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Music

The essential Chuck Rainey bass lines that made Steely Dan

@TylerGolsen

You might not immediately recognise the name Chuck Rainey, but you’ve almost assuredly heard him before. Whether you know it or not, Rainey could very well have been the bass player behind some of your favourite songs and bands from the 1960s to the modern-day.

A professional jazz player who eventually found himself playing everything from gospel to rock, Rainey quickly became adept at adjusting to different styles and genres. His adeptness at slap made him a favourite of funk musicians, while his understated style meant that he could fill in the spaces on pop records. Rainey is the ultimate sessions player: a jack of all trades who somehow also managed to master quite a few styles.

Although he’s largely stayed in the background, music nerds who have spent hours scouring LP credits would have caught Rainey’s name on everything from Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted, and Black to Jackson Browne’s The Pretender. But if there’s one band that Rainey will always be associated with, it has to be Steely Dan.

By 1974’s Pretzel Logic, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided that the traditional rock band setup wasn’t working for them anymore. They wanted the top session musicians of the day to be playing the songs they wrote, and the need for permanent musicians became unnecessary. Becker considered himself more of a guitarist than a bassist, and he wished to hand over the duties to someone more skilled. “Once I met Chuck Rainey, I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore,” Becker explained in 1995.

To celebrate his 82nd birthday, we’re looking at some of the most legendary bass lines that Rainey created with Steely Dan. Unlike the rotating cast of musicians that made up most of later-day Steely Dan albums, Rainey was used almost exclusively throughout the band’s most acclaimed records. That means that Rainey had accumulated quite a few all-time great bass lines. Here are some of the most important ones from across the Steely Dan catalogue.

‘Bad Sneakers’

Becker and Fagen were masters of melody, so much so that nearly every instrument in a song’s arrangement was carrying a melody line, regardless of whether the instrument was a traditional melodic instrument. Rainey carries the melody of ‘Bad Sneakers’ as Fagen’s vocals snake around his movements. Steely Dan had a reputation for perfection, but Rainey gets some of his own creative fills in the mix as well.

‘Peg’

Rainey tells a funny story during the Classic Albums episode for Aja: he heard slapping going on in the song’s bridge, but Becker told him not to slap. So Rainey simply put up a partition so that Becker and Fagen couldn’t see him through the control room window while he slapped. The results are some of the grooviest and funkiest rhythms in the entire Steely Dan catalogue.

‘Josie’

Although the bass line for ‘Josie’ might look simple enough on paper, just try to play along with Rainey. It doesn’t matter if you’re a newbie or a professional – Rainey’s command of time is so tight that he can leave major gaps throughout the song’s arrangement and still command the song. Trying to replicate it is an exercise in futility: just leave it to the man himself.

‘Kid Charlamagne’

Most of the attention in ‘Kid Charlamagne’ is paid to Larry Carlton’s legendary guitar work. But it doesn’t take a particularly close listen to pick up Rainey’s rumbling bass line that keeps the song tumbling over itself. In between each verse, Rainey stretches out and loosens up, bringing out the funk that Steely Dan desperately needed in their sound before he came along.

‘Home At Last’

It might seem like we’re favouring Aja on this list, but it’s not our fault – Rainey plays on every song from that album except ‘Deacon Blues’, and all of his bass lines are all-time top-tier performances. More elastic and languid than the rest of his lines, Rainey’s bass part for ‘Home At Last’ is cranked up in the mix for a good reason: it’s magnetic. It also fits perfectly within Bernard Purdie’s signature shuffle, showing off what just might be the grooviest rhythm section in music.