Bass Transcription: Greg T. Walker’s Bass Line on “Highway Song” by Blackfoot
When I first began to play in a band, I used to hang out a lot at the guitarist’s house. We had a similar musical taste, but his record collection contained some more interesting nuggets than mine. One of his albums that I coveted was Strikes by Blackfoot; it had a different sound to most of the prog and metal I was listening to and the music seemed to speak of wide-open spaces, trains, and highways. We covered their version of “Wishing Well,” but the song I loved the most was “Highway Song” – I loved the feel of the music and the great guitar playing, but mostly the great bass-line that weaved around the guitar parts.
Greg T. Walker was born on the 8th July 1951 in Jacksonville, Florida, a hotbed of musical activity that spawned The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, and later Limp Bizkit. When he was five, his mother bought him a ukulele, and he quickly learned to play simple melodies. Soon, he was also taking piano lessons, then began to play guitar, and later played saxophone in his school band. Walker attended kindergarten with Ricky Medlocke and Jakson Spires, and this friendship would develop into a musical collaboration that would later become Blackfoot. Ricky’s grandfather also helped by showing Greg some simple guitar chords when he was starting out.
By the age of ten, he had formed his first band, the Rockin’ Aces, with Medlocke, Spires, and some other friends from their Junior High school. This band played bowling alleys, school dances, and youth clubs around Jacksonville, but the band split up after a few months. When he was thirteen, he saw The Beatles at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, and this inspired him to pursue a musical career.
After he left high school, Walker formed Fresh Garbage with Ricky Medlocke on drums, guitarist Charlie Hargrett and keyboard player Ron Sciabarasi. Walker had intended to play drums in the band but ended up playing bass as they didn’t have a bassist. In the summer of 1969, they played at The Comic Book Club in Jacksonville seven nights a week, but when Sciabarasi was drafted to serve in Vietnam, the line-up changed. Medlocke swapped to vocals, and they invited Jakson Spires to return and play drums, alongside keyboard player DeWitt Gibbs and guitarist Jerry Zambito. The band renamed themselves Hammer and then relocated to Gainesville to work at Dub’s Bar as the house band.
While in Gainesville, the band became friends with Nancy O’Connor, who was working for a music publishing company in New York, and she encouraged the band to send her boss a demo. This led to an offer of work, and in March 1970, they moved into Nancy’s apartment in Manhattan, and soon began to play on the New York club circuit. During this period, they discovered that there was another band named Hammer, so they changed their name to Free. Unfortunately, the British band of that name released their hit single “Alright Now” around that time, and Walker’s band quickly changed their name again to Blackfoot, acknowledging some of the members’ Native American heritage (although none are of Blackfoot ancestry).
The band soon lost their accommodation and moved to Mount Freedom, New Jersey, but the live music scene there was seasonal, and the gigs dried up in the summer when the student population returned home. The band then moved to Princeton, NJ, but work there was also intermittent and the band members grew disillusioned.
In 1971, Medlocke called his friend Allen Collins of Lynyrd Skynyrd to see if there was any work available, and he was invited to join as their drummer. A few months later, Walker was also recruited to replace Larry Junstrom, the original bassist, and they recorded some tracks with the band at the Muscle Shoals studio. This material wasn’t included on Skynyrd’s debut album, but was eventually released on the album First and Last (1978), and later on Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album (1998). In November 1972, Medlocke and Walker left the band.
Medlocke reformed Blackfoot in North Carolina with Spires, Hargrett, and bass player Lenny Stadler. Soon they were playing bigger shows and support slots for Black Oak Arkansas and Johnny Winter, but the line-up did not last, as Stadler left to become a Methodist minister after a serious health problem. The band invited Walker, who in the meantime had returned to Florida, to re-join the band in late 1973 and the classic Blackfoot line-up was complete.
They soon recorded a demo and sent it to Muscle Shoals producers David Hood and Jimmy Johnson, who had been involved in the Lynyrd Skynyrd sessions in 1971. They were impressed and invited the band to record a studio album at no cost to the band. This became No Reservations (1975) and led to the band being signed by Island Records, but the album wasn’t a success. The label decided to drop the band, but they recorded another album with Hood and Johnson, Flying High, released on Epic in 1976. This album was also a commercial failure, but despite this, they still toured as the support band for Kiss, Ted Nugent, and Peter Frampton – earning them some valuable exposure.
However, by early 1977, the gigs had again dried up, and they contacted Black Oak Arkansas manager Butch Stone to see if he had any work for them. He hired the band to back Ruby Starr, who had been Black Oak’s backing singer, and the band spent much of 1977 touring with her. Blackfoot would open the show and then back Ruby, and on their New Year’s Eve gig, Al Nalli, manager of Brownsville Station, saw their set. He was impressed enough to offer to manage them. Despite initial hesitation, they eventually agreed, and this led to a contract with ATCO records for their third album Strikes (1979). This album contained the hit songs “Train Train” and “Highway Song,” reaching gold status (500,000 copies) within eight months, and platinum by 1986.
This success led to wider touring and support slots with REO Speedwagon, The Who, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent, The Scorpions, AC/DC, and Iron Maiden, and appearances in the UK at the Monsters of Rock and Knebworth festivals.
The next album Tomcattin’ (1980) reached number 50, but the singles released from it didn’t chart. Marauder was released the following year and contained two minor hits, “Fly Away” and “Searchin’”, but the album fared little better than its predecessor, only reaching number 48.
By the mid-eighties, popular tastes had moved on, and Blackfoot tried to adapt their style to become more of a mainstream rock band. The 1983 album Siogo was the first to feature ex-Uriah Heep keyboard player Ken Hensley, but this change didn’t inspire more sales and the album only just entered the top 100.
The next album, Vertical Smiles (1984) was the last with Hensley, and Hargrett did not play on the album – with a rumor that he looked too much like a biker to appeal to more mainstream tastes – and this prompted his resignation in January 1984. The first version of the album was rejected by ATCO, and the band returned to the studio to work on it further. It was eventually released in October 1984, but sales of the album were disappointing.
In 1985, due to diminishing sales and record company pressure to become more commercial, the band decided to split. Walker remembers that they “…just reached a point… [and] couldn’t go any further at that time”. Medlocke decided to create a new line-up, and the band continued – with many line-up changes – for another three albums and regular tours. In 1996 Medlocke was again recruited by Lynyrd Skynyrd for a tour, and after a final tour with Blackfoot in 1997, he dissolved the band and joined Lynyrd Skynyrd on a more permanent basis. He continues to play with them.
Walker, Hargrett and Spires reformed Blackfoot in 2004, but Medlocke did not take part. Sadly, Spires died in 2005, but the band continued with several different drummers and guitarists. Eventually, Hargrett left the band, and by 2011 Walker was the only original member left. This version of the band ceased at the end of that year.
In 2012, Medlocke hired a completely new line-up of Blackfoot, although instead of playing, he decided to be their producer. In 2015, this band released the album Southern Native. Without the Blackfoot name available, Walker and Hargrett formed the band Fired Guns, and later NDN, who released an album Warrior’s Pride in 1998. Walker currently plays with Two Wolf – after his Native American name.
As a session musician, Walker recorded an album in 1973 with Cross Country, played on Lew Jetton’s 2000 album State Line Blues, and in 2014 recorded an EP with Lloyd and gigged with them in Paris. He has written and recorded music for commercials and recorded with Headband, Dee Dee Nichols, and Donald John & Company. He toured with Pat Travers in 2002-2003 and has also played with The Southern Rock Legends.
Walker has played a range of basses during his career but has mainly used Dean, Fender, and Ibanez instruments. He has mainly used Ampeg amplification.
This song was one of the highlights of the Strikes album and was written by guitarist/vocalist Ricky Medlocke and drummer Jakson Spires. It is by far the longest song on the album, clocking in at an impressive 7:31. This enables Medlocke to stretch out on a lengthy solo from about halfway through the song, and for Spires and Walker to work their way through a range of groove and bass-line ideas.
The song begins with a solo fingerstyle guitar intro that weaves around the chord changes, ending on a bar of 6/4 to create some tension before the band kicks in. The bass-line picks up behind Medlocke’s powerful electric guitar melody and quickly settles into a weaving but still rhythmically driving line. Walker uses scale notes to link the roots and includes some tasteful appoggiaturas on the last beat of bar 9 and encirclement ideas in bar 10.
Walker uses a similar approach in the first verse, but varies the line in places – the scale run-down in bar 18 works well, and the use of a chromatic link back to the root from the seventh in bar 20 adds a little color. The bass-line in the chorus uses some tasteful note choices, using the third of the A minor chord as a focus to create a flowing line, and leading to the run-up to the final D.
The following verses and choruses use similar ideas with a few variations, but at the bridge in bar 40, Walker uses power chords to beef up the texture. This section ends with a melodic run in bar 44.
The next section – a verse, but much softer than before – sees Walker utilizing higher position notes and a more melodic approach. In bars 50-52, lower notes can be heard under the melody (shown in brackets). It is possible to play these along with the higher melody, but they may be overdubs. Bar 53 sees the return of the more standard verse idea, and after an extended chorus, there is a bridge section where the tempo doubles and the bass-line simplifies, although there is some syncopation.
The guitar solo begins at bar 76, and Walker’s bass-line uses a number of different approaches during this:
- A walking line – 76-91
- A quaver/two semiquavers idea that uses a root and downwards fifth – 92-99
- A power chord idea that emphasises the 3rd and 5th beats of each bar – 108-119
- An almost disco-like moving octaves idea – 156-163
From bar 164 to the fade-out, Walker returns to a mixture of a walking bass idea and some crotchet runs, including a few tasteful chromatic links, and a neat octave idea at 178.
Download the transcription and follow along with the track: