Bass Players To Know: Rutger Gunnarsson
If there’s a nation of people that I truly respect for their cultural contributions, it’s the Swedes. Meatballs, streamlined and affordable modern design, and, of course, pop music. No wonder they are some of the happiest people on the planet. Thanks to their feel-good vibes, infectious beats, and accessible musicality, people all over the world have spent years dancing and singing along to ABBA. Our latest bass player to know, Rutger Gunnarsson, contributed some particularly groovy lines to their records and, in addition to touring with the group, composed most of the string arrangements for the band and performed with the musical Mamma Mia!
So Who Is Rutger Gunnarsson?
Born in Linkoping, Sweden, in 1946, Gunnarsson studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. While in school, he auditioned and began playing with the folk band the Hootenanny Singers, where he met both Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. They released the first ABBA recording in 1973, with Gunnarsson playing bass, and proceeded to record and tour throughout the lifespan of the band. In addition to holding down the bass line, Gunnarsson took over the role of string arranger for the group in 1976. Although the band rarely performed together past the mid-1980’s, Gunnarsson’s role in the music of ABBA did not end there. He continued working with both Bjorn and Benny on other musical projects and participated as a member of the orchestra in the Swedish performance of the ABBA-based musical, Mamma Mia!
In addition to his work with ABBA, Gunnarsson enjoyed success as a string arranger with artists including Celine Dion, Adam Ant, and Ulf Lundell and as a participant in various theater productions. An avid player through his later years, Gunnarsson passed away in May of 2015 at the age of 69.
Let’s Talk Style
While Gunnarsson may not be a household name, his playing defined the sound of 1970’s pop music from the standpoint of both style and tone. He combines deep understanding of traditional harmony, willingness to play with chord inversions and voicing, and attention to rhythmic movement and accuracy. He’s incredibly dynamic from a rhythmic standpoint, and at times a bit hyperactive, which counteracts the simplicity of the drum parts and the flowing, legato rhythms from the other instruments. His use of octave jumps provide bounce and movement in the song without being overly aggressive from a harmonic standpoint; it quickly became a staple of disco era bass playing. Furthermore, Gunnarsson’s playing reflects an underlying desire to provide perfect contrapuntal harmony to the vocal phrases. This notion undoubtedly comes from his classical training and competency as a string arranger.
From a tonal standpoint, Gunnarsson is beautifully exposed as a player. He occupies his own space within the recording thanks to the midrange-boosted nature of his tone and the advancement of recording technology at the time. He often sounds slinky, moving around the instrument with slides, quick shifts, and playful jumping to the higher and lower registers. His accurate and forceful right hand define his bass parts as much as it does his tone.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Dancing Queen” (ABBA: Arrival)
It’s safe to say that behind every great dance track is a great bass line, and this song is no exception. Gunnarsson integrates a few variations of the main theme, a bass line that favors the root, fifth, and sixth. While he mostly remains true to these notes, he adds subtle rhythmic changes and frequently jumps back and forth between the higher and lower fifth-sixth tag. As the song progresses, he plays with a more varied and energetic rhythmic feel while sneaking in fills that begin on the root of the chord and proceed with a 2-#2-3 line reminiscent of classic R&B.
“As Good As New” (ABBA: Live At Wembley Arena)
An exercise in bass line acrobatics that fully embrace the octave-driven disco era, Gunnarsson pushes the song by playing articulate notes just on top of the beat. While he plays a hyperactive and driving bass part during the verses, his approach to the choruses is slightly unconventional. He plays short phrases that compliment the vocal line and serve as the lowest voice of the intricate synth/string arrangement. The diversity of his bass part, as well as his classically-inspired string accompaniment, showcase his versatility and maturity as a musician.
“The Name Of The Game” (ABBA: The Album)
Opening with a catchy groove built around the relative minor of the key, Gunnarsson plays it cool with a consistent rhythmic approach. While the drummer plays a groove that emphasizes the up-beats, Gunnarsson locks it down with his walking eighth note feel in the verse. Throughout the rest of the song, he plays simple, root-based parts that serve the song by leaving space and providing the foundational note. This varied approach, where the bass serves as the main musical theme, then plays a simple and supportive role, and eventually lays out completely during a capella sections, highlights the dynamic role of the instrument in pop music arranging.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Rutger Gunnarsson? 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!