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…

Refreshing my Strat (and adding a Tele mod)

Guitars & Gear

After commissioning my custom ukulele (which you can read more about here), I was more or less set in terms of the instruments I needed with my current musical projects. There was just one guitar which wasn’t quite right

My oldest Stratocaster hasn’t seen much of the stage recently, and not just because of playing less gigs due to various lockdowns, etc. The action had felt off, and it seemed to be because of the bridge, or rather the saddles. After twenty-two years, the small screws in the saddles had corroded to the point that strings could not be raised high enough for my liking.

I contacted Elderwood Guitars (who built my beautiful semi-hollow guitar) to discuss repairs. I also decided to make a few changes while this axe was in the shop…

What’s new?

I don’t really have the need for an HSS guitar nowadays, so used this opportunity to have the bridge humbucker replaced with a Tonerider Vintage Blues single coil. This would better match the two City Limits pickups in the neck and middle positions. Barrie at Elderwood was able to change the pick guard and brave the bridge pickup within the larger cavity in the guitar (cut out for the original humbucker).

I also asked for the ‘Tele mod’, i.e., a switch whi h allows me to activate the bridge pickup in any position, effectively giving my seven different pickup combinations, including the lovely sounding neck & bridge pairing. This is one sound Telecasters have always had that was not available on a standard Strat.

With a switch taking the place of the second tone control (the remaining tone control becoming a master for all three pickups), I now had a guitar that could provide this, as well as the classic ‘quack’ from the out-of-phase Strat positions (2 & 4) – the best of both worlds, in my mind (and to my ears).

Finally, I figured that since these modifications would result in a different sounding guitar, perhaps it ws worthwhile refreshing the instrument visually as well. The old Midnight Blue finish had certainly acquired its fair share of chips and dents over the years. Barrie smoothed these out before hand painting the guitar in a burnt orange hue, which you can see below…

Before (left) and after (right) shots of my oldest Strat (pic courtesy Elderwood Guitars)

To me, it looks very similar to the orangey shade of older, worn down fiesta red guitars. It lends a classic vibe to my oldest Strat – the oldest guitar in my collection, in fact. The vintage feel is aided by the off-white pickup covers and scratchplate.

How does it sound?

It sounds like a classic 60s Strat or Tele, depending on your pickup choices. The neck & bridge combination has widened the sonic pallette of this guitar, making it my main choice for soul, funk and rhythm & blues gigs. Another great job by Barrie!

What are the best mods you’ve made to your guitars? Get in touch and let me know!

Happy New Year, everyone. Here are some resolutions for guitarists (reblog for 2022)

Advice & Tips

Hi all and welcome to 2022! You may have noticed that things have been a little quiet on this blog for the last few months. This is for a number of reasons, but don’t panic – I’m fine, just incredibly busy! Expect more posts in this new year, as well as updates on exciting new projects I’ve been working on. In the meantime, here’s a slightly rejigged post on New Year’s resolutions from a few years back. I hope you enjoy it! Until next time...

As a general rule, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. My philosophy is that changes can be made at any time, so why wait until January?

However, there is something about the end of a year which causes us all to reflect on the previous twelve months and start focusing on our plans for the next twelve. For us working musicians, this would usually mean that we have reached the end of one of our peak times, the ‘Christmas Party Season’. For over a decade (pre-pandemic), I ended the year with a NYE gig. However, for obvious reasons, things have been a little quieter by comparison, which gives us time to ponder on the gigs we’ve enjoyed, what we didn’t enjoy, and what we hope to change for the new year.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions for guitar-related resolutions for musicians looking to grow as better musicians in the coming year:

Learn a new style

Always wanted to start learning those jazz chord voicings? Perhaps you keep meaning to work on your reggae & ska rhythm playing? Or your country picking? Blues slide? The list goes on…

Take the time to work on these new genres & styles of playing. We are very fortunate to live in a time where we can access a world of free tutorials on the Internet, or videos in YouTube. However, don’t rule out the possibility of taking lessons to focus on specific areas – working one to one with an experienced guitar tutor does wonders for improving your playing!

Mix things up

Learning a style doesn’t mean you have to abandon all you know & travel the world playing strictly Django/gypsy jazz for the rest of your life (though I imagine there are plenty of worse ways to live)!

Have you found that the majority if your playing has been on acoustic guitar? Trying swapping to electric more often (or vice versa). Do you always practise at the same time of day? If possible, can you change to a different time? Your brain operates differently throughout the day – you may well find yourself going down very different musical avenues simply by switching from a morning to an afternoon practice session.

Sometimes learning to play a song you are very familiar with in a new style works brilliantly in helping your playing. Not only do you freshen up material which might be getting a bit stale, but you’ll have a safer means of exploring new options in your guitar playing.

One area of guitar playing I can’t recommend highly enough is solo performance. By this, I don’t mean the lead guitar solo in a song, but playing the melody, harmony, rhythms, etc on one unaccompanied guitar. It’s something a piano player wouldn’t think twice about, but I’m frequently amazed at how many guitarists simply haven’t tried it properly! If you’re unsure about how to start doing this, there are several books, online tutorials (like this blog!), and of course YouTube videos to help inspire you. Which brings us nicely in to…

Widen your horizons

Music is a language. Even when playing on your own, you are creating sounds for yourself to hear, effectively taking to yourself. But there’s only so long you can do that before you end up going round in circles, or going crazy!

Set yourself the following challenge for the year: discover a new artist each month. Learn from what you hear. Take examples of their playing & try to incorporate it into your own. It can only make you a better guitarist! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to focus on other guitar players. In fact, it might be better not to! Many of the jazz & Blues guitarists I admire take inspiration for their improvisational playing from horn players, translating their melodies & ideas into their own instrument. Try it!

It also helps to get out amongst other musicians, jam, join or start a new band, particularly in a new style. It also goes further than this – always wanted to sing while playing? Start! Learning a new instrument? Do it! The best way out of a rut is to climb upwards!

Get your music ‘out there’

…And if you’re meeting new musicians & launching new projects, you’re already doing this. Go to more live gigs and make sure you perform live yourself more often (when you can), especially new and original music. I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in one ‘world’ for longer than you might like, finding it hard to make the time to do other things, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Remember to have fun while you’re out there expanding your guitar playing horizons!

To finish off, allow me to wish you all the very best of health & happiness for the New Year! Let’s make 2022 – like every year – a great year for music, for the guitar, and for you!

Please do get in touch to tell me what your own guitar/music new year resolutions are, and stay in touch to let me know how you’re getting on with them! Tim xx