Watch the Classic Cropper online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp
Steve Cropper's studio work may be the highest embodiment of play-for-the-song minimalism. This least virtuosic of guitar heroes is almost universally admired for devising the archetypal riffs and pithy fills that helped define soul music. As house guitarist for Memphis' Stax Records, he backed Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and many other soul greats, contributing immortal grooves and hooks to some of the era's best music. As one-quarter of Booker T & The MG's, he helped devise some of the finest R&B instrumentals ever (including "Green Onions," the 1962 smash that slammed his career into overdrive). He also produced many important soul sessions and co-wrote such gems as "Knock On Wood," "In The Midnight Hour" and "(Sittin' on) The Dock Of The Bay."
Cropper was born in Willow Springs, Missouri, in 1941. By high school he was playing professionally with the Mar-Keys, whose "Last Night" became a top-three hit in 1961. In the ensuing four decades the Telecaster-wielding Cropper never compromised his less-is-more attitude. "I do some things that most guitarists venture away from because of their simplicity," he told Guitar Player's Dan Forte in 1978. "I'd rather lay the basics down." In his illustrious post Stax studio career, Cropper has live by the word he used to describe the great label's studio ideal: "To find a hole and plant something in there that meant something. The less you played, the more it meant." Steve's "Soul Man" figure epitomizes Memphis soul and R&B guitar. His ever-changing doinks, chucks and rhythmic embellishments defy notation, but the cards are on the table in Ex. 1.
Sliding sixths are another hallmark of the classic Cropper style. "Soul Man" opens with a figure like the one in Ex. 2. Keep your fingers glued to strings one and three. Despite its seesaw melody, the lick is played out of a ingle major-sixth shape that slides up and down the fretboard. Your right hand generates the melody: Use a combination of flatpick and middle finger and let everything ring out. Note the implied chords in parentheses.
Cropper's Tele often joins the singer for a duet. The refrain fill in "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" is a perfect example of Cropper's melodic style. In Ex. 3 dig how he ends on F# - the Major 9 - against the E chord. Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" features a cooking riff that has Cropper doubling parts with MG's bassist Duck Dunn. This technique (Ex. 4) produces tight, punchy riffs an octave apart. Bar 1's classic soul turnaround is played in unison with bass and horns.
The MG's chugging "Time Is Tight" features lockstep bass and guitar in one of the coolest R&B riffs ever. Try playing this syncopated groove in Ex. 5 with a friend; the bass takes the bottom line only. The sonic recipe: Dampen a bright tone with your right-hand palm to get a dark and crunchy sound.
If there's a classic Cropper lead lick, Ex. 6 is it. Featured in "Green Onions," this snarling Tele stab is pure Memphis. For years some players have speculated that "Midnight Hour" was recorded in an open tuning. After all, as Steve admits, you "just start on D and follow the dots" to play the D-B-A-G-E intro chords. But Steve dispels that myth: "For "Midnight Hour" I was tuned regular," he reports (Ex. 7a). Another revelation: When he couldn't come up with a way to start "Knock On Wood" (Ex. 7b), Steve has a flash: "I said, Hell I wonder what Midnight Hour would sound like backwards? It's a true story."