Blues You Can Use - John McVie: Mac Daddy

LONG BEFORE EXPERIENCING THE PINNACLE OF ROCK SUPERSTARDOM as the “Mac” in Fleetwood Mac, John McVie was a cornerstone of the thriving British blues/rock scene of the 1960s.
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From left: John Mayall, Eric Clapton, John McVie, and Hughie Flint LONG BEFORE EXPERIENCING THE PINNACLE OF ROCK SUPERSTARDOM as the “Mac” in Fleetwood Mac, John McVie was a cornerstone of the thriving British blues/rock scene of the 1960s. In 1963, at age 17, he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, playing on several groundbreaking recordings of the time, including the classic Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. McVie’s tenure with Mayall also produced 1967’s A Hard Road, the recording that introduced guitarist Peter Green. Although not featured on this record, drummer Mick Fleetwood joined up with the Bluesbreakers during this period, coalescing the triumvirate with Green and McVie that would go on to found Fleetwood Mac shortly thereafter. But this month’s example comes from Crusade, an album recorded earlier in 1967 that featured guitarist Mick Taylor, a future Rolling Stone.

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cVie’s playing in the Mayall days was textbook stuff; he played the right line, filled out the bottom, and hooked up with the drums. And while his approach was conventional, his playing had definition, drive, and swing—as witnessed by this month’s example, his line on “Me and My Woman.” McVie’s Fender Precision Bass stands out loud and proud on this one, and the pattern is fairly technical by blues standards, particularly for the time period (and on top of that, it’s in C#). He pulls it off without a glitch, giving a muscular performance throughout the entire track.

The rhythm feel is a cool mixture of ideas that sounds almost polyrhythmic at times. The bass line’s melodic similarity to Miles Davis’ classic “All Blues” can trick the brain into hearing 6/8, but the drum groove (Ex. 1) adds to this impression with two eighth-note snare hits on the first backbeat, making the first half of the bar sound waltz-like. The drum part has a simple, slowed-down “Twist” beat, except for the kick-drum pickup on the “a” of beat four, which gives a distinct half-time feel. There is a subtle swing to the 16th-note subdivision that makes this groove loose and funky.

Example 2 is an approximation of McVie’s line. It’s busy, and requires good fretting-hand positioning to keep the activity between the 5 (with the 4th finger) and the 6 (with the 1st finger) stress-free over the long haul, especially when the pattern moves down to the 2nd fret for the IV chord. If you keep your bass down low in the knuckle-dragger zone, you’ll have a hard time pulling this line off. Keep your fretting- hand thumb in the middle of the neck—no baseball-bat/Portals/1/060_bas1113_woodshed.jpggrip for this groove! To play the 16ths on beats three and four smoothly, use the drag technique in your plucking hand (illustrated underneath the line with i for index finger, m for the middle finger). McVie keeps the pattern fairly consistent, but his use of the open A as a “bounce point” for the chromatic line from the IV back to the I chord (bars 6 and 10) is very Jamersonian, and super cool!

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If Fleetwood Mac only brings to mind images of well-crafted 70s mega-pop, do yourself a favor and check out the late-1960s work of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Digging in to their music, you’ll find some of the best examples of early British blues. You may be surprised to discover that this group started out as a hardcore blues/ rock outfit, with roots going back to the earliest days of the genre.

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