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Bass Players To Know: Donald “Duck” Dunn

Donald “Duck” Dunn

Hey there, No Treble readers! Glad to see there’s a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the new column series! Thanks to your suggestions, we’ve got quite the list of great bass players to highlight… a few new faces, lots of old school groovers, and plenty of others in between. Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me, so let’s begin!

For the official launch of our Bass Players to Know series, we’re starting with the man, the legend, the ’fro: Donald “Duck” Dunn.

Lets cover some of the need-to-know facts, an examination of his style, and a few key listening examples…

So who is Duck Dunn, anyway?

Dunn was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee and is best known for his session work at Stax studios. Working alongside Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and Booker T. Jones, he was the bass player in the band Booker T and the MGs and had hits with instrumentals such as “Hang em High” and “Time is Tight.”

The group functioned as the house band at Stax, backing up many blues and soul artists including Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers. Throughout his career, he also laid down the groove for Freddie King, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Prine, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and many others.

Dunn is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has received a Grammy “Lifetime Achievement” Award. As if that isn’t enough, he’s the uber-cool bass player in the Blues Brothers Band and can be seen in both the original movie and the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000. Unfortunately, Dunn passed away in May of 2012 at the age of 70 after a series of performances in Tokyo.

Let’s talk style

An afro, a pipe, and a Precision… the definition of cool. Duck epitomizes the laid-back but driving force that is the bass with his simple, elegant, and superbly funky grooves.

When it comes to blues and soul music, Dunn’s style is quite specific. Many tunes are part-based, where each instrument plays a distinctive line. The different pieces, such as the “chink” of a guitar, the horn stabs, and the bass groove all come together like a musical puzzle. While his Motown contemporary (James Jamerson), has an improvisatory style and highly varied harmonic approach, Duck frequently settled into a repetitive hook that defines the song. On most of the hit soul records, there’s little variation from the original groove, save for a few fills and similar – yet comparable – note choices. Duck’s soul grooves tend to be pentatonic in nature, while his blues patterns often outline the arpeggio on a slow tune or shuffle or stick to the root, octave, 5th, and flat 7th on lick-based tunes. His overall style, though rather simplistic, is undeniably appropriate for the song, the singer, and the soloist.

As an ensemble player, Duck epitomized what it is to groove with a band and made records that relied upon feel. Most of the tunes recorded at Stax featured the rhythm section tracking together in the same room, giving the players the ability to communicate and lock in with one another. The MG’s are masters of dynamics — Duck in particular, drives the band with his affirmative tone, his willingness to hang back or push ahead with the other players, and his ability to follow the vocalist’s interpretation of the song. This is a particularly “live” approach to playing, meaning that each performance is unique and dependent on the vibe of the session or show.

Where can I hear his playing?

Otis Redding: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

Otis Redding: (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the BayAs one of the most iconic bass intros, Dunn’s distinctive tone helps to set the mood of the record. He takes a root-fifth approach throughout most of the song, pedals through the bridge to accompany the heightened energy of the vocals, and returns to the original theme to create the perfect backdrop for the memorable “whistle” outro.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

Albert King: “Born Under a Bad Sign”

Albert King: “Born Under a Bad Sign”While the entire record Born Under A Bad Sign is a quintessential example of blues bass playing, the title track is well known for its groovy “hook.” Dunn mimics the guitar riff at many points during the song but breaks away with a slightly different groove during the verses. As a part, it is simple, definitive, and perfectly complimentary to the main guitar line.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

The Blues Brothers Band: “She Caught the Katy”

The Blues Brothers Band: SoundtrackThis tune features a more active bass line, especially compared to many of the early soul records. Duck grooves the verses, uses a funky octave climb to the “four” chord, and even integrates a quick diminished riff. At the end of the song, the bass plays a chromatic descending line on the up-beats and is accompanied by some truly funky horns.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What are your favorite recordings backed by Duck Dunn? Please share in the comments.