AS THE HOUSE GUITARIST FOR STAX RECORDS back in the ’60s, Steve Cropper was instrumental in creating the smooth but smoldering sounds of Memphis soul. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, and other legendary performers all relied upon Cropper to infuse their music with his combination of hooky grooves and sweet melodic embellishments. Sometimes, he was called upon to co-write their equally legendary songs, such as Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.” Cropper’s role with fellow Stax men Booker T. and the MGs—who scored their first hit in 1962 with “Green Onions”—brought him further into the spotlight, as has his ongoing role as “The Colonel” in the Blues Brothers band. He has also produced albums for musical icons such as Jeff Beck, Tower of Power, John Prine, and Jose Feliciano, as well as recording with the likes of Paul Simon, Elton John, John Lennon and Ringo Starr.
On his latest outing, Nudge It Up a Notch [Stax], Cropper combines forces with his old friend, vocalist and keyboardist Felix Cavaliere of Young Rascals and Rascals fame (with help from co-producer Jon Tiven, and a backing band featuring drummer Chester Thompson and bassist Shake Anderson). The album’s 12 songs capture the essential flavors of ’60s-era soul—with a nod to rap on “Make the Time Go Faster”—and Cropper’s tasty grooves, elegant arpeggios, sliding double-stops, and minimalist melodies go straight to the heart of every tune.
Are you still playing Telecasters?
I’m using Tele-style guitars made by Peavey. The two guitars I play most often are the original prototype of the Peavey Generation Series— which was my main guitar on the record—and a one-off guitar with a very light body and a quilted maple top that Peavey made me several years ago for my birthday. I play that one live. I also have several Peavey Cropper Classics and Fender Telecasters that I use sometimes.
There’s a shot of you playing a Gibson ES-335 at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969.
I love that guitar, and I’ve been using it in the studio a little bit. But after that show in Atlanta, [original Booker T. and the MGs drummer, the late] Al Jackson said to me, “Bring the Tele next time.” And when Al Jackson spoke, you listened.
What amps do you use?
I play a Fender The Twin live—usually the red-knob version. They distort too much if you turn them up, and their volume and tone controls are totally different than those on other Fenders, but if you back the bass off and turn the treble up, you’ll get a really good clean sound. For recording, I mostly use a Victoria Twin-style amp—although, on the new album, I got all the tones on the songs with vocals using an ART SGX2000 that Jon Tiven ran me through. It’s clean, but it has a bit of an amp edge to it, along with a little more sustain. To get the crunchier tones on the two instrumentals, I cranked up an old Peavey Classic 30.
What do you use to get that big tremolo sound?
Lately, I’ve been using a Voodoo Lab Tremolo.
Do you use any other pedals?
Billy Gibbons gave me a Bixonic Expandora that I’ve used on a few things, but not very much. I’m mainly just a clean rhythm Tele guy, and when I play a solo, I usually just bear down and play a little grittier.
How do you typically set the controls on your guitar?
I turn the Volume and Tone controls all the way up. I tend to favor the neck pickup on my main guitar, and I’ve always used a combination of both pickups on the others—going back to my Teles in the ’60s. I almost never use the bridge pickup by itself.
How about strings?
I’ve been using these laminated Gibson strings, gauged .010-.046, that never hit the market. I like them because they hold the tone, and I can do three shows before I have to change them—which is six hours of beating them up pretty good. With regular sets, I’ll break a string by the third show, because I saw them in two playing rhythm. I almost never break a string in a solo. It’s the vibration across the bridge that breaks them.
Does the lamination replace the ChapStick that you used to put on your strings?
That was going to be our promotional hook: “Cropper used to use ChapStick, but now he uses Gibson laminated strings.” In the old days, I used Gibson nickel-plated Sonomatics, and I don’t think they even listed the gauges. The sixth string had to be at least a .050-something—it was monstrous. I never changed them until they broke. I’ve worked with a lot of great guitarists in the studio, and some of them—like Robben Ford—would change strings after every solo. That drove me nuts at the time. But maybe it wasn’t so bad, because I guess they could hear them going dead. My ears didn’t hear it—and I don’t know if the microphones heard it— but they heard it, so whatever made them happy. I don’t think Robben Ford still does that, but he still plays his kazoo off.
Did not changing the strings affect your tones on those old recordings?
I think so. Good ol’ grime, sweat, and rust.
What picks do you use?
I use custom picks with my name and photo on them that are like Fender Mediums.
Do you always play with your hand anchored on the bridge?
Yeah, right across the bridge. And that will tell you why I can’t play a Stratocaster. Right where I’m picking is where that middle pickup is, and those little magnets that stick up knock the pick right out of my hand. I’ve always liked the Stratocaster sound, however, so on my Strat I removed the center pickup.
You typically play in standard tuning, but you played in open-E on some of your early stuff, right?
I did very few sessions in open-E, other than with Otis Redding. I did it for Otis because that’s the way he played, and that’s the way we wrote some of those songs. I had two Telecasters, one tuned to an E chord, and the other in standard tuning. “Old Man Trouble,” for example, is in open-E tuning.
Are there any guitar playing techniques you feel you originated?
That’s hard to say. I think a lot of the licks I played behind Otis Redding in open-E tuning were fairly original. But most of my licks came from either Lowman Pauling of the Five Royales, or Billy Butler, who played with Bill Doggett. And I always loved Wayne Bennett, who played with Bobby “Blue” Bland. Man, he was a great player.
You have said that the main reason you don’t solo more often is that you miss the rhythm when you stop playing.
The bottom falls out. I’ve always said that when I’m live on stage, and it’s my turn to solo, I wish the other guy would play behind me like I play behind him when he’s soloing. But I just can’t get them to do it.
What’s the most important thing a rhythm guitarist should keep in mind?
Check out which girl you want to play to in the front row, and don’t take your eyes off of her. You’ll come up with something. That’s it. It gets awful boring playing to yourself. And you’ve got to play with feeling, and you’ve got to mean it. You can’t just play what you’ve been taught and really accomplish a whole lot.
What’s the best way to learn to weave fills and rhythms together into a coherent whole?
Listen to the singer. I listen to the whole, and the drummer is there for time, but I mostly listen to the singer, and everything I do is intended to complement what the singer just did. If I don’t hear anything, I’ll just continue playing rhythm. But if I hear a fill, and there’s time for it, then I’ll throw a little fill in there that picks up where the singer left off. Then, I get out before he comes back in. It’s not about what you play, it’s what you don’t play that counts.
Explain the role that chord voicing plays in your arrangements.
I have some voicings that I picked up from gospel players back in the late ’50s and early ’60s. They used different forms to get their fingers out of the way, so they could play bass notes and stuff like that. And there are other forms where you’re only playing four or five strings instead of six, and deadening the others with your hands. But I go where my hands fall, and I don’t think much about where what I play came from. If you want me to play on something, let me hear it a couple of times, and I’ll see what I can do.
The playing on the early Stax recordings is very laid back. Did the fact that you were recording live in a room without headphones contribute to the “behind the beat” feel?
Absolutely. It had a lot to do with it. There are so many new musicians that don’t know how to lay back. They don’t get it, and that’s okay, but that laid-back feeling is what gets the dancers up on their feet. Maybe times have changed and passed me by, but I still like to play music that makes people want to get up and enjoy themselves.
What was it like producing Jeff Beck?
If there’s any advice I can give to young players, it’s listen to Jeff Beck. I don’t know a lot about guitar, but I know enough to know what one can do, and I’d watch his hands and think, “You can’t get that there. How is he doing that?” And he wasn’t about to show me [laughs]. For example, “Goin’ Down” is phenomenal. Talk about ripping it!
What guitar did Beck play?
I believe it was the same Tele on every song. As I recall, the paint had been stripped off, and it was just natural.
How did he get those twang bar-like dives on “Goin’ Down” with a Tele?
I think he did that with the tuning machines.
Did he play through Marshalls?
No. I had an old tweed Gibson combo with a 12" speaker and about ten little brown plastic buttons you pushed down to get different sounds. It might have been called a Switchmaster. He started playing through that amp, and he loved it. That’s mostly what he used. Also, [Stax engineer] Ronnie Capone and I were pretty good at getting guitar sounds by miking the amps a little differently, and I think that was also part of the sound on that record.
How did you mic guitar amps?
We used to mic both the front and the back of the amp—which is a technique that came from knowing how to record a French horn in a small room. We would lean a piece of plywood against a wall, put the amp about three or four feet from it, and drop a mic down between the plywood and the back of the amplifier. That would give you a pretty good sound. We probably used that technique with Jeff—although we might have used a baffle rather than plywood. And I’m guessing we used a Neumann U87—just sitting down in front of the amp. Also, I like to mic the speaker paper rather than the cone. Most guys put the mic right on the middle of the cone, or they take a Shure mic and point it to the center of the cone. I don’t. I like to point the mic towards the paper to get the sound coming down the cone.
Was there anything else magical about that session?
I don’t know if there was anything magical. If you want magic, we’ve got to go back to the Otis Redding days, when it was live-to-mono with no overdubs. After a take, the guys couldn’t wait to go into the control room to hear back what they just played. That was magic. Al Jackson would listen to the take and say, “Boys, all that needs is out.”