IN NOVEMBER 2013, BASS PLAYER GAVE A POSTHUMOUS LEGACY AWARD TO WILLIE DIXON. At the Bass Player LIVE! concert/awards ceremony, his grandson Alex Dixon was there to accept the award on Willie’s behalf, and I was amazed at the family resemblance. As a young man, Alex had the opportunity to gig as a keyboard player with his grandpa, and he told me, “I was too young to be nervous about who I was playing with.” The concert featured Stones bassist Daryl Jones leading an all-star tribute to Willie’s music, with guest appearances by Don Was and Jerry Jemmott—and while laying it down was the order of the day, each player took a turn at soloing on the blues. While bass solos are not a mainstay of the genre, Mr. Dixon himself was quite the dynamic soloist, using his formidable slap chops, sheer chutzpah, and sense of humor to leave a lasting impression. There’s no way anyone could not dig a Willie Dixon solo!
Here are the first two choruses of Willie’s solo on “Joggie Boogie,” the track featured in last month’s column. While there are no frets on the upright bass, the example is tabbed as it would be positioned on the upright bass neck. All quarter- notes are plucked by grabbing the string with your index and/or middle fingers, pulling on the string, and releasing it to smack against the fingerboard— much like the string pop in funk/slap technique. The fast triplet and 16th-note slaps are played more with the side of the hand than the flat of the palm. It’s an approach used by jazz players like Milt Hinton that facilitates fast walking lines with the slap technique. The slap itself is a by-product of bringing the hand back into place for the next pluck; don’t think of it as hitting the fingerboard. In this example, Willie pulls a few trick runs that really stun at 188 bpm; the triplet slap in bar 1 is a little different in that the last beat is plucked instead of slapped, and he repeats it in bar 3. On the IV chord, he climbs up and down the triad and adds a quick 16th-note blast in bar 6—he’s really just plucking eighth-notes, but the slaps falling in between create a double-time rhythm. Willie utilizes these two rhythmic devices throughout the first two choruses, and continues on to take several more choruses (on two separate occasions) until the end of the 3:28 track.
The end of the second chorus ends with Willie climbing the ladder up to the fingerboard’s nosebleed section for the next few rounds. He hangs around thumb position—still producing a tone that could drive a band—and drops back to earth to accompany Memphis Slim through several more hot choruses of boogie-woogie. On the second run through Willie’s solo, you’ll notice he plays almost the exact same thing as the first time, but once he drops back down from the higher realms, he unleashes a slap barrage that carries the two out to the big finish.
Willie Dixon was not only an important architect of rock & roll and a pioneering poet of the blues, he was a bass player of monstrous ability who influenced generations of players—not in the least this month’s cover artist, Lee Rocker. All hail Willie Dixon, the Pillar of the Blues!
Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas. edfriedland.com
Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, Songs of Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon [Folkways]