Bass Players To Know: Tommy Shannon
Austin, Texas, here we come! As the plane takes off, I think about everything that I want to experience on my short visit. Tacos, BBQ, and of course, blues. Austin has an incredible live music scene and, in addition to popular festivals such as SXSW and Austin City Limits, an equally impressive list of musicians who call the town home. I’m instantly inspired to listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan, the man who revolutionized the blues with his band Double Trouble and bassist Tommy Shannon. A recently inducted member to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, Shannon has had a lifelong career as a bassist, from his early days with Johnny Winter, to the iconic recordings alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan, to the more recent projects that read like a who’s who of blues artists. If you’re unfamiliar with the way he holds down a 12 bar, get ready to listen to some music featuring our latest bass player to know.
So Who Is Tommy Shannon?
Shannon has spent most of his life in Texas—growing up in Dumas, moving to Dallas after high school, and finally settling in Austin. He began playing bass as a teenager and following his move to Dallas, came across Johnny Winter on the club circuit thanks to his friend and drummer Uncle John Turner. Winter put together The Progressive Blues Experiment and in addition to touring, released a self-titled record in 1969. A few tours and records later, Winter decided to go in a different direction and Shannon joined the band Krackerjack, based in San Francisco, which ultimately led to meeting a young Stevie Ray Vaughan. Shannon then took time off the road to overcome substance abuse issues and following his return to music in the late 1970s, crossed paths again with Vaughan. This sparked the inception of Double Trouble and, for most of the 1980s, the band toured and recorded the albums Texas Flood, Couldn’t Stand The Weather, Soul To Soul, Live Alive, and In Step.
Following Vaughan’s passing in 1990, Shannon continued to make music with Double Trouble drummer, Chris Layton, forming the band Arc Angels and later, Storyville. In addition to these bands, Shannon has worked and recorded with other blues legends including Buddy Miles, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Debbie Davies, W.C. Clark, and Buddy Guy. He continues to play the blues.
Let’s Talk Style
Shannon’s mastery of the fundamentals combined with his confident tone and attitude make him an asset to any band, particularly a power trio. He truly serves as the musical backbone, thanks to his unyielding quarter note feel, his attention to musical detail, and his fluency with the blues genre. A hallmark bassist of Texas style blues, he can shuffle with the best of ‘em, using dead notes and hammer-ons to reinforce the backside of the beat. He frequently mimics guitar moves to add emphasis, whether it’s the signature lick to a song, the classic descending line in a turn around, or a chromatic lift from the one to the four chord. Not only does this reinforce the musical theme, it continues the lick-driven lineage of other great bass players such as Jack Bruce and Noel Redding.
A superb listener and “for the band” style player, he’s guided by a sense of musical cohesion. He understands the importance of outlining the harmonic foundation, particularly when a soloist breaks away from playing rhythm. His walking lines are clear and concise, interspersed with intriguing and slightly busy embellishments to fill up the space. Shannon plays with a level of confidence that comes through in every recording thanks to his tone and the dominance of his right hand. His tone is significantly brighter than bass players from earlier eras—he embraces the heightened midrange that permeated records from the 1980s and isn’t afraid to dig into the notes. Not only does he pay homage to the traditional blues idiom, he takes it a step further with the resurgence of the genre, the energy cultivated alongside SRV, and his continued career as an artist.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Tightrope” (Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: In Step)
Beginning with an “all-in” signature lick, Shannon provides a bouncy foundation to this high-energy blues. Toggling back and forth between the one, fifth, and flat seventh, he plays with a tight sense of groove during the verses and gets a chance to open up to a more chromatic based line during the choruses. He drives the band with a strong sense of voice leading, powerful chromatic octaves, and an appropriate amount of business to counteract SRV’s rhythm guitar.
“It’s My Own Fault” (Johnny Winter: The Progressive Blues Experiment)
A textbook example for playing a slow blues, Shannon maintains the integrity of the form while splicing in quick embellishments. His approach is slightly busy as he throws in sixteenth note fills while transitioning from chord to chord, particularly from the 4 to 1 changes. To provide continuity, he regularly follows the standard arpeggiated pattern by walking through the chords and continuously comes back to double the descending guitar pattern at the final turn around.
“Big Mama” (Buddy Miles: Blues Berries)
It would be an oversight not to include Shannon playing shuffle and this particular song does not disappoint. Using smooth, chromatic transitions to lead the band from chord to chord, Shannon perfectly serves the song with his innate Texas shuffle feel. He doubles up with the right hand attack at particularly aggressive moments to match the intensity of the drums, creating a unified rhythm section that any singer or soloist would want to hire.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Tommy Shannon? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!