When Leo Fender strode into a cowboy bar on the outskirts of Hollywood one day in 1950, he had no idea the contraption he was toting would become a central force in a new age of music.
The Riverside Rancho offered an inviting atmosphere enjoyed by locals but was hardly the venue for myth making. Nonetheless, it was where Leo saw the historic marriage of man and machine, the latter being his newly-assembled Broadcaster – the first commercial solidbody guitar – as it was plugged into a Fender amplifier.
Leo himself was not a musician; he relied heavily on input from working pros and had driven many miles from Orange County to track down the guitarist who was rapidly becoming the talk of L.A.’s music scene. An unsuspecting audience and the house band gathered around Jimmy Bryant, awed as he coaxed never-before-heard sounds from a never-before-seen instrument – a “plank” very unlike the big, beautiful acoustic guitars held by movie stars and celebrity cowboys on album covers.
It could only happen in California – the harmonic convergence of two quintessentially American elements; a country-flavored guitar-slinging war hero whose playing evoked jaw-dropping appreciation, and the newfangled Fender guitar poised to change the world.
Bryant’s legend looms large in guitar lore. He dominates the first pages of any authoritative book about the Fender saga and wrote the opening chapter on Telecaster virtuosity, yet is woefully underrepresented in guitar literature. His preeminent status was established a decade before he was immortalized as “the fastest guitar in the country” – not coincidentally, the name of his 1967 album.
“He is the fastest and cleanest and has more technique than any other,” Barney Kessel said at the time. The sentiment was shared by Chet Atkins, who said, “I could never get in his league.”
And Bryant’s impact spanned oceans; English Tele master Albert Lee claims Bryant as a primary influence, as do Brit rockers including Ritchie Blackmore and Steve Howe.
“I first encountered Jimmy’s playing in the early ’60s,” said Lee. “There was a long-running radio show on the BBC every Saturday morning playing rock and pop records and live segments of recorded music by local artists like The Beatles, along with visiting Americans like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. For weeks, they had a ‘Country Corner’ segment, and during one of them I heard ‘Arkansas Traveler’ by Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, from Two Guitars Country Style. It made such an impression upon me. Later, Jimmy recorded several albums for Imperial and though they were never released in the U.K., I was able to get the info from Billboard and Cashbox. I found it hard to believe that such a great player could remain unknown by the public.”
“The perspective Bryant brought was as broad as Atkins,” added Howe. “He was more a single-note player, but compensated with his dexterity and fluidity on the fingerboard. And though he drew from Django Reinhardt, like Atkins and Les Paul, he seemed to come up with influences of his own. He had an indescribable worldliness that stayed in the country, hillbilly and Western-swing styles. It presaged rock and inspired and influenced the early rock and roll guitarists.”
Born March 5, 1925 to a dirt-poor sharecropping family in Moultrie, Georgia, Ivy James Bryant, Jr. was the oldest of 12 children. A true prodigy, he learned country fiddle at age five and, to help feed his family, worked as a street musician during the Great Depression. By 13, he turned pro and travelled to Florida to play with Hank Williams. At 18, Bryant joined the Army during World War II and served in Patton’s Third Army in France and Germany, where he first encountered Reinhardt.
While recovering from shrapnel wounds, he heard Tony Mottola play as part of the Special Services band, and was motivated to take up the guitar. A quick study, he was soon playing guitar and fiddle with the USO. Upon discharge with a Purple Heart, he bought a Gibson Super 400 with floating De Armond pickup, an amp, then played the Washington, D.C. area and Georgia as “Buddy” Bryant.
“Out there they’re having fun, in the warm California sun” proclaimed the words of the 1964 pop hit by The Rivieras. But the state’s real attraction as a Western paradise began as its population nearly doubled between 1940 and 1950. Culturally diverse and welcoming in climate, technology, arts and culture, it was home to aerospace and movie industries as well as blues, pop, jazz and country music. To Bryant, it seemed the promised land.
Soon after moving to Los Angeles, he secured radio work as lead guitarist with Cliffie Stone on “Hometown Jamboree” alongside pedal-steel wiz Speedy West and numerous budding country stars, sporting a sunburst Gibson Super 400 (with a floating DeArmond pickup) and a Fender Dual Professional/Super with two 10″ Jensen speakers. His first recording session was Tex Williams’ “Wild Card” (1950) for Capitol, which led to a five-year contract during which he made 65 singles as Jimmy Bryant. His first solo record, “Bryant’s Boogie,” was a trial, and he shared the date with Stone’s Hometown band and Tennessee Ernie Ford on the B-side.
“I first heard Jimmy when I was about nine with Tennessee Ernie Ford and Cliff Stone’s Orchestra,” recalled Howe. “It didn’t sound like an orchestra to me – it was ‘Blackberry Boogie’ with two hot guitarists! I wasn’t playing guitar yet, but was amazed and excited by the sound. At the time, I didn’t know it was Bryant, but it began my search for uncommon players.”
In performance and appearance, Bryant was the paragon of California country cool. He worked regularly on Western films, making 12 movies with Roy Rogers as guitarist and actor under contract with Republic. In his hands, a Fender guitar was seen for the first time on film (In Old Amarillo, 1951) and on TV shows hosted by Spike Jones and Tennessee Ernie Ford; his adventurous country/jazz blazed a trail with help from his black-guard Broadcaster prototype fabricated in Leo’s garage.
Bryant was the first and remains one of the greatest Tele heroes. In the ’50s, he played several versions including a blond-finish model with his signature on the pickguard, a custom hollowbody that became the precursor of the Telecaster Thinline, a maple-fretboard model with hand-tooled leather pickguard (reincarnated as a Fender Custom Shop tribute model in 2003) and a red ’59 with rosewood fretboard. He generally paired his Teles with tweed Fender Pro and Twin amps in the period. When playing together, Bryant and West positioned their matching Twins in a V configuration around a single microphone to achieve their trademark blend and balance.
Bryant’s association with Fender persisted through the decade, despite acrimony and disappointment resulting from a planned (but never released) signature model made in ’54 that was introduced later as the Stratocaster. The dispute led to relationships with Guild, Rickenbacker, and Magnatone in the ’60s (acrimony notwithstanding, he posed with a white ’58 Fender Jazzmaster in Roy Rogers’ New Sons of the Pioneers, and played Scotty Turner’s ’54 Strat on “Little Rock Getaway”).
In 1950, Bryant formed a duo with West, which Stone aptly dubbed “Flaming Guitars.” Their formal debut was West’s April ’51 session date for “Railroadin.’” Spawned in the cowboy bars of L.A.’s skid row, the partnership became legendary, creating compositions and an original sound in the studio with little or no preparation. Signed to Capitol, they first recorded as a team in June of ’51 on “T-Bone Rag”/”Liberty Bell Polka.” “Bryant’s Bounce” (’52) showcased Jimmy’s formidable jazz-informed chops and foreshadowed a busy solo career. He enhanced his visibility with the increasingly popular Tennessee Ernie Ford and made his first album, Two Guitars Country Style, in ’53. Concurrent with Merle Travis, Bryant/West produced the very first all-instrumental country albums – extremely rare in the industry. At this point, L.A. country was edgier and more progressive than Nashville fare, and Bryant/West were greatly responsible for its sound. At the time, Bryant made evident his ambitions to push the envelope even further; 1954 saw his ambitions realized with “Stratosphere Boogie” and “Deep Water.” Both featured an innovative approach to parallel harmonies, impossible to play on a normal guitar, where he sounded like two guitars, country-style. He had long admired the multi-tracking skills of Les Paul and developed a way to produce a twin-guitar effect with a single instrument. He used a Stratosphere doubleneck (made in Springfield, Missouri) in an atypical way, tuning the 12-string neck in thirds instead of the usual octaves and unisons, to generate inimitable harmonized lines.
“Country music was about simplicity when here came Jimmy and Speedy with this technical ability, complexity, and wealth of musical ideas,” said Howe. “You can’t make music like this without a vast reservoir of reference points. ‘Stratosphere Boogie’ is remarkable, especially where Jimmy plays a 12-string tuned in thirds. When you first hear it, you think ‘That’s an overdub trick’ or ‘There’s two guitars’ – but it’s obviously not. Even their dual lines are astonishing. That must’ve surprised many and explains why he and Speedy were the only truly huge instrumental country stars of the era. I can’t name anyone who’s done it better. Their music is unrepeatable.”
By the mid ’50s, Bryant was highly sought for session work in L.A. and played behind numerous country and pop singers, as well as others including Kay Starr, Bing Crosby, Billy May, Stan Kenton. He played on the soundtrack for West Side Story. In 1955/’56 alone, he recorded with an estimated 124 artists, but found time to regularly jam around town with friends like jazz violinist Stuff Smith. He also appeared on popular TV shows like “The Jack Benny Program,” where he was seen in characteristic Western garb playing a Guild X-500.
When his Capitol contract ended, Bryant persevered as a session man and producer and expanded his jazz proclivities. Country Cabin Jazz (1960) was an appropriate title for his new direction and less for its collection of earlier Capitol singles and an album cover that pictured an anonymous cowboy model holding a Gretsch. As producer, Bryant hired Barney Kessel for a Mrs. Miller date then did a jazz recording with Herb Ellis and Red Mitchell. Through Scotty Turner, in ’65 he secured a contract with Imperial and released a string of solo albums revealing a new eclecticism and more commercial bent. Fastest Guitar in the Country, considered his finest recording of the era, featured a stellar jazz rhythm section with Kessel on backing guitar, Red Callender on bass, and Shelly Manne playing drums. His phenomenal speed prompted DJs and incredulous listeners to surmise his playing was sped up during playback. But of course it wasn’t, as he proved in live demonstrations at DJ conventions.
Bryant transcended his cowboy trappings and addressed rock, pop culture and other trends of the ’60s. The 1963 surf/dragster/parachuter/teen-craze film The Skydivers featured his appearance as leader of Jimmy & the Night Jumpers (favoring a Rickenbacker 360F) incorporating “Stratosphere Boogie” and “Ha-So” (a novelty rock track that traded on the cachet of the Ventures, Dick Dale and Duane Eddy) in the soundtrack. He recorded with the Ventures, Monkees, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, tapped in further with tunes like “Tabasco Road” and “Liverpool,” and began an association with Vox that included posing with the Voxmobile in 1967. He was also the only guitarist to endorse Magnatone instruments. He and his Strat-shaped metallic-blue model were pictured on Bryant’s Back in Town, his 1966 debut on Imperial Records. He experimented with sound effects like a talk box on pedal-steel (played by Red Rhodes) in “Shinbone” and fuzz on “Corn Ball” and often recorded direct to the mixing board to achieve jangley sounds while remaining true to his country picker roots on “Steel Guitar Rag,” “Model 400 Buckboard,” “Joy Ride” and “Sugar Foot Rag.” He channeled bebop on “Voxwagon” and “Indiana,” and flaunted his jazz-informed technical prowess on “Little Rock Getaway.” He also recorded a historic instructional book/album on Guitar Phonics/Dolton, Play Country Guitar with Jimmy Bryant, utilizing a prescient player approach to learning a song and its guitar parts including an audio record with slow demos, rhythm tracks, and full-speed play-alongs as well as fingerboard diagrams depicting lick patterns. Moreover, he was the composer of many instrumentals and also wrote the outlaw country-rock piece “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” which became a #2 hit for Waylon Jennings in 1968.
In the ’70s, Bryant became a musical vagabond. He partnered with steel guitarist Noel Boggs and in ’73 recorded the famed track “Boodle Dee Beep.” By this point, he had returned to his Gibson roots and favored a red ’58 ES-355. Mid-decade, he moved to Nashville to participate in the city’s music explosion, briefly endorsed Hohner guitars, and in ’75 reunited with West on the aptly titled For The Last Time.
In ’79, Bryant was diagnosed with lung cancer; also disenchanted with Nashville’s politics and cliques, he moved back to L.A., where, despite worsening health, he played brilliantly for fans and musicians at a momentous last performance that August at the Palomino. He then returned to his Georgia hometown and passed away on September 22, 1980. He was 55.
In addition to near-deity status among guitarists of all stripes, Bryant was conferred annual awards for Lead Guitar in 1966, ’67, and ’68 and granted lifetime membership in the Academy of Country Music.
Don’t miss Wolf Marshall’s breakdown of three key Bryant licks in this month’s “Fretprints” column in this issue. Also, visit VintageGuitar.com to hear previously unreleased audio of Bryant playing his Fender Jazzmaster in a jam with fellow legend Herb Ellis.
Tele Legends Past and Present
“Jimmy and I were the first two guys to really get off with the Telecaster; he was first. Back then, he was playing a prototype Broadcaster around town and helped Leo come up with ideas. We were good friends and played together a lot in the L.A. studios, particularly with Ken Nelson at Capitol Records. On those sessions, I did mostly the lead-guitar stuff and he played rhythm – he was my rhythm guitarist! Jimmy was a really talented musician and a great guitar player – and a killer fiddle player!” – James Burton
“I came to Los Angeles in 1971 and was amazed to discover that Jimmy was playing at the Palomino club. It was such a thrill to see and hear him for the first time; I was so pleased that he had remained such an astounding player. I was, however, a little disappointed that he wasn’t playing a Tele, but a Gibson. There were a couple more times I ran into him at the Palomino. I sat in with the house band on guitar and Jimmy played fiddle all night, it was thrilling to get a pat on the back from him after I played a solo. Jimmy signed the back of my ’53 Tele that night, and I have a wonderful photo taken between my two heroes, Jimmy and James Burton. When asked to name one major influence throughout the years, I’ve always said Jimmy Bryant.” – Albert Lee
“While reading articles and interviews trying to unveil the mysteries behind the skills of my first Telecaster heroes – particularly Albert Lee – I kept seeing Jimmy Bryant mentioned in superlative terms. But in the mid ’80s, trying to find recordings of Jimmy required a degree of dedication. Finally, a friend procured a bunch of Jimmy Bryant/Speedy West LPs at a record convention and made a mix tape. I used that cassette for years as a resource; I’d cop Western-swing licks, learn the heads of the tunes, and try to come even close to his immaculate technique. The tone of his Telecaster and his ability to play as clean and as fast as he did was something that both inspired and discouraged. I later purchased all the compilations that came out and continue to find his music and playing an absolute joy.” – Greg Koch
This article originally appeared in VG May 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.