R&B Gold: Funky Clavinet Classics

September 1, 2017

The inspiration for this month’s column came to me once again via the airwaves. Sitting in a cafe somewhere in America, one of my favorite tunes began playing on the house system, and I was instantly transported to grooveville. In between spoonfuls of grits, my head was bobbing to Bill Withers’ “Use Me” so hard, I started getting funny looks from the locals. I noticed that through the lackluster speakers, the bass line was completely inaudible, but the Clavinet part was loud and clear. It reminded me of the first time I was asked to play this tune, long before I had dug into it and learned the bass line. What I remembered was the Clav part, so I tried to make it work, with mixed results. It got me thinking about the Clavinet, its musical importance in a variety of genres, and how often its part gets confused for the bass line.

The Hohner Clavinet was introduced in 1964 as an electrified version of the clavichord, a small 14th-century keyboard instrument mainly used for practice or composition due to its low volume. Hohner issued the Clavinet in several configurations, but the iteration everyone seems to dig is the D6 model. Unlike today’s digital keyboards, the Clavinet produces its signature tone mechanically: the keys cause a metal hammer to strike a string, which is then amplified by a magnetic pickup. They’re clunky, maintenance-heavy, and a total pain if you have to replace a string—but the D6 is a beautiful thing sitting front-and-center in a slamming funk groove.

The Hohner Clavinet is an iconic 20th-century keyboard tone, witnessed by the fact that virtually every digital keyboard since the ’80s has included a patch to simulate it. The Clav was integral to funk in the hands of P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell, Graham Central Station’s Hershel (Happiness) Kennedy, and Stevie Wonder, and it even had its own feature instrumental hit with Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space.” But it was also a key element of Bob Marley’s music, prominently mixed in tracks like “Could You Be Loved” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” George Duke got nasty with the Clav in Frank Zappa’s “I Am the Slime,” and Paul Griffin played the iconic part on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” John Paul Jones tightly integrated Clav with his bass part in Zep’s “Custard Pie,” and NRBQ’s Terry Adams used the D6 frequently to double the bass line, or as percussive filler. Perhaps one of the finest examples of the Clav/bass relationship is heard in the Rufus classic “Tell Me Something Good.” Chaka Khan’s vocals are transcendently sexy, powerful, and in the pocket, but the interplay between Dennis Belfield’s bass and Kevin Murphy’s Clavinet is Yin/Yang at its most funky.

As a public service, I feel compelled to straighten out one common Clav part/bass part mix up that plagues bassists to this day. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” may be the most ubiquitous jam tune of all time, and for good reason. It’s a simple progression with a catchy hook, a funky groove—and how often will a bassist play the Clav part instead of the bass line? Let’s admit it, we’ve all done it. The original version is in Eb, but I’ve presented it here in E, because that’s where everybody plays it. The Clav part (Ex. 1, top line) is easily mistaken for a bass line; it’s in the low register, it lies well on a bass, and it’s fun to play. However, the Minimoog bass part (bottom line) is the essential anchor that makes this groove happen. Bass players with 4-strings may avoid this part, as the low D (Db in the original key) is out of range, having been originally played on keyboard. Substituting the low D for another G (Ex. 2a) is a workable solution, as the most important aspect is the consistent pounding of the low E. Another option would be to detune the E string one whole-step and alter the fingering as shown in Ex. 2b.

“Use Me” hit #2 on the R&B and Pop charts in 1972, and it’s one of Bill Withers’ grooviest tracks. Ray Jackson’s up-front and funky Clav part is the star of the show, but way down low is a stellar bass part from Mr. Melvin Dunlap, a Cleveland native who made his way to Los Angeles, where he laid down the groove for Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band. (For a look at one of his quirkiest but most memorable lines, check him out on Wright’s “Express Yourself.”) Dunlap teamed up with Bill Withers for his third album Still Bill, which in addition to “Use Me,” also featured the monster hit “Lean on Me.” The genius of Dunlap’s “Use Me” groove is how it underpins the song with a perfect balance of notes and space, sometimes connecting with the Clav, other times playing counter to it. Another cool tidbit is his use of a harmonic A on the 7th fret of the D string to differentiate the first half of the four-bar pattern. In the post-Jaco world of bass, harmonics are commonplace, but this was 1972. Example 3 shows the basic Clav part on the top line, and the essential idea of Melvin’s bass part underneath. There are subtle variations throughout the performance, but for the most part, Dunlap keeps repeating the core groove with authority and swing, making this song a “desert island” track for me.

There are quite a few classic tracks that feature the Hohner D6, and while the Clav often accentuates the bottom of the groove, it pays to dig deeper and listen for the bass line below it—you may have to play it one day.

INFO

ED FRIEDLAND

Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.

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