How to Danko: A Lesson in the Style of Rick Danko by Rob Collier… The late 1960s was the era of the “supergroup.” Cream. The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Traffic. Blind Faith. It was a time when bands were built around a group of individuals with superior instrumental prowess. Guitar virtuosos reigned. Drummers demanded (and were granted) extended drum solos. Everyone had chops.
Out of this era came The Band. And The Band had chops, too. But they had a different kind of chops. No one in The Band was going to dazzle you with a blindingly fast and technically proficient solo (okay, with the exception of organist Garth Hudson). It was the way they played together and the sound they created that was so incredible. The Band was made up of five musicians who had truly unique and individual voices on their instruments, but they were five parts of the same machine—and they were making that machine work like crazy.
The Band’s bassist, Rick Danko, had a remarkably unique approach to his instrument. But when you listen to him, it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what his style was all about. Danko doesn’t dazzle you with speed. His lines are often melodic, but that’s not quite the allure. He often plays somewhat angular or unusual lines, but that isn’t quite it, either. There’s something about his feel and his phrasing. The way he scoops into notes. The space he leaves in his lines. A friend of mine describes playing this way as “Danko-ing.” There isn’t really another word for it. It is Rick Danko’s individual style as a bass player. So in this article, we will discuss how to “Danko.”
As mentioned above, Rick Danko often “scoops” into his notes. In the transcriptions below, I’ve notated these scoops with grace notes; sometimes these scoops are slides, sometimes they are hammer-ons. It’s almost impossible to notate all of them. The staff would be a mess of grace notes, slurs, and slides. An interesting thing about these “Danko scoops” is that they almost always occur right on the beat. Most players, if they were going to slide from a C on the 3rd fret of the A string up to a D on the 5th fret, would start the slide just before the beat. Thus, they would hit the target note D right on the beat. When Danko scoops into a note, he starts the slide on the beat and reaches the target note after the beat. So if it’s a D chord, he’s actually hitting a C on the downbeat of the chord, then quickly sliding up to the root.
Central to Rick Danko’s sound, especially on the earlier records, is a very “thumpy” bass tone—flatwound strings, most often played with a pick. He regularly played a Fender (Precision and Jazz) or a Gibson Ripper with foam under the strings to mute them. After The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink, Danko acquired a fretless Ampeg Baby Bass. He would use this bass for several years and on a lot of recordings. (The aforementioned scoops become more frequent, not to mention more difficult to notate, once Danko goes fretless.)
“To Kingdom Come”
“To Kingdom Come” is the second song on The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink. The eight-measure bass line in the intro (which Danko also plays in the subsequent choruses) is such a great melody (example 1). It’s basically a four-measure phrase repeated. But in the second half of the line, notice how he resolves to E on beat 4 (intro m. 7), instead of beat 1 as he does in the first half (intro m. 4). This slight alteration of the phrase is a great touch. It’s one of those things that make you want to hear the line again, just to hear how he shifts the beat.
Once the verse starts, notice how much space Danko leaves, both with rests and with long notes (example 2). This is one of Danko’s most melodic lines, but it also still grooves so much.
In the bridge, the way he plays with the off-beats during the meter changes is very interesting (example 3). It obscures the bar lines in a way that is a little disorienting, but when you listen to it, it also feels completely natural.
“We Can Talk”
On “We Can Talk,” also from Music From Big Pink, Danko plays another very interesting melodic line (example 4). He moves through the chords nicely, mixing some syncopation (verse m. 1) with straight quarter notes (verse m. 3). Danko also uses a wide pitch range, frequently jumping octaves. In the first measure of the verse, he walks up from D to G, but then skips back down to the lower octave for a chromatic walk up to A. He then covers two full octaves, going from the open A in the third measure to the high A (14th fret on the G string) on the downbeat of the fourth measure.
Danko begins the chorus with a hiccupping off-beat descent before falling back into a groove emphasizing the downbeats (example 5). Still, his line is peculiar because of its irregularity. It would have been easy to have just played a straight walking line here, but in the first four measures of the chorus, Danko continuously changes the rhythmic feel. In a way, it feels kind of erratic. But The Band had a way of doing this—making you feel as if everything was about to fall apart, while still maintaining complete control. And out of this chaos, in the fifth measure, they come back in and make those accented hits together, then fall right back into the groove.
“Across the Great Divide”
“Across the Great Divide,” the opening track from The Band’s self-titled second album, features a nice, understated bass line (example 6). The song has a shuffle feel, so the eighth notes are swung. The chorus is a four-measure phrase repeated. The verse is a two-measure phrase repeated (three times). Danko doesn’t vary the line too much from verse to verse and chorus to chorus. Most of the bass line is just arpeggiations of the chords. The verse is pretty regular in its rhythm, almost like a walking line. The chorus has more of a half-time feel, with accents on beats 1 and 3 (especially on measures 1 and 2).
“The Shape I’m In”
The bass line on “The Shape I’m In,” from Stage Fright, is all about contrasts. In the verse (example 7), Danko emphasizes the contrast between short staccato notes in measures 1-4, and longer, un-muted notes in measures 5-6. The staccato notes give the song a tight, rigid feel. When he switches to longer notes (even the eighth notes here are allowed to ring for their full value), the verse has the feeling that it “opens up” for a couple measures before falling back into the rigid staccato groove.
On the bridge, Danko goes into an off-beat rhythm, playing on the “and” of the beats (example 8). This is a nice change from the verse. The line on the verse accents each quarter note so heavily—the bridge creates a lot of tension, largely because Danko is playing on the off beats.
In terms of pitches, the bass line on “The Shape I’m In” is very simple. Danko is mostly sticking to roots. But it is the rhythmic contrast in this line that makes it special—staccato notes vs. long notes, playing on the beat vs. playing off the beat.
“Life Is a Carnival”
“Life Is a Carnival” is the opening track off of Cahoots, The Band’s uneven 1971 effort. This is really just a funky little groove (example 9). There’s a lot going on in this song—Dixieland style horns, keyboards, and guitars. Danko just holds it down on the intro with this fun two-measure vamp.
Rick Danko’s sound is immediately recognizable. He played lines that were often unusual, but always interesting. So mute your strings, grab your pick, and give these bass lines a shot. And see if you, too, can “Danko.”
Rob Collier Bio
Rob Collier earned his DMA in Composition at the University of Maryland and has taught theory and music technology courses at Chatham University, the University of Louisville, and the University of Maryland. He is currently an active bass player and bandleader in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.