Nadia Elkharadly: Often unsung hero – the Bass Player

Last week the musical world mourned the loss of a legend.  Donald “Duck” Dunn, often heard, sometimes seen, passed away on May 13th in Tokyo.  He was 70 years old.  And he was an amazing bass player.

“I tried the guitar but it had two strings too many. It was just too complicated, man!”  I heard this quote on the radio when they announced Dunn’s passing, and they just really stuck with me.  Guitar players were everywhere, and there was no shortage of talent, according to Dunn.  “I grew up with Steve Cropper. There were so many good guitar players, another one wasn’t needed. What was needed was a bass.”

Donald “Duck” Dunn may have gotten his nickname watching Disney cartoons with his dad as kid in Memphis, but he made a true name for himself playing bass guitar in that very same city that just happened to be the birthplace of rock and roll.  Raised by blues icons like BB King and Ray Charles, Dunn and the aforementioned Cropper started a band in high school.  Soon they’d moved on to become the resident session musicians for Stax Studios in Memphis, joining Booking T’s MGs.  There, he became entrenched in the history of music.  From playing with Jerry Lee Lewis, to Muddy Waters, to Levon Helm to Tom Petty, and is one of the most prolific musicians ever.  You’ve probably heard and loved his songs without even knowing it.  He lived and breathed music, so much so that he died mere hours after leaving the stage.  But the music lives on.

From the time I grew to really appreciate music, I’ve always loved the sound of the bass.  It floats below the guitar and vocals, binding and holding everything together.  The first bass player to ever make me sit up and take notice had to be Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden.  Spoonman had a bassline that fascinated me.  Seeing photos and videos of the lanky bassist, thrashing and crashing along the stage, contorting himself, it seemed impossible that he could still play.  And yet, he managed, and produced some killer riffs, that always made their way to the top of the song in my ear.

I probably first thought about music being something I could do, instead of something I could just listen to, when I was 15 years old.  I’ve been heavy into the grunge scene for a little while, and seeing mostly men playing in the bands I discovered.  When there was a woman in the band, she was usually the lead singer, like Shirley Manson in Garbage, or singing and playing guitar, like Courtney Love.  And those were great things, but even back then, I loved the bass.  And I wondered if it was just something guys played.  I wondered that is, until I saw Darcy Wretzky of the Smashing Pumpkins, rockin the bass in one of their videos.

No one would ever call Wretzky an incredible bassist, but she stood out starkly among her mostly male fellow musicians.  Smashing Pumpkins was never my favourite band, but Darcy Wretzky made me realize that if I wanted to, I could play the bass too.  And for that, she rocks.

This past fall I finally bought myself a bass, a beautiful white squire precision neck with a jazz body.  I know, it only took 15 years from the time I realized I wanted to play bass for me to finally do it.

Now instead of just listening to the bass and loving it, I find myself wondering how to actually play that song.  I perk up when it seems simple, frown and wish I had more talent when it seems hard, but mostly, I just try to figure out how they made those awesome sounds.  More than that, I try to figure out how to make those sounds too.

The first song I taught myself to play on bass was “I know what I am” by Band of Skulls.  This song was already one of my favourites on the album, so I was relieved when I looked up the bass tab and found it to be easily translated into my non-musical mind.  It’s shockingly simple, a total of 3 notes, played at an easy foot tapping pace. Richardson is a fantastic bass player, a great singer and an intriguing artist.  She’s the type of women that is very inspirational, and she showed me I could actually play the bass, when I wasn’t sure I could at all.

The first song I was taught by an actual teacher was “the Weight” by The Band.  This beyond classic country rock song is an old favourite of mine.  It’s completely infectious; you can’t help but tap your foot and sing along when it comes on the radio.  And, of course, the bassline was fairly simple and easy for a beginner.  It didn’t hurt that my friend Kim needed a new song to learn on guitar so we could “jam”.  It was her guitar teacher Kevin that taught it to us, slowing down the tempo, correcting us gently when we were wrong, and quick to commend us when we got it right.  After a few tries we got through the whole song, and after a couple of days of practice, I could play it all at regular speed.   It’s a great song to have in the repertoire, even if it only is the second of two.

Currently I’m trying to each myself Jet “Are you gonna be my girl” on bass.  The Australian group had a runaway hit with this song in the early 2000s, and the bassline was a total ear worm.  Great beat, quick and punchy, it’s the hardest thing I’ve attempted to date.  It’s not all that fun slugging through the notes at a snail’s pace, considering the song’s previously mentioned quickness, but it’s fun to know I’ll soon be playing another song that I love.

The world will miss Donald “Duck” Dunn and his unbeatable skill on the bass, but the music he made will forever surround us.  The bass has always been, in my opinion, highly underrated even with guys like Dunn bringing it in the spotlight.  But maybe that’s why I love it so much, for being the underdog, the deeper sounding, shy big brother to guitar.  Hopefully someday I’ll be able to do the instrument justice.  Until then, anyone want to give me lessons?  I pay in hugs.

Until next time,



Nadia’s column appears every Tuesday

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Nadia Elkharadly is a Toronto based writer with a serious addiction to music. Corporate drone by day, renegade rocker by night, writing is her creative outlet.  Nadia writes for the Examiner (.com) on live music in Toronto and Indie Music in Canada.  She has never been in a band but plays an awesome air guitar and also the tambourine.  Check in every Tuesday for musings about music, love, life and whatever else that comes to mind

2 Responses to “Nadia Elkharadly: Often unsung hero – the Bass Player”

  1. azia500 Says:

    good job nadia keep it up, we enjoy reading your creative writing

  2. azia500 Says:

    i really enjoy your creative inspired writing

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