By reader request, this month we're taking a look at one of the founding fathers of electric bass, the late, great Donald “Duck” Dunn. If you’re under 50 years old, you most likely became aware of him as the pipe-smoking, red-haired bass player in the Blues Brothers movie. But long before that film became part of the collective consciousness, Duck was laying down iconic lines as a member of the famed Stax Records house band of the 1960s. This group of individuals (Booker T. Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson on drums, and Duck Dunn on bass), a.k.a. Booker T. & the MG’s, is responsible for some of the most significant grooves ever recorded. In addition to their own success, this well-oiled rhythm machine played on many of the biggest hits by artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, and many others. Duck’s simple melodic approach allowed the song to breathe, but his insistent pulse made sure it was breathing hard!
This month’s example is taken from the classic 1967 Albert King recording Born Under a Bad Sign, featuring the MG’s as the backup band. In addition to the title track (one of the most covered tunes in the blues repertoire), the album has several songs that became signature numbers: “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “As the Years Go Passing By,” and the King classic, “Crosscut Saw.” The track we’ll look at, however, is “Down Don’t Bother Me,” a sprightly stroll through the 12-bar form with a cool mix of influences. Example 1 is a close match for Duck’s basic line on the track, a variation on the “Shortnin’ Bread” theme (1–6–5–6) played with a rhythm that brings to mind Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” This melodic motif is present in several other classic Duck lines, “Knock on Wood” and “Crosscut Saw,” for example. At 98 beats per minute, this line doesn’t sit still for long, and Duck’s clean articulation goes a long way toward nailing this groove.
Dunn (left) in a promo shot for the 1967 Booker T. & the M.G.’s single “Hip Hug-Her” Listening to the track’s rhythmic environment, the bass line is the most active part, and is solely responsible for stating the 12/8 pulse that seems to define the feel. But true to form, Al Jackson trims off the fat and plays mostly straight quarter-notes with the occasional shuffle undertone, while Booker T. plays the “flat tire” upbeat for each beat. An important detail is the eighth-note rest on beat two of the line—it leaves a snare-drum-size hole in the groove that gets filled perfectly by Jackson. Listen to the relationship between the snare hit and Duck’s pickup note on the “and” of beat two—the gap is the breath that circulates the life force. Playing the pickup note short creates momentum toward beat three, which is the last gas before the ascending triplet figure on beat four. Duck moves the one-bar pattern through the changes of the 12-bar form, a time-honored approach that never fails. He plays this bouncy line through the vocal choruses, but for King’s guitar solo, Duck cuts back and simply lays down the root on every quarter-note, and it gets nasty real quick.
Read more about Duck Dunn’s history, get a detailed look at his setup, and examine his style more closely (as well as that of nine other key players) in Ed Friedland’s book The Way They Play: The R&B Masters [Hal Leonard]. edfriedland.com
Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign [Stax, 1967]