Blues You Can Use: Chris Dreja: Big Bird

LET’S TAKE ANOTHER TRIP TO THE U.K. AND CHECK INTO some more great British blues lines.

LET’S TAKE ANOTHER TRIP TO THE U.K. AND CHECK INTO some more great British blues lines. Between 1963 and 1968, the Yardbirds were significant in their role as incubator for nascent rock & roll guitar gods Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, as well as their successes in early psychedelic pop. But the group had firm roots in the American blues and R&B that fueled the British Invasion, as evidenced by stellar tracks like “I’m a Man,” “Highway 69,” and “Got to Hurry.” When founding member Paul Samwell-Smith left the group in 1966, the bass gig went to the session-weary Jimmy Page. It quickly became obvious Page’s talents were better utilized on guitar, and this spurred longtime rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja’s shift to bass—birthing the mind-blowing yet short-lived (and barely recorded) front line of Page and Beck. While rock history holds many tales of guitarists being “demoted” to bass for the good of the cause, in hindsight, this one seems justifiable.

Coming from the rhythm slot, Dreja may have been better suited to playing bass than a lead player, but in this month’s example, you’ll see he was not completely immune from “GPBS” (guitarist playing bass syndrome). The track in question is “Smile on Me,” a two-toned blues raver that alternates between a Latin-influenced take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” riff (see Ex. 1), to a stomping Chicago-style shuffle. Dreja adds a little space on the downbeat, skipping into beat two with a 16th-note pickup, and “Anglicizes” the line a bit by shunning the flatted 5th, as shown in Ex. 2. When the groove turns shuffle for the second time, Dreja starts out with a classic two-bar pattern with a chromatic walk-up from the 3rd to the 5th, similar to Ex. 3. He walks back down the scale from the 5th, and ends on a G# (scale degree 2), which unfortunately, provides a weak resolution to the root of the IV chord. Switching to a textbook triad-based pattern, he lays into some fat quarter-notes in bar 5, and establishes the eighth-note triplet on beat four as a recurring theme. The return to the I chord sees the bass switch yet again to the ubiquitous 1–5–b7–8 box pattern, but going back to the triad when the V and IV chords arrive. In bar 11, Dreja rips into a steady triplet lick that proves to be quite a test at 140 bpm. It certainly builds the energy behind Page’s frantic hullabaloo, and sets the stage for a whole lotta triplets in the second chorus (Ex. 4).

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Dreja recorded this track on the legendary “Yardbird Rivoli,” the bandowned Epiphone analog to the Gibson EB2. The Rivoli was quite a staple on the British scene, falling into the hands of Chas Chandler (the Animals), the Who’s John Entwistle, Scott Walker (Walker Brothers), Karl Green (Herman’s Hermits) among others. The instrument’s massive Sidewinder pickup (a.k.a. “mudbucker”) produces a lumbering woomph, but played with a pick (as many sufferers of GPBS will do), it has a rounded articulation that permits active lines like this one to poke through the mix. Dreja really pumps the groove throughout the performance, which at times gets a bit raw. Perhaps it was the times—London in 1967 was a spiraling vortex of rock and pop energy, and Jack Bruce had already broken the mold of stodgy, sequestered bass parts. While not as well known as his Cream-fed countryman, Chris Dreja played bass with some of the world’s greatest guitar slingers, in one of the most influential bands of the 20th century.

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Ed “The Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.