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.

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!

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  1. Bill Hubbard

    Great job Ryan!

  2. André Smalheer

    Thanks.. Looking forward to read more of your story’s….

  3. Sam Urai

    These two are (in my opinion) cornerstone blues bassist if you will.
    I’m hoping Tommy Shannon will find a place on here somewhere.
    Have a great Christmas!

  4. Peter Feldman

    Jerome Arnold played with Howlin’ Wolf and on the first two albums of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

  5. Matty Bryson

    4 albums helped shape my love for rock & blues; The Beatles ‘Red’ & ‘Blue’ albums, Steve Millers Greatest Hits, and The Blues Brothers BFOB. Luv me some Duck!

  6. Bob McKinney

    Jeff Ganz’ work with Johnny Winter is great. Johnny always had great bass players (Johnny B. Gayden, Jon Paris, Randy Jo Hobbs). No list would be complete without Keith Ferguson and Preston Hubbard.

  7. Wes Pearce

    Yeah, with Tommy Shannon mentioned here I was thinking of his fine playing on Johnny Winter’s Second Winter. Like Miss Ann!

  8. Sandy Winnerman

    Check out Phil Upchurch’s bass playing on Little Milton’s More and More and other cuts from Welcome To The Club. Upchurch is also a fine jazz guitarist. His bass playing is killing. IMHO he’s on par with Jamerson at least in this setting.

  9. Andy Reiss

    Another great one is Jack Myers. He was featured on Buddy Guy’s first album on Vanguard, a lot of Jr. Well’s stuff, and can be seen on the German TV shows from the 60’s that are all over the YouTube. Really quirky and cool player.

  10. Art Wade

    Don’t forget Dave Myers from Little Walters band The Aces.

  11. Spencer Venne

    I admittedly got into the bass because of Mark King and Les Claypool. I was young and never really heard anything like that before. So, I had my parents get me a bass. I know a lot of people think it’s not how you’re supposed to play bass. But that what I’ve always liked. That’s why I like Squarepusher so much. That’s just me though.

  12. great story. looking forward to see part II.

  13. Bob Stroger did a fantastic job with Otis Rush on the Live in Chicago disc.

  14. I think you forgot to say that donald duck dunn played too with elvis.

  15. Jack Bruce. ’nuff said…

  16. Tim Bogert of Beck, Bogert & Appice.

  17. I think some of the best blues playing has got to be Chuck Rainey. He can add that groove and feel into the blues like no one else. I was captured by his interpretation on Born Under a Bad Sign when I caught his amazing live show years ago. Unforgetable!

  18. Another Keith Ferguson vote here.Also Ransom Knowling. I’m perplexed by the Nathan East inclusion.

  19. so many great bass players out there. to me Duck, Shannon, Dusty Hill.

  20. To me, Duck Dunn was “The MAN!”
    No Treble rocks, too…
    Relevant articles, always filled with useful information!!

    Happy Holidays,!!!

    Your presence is a Present – year ’round!!!

  21. Harvey Brooks is the one I liked most.

  22. Roscoe Beck and Noel Redding

  23. Calvin Jones[Muddy],Kieth Ferguson{T-Birds]Craig Costa[Bluescasters]

  24. After joining a once a year (on his birthday) Chuck Berry band, I really got into Willie’s playing on those records and discovered that the accepted way of playing those tunes (the Paul McCartney versions) was so not right it blew my mind! Lots of slap bass, root fifth figures that are really what made those records swing

  25. I consider Willie Dixon to be the godfather of rock bass.

  26. Bassface

    Cool article but you are mistaken in at least a couple of cases about lack of education in the formative years . I have been fortunate enough to meet the folks mentioned in the article and many related stories about mentors and playing in school when they were young. I think sometimes there is a silly reverse prejudice against music education and the blues. Miles Davis attended Julliard for Pete’s sake. Whether formal or not we all have to learn from some one else and trust me learning how to read music and charts in the middle of my career (I already had played on platinum selling records and had done hundreds of sessions) was a real drag!

  27. Tony G

    Duck and Shannon (who plays with Winter and SRV) are stellar……others…..David Hood, Lewie Steinberg, Jerry Jemmott, Gerald Johnson, Carl Radle

  28. Mike

    Let’s not forget Keith Ferguson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Kept perfect time great thump. Also Jerome Arnold who was the
    original bass player in the Butterfield Blues Band.