After reading the previous column in this two-part series, I’m hoping you’ve had a chance to check out some music featuring the playing of Willie Dixon and Duck Dunn. Their old school approaches to playing blues compliments the players they accompanied and reflects how novel full-band blues recordings were in the 1950’s and ’60’s.
Early on, blues recordings typically only featured a chord instrument (guitar or piano), vocals and possibly a lead instrument (harmonica). As blues recordings evolved and certain artists began playing with larger ensembles, Dixon and Dunn were two of the cutting edge bassists in the genre.
To continue our discussion of great blues bass players, we’ll zip ahead to more modern styles of blues. First up: Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble!
With a few hundred blues gigs under my belt, I can safely say that SRV’s “Pride and Joy” is one of the top five all time requested blues songs. Aside from the beginning guitar hook, the shuffle feel can bring people on the dance floor or at least pique the interest of listeners at the bar. Shannon’s groove in “Pride and Joy” combines a driving walking line with prominent dead notes and hammer ons. It‘s not just a shuffle, it’s a Texas shuffle… it’s more aggressive and percussive compared so some of the other shuffles we’ve discussed in previous columns and Shannon’s intense groove works well to balance out the Double Trouble trio. Before working with SRV, Shannon backed up Johnny Winter in the late 1960’s, and continued to work with him and other artists including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Buddy Guy and W.C. Clark throughout his career.
Another great bass player known for his work with one of the “blues legends” is Johnny B. Gayden, bassist with Albert Collins. Collins, AKA the “Ice Man” is another Texas native and took blues guitar playing to a new level in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. Although bassist Aron Burton played with Collins in the early days, you’ll most likely hear Gayden’s playing on many of the live recordings or videos with Collins and on some of his later albums such as Don’t Lose Your Cool and Frostbite. Gayden’s bass playing is distinctive in two ways: note choice and tone. While Collins began breaking away from some of the traditional 12-bar forms, introducing funkier blues elements on his records, he had a band that took some of the same strides in blues playing. Gayden’s note choice in a walking-style shuffle is far more daring and varied; he rarely plays the same exact line all the way through. Also, unlike the “low down and dirty” tone that earlier bass players had, Gayden’s tone jumps out in the mix and shares a similar “listen to this” quality as Collins’ guitar playing. He also goes where few early blues bass players had gone before by busting out a killer slap groove on some of the funkier numbers.
Although Nathan East has quite the resume and has played almost every style imaginable, he’s got a great blues feel and knows when to take either a traditional “this is the bass line” approach or go for something more eclectic.
East has had a long stint with Eric Clapton, both live and in the studio, and played on the record Riding With The King with Clapton and B.B. King. Check out this album to hear some classic blues and R&B tunes revamped and Nathan’s grooves on “Marry You” or “Hold On I’m Comin’”.
I could go on and on about other great blues bass players, but I decided to highlight these because they each have unique qualities to their playing, whether it is tone, groove, or versatility. A few other guys to check out are Russell Jackson (B.B. King), Bill Rich (Taj Mahal), Willie Weeks (Clapton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, etc.), Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks) and Hutch Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Delbert McClinton, etc).
Please comment on this column and list some of your favorite blues bass players! Let us know why you like their playing or how they’ve influenced your style.
I’ll go first: Shortly after I picked up a bass for the first time, I became obsessed with Blues Brothers and Blues Brothers 2000 movies. Duck Dunn was by far the coolest person in that band and was one of the first bass players to inspire me to buy a record, simply for the bass parts. My favorite scene in Blues Brothers 2000 is at the very end, where there’s a battle between the “Louisiana Gator Boys” and the Blues Brothers. I’m pretty sure the director of the film said “let’s get as many living blues legends on stage at once, give ’em a line of the lyrics, and have a jam party afterwards!” And there, on bass, was Willie Weeks. He was one bad mamajama… he was the glue of the whole band and while the other players each got their moment in the spotlight, he was the one in the back, doing the bass player head bop, and simply grooving.
Your turn! Tell us about your favorite blues bassists.