Watson was a pivotal influence on Frank Zappa, Etta James, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
Houston native Johnny “Guitar” Watson might not be a household name, but he was a pivotal influence on Frank Zappa, Etta James, and Stevie Ray Vaughan among others. He’s one of those figures that seems to lie just under the surface of pop culture. He invented the catchphrase “bow wow wow yippy-yo yippy-yay” and he isthe “gangster of love” that Steve Miller keeps talking about.
The thing that interests me about Johnny “Guitar” Watson is that despite his expansive explorations as an arranger, recording artist, and keyboard player, when it comes to guitar soloing, he really sticks to the blues. As a jazzy dude, I take this as a lesson in and of itself about how much can be said without using anything too fancy. We’re going to explore some of Johnny’s go-to licks and learn what his blues was all about.
Since Johnny often played with a capo, we’ll be doing all of these licks in the key of E and taking advantage of open strings. You can easily move these licks up to any part of the fretboard, which he also did.
A big part of Johnny’s sound comes from the fact that he played without a pick, just slapping and popping the strings super hard with his thumb and index finger. You can try this technique or pick it however you want. For these examples I’ll be using a hard pick because I just can’t play individual notes fast enough with my thumb like Johnny does. Either way, pay close attention to the notes that are marked with an accent and exaggerate the dynamics.
We’ll start things off in Ex. 1 with probably the most essential guitar lick I know. Once you get this lick under your fingers you’ll notice that just about every blues guitarist uses some version of it. You’ll hear Johnny use it to build his phrases in every part of his career, no matter what style of music he’s soloing on top of.
Click here for Ex. 1
Ex. 2 gives us pretty much the whole open position scale shape in a nice funky phrasing. You can hear something similar to this in “Base Station One.” I like this lick a lot because of how easy it is. There’s not really anything too flashy, and yet the rhythm is so satisfying. I especially love the emphasis on the A notes in the second measure, giving it the unresolved feeling of the “call” part of a “call and response” phrase.
Click here for Ex. 2
In Ex. 3 we’re continuing to use every bit of the open position, but now it’s getting a little fancier. This example shows the tendency Johnny has to hammer on the 3 on the 3rd string and slide up to the 3 on the 6th string. You can hear this lick on the opening of “A Real Mother For Ya.” Try to get the bends nice and clean with a clear distinction between a full bend (whole-step) and a half bend. The last phrase (marked “piano”) is deceptively hard and should be practiced on its own, slowly. It’s almost like an afterthought but is still played very cleanly. You could pull-off from the B to the A, but Johnny tends to pick these kinds of quick, quiet phrases and it really adds a special quality to his playing.
Click here for Ex. 3
Ex. 4 explores the lower register of the open position. This lick can be heard in Watson’s song “Tarzan.” The dynamics are clutch here. Try to get the quiet, individually picked notes very clean. The distinction between those notes and the heavily accented hammer-ons at the beginning gives the phrase all of its feeling. The last two notes demonstrate Johnny’s tendency to throw in a little afterthought sass in what I would call a very bebop style.
Click here for Ex. 4
Ex. 5 takes us to 3rd position. Johnny tends to spend a lot of time in this area, milking just these few notes infinitely with his feeling and phrasing. In the second measure we have an example of one of the ways he would typically bring it back down to open position with a super-fast and clean run. On the long G note just before that, wait until the very end to give it that slight quarter bend.
Click here for Ex. 5
Ex. 6 moves up to the 7th position where Johnny occasionally ventures. This particular lick is from “Do Me Bad So Good” (which bears a striking resemblance to “Billie Jean” five years before the MJ hit came out—but that’s for another article). Play all the notes in the 10th fret with your 3rd finger (using 1st and 2nd to help bend) and the notes in the 8th fret with your 2nd finger, leaving your 3rd finger ready to play the last notes. This also gives the 8th fret bend an inexplicably different sound, which is one of those things that makes the guitar magical.
Click here for Ex. 6
A few moments later in the same solo we get Ex. 7. This is a personal favorite because this lick both anticipates a chord change and uses chromaticism (there’s my jazziness coming into play). We also get a glimpse into how Johnny connects the areas of the fretboard together in his mind since we start in 5th position and end in the same 7th position that we used in the previous example. The bends are interesting as they basically overshoot the major 3rd of the chord, but it just doesn’t sound right without them. As before, play the 8th fret notes with your 2nd finger.
Click here for Ex. 7
Ex. 8 brings us full circle to the simple lick we started with in the first example. This variation adds in a very cool F#. It’s also flashier and more in the style of his pre-funk days. This is from “Three Hours Past Midnight,” which apparently inspired Frank Zappa to play the guitar. Don’t worry so much about the exact rhythm for this—it’s really an approximation. The tempo is slow and the licks are fast. The important thing is getting the right notes on the downbeats.
Click here for Ex. 8
One final note: If you slow these recordings down (like I did) to learn them, you’ll hear a distinct swing in his playing. It’s subtle, but I tend to think it tells the listener a lot about what they’re listening to. For a more in-depth explanation about the concept of swing, I have a couple of YouTube videos on the subject.
Of course as with all blues players, knowing the licks is only half the story. The real genius comes in the phrasing and timing of it all. Take this as your cue to start diving into the excellent recordings (and unfortunately sparse live videos) of Johnny “Guitar” Watson!
For a look at the life of Johnny “Guitar” Watson check out the “Forgotten Heroes” article by Michael Ross. In my research this was by far the most in-depth article I found, and it’s right here at Premier Guitar.