Under Investigation: Early Steely Dan

As anyone who has done both will tell you, it can often get pretty hairy trying to balance performing and freelance writing gigs within the course of a single month.
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As anyone who has done both will tell you, it can often get pretty hairy trying to balance performing and freelance writing gigs within the course of a single month. This type of multi-tasking tends to tear one in completely opposite directions and be quite maddening, but every once in a while the stars align, as was the case with this month’s investigation, when the opportunity to revisit three classic Steely Dan solos coincided with having to re-learn them (along with 14 other songs!) for a June 5, 2015 Steely Dan tribute show featuring Jerry Marotta, Jules Shear, Gail Ann Dorsey, Scott Petito, and a host of fellow Woodstock all-stars. Woo-hoo!

Suffice to say, the Dan reigned supreme during the early to mid ’70s. Musical alchemists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker kicked up pop music’s sophistication more than a few dozen notches with their crafty, genre-bending compositions, which were enhanced by an amazing roster of guitarists. New rites of passage emerged as players worldwide headed for the woodshed to cop Steely Dan licks and solos by studio greats Larry Carlton, Elliot Randall, Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour, Steve Khan, Hugh McCracken, Rick Derringer, and Dean Parks—all of whom served the stringent demands of Fagen and Becker.

But with all due respect, some of the band’s most memorable guitar solos, including “Do It Again,” “Rikki (Don’t Lose That Number),” and “Black Friday” were cut during the early to mid ’70s by original members Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and bassist-turned-guitarist Walter Becker. Thus, we celebrate the diverse styles of this titanic triumvirate by revisiting excerpts and motifs from three solos drawn from Steely Dan’s golden age. So grab a mug of joe and let’s…


First up is original Steely stalwart Denny Dias, who studied with jazz great Billy Bauer. Dias’ lessons informed an advanced chordal vocabulary and the ability to play over complex changes, which gave him a distinctive edge over many other early-’70s rock players. That said, “Do It Again” (from the band’s 1972 debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill), which has probably received more classic-rock airplay than all other Dan tunes combined, actually contains relatively few chord changes—a static Gm7-based figure provides the harmonic backdrop for 26 of the solo’s unorthodox 30-bar form—but Dias’ equally unorthodox Coral Electric Sitar solo nonetheless displays a rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic awareness on a par with many of jazz’s finest. Ex. 1 finds Dias beginning sparsely in third position, where the majority of his solo takes place. He uses only four different notes over the course of the first five bars (G, D, F, and C, plus a single C# chromatic passing tone in bar 4), but the real magic lies in how Dias develops these into gradually busier motifs by utilizing heavy syncopation and rhythmic displacement. Bar 6 features the double-chromatic 4-#4/b5 approach to the 5 that resides within the G blues scale, plus a momentary pause on the 9 (A), followed by a very sax-y ascending Fmaj7 arpeggio that crosses over into bar 7. This common jazz substitution (i.e., playing off of a major seventh chord a whole-step below a Gm7 (or G7) tonic) yields all the hip upper extensions of both chords (the b7, 9, 11, and 13). Dias follows up with a heavily syncopated descending G Dorian sequence in bar 8, one that reappears at the end of his solo.

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Throughout the next 12 bars of the static Gm7 section, Dias introduces repetitive motifs like the Dorian-based one in Ex. 2a, and gets all chromatic with the ultra-cool moves shown in Ex. 2b. (Tip: Try combining both examples.) The first set of chorus changes (Cm7-Dm7-Ebmaj7-Dm7) appears in bars 21 and 22. Here, (and in the previous two measures) Dias employs hammered and sliding broken minor third intervals played a whole-step apart in the sixth and eighth positions to outline the 5 and b7of Cm7 and Dm7, as shown in Ex. 3a, and then plays similar moves over Ebmaj7 and Dm7. His return to third position and Gm7, paraphrased in Ex. 3b, features wide interval skips and another hefty dose of chromaticism. Dias takes a different tack on the second round of chorus changes (à la bars 25 and 26). Eschewing any syncopation whatsoever, he barrels through all four changes with heavily chromaticized third-position lines like the ones depicted in Examples 4a and 4b. (Again, try combining both examples.) By contrast, a 3/16 hemiola (grouped sixteenth-plus-eighth) provides the rhythmic displacement for Dias’ penultimate ascending G pentatonic minor sequence in Ex. 4c. Ex. 4d reverses the sequence and reprises a displaced version of bar 8 from Ex. 1, adding Dorian scale tones and swapping out sixteenth-notes for accented eighth-note triplets before calling it a wrap.

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On the flip side of the coin, we have Jeff “Skunk” Baxter delivering a different sermon altogether in the midst of the mellow groove of “Rikki (Don’t Lose That Number),” from Pretzel Logic (1974). Brimming with stanky bent notes and greasy phrasing, the Skunk’s eight-bar solo commences with the four-bar phrase notated in Ex. 5. Playing over one bar each of D and A, followed by two bars of E, Baxter conjures Hendrix magic with a repetitive rhythm motif applied equally to two different parts of E pentatonic minor and one part of E pentatonic major (essentially, the same lick as beat four of bar 1 played three frets lower), tagged with some twelfth-position voodoo into and including bar 4.

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Four bars later, Baxter delves into “Grazin’ in the Grass” R&B territory with the slurred, partial Fmaj7 (plus-9) chords and subsequent G pentatonic major lick over Gmaj7 depicted in Ex. 6a. Follow this up with the two-bar, Fmaj7-Em7 response in Ex. 6b, the sliding fourths and Hendrix-y hammer-ons that caricaturize the D-and A-based moves in Examples 7a and 7b, and, finally Ex. 7c’s beautifully off-beat broken sixth, fifth, and fourth intervals Baxter uses to transition from the solo to the song’s bridge. Magnifico!

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Last, but not least, we’ve got Dan cofounder Walter Becker, who began as the band’s bassist for their first two albums, and whose subsequent guitar work has contributed as much to the Steely Dan sound as any of their esteemed guest guitarists. Becker’s style always seemed to veer both left and right of center, like a combination of Dias and Baxter, but bent slightly sharp, and the solo he lays down on “Black Friday,” the opening cut from 1975’s Katy Lied (played over the illustrated “one-two-andE5-Eb7/5-E7/5 shuffle rhythm figure), is but one example of his delightfully skewed take on “da blooze.”

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Becker’s aura pervades his opening statement [Ex. 8], which is essentially a four-bar pickup that begins with two bars of blatantly displaced F# pentatonic-minor/A-pentatonic major licks (functioning as half of a four-bar phrase) before bleeding seamlessly into Ex. 9’s sequential ascent into two bars of more conventional Albert King-style E blues territory. Next, Becker’s slurred double-stops in the first two bars 2 of Ex. 10 blur the lines between faux-slide guitar and blues harp. Finally, Ex. 11 continues the saga with identical four-note motifs played a whole step apart in the eighth and tenth positions (bar 1 and beat one of bar 2), plus an E-minor-ized version of the same lick with emphasis on a bent F#, the 9 (bar 2, beats two through four). Add to this the deliciously over-bent and vibrated F in bar 3 (it’s the b9, and perhaps the most “incorrect” tonic chord-tone of all time!), and you’ve got a complete Becker-style preface to the A-G6-F#7-G6-Eb7#9-Dmaj7-B7 progression that follows. But that’s another story. So, in the immortal words of Don Ho: “Suck ’em up!”

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