Steve Cropper

by Paul Guy

Interview for FUZZ # 2/99

© Paul Guy 1999

Official Steve Cropper website

What are you working on right now?

- Really not a whole lot! I’ve done everything, everything is out there, I’m just laying low, I’m not doing any writing or producing or anything at this moment. We’re getting ready for Thanksgiving, and after that we’re off to Spain and Portugal, then Switzerland and Finland and Norway for a little ten day tour.

So you’re doing Finland and Norway, but not Sweden - what a shame. I haven’t seen you play since the first time you came to England - with the Stax tour, was that ’66?

- ’67. April and May of ’67.

I saw the show at the Kilburn State Theatre in London - all us white boys in England at that time trying to be soul musicians, we were all so pleased to see that Booker T. and the M.G.’s had a white guitar player and a white bass player! All we’d ever seen was Booker T. on the album cover behind the Hammond with this big grin, we thought you were all black! So you really gave us the confidence to carry on playing blues and soul, people used to say that white people couldn’t cut it.

- (Laughs) Yeah, exactly, they told me that forever. I’d go to the gigs, and I’d be yelled at - ”You’re not Steve Cropper!” But after the show they’d apologise... (Laughs)

What made you choose the guitar as an instrument?

- (Long pause) Oh, that’s a good question. I just - from watching people, Chet Atkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, Elvis, everybody had one. I’d played around with piano a little bit, but that just didn’t seem like what I wanted to do. Guitar was just a little more versatile, and you could carry it everywhere. I wasn’t real big on learning music real good, I liked to play more, it was more of a self-taught kind of thing.

Who are your personal favourite guitarists?

- I’ve got to go back to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley - there was a guy with the 5 Royales named Lowman Pauling, he was my absolute favourite. He’s where I got those kind of flashy stabbing licks from, those little quick in and out licks. I guess he was the leader of the 5 Royales - they did ”Dedicated To The One I Love”. And also the guy that played with Bill Doggett, Billy Butler. I loved his guitar playing - ”Honky Tonk”, and ”Big Boy”, and a bunch of those other things. He was a great player - Bill Doggett had several players, but I liked Billy Butler best.

You’ve never really played as a solo guitarist, have you.

- Not really, no. Just a solo here and there, although you can’t hear it! (Laughs)

I’ve always thought that the rhythm guitar is almost more important than the solo guitar.

- Well I think probably what separated me from the rest of them, most of the Stax stuff, the songs that were hits that most people recognise and remember, there was only one guitar on there, and it was real apparent that there was only one guitar on there, there wasn’t other guitars on there and covering it up and all that, so it brought it a little more to the front. So when I did do a fill or a lick, you could actually hear it, you know. I get called on sessions today, they’ve got four other guitars on the session, I said, ”What do they need me for?” (Laughs)

Well, probably none of the others can play rhythm, cause everybody always seems to want to play solos!

- That’s right, they’ve brought four or five other guys on to bury it.

Recording must have been very very different back then.

- It was pretty much of a one-shot deal at Stax, cause we didn’t have the money to buy a three-track or some of these other fancy machines, they were out, and built, but not too many people had them. Atlantic had one of the first eight-tracks - I think Sun had one of the first three-tracks, and that’s how they were able to get that echo on the Elvis and Jerry Lee records, just by throwing it back through and letting it slap, getting it phasing against itself. We later went to a four-track, and started advancing on our capabilities and the technical side of things. Most all of the original stuff, Green Onions and all the earlier Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett and Rufus Thomas stuff was all cut in mono. So it had to be done in the studio, during the day, with everybody ready to go, and it had to be right. You could edit takes together, if you had a fade-out that was better than another one, or an intro better, you could do that and piece them together, but that didn’t happen too often. It’s a good thing we had Al Jackson!

Yeah, he was solid, wasn’t he!

- Yes he was. He was amazing.

Is he still with us?

- No, unfortunately. He was murdered in his home in 1974. Al’s been gone a long time.

Oh, wow,that’s really sad. I’d completely missed that.

- It was just too bad, we were just getting ready to make another album, we had not made an album since ’69 - the Melting Pot album that came out in 1970. We had a long dry spell there. So we finally sat down, our manager finally called every body and said ”Hey guys, this is crazy, why don’t you sit down in a room and talk this out?” So we all had a meeting out in California, we sat down and decided we’d give about three months to wrap up all of our writing and producing projects, and spend time working on Booker T. and the MG’s, we said we’ll give it three years, if we’ve done anything we’ll continue and talk about it then, if not this would be the last time. But we never got the chance to do that.

When it comes to songwriting, do you have any particular approach?

- Well there are two ways I do it - basically one is that I start with a title, if I’m writing a song with lyrics. I like to come up with a title that pretty much says it, and then you just write about it. You just embellish on the title. The other way, if I’m writing an instrumental, I just start working on the groove and a little bit of the melody, and try to carry that out, and find if it’s going to go to the bridge or whatever. And then I just bring that forward, and seldom ever do we title instrumentals till they’re finished. And then we try to think, well, what does it remind us of. That’s usually the way we title them.

I guess that’s how Green Onions came about, then.

- Yeah, I sort of liked that! We had it cut, and we were listening to it, and somebody said, ”Man, that is stinky!” So I said, ”What are we going to name it? What’s stinky?” ”Well, how about onions, onions are stinky.” And I just sort of said,”Yeah, I like onions, but onions is kind of a negative, they’re so stinky, but *green* onions, people put them on their plate and eat them!” And they said, ”Yeah, you’re right, Green Onions sounds better.” So that’s what we went with. Stinkin’ green onions. (Laughs) Somebody suggested Wild Onions, but I just said no, I don’t think Wild Onions sounds as good. Actually, I think somebody put one out called Wild Onions, a copy kind of thing.

It’s still a great track even today.

- You know, Booker said one day, we were up in New York doing a sound check, and he got through and he turned to Duck and said, ”You know, I’ll never get tired of playing that song.” That kind of says something. There’s a lot of artists, they’re really sick of their hit, they’d rather be doing anything but play their hit one more time, but we don’t have that problem.

You’ve got a solo album out now, haven’t you?

- It’s a compilation of stuff that I wrote and played on, mainly the hits - it’s all the ones you know. Of course Green Onions is on there, and you’ve got Knock On Wood, 6-3-4-5-7-8-9, Sookie Sookie, 99-1/2... What else have I got in there? You’ve got Soul Man... Oh, I can’t remember right now, but it’s about 16 songs. It sounds good, it’s all been digitally remastered, it really does sound good. And then we have a companion, the one that comes with it - you can buy both, or you can buy them as singles - it’s the same lineup, and I talk about how the songs were recorded, what we did the day we recorded them and how we wrote them the night before, and a little something about them.

I’m looking forward to hearing that! All this modern studio technology, do you think there are any negative sides with it?

- Well, you know, I’m an old... (laughs) Being an old analog audio engineer, it does. It bothers me, but what we do, we work around it a lot... I like the fact that you can get more presence on things, but when that digital thing just sort of filters out all the nice wavy distortion, and natural distortions, and just squares the wave up and makes it real clean - what we do, when we get ready to do the final mix we take it and compress it back through some tube compressors. And that really helps warm it back up again, it sort of meshes the signals back together somehow. It does in fact warm it up a bit - everybody’s doing it. If you’ve got a good mastering man he can really do a good number with it.

You were saying that Green Onions and everything was done straight to mono, everyone had to play together - do you think you lose some of the spontaneity when everything is laid down one track at a time?

- Well - I think you lose a lot of the emotional energy. I call it overkill - by the time you’ve done it so many times and all that, you’ve just made it sterile. You’ve literally made it very sterile. But then these young guys, they put a lot of their heavy drums behind that to boost it back up, so somehow they come up with a formula that works, it gets people moving. But I think just like everybody else, there’s new equipment that’s better, especially there’s some new mikes that really work for acoustic guitars and electric guitars, they just make them sing. They’ve really got some up-front presence, a good thick sound. There’s a lot of EQ stuff - there’s one called a Manalee(?) that I used on Joe Louis Walker, and it really works well.

There’s a real good sound on that album.

- I used it on Buddy Guy, on his thing too, it just brings it right up there. Cause he’s just screaming anyway, but it kind of warms him out. I like Buddy - he’s fun, but he’s on full bore, man - he’s just like, put it on eleven and go!

Buddy’s a great guy. He’s so humble!

- He really is. He’s a really really humble guy.

I met Jonny Lang a couple of weeks ago.

- Oh, good! I haven’t heard the album yet, but I heard the video, it sounds really good.

I didn’t have any sleeve notes when I first put that album on. it was a promo copy, but the first thing I said was, ”Is that Steve Cropper playing rhythm there?

- (Laughs) Yeah, and Buddy, too... ”Ain’t No Midnight Train”, that’s got a pretty neat little rhythm lick on it (sings), we were pumping it up loud in the studio. (Laughs)

What advice would you give to young players who want to learn to play rhythm guitar?

- (Pauses) - Wow, that’s a toughie, because that’s asking them to step backwards, that’s almost like being the water boy! I’ve preached it for a long time, but there ain’t nothing like being the main guy, standing out there in front. It was just, I liked not to do that - course I can’t sing that good anyway, if I could maybe I would have taken another approach. I can sing, every now and then, but I can’t do it for 90 minutes. That’s my big problem! (Laughs)

Tell me about your Peavey signature model guitar.

- If you like Telecasters, if you like that form of the old, good solid Telecasters that aren’t too heavy - I always liked the ones with the light swamp ash bodies, and the rosewood fingerboard - and that neck, we spent a lot of time trying to get that neck just right. It’s a little more of a half-moon, but it’s not too fat. It has just a little bit of a curve on the fretboard, it’s not completely flat, just to make it more comfortable. It feels really good - I’ve had a lot of people play it, and they always say, ”Wow, I had no idea this guitar was that good!” It’s got a little design on it, where you can play a little higher up on the neck - where the neck joins the body we’ve put in this little aluminum plate and set it in there, and it really tightens and strengthens it. I’ve always been - you get these guitars from Fender and everybody, and I guess the wood hasn’t aged, and they’re trying to make the necks a little skinny, and you can just barely touch the end of the neck, and you can pull the strings right down against the fretboard. And I play really hard, because I play rhythm - I need to beat on the guitar every now and then! So I have to have that high action so I can play it without that neck bending, I want it to feel good, but I also want it to be solid. I think that’s the thing. We’ve done a little contouring so you don’t get poked in the ribs too much like the old Telecasters, we’ve kind of 45 degree bevelled the edges. So it makes it really comfortable to play, and everything is right there in your hands. We like what we’ve got, but we are thinking about putting out an alternative model with a different pickup setup. They’ve got those Hot Rails in there, and they’re just too hot for me, cause I like a cleaner sound cause I like to play rhythm. But rock’n’rollers, they like to fuzz it up, and that’s got the perfect pickups in there! If there’s been any negative reactions, some of the guys who are a little more cleaner players would like to see a different pickup setup. Now what I play, I play the active pickups from the old Generation series, and those work just perfect for me. That’s about it - I’m still a Fender man at heart, in terms of Leo Fender’s Telecaster that he built, I have several - but I think we’ve streamlined this one. Course you’re allowed to do that these days, in the patent world you can get away with some things that you couldn’t twenty years ago. That’s where it kind of came from, I think we’ll probably stick with it, cause it’s so good. I don’t see any real need to design another one - we may come out with some wood options, maybe some more customising options, and plus the pickup options. We may start that next spring. I’m going to go out and do a litle mini tour, starting after the first of the year, going out to some of the outlets and maybe doing some kind of a talk clinic, not so much playing but talking about the guitar, why we did what we did, showing some of its versatilities and that sort of thing.

What gauge strings do you use?

- I’m still using Ernie Ball Slinkies, the green packet with the black writing - 010 through 046.

What about amplifiers?

- (Laughs) Well, I’m still using a Fender The Twin, the one they came out with several years ago that they have now discontinued. I like that amp, it works for what I am doing. It gives me the old thick Stax sound and I really go with that. Not too many other amplifiers match with that configuration. Now we’ve got one that Hartley (Peavey) put together for me that is a great amp, but is a big, big outdoor theatre amp. It’s a modified Eddie Van Halen 5150, and they built me a big 2 x 15 inch woofer cabinet. It is just great. Now this is the time when we had just come off the road with Neil Young, and I had a great setup with Neil Young. I was using an old Webb amp, which is basically a steel guitar amp - it’s like a 150 watt amp. And we warmed it up on the bottom with one of the little Fenders, just to get some warmth out of it, because the Webb is a solid state amp. So I took that down to Peavey and we started listening to the sounds, and he said, ”What you’re really into, you like the old Altec big speaker”, and I said, ”That’s exactly what I like!” So he went and got one, and come in and found out that they had, without him really knowing it, redesigned it and shortened the cone, so that they could make the cabinet thinner - it changed the whole sound! And he went, ”Whoah, wait a minute, this ain’t right! When did they do this?” And he told me, man, heads were rolling after I left down there! So anyway, they got the old speakers, and they redesigned the cabinet, and piggybacked it with this 5150, and God, is it incredible. But I haven’t had a big tour to go out and use that. The Blues Brothers is kind of a little bit more low key, we kind of meld as a band. But if I was out with Neil, we like to pump it up and get loud, get that Pearl Jam sound and all that, it’s perfect for that.

Do you use The Twin in the studio?

- Sometimes I still use my old Quad Reverb - I still use an old Fender Harvard with one ten-inch speaker sometimes, you can hear it on all the old Otis Redding stuff - it’s got a volume and a tone control, and that’s it. It works great for studios. I used to use it - when we didn’t have PA’s, when we were in college playing, I used to put a Green Bullet (mike) in it and set it on a chair and sing through it! (Laughs) And that was our PA... And one day I said, I wonder what this thing would sound like playing the guitar through it, and man, so I took it down to the studio, and they all fell in love with it. It almost sounded like it had paper in it, it had this natural rich fuzz. I used it on a lot of albums. So every now and then I’ll pull it out on a ballad or something. I’ve got a Roland too, the new Roland Blues Cube that they gave me to try that is a real good amp, I’ve used it a lot. So I mix it around quite a bit.

You’re not a tube snob, then.

- No, not at all.

Do you ever use any effects on the guitar at all?

- Very little. We try ’em every now and then. A little bit of fuzz, or sometimes a bit of waving, chorus sound, but very little. I used to use a noise gate, but with the new guitar there is no noise, so I don’t need that anymore. Back in the 70’s when we did that ”One More” album we were trying to get cute and I used an Echoplex on some of the Booker T songs. And everybody liked it, but I got tired of carrying it on the road!

Have you tried the Buzz Feiten Tuning System at all?

- I’ve seen that in action on an acoustic guitar, and it really keeps the acoustic guitar in tune, it’s great.

Have you ever had any real problems with tuning on guitars?

- Well, I’ve always said that you can’t really tune a Telecaster! It’s almost impossible. No matter how you adjust the bridge and all that, it’s really difficult to get it in tune.

I read somewhere that a lot of Nashville players leave certain notes out of chords, because they can’t get them in tune.

- It’s true, yeah. (Laughs)

© Paul Guy 1999