Bass Players to Know: 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)
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.
“Get On The Floor” (Michael Jackson: Off The Wall)
As 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.
“Stomp” (The Brothers Johnson: Light Up The Night)
The 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.
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!