by Cullen James
It probably says something about the state of music listeners when one of the greatest guitarists of rock and roll goes virtually unspoken of in most modern circles. Volumes have been written about the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen. But for some folks, their music speaks for them, and maybe that’s not so bad.
At the heart of the birth of soul music was Stax Records and at the heart of Stax Records was session musician Steve Cropper.
Cropper has performed on some of the most influential soul and early rock and roll music that this country has produced. Additionally, he and fellow session musician Booker T. Jones formed Booker T. and the MGs. Their track Green Onions is one of the greatest instrumental songs ever written.
While the guitar gods emerged as objects of adoration, there was a firm foundation they were building upon. Cropper’s strength is not in his ability to play technically complex, polyrhythmic pieces, but in his ability to only add as much guitar as needed to make the music complete.
What makes Cropper an amazing guitarsman is the depth and breadth of sound he is able to achieve with technique. Though different picking and fretting techniques, he is able to significantly change his sound without having to turn a knob on his guitar. He is also known for fully using his amp’s tone settings to modify his sound. He and Booker T. were both very sound conscious and were able to write music that sounded larger and fuller than their band was because of their attention to tone.
Cropper was busy influencing a generation of soul guitarists, but also had admirers overseas. The Beatles were huge fans of Steve Cropper. While musician wannabes were worshipping the Beatles, the Beatles were worshipping Cropper. There’s a story, apocryphal perhaps, that the first time they met Cropper, they bowed to him as though he were royalty. It is known that the Beatles wanted to record Revolver in Memphis using some of Cropper’s guitar work. But they weren’t able to work out schedules.
While everyone knows Green Onions (even if you don’t know it by that name and just know it as “the song that goes dah-na-na na duh-duh”), Cropper was also involved in one of the coolest and later terribly embarrassing projects in the world of music/movie/TV crossovers. Cropper was the guitarist for the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd project, The Blues Brothers. While Belushi was alive, the band’s original music, TV performances and film were cool and respectable, when Belushi died, so did the magic. Avoid Blues Brothers 2000 like a hooker with leprosy ‘cause it sucks so badly. Not because of Cropper, but because that sucking pit of “I wanna be cool too!” John Goodman.
While your Johnny-come-lately guitar wannabe in the music store drooling over that new Ibanez RG may not know Cropper, many of today’s well-known and respected guitarists rate him as an influence and he often pops up in “greatest guitarist of all time” magazine articles. Listen to his tone. Listen to his tunes. It’s easy to know why.
For more on this amazing man, check out his website Play It, Steve.