IN THE PANTHEON OF GREAT BASS PLAYERS, CHUCK RAINEY stands as a monument to groove and inventiveness. Arriving in New York City in 1962, the Ohio native soon joined up with legendary R&B saxophonist King Curtis for several landmark recordings and countless gigs, including the once-in-alifetime experience of opening for the Beatles on their 1965 U.S. tour. Chuck became a mainstay in New York’s active session scene, laying down tracks for Sam Cooke, Harry Belafonte, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and many others. As a self-described “Jamerson-type” bassist, Chuck’s funky approach put him in demand during those early years when jazz, blues, soul, and pop music converged. In the 1970s he moved to Los Angeles and branched into movie and television sessions, while continuing to record with a who’s who of popular music. His long association with Steely Dan has produced some of the most creative rock bass lines ever recorded. Rather than rest on his past achievements, Chuck has continued to grow and develop musically, and much of his solo work showcases his remarkable style of self-accompaniment on the 6-string bass. Having recovered from a stroke in 2012, Chuck is back to performing and teaching (he frequently teaches at Victor Wooten’s Bass Nature camp), and—we hope—more recording.
Chuck’s style is instantly recognizable for its authoritative presence, strong pulse, and his fearless forays into the upper register. Some classic “Rainey-isms” are a well-placed double-stop on the D and G strings above the 12th fret, usually a tri-tone over the A or E string (Ex. 1), and his signature upper-register chromatic run from the 2nd scale degree up to the 3rd of a chord, as shown in Ex. 2. His use of ghost-notes and “in-between” rhythms gives his playing a sense of propulsion, but always in support of the overall groove.
So what happens when Chuck Rainey plays a straightforward blues? Example 3 is a look at his approach on a 12-bar blues in Ab, much like the line he plays behind Albert King’s guitar solo on “Nobody Wants a Loser,” from the outstanding LP Truckload of Lovin’. In bar 1, the slide up to the 3rd of the R–3–5–6 pattern loosens up the feel, while the triplet dead note on the end of beat four gives a nice lift that sets up the next downbeat; notice how he uses these two ideas through the entire chorus. Bar 5 gets an extra goose with an octave jump on beat one that sets up a standard descending line; notice how the slide into the Bb makes it slippery, but then the ghosted pickup note at the end of the bar snaps it back to nail the next downbeat, giving you a chance to reset your hand position for the next bar.
In bars 7 and 8, the line returns to the “Shortenin’ Bread” lick (1–6–5–6) which was the primary bass motif for the song until the guitar solo. Chuck locks into a more pronounced shuffle rhythm for these two bars, using it as a launch pad for the increased activity of the last phrase. The triplet on beat one of bar 9 is a rhythmic bump that sends us down to the low G (the 3rd of the chord) and up the triad with a “shmear” into the 5th, capped by the octave on beat four with a chromatic passing tone down to the Db7. In bar 10, Chuck puts his signature on the line with “Rainey-ism No. 2”; if you didn’t know who was on bass before, he just told you! Adding the slide between the high Eb and E is a greasy twist that gives way to a triplet 8–5–1 lick on beat four that sets up the turnaround at the end of the form—a classic chromatic walkup from the I to the V chord, which gets a climactic pedal of octaves with the shuffle rhythm.
As you can see, the heart of this chorus is textbook blues bass line material, but Chuck’s interpretation makes it distinct, and unmistakably his own. For bassists, this remains one of the great musical challenges—remaining true to our function by playing the appropriate thing for the song, while still finding a way to spice it up and make it our own. Examining the work of masters like Chuck Rainey is a great way to learn about this concept, so get out there and start listening!
Ed “The Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas. Dig deeper into his analysis of Chuck Rainey and other R&B icons in his book The R&B Bass Masters [Backbeat Books]. edfriedland.com