Great Guitarists #12: Steve Cropper

Great Guitarists

The Great Guitarists series is back, and we’re restarting with one of my all-time favourite guitar Players, Steve ‘The Colonel’ Cropper.

Even if you don’t recognise the name from the cult classic musical comedy The Blues Brothers, you will have heard Cropper’s songs and guitar playing on countless records, playing alongside some of the greatest soul singers of the 20th century.

Steve Cropper with his favoured guitar, the Fender Telecaster.

Cropper was as a member of Brooker T & the MGs, who also included Al Jackson Jr. on drums, Brooker T himself on organ & piano, and Cropper’s childhood friend Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass (Dunn was also featured in The Blues Brothers). The group had hits with instrumental tracks such as Green Onions and Soul Limbo (the one used as the BBC’s theme music for their Cricket coverage).

Brooker T & The MGs (left to right: Al Jackson Jr, Steve Cropper, Brooker T & Donald Dunn).

The MGs were also the core in-studio ‘house band’ at Stax Records, Memphis, providing the backing (and often creating the arrangements) for virtually all of their recordings from the mid-sixties to the early seventies. All those hits you know by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd and countless others? The MGs, with Steve, are in all of them…

As if that wasn’t enough, Cropper also co-wrote In the Midnight Hour with Wilson Pickett, Knock on Wood with Eddie Floyd and (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, the famous posthumous hit for Otis Redding. Some of these records were also co-produced by Cropper.

After leaving Stax, Cropper went on to play on Ringo Starr’s and John Lennon’s solo records, as well as produce albums for other artists, notably the Blues guitar legend Albert King. Then, in the late seventies, he was recruited into the Blues Brothers, the act for which he might be best recognised.

The Blues Brothers released two albums, two feature films (both of which included soundtrack albums) and embarked on a handful of tours between the late seventies and the early 2000s. Their influence on bringing rhythm & blues to a wider audience cannot be understated, not least by introducing a new generation of moviegoers and listeners to artists such as John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Sam & Dave and many more. Yet even in a band comprising a veritable who’s who of soul musicians, Cropper still stands out.

Cropper (left) with The Blues Brothers Band.

In most of these settings, Cropper is welding a Fender Telecaster or (more recently) Telecaster-like models, such as his Peavy signature model from the late 90s. His playing – and the guitars he played on – provide a full, but not dominating, sound. From simple but effective chord work, to riffs that often doubles up against bass lines, his style of Memphis Soul remains highly imitated. In his lead work, his frequent use of sixths (read more about these here) can be heard to great effect on the intro to Sam & Dave’s hit Soul Man.

Recommend listing

Pick up any classic cut from the Stax label from the mid to late sixties and Cropper is probably on there. Then of course, there is the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers. There are even complications of Cropper’s best-known work available. It doesn’t take much work to find him!

In all cases, listen carefully to his rhythm choice, and note how he leaves space for the singer and other instrumentalists. As for solos, he could certainly play good ones when he needed to but only when they were necessary.

Until next time…