Bass Players to Know: Louis Johnson

Louis Johnson

A long, long time ago, when I decided to leave the confines of my basement and embark on weekly private lessons, I was lucky enough to find a teacher who opened my eyes and ears to the playing and players of bass. Yes, we focused on technique and theory. And yes, I was a known procrastinator — notorious for squeezing in ten minutes of practice time in the lobby of the music school just before the lesson. Luckily enough, my teacher turned me on to a number of bass players that made me rethink the sound and style of the instrument: Jamerson, Jaco, Wooten, and countless others.

Fast forward to the current day, and I find myself in the position of highlighting these extraordinary “Bass Players to Know,” hopefully shedding light and passing on some worthwhile knowledge to you, the reader. Constantly occupying the role of both teacher and student, I continue to revel in the recommendations of my musical peers, because frankly, I’ve still got a lot to learn. This particular column is inspired by one of my Philly bass brethren — a fellow funk advocate who suggested that it was time to explore the grooves of Mr. “Thunder Thumbs” himself, Louis Johnson.

So Who Is Louis Johnson?

Born in 1955, Johnson appeared on the Los Angeles music scene as a professional bass player in the 1970s. Alongside his brother George, the two played with both Bobby Womack and the Supremes before joining Billy Preston’s band in 1972. After working with Preston on Music In My Life and The Kids and Me, the two left the band and ended up working with producer Quincy Jones on his project, Mellow Madness. This led to a unique partnership with Jones, as he started producing The Brothers Johnson’s records, beginning with Look Out for #1. The following Brother’s Johnson releases, Right On Time, Blam!!, and Light Up The Night, all faired well on the Billboard charts and featured funk and disco grooves with a heavy emphasis on Louis’ slap style bass playing.

In addition to working with the Brothers Johnson, Louis was an in – demand LA session player from the mid 1970s through the late 80s. Quincy Jones enlisted him to play on Michael Jackson’s records where he laid down the groove for “Billie Jean,” among other songs on Thriller and Off The Wall. Johnson also worked with Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Grover Washington, Jr., Lee Ritenour, Herb Alpert, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Michael McDonald, and fellow bass funk master, Stanley Clarke. He released a few solo records (though they didn’t catch on with the masses) and was an early promoter of Leo Fender’s Music Man Stingray bass.

Let’s Talk Style

Living up to the nickname “Thunder Thumbs,” Johnson is one of the true grandfathers of funk and slap-style bass playing. On par with the likes of Larry Graham, Louis plays with a diverse and evolving technical style. Favoring the aggressive tone of his thumb and index finger (as opposed to traditional index and middle finger plucking), his mastery of punchy, percussive funk is evident in both his live and session work.

As one of the early adopters of slapping, Johnson approaches rhythm from both the right and left hand. His right hand technique has varied throughout the years, often due to various hand issues that have forced him to adapt. If you get the opportunity to look at his videos, you’ll see that he has an equally forceful and defined attack with his thumb striking the top of the string or pulling from below. Similarly, he uses his index finger to pull (or “pop”) the string, and at times, grabs the string simultaneously with his thumb to “snap.”

His left hand is equally important as a percussive tool, giving him the ability to integrate dead notes, chokes, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides to add complexity to the slap licks. He instinctually creates syncopated rhythmic patterns with both hands playing off of one another.

When it comes to different slap patterns, Johnson plays to the advantages of the instrument and the key—playing in E or A yields the luxury of using open strings and anchoring around the pentatonic notes in the middle of the neck (the 5-9th frets). Johnson also has the physical advantage of being able to reach his left thumb over the top of the neck to fret notes on the E string. This gives him the flexibility to play slap patterns in any key, providing the fretted root note on the E string. His patterns typically revolve around either the major or minor pentatonic “box,” relying heavily on the 3rd, 5th, and flat 7th. Johnson’s slapping style set the precedent for using the octave and moving up and down the neck with a triplet figure, root-octave-root. He takes a particularly daring attitude towards the instrument (especially during the Brothers Johnson years), by skipping around from one register to another and adding 7th, 10th, and octave chords.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Strawberry Letter 23” (The Brothers Johnson: Right On Time)

The Brothers Johnson: Right On TimeWarning: if you listen to this song, you will probably find yourself crinkling your nose and sporting the “stank face.”

Featuring a few different slap bass parts, Johnson creates a complex groove with edgy pops, double attacks on the lower strings, ascending octaves, and even the standout chromatic triplet line.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Get On The Floor” (Michael Jackson: Off The Wall)

Michael Jackson: Off The WallAs one of Quincy Jones’ preferred bass players, Johnson contributed some superbly funky bass parts to both Thriller and Off The Wall. This particular tune is unmistakably Louis—co-written with Michael Jackson, the prominent and aggressive slap tone gives the song a funky, disco-floor feel. He integrates heavily punctuated pops, slides into notes, accents with the higher octave, and an abundance of percussive attacks.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Stomp” (The Brothers Johnson: Light Up The Night)

The Brothers Johnson: Light Up The NightThe tune begins with a simmering, percussive groove that nods to the chorus and features layered rhythm guitar parts, strings, and horns. Jumping into the verse, Johnson gets the feet a-movin’ with a staccato, two-phrase bass line built around the root and flat 7th. During the choruses, he settles into a syncopated groove that follows the minor scale, descending and then ascending, with back and forth step-wise motion guiding the line. As if these parts weren’t enough to justify the cool factor of this song, Johnson busts out a super stanky slap breakdown.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Louis Johnson? 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!

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  1. The best of Louis can be heard on Earl Klugh’s, Crazy for You LP song Twinkle.

  2. Jay

    Mista Cool off BLAM! Project

  3. Larry

    Another one of my favorite Bass guitar players

  4. B.E. Nelson

    Louis Johnson was very influential to my early devlopement as a bass player. My entire Thumb technique is based on Louis’.

  5. Mike Whren

    Great article Ryan. All hail the “Little Queen of Funk”. Louis is awesome. I have a live recording of him somewhere in this house. It was a New Years concert aired on the radio MANY years ago. LTD and the Brothers Johnson.

  6. louis “thunder thumbs” johnson: the definition of funk bass. i agree with jay. “mist cool” is the jam!

  7. I have 2 great stories. The first was when I was around 17-18 and my mother took me to see Lou Rawls and Quincy Jones and the Brothers Johnson at the Westchester Premiere Theather. Of course I have heard of the first two. The show opened with 6 young men on stage. I remember the stage had very little lighting. They played a few songs off their first album then the last song was the theme to Sanford and Son. ( I was clueless that they were the ones to play it) the Quincy jones came out and the Brothers Johnson stayed on stage. They were Quincy Jones band. It was then I knew I wanted to be a bass player. The second was in 78 or 79 the played in Norfolk Va. And they blew the sound system. Louis continued to play. He had a Alembic Bass and his own powers system, and he played for close to 40 minutes until they had the power restored. By then his finger was bleeding like crazy and the show was over. Btw I could have taken bass lessons from my cousin Fred Thomas from the JB’s

  8. discorectangle

    Another artist who Johnson worked with was Paul McCartney: he played the bass on the remake of “Silly Love Songs”:

  9. LouIs was also a prominent member of George Duke’s band, appearing on the recordings “Gaurdian Of The Light” and “Thief In The Night ” recordings, as well as George Duke’s “Live In Tokyo 1983” video release.

  10. LouIs was also a prominent member of George Duke’s band, appearing on the recordings “Gaurdian Of The Light” and “Thief In The Night ” recordings, as well as George Duke’s “Live In Tokyo 1983? video release.

  11. Wow, another name put with amazing sound. I love the format of your column, Ryan. Thanks to all the commentors too. Lots of great listening suggestions here.

  12. Michael Bowman

    Louis is one of two bass players to got me loving the bass back in the 70’s with the other being the late Mark “The Hansolor” Adams of the group Slave. Other than the obvious songs Louis performed, I love his play in the song “Street Wave” off the Blam! album and “Celebration” off the Light Up The Night album.

  13. Jody B

    Jody B is back from the military, and poised to be the epicenter of the next music earthquake.
    “All eyes on me”. Yoda is coming to town!

  14. so I heard Louis Johnson just passed away I’m not sure how true that is can anyone confirm

  15. And he passed away yesterday, and nothing about it here?

  16. professor117

    An early promoter of the Music Man bass? Leo Fender made the Stingray especially for Louis.

  17. Petey

    Wow. So many songs and solos Louis played on, I can’t even count. But the one that stands out for me is ‘Tonite We Love’ by Rufus (without Chaka Khan) Rufus did 2 Albums without Chaka, one of them was called ‘party til’ broke. Louis did a solo (from what I was told on fretless @ that) which was funky and crazy, and the solo on ‘celebration’ from light up the night album; and ‘stomp’ no doubt. I even love his work on Jeffery Osborne’s 2 solo albums. We can go on & on for days. So many.?

  18. Darrell

    We lost a few masters. Michael Wiley, Tyrone Brunson, now Louis Johnson. I my opinion everyone playing a stingray can’t make it sing. The three could. The track Mr Cool Louis had massive attack. If you tried to emulate it you would almost break your thumb. He sounded like he tried to rip the strings of the neck! A master of the stingray bass!

    • Petey

      Wow, Darrell. Didn’t know about Tyrone Brunson. Love that song ‘The Smurf!’ And he did play a stingray bass; the sunburst one.

  19. Rita Johnson

    Does anyone know if Louis Johnson played with Earl Klugh in Las Vegas’ Alliante, October 2014?

    • Petey

      You know what, Rita? I wish I knew. I knew that Earl was using Al “the burner” Turner as a bassist for years before he left and is now bassist/MD for Kem for the past 4-5 years. The last thing I read Louis was teaching @ the Bass Academy (school he started back in the 80’s) in Florida doing public appearances every now & then.

  20. Randy

    Twinkle, he killed it in that one.
    It’s off an early Earl Klugh album