Louis Johnson's Solid Gold Grooves

September 15, 2015

Louis Johnson may have been one of the foremost pioneers and promulgators of slap playing on the electric bass, but his broader musicality and sense of groove were what helped sell Brothers Johnson records and kept the phone ringing on session dates.

Example 1 shows Louis using a lighter touch on the mid-tempo Brothers Johnson jam “I’ll Be Good to You” [Look Out for Number 1, 1976, A&M] with less thunderous thump-and-pluck octaves, sliding around what’s essentially a walking bass line, occasionally interrupted by some ghost-note funk. Dig how he slides on select upper-octave pluck notes, especially in descending passages.

Louis started one of his best-known songs, the Brothers Johnson cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” [Right on Time, 1977, A&M], with the tiptoeing fingerstyle staccato octave licks shown in Ex. 2. His approach at the top of the track is so gentle that it makes for a powerful contrast when the thunder rolls in at the verse, shown here at the end of bar 4. That lick starts with an open-E thunk that allows for a pop way up on the G string’s 7th fret D. But take another look at those syncopated fingerstyle plucks in the intro: Louis starts phrases a 16th-note before or after the beat, or extends the groove across the bar line. As for the notes, octaves were the rage in mid-’70s slapped disco funk, but LJ twisted the trope with fingerstyle skank and mid-phrase octave flipping, creating a jarring angular feel.

Louis wasn’t just called for his thunderous thumping abilities, but also for simple, solid grooves, like on much of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album [1982, Epic], and “I Keep Forgettin’,” from Michael McDonald’s 1982 solo debut If That’s What It Takes [1982, Warner Bros.]. The track is barely underway before Louis slips in a descending 16th-note lick, shown here in Ex. 3, bar 5.

Of course, Louis Johnson didn’t get the nickname Thunder Thumbs by accident. There are numerous examples that showcase his slap skills (see the June ’09 issue for a complete transcription of the Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp,” complete with a ripping bass solo showcase), but Louis himself cited “Get On the Floor,” from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall [1979, Epic], as one of the songs of which he was most proud. Indeed, “Get On the Floor” was structured around the bass line, with Johnson earning a co-writing credit. The song zips along at a feisty 125 beats per minute, and Louis’ line features numerous ghosted 16thnote motifs, so oil up that thumb joint and take it slow before working it up to tempo. When you see three 16th-notes in a row, chances are there’s a left-hand slap in the middle, so watch carefully. Throughout the chorus lick (Ex. 4), Johnson keeps his short notes tight and percussive, which helps make the accented notes and slippery octave really stand out.
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