Legendary Bassist “Duck” Dunn Bio and Transcriptions

Few people become legends in their own time, and even fewer are unaware of it when it happens, but this itself is part of the legend of one of the most influential bass players ever – Donald “Duck” Dunn.

Soul Fingers is sub-titled “The Music & Life of Legendary Bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn” and the ordering is as it should be since the bulk of the book consists of transcriptions of some of Duck’s most famous lines along with some basic analysis of his style. Author Nick Rosaci writes “I have to admit, I’m not much of an author. I was the student who barely passed my English composition classes so I could spend more time in the practice rooms.” This explains the one problem with the book: the biography section is somewhat disorganized with some events out of order, and several places where information is repeated a couple of paragraphs later. This seems to be the result of one of the strengths of this section, which relies on the reports of family and close friends who were there at the times mentioned. Their statements are kept intact, and they often wander or span Duck’s entire lifetime. But the important events are there, and even those of us who admire his playing will likely be surprised at the range of artists whose recordings Duck’s bass added groove to. For example, his work at Stax with Steve Cropper is well-known as is his work with The Blues Brothers, but Tom Petty was also a great fan who wanted Duck on at least one track of each of his albums “for luck”! Even his passing from this world befits a legend, waiting until after his tour of Japan was completed before slipping away in his sleep after the final performance, a pro right up to the end.

Possibly the strangest session Duck was on was for Elvis Presley, who sent a demo which he wanted the band to copy exactly, note-for-note. Here’s one of the greatest bassists being told to suppress his own legendary style to play a different part entirely. To top it off, Duck didn’t even get to meet “The King” because he sent an Elvis impersonator to do a guide vocal during the recording of the backing track, over which Elvis added his voice later, alone!

Being given so much work and pressure to crank out “hits”, it may be understandable that Duck had no idea of his growing reputation outside of Memphis, at least until the Stax European tour where sold out shows and wildly enthusiastic audiences showed him the effect that his music was having worldwide. Once he started playing sessions it seemed that everyone wanted to record with Duck. The range of artists he played with is attested to by the 57 transcriptions included in the book (which includes online access to 28 play-along tracks performed by Duck’s son Jeff, Will Lee, and the author). The play-along tracks are great, with the bass on one speaker and the band on the other, so that you can study the bass alone, or mute it to play along, or hear the entire thing together. The performances are very good, but of course you need to listen to Duck’s original recordings to get that “deep pocket” feel that sets his playing apart.

Hal Leonard keeps improving their online music delivery system, which you access via your personal code at the front of your book. When you have more than one book with audio access, you can form a collection called “My Library” that contains all of the tracks arranged by book. You can download the play-along tracks one at a time or choose to “Download All” to save time, OR you can play them right from your “My Library” site using the PLAYBACK+ software that appears if you click on a song and choose “Play” rather than “Download.” It allows you to adjust the speed without affecting the pitch; to reset the pitch by semi-tone up or down as much as an octave; set loop points to concentrate on a particular section; and adjust the balance between the speakers, and thus between the amount of bass and of the band.  It’s a great way to learn a tricky song correctly at a slow tempo, and then speed it up gradually, or to do the same with a difficult phrase. Pitch adjustment is great if you play with a singer who needs the song in a different key.

The transcriptions range from Booker T. and the MG’s, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Bill Withers; Muddy Waters, Albert King, and The Blues Brothers; Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Jimmy Buffett, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; to the Manhattan Transfer and many more artists. No matter what style or artist Duck plays with, he holds down the groove and keeps the rhythm section solid, a master of the “less is more”school of playing. Usually his most memorable performances are close to frugal in their use of notes, but each note is just the right one for the song, a lesson for all bass players regardless of their level of achievement.

This book is essential for Duck Dunn fans, firstly because it is the only complete biography of this legendary player, incredible as that seems, with assistance from family and friends and a foreword by fan and fellow Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd. Also, it is a terrific collection of accurate transcriptions that show you how Duck played in many different styles and genres. It can also be an introduction to genres that you may not be familiar with that still have Duck’s inimitable bass playing holding them together.

Pick up a copy of this fine book at your local music store (and if they don’t have it, tell them to order a dozen copies!). Of course you can order it online if you have no local store. Click on either of the images above (or here) to go to the Hal Leonard site to order online or for more information on the book with the full transcription list and Table of Contents, Dan Aykroyd’s Foreword, some sample pages, and even a couple of audio examples.

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