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The Most Influential Blues Bassists: Part 1

One of the common bonds between a lot of us bass players is that we learned how to play by ear. Unlike other instruments, such as the clarinet or piano, we didn’t start out by taking private lessons, nor did we play in the fourth grade orchestra at school. Instead, we heard songs on the radio with cool bass lines and decided, “I want to play that,” or we picked up the bass (because no one else wanted to) and it turned out to be just the right thing. Sure, we probably had some lessons along the way, maybe we even went on to college to study music, but there’s no denying the fact that we a lot of us learned a whole heck of a lot by sitting in our basements next to a record player.

Although I grew up listening to the popular music of the time (yes, I was a Spice Girls fan), I learned how to play my instrument by playing along with records created long before my time. I was drawn to the Blues Brothers soundtracks, a “Best of B.B. King” record, and Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign. Needless to say, those records shaped my approach to bass playing and provided an invaluable musical foundation. Of course I listened to Victor, Stanley, Jaco, and the rest of the gang, but I instinctively knew that I could actually get a paying gig by playing bass like the blues guys.

This column will be the first of a two-part feature on some of the most influential blues bass players. I decided to highlight these players due to their distinctive approach and how they have shaped the blues bass sound. It certainly is not a complete list, and I encourage all of you to comment and chime in with other listening suggestions.

First things first: Willie Dixon. ‘Nuff said.

Willie DixonWillie Dixon not only played bass on many of the popular blues songs ever to come out of Chicago, he wrote the songs! Countless standard blues tunes are Dixon compositions, including “Hootchie Cootchie Man,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “My Babe,” “Evil,” and “Bring It On Home.” If you’d like to get an idea of how widespread his influence is and how many of his compositions have appeared on records over the years, check out the All Music guide and take a look at his list of credits. You can also get a good idea of Willie Dixon’s role at Chess Records by checking out the movie Cadillac Records… it’s a Hollywood-ized version of history but a cool music film nonetheless.

As a bass player, Dixon primarily played upright bass and can be heard on many of the early Chess Records releases of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Robert Nighthawk, Howlin Wolf, Chuck Berry, and many others. If you go back and listen to some of these older recordings, the bass isn’t particularly up front in the mix, partly due to the difficulty of recording upright bass at the time. However, if you listen closely, you’ll hear that the bass and lead instrument (guitar or harmonica) often double the same lick or the bass plays a simplified version of the lick that highlights certain notes to enhance the groove. Dixon also used the box shuffle patterns, “bumps” the root note, and utilizes the two-step groove or other modified root-fifth patterns. [Editor’s note: Check out our feature on Willie Dixon’s legacy.]

Donald “Duck” Dunn

Donald 'Duck' DunnIf you’ve ever watched the Blues Brothers movie, you probably remember seeing a super-cool guy with an afro standing in back, smoking a pipe. Long before the Blues Brothers, Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass playing helped define blues, soul and R&B music during the 1960’s and 70’s. Dunn was the house bass player at Stax studios in Memphis and can be heard on hits from Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, and his own band, Booker T and the MGs. In addition to his contribution to soul music, he backed numerous blues artists over the years including Albert King, Freddie King, and Eric Clapton.

Listening to Albert King’s album Born Under a Bad Sign, you’ll hear how Dunn acts as the quintessential “groove” player. Whether he’s doubling the guitar riff or laying down a shuffle or rumba groove, he confidently plays the bass lines and allows for the horns and keyboard parts to fit in around it. There’s little variation in his playing, which is appropriate for the style and for backing a soloist like Albert King. His use of dead notes or “hiccups” add to the feel, particularly with shuffles like “Kansas City.” “Personal Manager” and “Laundromat Blues” are perfect listening tools for learning a standard 12 bar slow blues…listen for how he outlines the walking pattern and transitions from chord to chord. Also take a listen to the Blues Brothers album Briefcase Full of Blues and you’ll hear Dunn navigates through stop sections and how he grooves some of the more “modern” blues and soul tunes.

Coming up in the next column: a look at Willie Weeks, Nathan East, Albert Collins’ bass players, and Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.

Who is on your list of the most influential blues bass players?
Add your list in the comments.