Dick, and Emily)
• Dick Gimble and Friends
• Several music camps throughout the
Preferred Music Styles
“Swing, Funk, Latin… anything improvised and free and that has harmonies…”
SK: What are the key elements of style in playing bass for Western Swing?
A solid “2 beat” feel behind vocals or instrumental melodic verses… usually
the standard root – 5th on beat 1 and 3 with an occasional walk to the next
A walking 4/4 line behind improvised solos and swingin’ solo sections
A good sense of time with a feel for swing
SK: How would you compare and contrast aspects of playing Western Swing
bass with other musical styles?
DG: I enjoy playing a fairly broad spectrum of bass styles that are not swing…
classic rock and country, Latin and funk, classic jazz and fusion, contemporary
Christian and gospel. I’ll say that most of those styles are in contrast to swing
because of the straight eighth note feel. However, classic jazz (of course) some
of the old country tunes of the 1940s and ‘50s, some gospel, and even that funky ½
time hip-hop feel can take a good walkin’ swing bass line.
SK: In Texas/Western Swing music, there has always been so much emphasis
on fiddle and guitar, the latter of which almost co-opts the role of the bass.
[e.g. I’ve heard that Eldon Shamblin said he developed his style of guitarplaying to cover for a bad bassist.] Why isn’t there more general focus on
and attention to the bass?
DG: It’s a good thing there’s all that emphasis – with those little-bitty
instruments… they need all the help they can get! I believe the sound of the bass
on all those sessions (back when they made the real Western Swing records) was
so far back in the mix that it was more of a feel than an actual sound. Fiddle,
steel, and guitar jump out right at you. Bass, piano, and drums were in the
background laying down the foundation of the music for the lead players to ride
upon. Like J.R. Chatwell told my dad, “A man ain’t no better than his rhythm
SK: How does a bass find its lines in a style that is so eclectic and jazzy
without exactly falling into the same patterns of straight-ahead jazz or
country? How is the idiom defined?
DJ: Oooeee… One tricky question… The jazz of the 1930s and ‘40s was swing.
Western Swing is jazz played on stringed instruments. (Fancy cowboy garb instead
of suits & ties…)
One big difference is that the jazz idiom became more complex harmonically while
Western (Texas) Swing continued to work with a simpler chord progression:
1 4 5/1 67 27 57/ even 1 57. But, the players were free to play jazz alterations and
extensions as they felt it. I s’pose the idiom is defined as “cow jazz.”
SK: How do you keep the guitar from stepping on your toes or vice versa?
DG: I was way blessed to play lots of gigs and to record several albums in a
rhythm section with Eldon Shamblin. We never once concerned ourselves with
“stepping on each other’s toes!” He was sitting in a chair, and I stood at the left
side of the drummer! Nawww… Now, the truth is, with the bass line and to
complement what I was playing, he was usually an octave and a 3rd above me. And,
when we came close on a pitch, it was at least a 5th or 6th away and always a passing
tone… nobody hurt!
SK: Discuss aspects of electric versus acoustic/upright bass in Western Swing
music. In some traditions (e.g. bluegrass, accompaniment for contest-style
fiddling) electric bass is strictly verboten. How did electric bass come to be
used in Western Swing? Was there any resistance to it? Is there a
preference between the two?
DG: When I first came to dad and told him I wanted a bass… my wish at fifteen
years old was for a Fender Precision… He said, “I’ll help you buy a bass fiddle so
you can learn how a ‘real’ bass is supposed to sound!” It took me two years of
playing that old Kay before I could afford a bass guitar and amplifier. I’m thankful
he put me through that. Because it’s such a hassle to transport an acoustic bass,
I’ve purchased two solid-body upright basses: Cleavinger and Zeta… nice
instruments, but they sound like big ol’ bass guitars… not the real deal. I have an
acoustic fretless bass guitar that I love to play, Goodin’… I can make it sound
‘almost’ like my Kay… but people always come up and say “Where is Blondie?! It just
ain’t the same.” I believe they are right. An upright bass with the tone right
cannot be replaced by an electric bass guitar. Electric bass came into Western
Swing because of convenience, not because of tone. I remember Dad saying,
“When you turn it up enough to hear it, then it’s too loud.”
SK: Let’s talk about slapping in Western Swing: Who slaps; who doesn’t, and
what do you think about it?
DG: Who slaps? Kevin Smith, Mark Rueben, Jake Erwin with the Hot Club of
Cowtown… I love them all. I slap a little, usually when the drummer begins to stray
from the original tempo, but it hurts my hands, dangit! Okay, then, what I think
about it… I love to hear slappers slap… even if it is rude. If I traded ‘fours’ bass
soloing with any of my friends mentioned earlier, the applause meter would tip in
their favor. However, my quest is to create a melodic bass line that complements
the singer or instrumentalists I’m backing up or to play a lyrical bass solo… one that
tells a short story with notes and pitches rather than rhythm.
SK: What is your best advice to a bassist who wants to learn to play swing
1. Get a decent upright and pick-up.
2. Study some music theory: chords, chord progressions.
3. Find some like-minded friends to play with.
4. Listen… listen… listen to the great swing music of the 1930s and ‘40s… Ray
Brown and any bassman with the Basie band.
For more information, see Dick’s website at www.DickGimble.com.
Note: S.K. recently returned from another Johnny Gimble Western Swing Week,
June 30 – July 5, 2008, in Taos, NM, where she caught up with the Gimbles and
enjoyed their music instruction and performances (as usual!)
Johnny Gimble indicates a Nashville System 2 chord to S.K.’s dad, Charlie, (either that or he wants him to steal second) while
S.K. fiddles in the middle. (The Poster Children of Swing Camp 2005)