You have to be impressed with someone whose sound and style defined a musical genre while their name remained unknown to the majority of people hearing the music. As a founding member of the Stax Records house band, Booker T. and the MGs, Steve Cropper’s guitar graced the late 60’s Memphis soul records and provided some of the most memorable guitar licks of the era. From the intro to ‘Soul Man’ by Sam and Dave to the signature lick on ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ by Albert King to the funk defining guitar rhythm of ‘Knock On Wood’ by Eddie Floyd his riffs set the tone for the tune. With a minimalist approach, a tight rapport with the rhythm section and an ability to find and fill only the holes that needed filling, Cropper’s guitar playing propels these songs.
As the writer or co-writer of many of the hits he played on, he approaches the guitar as a part of the entire work rather than a focal point. ‘Soul Man’ is a perfect example. The intro lick is immediately recognizable, the iconic sound of the song. However, to me it is the rhythmic figure he plays behind the verse that lifts the song to classic status. The repeated, syncopated double stops are as important as the melody in making the song work. Cropper also co-wrote ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ with Otis Redding and his guitar playing on that recording reveals a much different quality to his playing. Stax releases tended to feature a tight horn section up front, but the guitar was an essential part of the sound.
Cropper went on to play with and produce artists as varied as John Prine, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Tower of Power and many others. Many people who knew the music were first introduced to the man behind it when he performed and acted as a ‘Blues Brother’ starting in 1976. He has been well known and appreciated by guitarists and other musicians since the days at Stax. There are a lot of useful techniques and licks for the guitar accompanist to be found in his work.