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How to Play Like Steve Cropper

April 10, 2014
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If you're looking for a one-stop, ultimate source for exquisitely crafted rhythm and lead guitar parts, you won’t find a better virtual mentor than Telemaster, producer, and songwriter Steve Cropper. Over the course of a half century, during which he virtually defined the “Memphis sound,” Cropper has been laying down charismatic guitar figures that have since become must-know moves for every working guitarist.
 
The decade between 1961 and 1971 found Cropper—armed primarily with a Fender Telecaster and various Fender amps from the period—cranking out hits with Booker T. & the MG’s (“Green Onions”), the Mar-Keys (“Last Night,” on which Cropper played organ), Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”), Sam & Dave (“Soul Man”), and Otis Redding (“[Sittin’ on the] Dock of the Bay”), and culminated with the release of his first solo album.
 
In fact, if Cropper never played another note after 1971, he would have still achieved guitar immortality.
 
It’s this particularly fertile period that we’ll be examining here. Simply put, Cropper’s playing has always been about melody, phrasing, timing, arranging, restraint, and coming up with parts that are a blast to play. And he manages to do it all with fewer notes than anyone else! Let’s investigate.
 
ONIONS REDUX
We decoded Cropper’s first chorus from Booker T. & the MG’s 1962 classic, “Green Onions,” in the October, 2013 installment of You’re Playing It Wrong, but that, plus a couple of other key parts, certainly merit mention here.
 
In case you missed it, Ex. 1a (above) reprises the revelation that Cropper’s anticipated I-, IV-, and V-chord Tele stabs were actually voiced a fourth above the organ chords to create a trio of suspended-sixth sounds throughout the 12-bar blues progression. Crank the treble and play Bb/F over the I chord (F), Eb/Bb over the IV chord (Bb), and F/C for the V chord (C)—with or without the parenthetical roots.
 
For the next few choruses, Cropper grooves on a single-note bass riff like the one in Ex. 1b (above left). Move it up to sixth position (or stay in first position and play the same shape on the fifth and fourth strings) over the IV chord, and transpose either of these moves up a whole-step to cover the V chord. The same sixth- and eighth-fret transpositions apply to the snarly lick shown in Ex. 1c (above right). Start it with an upstroke and observe this important detail: Instead of simply releasing the bend to sound the third note, Cropper adds extra edge by silently releasing the bend and picking the Bb before pulling off to Ab. Sweet!
 
PLAY IT, STEVE
... came the singer’s cry of approval during the second chorus of Sam & Dave’s 1967 smash hit, “Soul Man.” (“Play it, Steve” eventually became the title of both a 1998 solo album and Cropper’s website.)
 
 
Cropper contributed his instantly recognizable signature sliding sixths—which he practically invented—to the song’s intro (Ex. 2a, above), as well as the must-know rhythm figure transcribed in Ex. 2b (above). In Ex. 2a, we’re hybridpicking the 5 and 3 of each chord using only the third and first strings, so one shape fits all—just slide ’em around the neck to cover the G, F, Bb, C, and D changes. Cropper’s verse figure in Ex. 2b is simply a joy to play. Give it a slight swing-sixteenth feel and consider it this month’s You’re Playing It Wrong! (Fact: Cropper dropped his parts three frets to the key of E when performing with the Blues Brothers.)
 
The “Play it, Steve” lick surfaces in Ex. 2c (above left), where Cropper prefaces the short slide lick—originally played with a Zippo lighter—with the first two measures of Ex. 2a, plus a one-bar rest. Try substituting a quarter-note-triplet-based rhythm in the same spot. The song eventually modulates up a half-step to Ab, and during live performances of these outro choruses the Redding band would often break into extended jams where Cropper could stretch out and interact with Otis’ off-the-cuff vocals, tossing off short, syncopated runs like the G lick in Ex. 2d (above right), albeit played a half-step higher.
 
BOY MEETS GULL
Mere days after Otis Redding’s death in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, Cropper was asked by Atlantic Records to go into the studio and produce a single from 14 unfinished tracks that he and the singer had already recorded. He chose well, and “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay,” which Cropper also co-wrote, was released before Christmas that year on Stax’s Volt label, and became both Redding’s biggest hit and the first #1 posthumous record in chart history.
 
 
When Cropper, who already had his acoustic guitar part in the can from the original sessions, overdubbed the high electric parts depicted in Ex. 3a above (Cropper claims this is the highest position he’s ever played these licks in), he says he was thinking of seagulls, perhaps in anticipation of the seaside sound effects he would later add. He outlines the G chord in bar 1 with partially hammered major third intervals (reminiscent of both Mayfield and Hendrix), arpeggiates a B6 chord in bar 2, uses chromatic major thirds to descend from C to A in bar 3, and decorates bar 4 with pulled-off suspensions before repeating the whole deal. (Keep in mind that this is the second verse—Cropper lays out on the first round.)
 
 
 
The chorus figure shown in Ex. 3b (above), which marks the first entrance of Cropper’s electric guitar, consists of the same moves from bar 1 of Ex. 3a supplemented on the and of beat four by a fourth interval (B-over-F#) that creates a plaintive sus2/add9 tonality over the underlying E chord. On the third pass, Cropper syncopates and breaks up the moves in bar 1, playing them a whole-step higher for the A change, before concluding the eight-bar section with similar syncopations over G, plus a barely audible open-E string. (Tip: Hear Cropper talk about and demonstrate his work on the song at playitsteve.com.)
 
TIGHTEN UP
Booker T. and the MG’s 1969 hit “Time Is Tight” epitomizes Cropper’s knack for coming up with tasty rhythm figures.
 
Essentially a harmonized bass line built from a pair major third intervals (which suggest C and G chords) surrounding a perfect fourth played on the open fifth and fourth strings, his palm-muted I-chord rhythm figure presented in Ex. 4a is a model of economy. Use the indicated fingering, or substitute your first and second fingers. Play it twice for the intro, and three times during the instrumental “verse,” and then transpose it to F (the IV chord), by playing the identical shapes in the same position on the fourth, third, and fifth strings, before returning to two rounds of the I chord.
 
 
Cropper’s playing on the instrumental “chorus,” as shown in Ex. 4b (above), is a true lesson in restraint. Not many guitarists could resist the urge to mimic Booker T.’s organ part and nail a six-beat G power chord on the downbeat of bar 1, but Cropper chose the opposite route, covering the first bar-and-a-half with staccato G-chord “chicks” on beats two and four before giving full rhythmic value to the accented G-D-G changes in bars 2 and 3. It’s a simple concept, but one that carries a lesson well worth learning.
 
BUMPER CROP
Cropper’s first solo album, the hopefully soon-to-be-re-released With a Little Help from My Friends (1971), featured greasy (and sometimes fuzzed-out) Memphisstyle instrumental versions of various hits of the day, including the title track, “Funky Broadway,” “Land of 1000 Dances,” “In the Midnight Hour,” plus a few outstanding originals.
 
 
Crop Dustin’,” the album’s opening track, begins with some nice layering captured in Ex. 5a (above), as Gtr. 1 establishes a smoky bass figure that redefines Gtr. 2’s open Am and Asus2 voicings.
 
 
 
Eight bars later, Cropper joins the horn section for Ex. 5b’s funky ensemble riff, where he adds a cool harmony part on the second round.
 
 
 
Ex. 5c (above) approximates the funky rhythm figure that frames Ex. 5b.
 
’TIS THE SEASON
From an era when everyone made Christmas records, one forgotten gem in the MG’s catalog is 1966’s Booker T. & the MG’s in the Christmas Spirit, which features the quartet’s soulful, funked-up arrangements of traditional carols and popular Xmas songs, such as “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “Blue Christmas” and “Merry Christmas Baby.”
 
 
Even something as simple as Cropper’s accompaniment on “Silent Night” is a testimonial to his ability to come up with beautifully inventive parts for even the simplest chord progressions, and the I-, V-, and IV-chord figures notated in Examples 6a through 6c (above) contain all the moves you’ll need to play the entire song.
 
 
In a funkier vein, the band’s arrangement of “Jingle Bells” begins with a funky Duck Dunn bass line before Cropper enters simulating sleigh bells with an appropriately voiced A6 chord on the second and fourth beats, both of which are illustrated in Ex. 7a (above top). Cropper subsequently “chicks” his way through the organ melody with muted chords on beats two and four, before he and the band segue to the I-bVII-IV-I vamp (Rhy. Fig. 2) shown in Ex. 7b (above bottom).
 
 
 
Here, Cropper takes off with a series of succinct solo licks, beginning with Ex. 7c’s syncopated twelfth-position A-minor-based partial chords and arpeggios.
 
 
Finally, Ex. 7d (also played over Rhy. Fig. 2) confirms how Cropper could foment from a simple ascending A pentatonic minor scale a rather baffling, “where’s one?” ostinato that sounds completely backwards against the beat, and ranks among the coolest use of those five notes I’ve ever heard. Happy-happy, joy-joy!
 
Fifty years later, Steve Cropper is still going strong, and his foundational guitar style will continue to resonate as long as the instrument exists. Study it well and be sure to check out Cropper’s latest release, Dedicated, a loving tribute to the Five Royales.

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