Encyclopedia of Soul Grooves: Donald “Duck” Dunn’s Classic Bass Lines By Rob Collier… The bass world was saddened by the news that Donald “Duck” Dunn, best known as the bassist for Booker T. & the MG’s, died May 13, 2012 while on tour in Japan. The MG’s were the house band for Stax Records, a Memphis label which produced the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, and William Bell, among many others. Stax was often thought of as the southern counterpart to Detroit’s Motown Records. But where Motown was smooth and polished, Stax was gritty and gutsy.
With fellow MG’s Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr., and Booker T. Jones, Dunn provided the backbone for hundreds of hits in the 1960s and early 1970s. His playing style was never about being flashy, but always about providing the right groove. Dunn often played simple and repetitive lines, favoring one- and two-measure patterns that would repeat until the next chord change. Listening to a mid-60s Stax record is like being presented with an encyclopedia of soul grooves.
“Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd
The bass line on the verses of “Knock on Wood” (example 1) is, to me, the quintessential Duck Dunn bass line. It is simple and repetitive and it accents the off-beats. Dunn often accented off-beats to help propel a song forward, and he does it masterfully here. It is basically a one-measure groove without variation. It isn’t showy or virtuosic, but it is the perfect bass line for this song. Just try imagining the song without it.
“Eloise (Hang On In There)” by William Bell
The chorus in this 1967 William Bell hit has a very simple two-measure groove (example 2), but the subtle rhythmic difference between the two measures is a nice choice. Also, listen to the way Duck leaves space in the middle of the bar for Cropper’s rhythm guitar lick. These two parts work together seamlessly to form the groove.
“Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday” by William Bell
“Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday” was Bell’s follow-up single to “Eloise.” Duck plays a nice melodic line over this medium-tempo tune (example 3). He often leaves a little space on beats one and two, then plays 16th notes on beat four. This gives the line some movement without being too busy.
“My Baby Specializes” by Delaney & Bonnie
Duck lays down another great off-beat line on this recording from Delaney & Bonnie’s 1969 album, Home (example 4). He plays mostly on the off-beats in both the verse and the chorus. Notice how long Duck avoids the downbeat in the verses.
“Soul Man” by Sam and Dave
Classic Stax song, classic Duck Dunn bass line. The verse is just a one-measure groove that Dunn never varies (example 5). He gives the choruses more of a driving sound by playing straight eighth notes.
The bridge (example 6) is sort of a funkified two-beat.
“You Got Me Hummin’” by Sam and Dave
The outros of Stax songs were often the coolest parts of the recordings. The band always relaxed and just grooved once they got there because they knew it could be faded out. In the outro of “You Got Me Hummin’” (example 7), Duck plays another off-beat line doubled by Cropper’s guitar.
“Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” by Wilson Pickett
Although this Wilson Pickett hit was released on Atlantic records, parts of the album were recorded at the Stax studio with Booker T. and the MG’s as the backing band. The bass line is basically a two-measure groove (example 8). Again, Duck rarely varies the pattern.
“Sister’s Got a Boyfriend” by Rufus Thomas
Rufus Thomas’ “Sister’s Got a Boyfriend” is a bit more obscure, but the groove is so good—it’s not just the bass line, but a whole band effort. It’s another off-beat, one-measure pattern (example 9).
“Hip Hug-Her” by Booker T. and the MG’s
Because Booker T. and the MG’s were an instrumental group, each member of the band carried an extra heavy load. Duck’s bass line on “Hip Hug-Her” is simple and repetitive, as was his trademark, but it also serves as a melodic hook. The main groove is a two-measure pattern (example 10). It is basically the same measure repeated, but the second measure has a little rhythmic hiccup that keeps the groove interesting.