Hal Leonard BASS Play-Along Vol. 19 STEELY DAN
To start, the most important feature of this book is that the transcriptions are excellent. If they were not good there would be no point in continuing, but they are beyond even very good; they are excellent.
Another important point that demonstrates the excellence of the book is that repeat signs are rare. Good bassists rarely play the exact same notes for each verse, chorus, or other section, unless they are repeating a riff. Only two songs have repeat notation, using a subtle adjustment that we will discuss later.
As with all of Hal Leonard’s current Play-Along books, you are given a code at the front of the book that allows you to download audio versions of individual songs, or the entire set at once (which I recommend). There are two versions of each song. The ones end with “Demo” in their titles have the entire band (minus singers) including the bass. The “PA” versions omit the bass (and singers) so that you can Play Along.
There is a lot that you can learn from these songs, besides the great bass parts, that will help you in creating your own bass lines. By complete coincidence Ariane Cap’s blog post that was emailed out yesterday (to those who have registered on her blog) does this in much greater detail (and in video) with Sting’s song “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot”. Hers is a mini Master Class on how to do this, and I suggest that you view it if you have not signed up for her blog emails, which she sends out once a week. As I said, this is a coincidence as I have been promising the Steely Dan book review since I got all of your email, and have been working on it bit by bit since it arrived. Sometimes life seems to like to surprise us.
The first song in the book is Deacon Blues. Just looking at the chord names, you can get see that a band can’t get by with just three chords in a typical Steely Dan song. The bass part, though, starts with simple one-fret motions. The first bar of the verse starts with a nice arpeggio that omits the 3rd, and the dot over the first G gives you a hint that the bassist probably rolled the same finger over to D before dropping to the low G. Notice that from here on, many of the notes on strong beats are ‘introduced’ by an eighth note. The fills happen in bars with no singing. If you want a real challenge, try to figure out how they relate to each other (they really do). The last bar on page 8 has the reverse type of arpeggio that was used at the start of the first verse, but here he slides up to change register, and uses the characteristic rhythm to slowly get back down to the lowest frets. When we finally get down to the low F on the first fret it is preceded by a staccato F# so that even though F is on a ‘weak’ beat, it is emphasized by its full duration (as well as the rest of the band). The sixteenth notes that show up in the second bar of the second system are a variation of the eighth note leading into the quarter note, a nice subtle change that you might miss on first hearing, as are the two eighths that lead into the next verse at the end of that line 4 bars later. Finally, notice that although the fills get fancier as the song goes on, the bass goes back to a simpler style when the sax plays its solo (the dream realization of the singer). I leave it to you to pick up on how the bass makes an interesting part from a few simple rhythmic ideas and knowing where we are in the song. You may well come away with admiration for a bass line that is impressive but not overly intricate.
Two comments that apply to several other songs as well. The bass is mixed quite low for such great lines, so they are sometimes hard to hear on the original recordings. Also, if you do what I did to listen to the originals and use a “Best of” album they often fade before the lines in the book do, so if you are a real stickler for detail go to the original albums (we’re only talking 1 or 2 seconds here).
Do It Again is the next song, and it uses most of the bass ideas from Deacon Blues. One cool idea of note is the repeats during the electric sitar solo, which has five endings, each of which are different! By now you should be able to spot the different uses of slides. In the middle of the organ solo the timing gets a bit complex, so if you can’t read music notation, especially rhythms, now would be a good time to learn. The best way I can recommend is the aforementioned Ms. Cap’s book and course. And again the Outro guitar solo goes on longer than the recording I used. You might be missing the last two bars but they are well worth mastering.
FM, the next song, will give you a great sense for the off-beat right from the first two notes. The F leads into the bass note A, which is the root note. Here it comes a half-beat (one eighth note) before the downbeat of the next bar. Music theory names this an anticipation because it comes early, anticipating its normal position. The very next bar has off-beats at two levels: 1) The two eighth note Bb’s come on beat 2, a weak beat, rather than the stronger downbeat (i.e. beat 1); and 2) the F# and E come on the second half of beats 3 and 4 rather than on the stronger first half (or ‘on the beat’). Follow this throughout the song to see how many subtle variations are played. On page 28, I particularly like the first bar of the last system where the bass slides up from B (again on the second half of beat 2) to land on a staccato F# and rolls the finger over to B on the next string. (And yes, the words are interesting, as is his pronunciation of them.) The descending chord progression under the lyrics “The girls don’t seem to care” begins and ends with anticipations in both the vocal and bass lines, whereas the bass seems to contradict the vocal next, under the lyric “to-night”. Again we see different rhythmic levels in play, with the two eighth notes A and A# leading to B (and then the same rhythm going down F#-F-E), contrasted with the two sixteenth notes G#-G leading into F#. It’s a tiny detail, but one that gives a sense of overall coherence that you hear but might find hard to explain. As with most Steely Dan songs, we could go on for pages looking at one song, so I will just add one final note: very few writers or players could make a “riff” that was memorable out of three notes (here E-F#-G) played in alternating octaves. (Carol Kaye comes to mind.) I need to add that the music here to the Outro seems a bit confused, with the keyboard doubling the bass and sometimes in a different octave. Also, the bass is mixed so low that the harmonics are not very clear on the actual band recording.
Hey Nineteen uses mostly ideas we have already seen so you should be familiar with much of the song already. Be careful of the key changes, especially when the G# becomes G-natural and later at the Interlude when the key signature changes 3 times in 7 bars! Here’s where learning patterns comes in really handy — look for them. Compared to that, the changes from 4/4 to 2/4 are simple, just shorter bars, but be careful just the same. If the vocal harmony interests you, you might want to review (or learn) triads and passing chords. Ask yourself why an Em chord seems to work over a Bm7 background. This is also a great example of the bass driving the groove of the whole song, as is the case with most Steely Dan songs, even when it is hidden.
If Josie takes you a while to perfect, have a kind thought for the guitarist who has a real rhythmic challenge with quarter note triplets played against the drummer’s straight quarter notes at the start. That’s when theory really saves the day (or session, or job). Those great double-stop slides way up the neck are a lot easier if you start off with the fingering for the second pair of notes, that is you use your index finger on the G string and ring (3rd) finger on the D string. This is a bit cramped on the first one but “opens out” into the second one. Practising octaves comes in handy for the B-C-C#-D at “…eyes on fire”. If rolling your hand slightly helps you to cut off the lower note make it a slight roll and don’t lose your position. Seeing all of these familiar moves in a more complex song will make it a little easier to learn and also give you an insight into the growth of complexity in their music over time.
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number* is one of few songs that can be instantly recognized by a simple, very common bass pattern. It is also unusual for this collection by having a repeat that uses almost exactly the same music, although it uses a D.S. al Coda instead of a repeat sign (which means go back to that sign that looks like a psychedelic ’S’ beside the word “Verse”). The only bar that differs the second time through instructs you to use “Fill 1” in the box at the bottom of the page. Otherwise, you have seen most of these patterns already and even the change of key. Notice especially that during the guitar solo the bass sticks to the root and 5th of the chords, not even assuming that the soloist will use the 3rd of the chord written. After a very contained performance harmonically I really like the sixteenth note triplet on the last page, after “It’s the only one you own…” (*NOTE: The book uses the original “singles” version, which omits the marimba-like instrument at the beginning used on the album version. More information about this is on Wikipedia.)
The book ends with Reeling in the Years [sic]. What that [sic] means is that’s how they spell it in the book. Steely Dan wrote and recorded it as “Reelin’ In the Years” on the album “Can’t Buy a Thrill”. I guess Hal Leonard decided to correct the grammar of these two guys who met at college(?). Whatever, there is some irony in what is considered Steely Dan’s “rock song” that the bass plays “swing”, in short: when playing two eighth notes the first is lengthened a bit, so the second has to be shorter. It gives a flowing feeling. The bass pattern is an old one, used in old blues styles such as boogie or shuffle and is still in use today. This particular pattern uses the root-octave-6th-5th, with an occasional triplet that adds the 7th. Walter Becker described the whole song as “simple, but effective” but that really applies to the bass and rhythm section; the guitar playing by Elliot Randall is something else! (Mr. Randall told Guitar World that he played this in one take!) This may be the easiest song in the book, and it makes use of repeat signs and two fills (the second one only needed to remove the Ab octaves). The challenge here is mostly the speed, which means practice, practice, practice.
In Summary: A great collection of great transcriptions of great songs. Yes, it is funny that Becker is playing a guitar on the cover of the bass book, even if they did cut the end of the head off it, but don’t let that deter you at all. This one is a real workout with a big reward for consistent work. And if you start slowly and speed it up, work becomes play pretty quickly.
Highly recommended for any Steely Dan fan, or any bassist looking for a challenge.