The fact that Steely Dan replaced almost everyone in their own band with sessions musicians sends a pretty clear message: only Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are truly Steely Dan. Even though the group was ostensibly a democratic band in its early days, Becker and Fagen were the songwriters, arrangers, and leaders.
But that fact belies the fact that, in its original incarnation, Steely Dan had some of the most impressive musicians that 1970s rock had to offer. Drummer Jim Hodder was steady behind the kit, if not incredibly flashy, but his vocals were essential to the band’s harmonies. The group also had a killer twin-lead guitar attack courtesy of Denny Dias and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter.
Dias connected with Becker and Fagen while all three were still in New York, having the jazz chops that the duo favoured in their music. Baxter was recruited once the band moved to Los Angeles and signed with ABC Records. Baxter’s background in psychedelic rock was contrasted with his fascination with technology and eventual career as a military weapons expert.
When the two played together, there was a clear spark that gave early Steely Dan albums a distinctive sound. There’s no better example of the pair’s interplay than on the Countdown to Ecstasy track ‘Bodhisattva’. Dias and Baxter play harmonising lead parts during the song’s verses that are intricate and technically brilliant, showing off the almost preternatural connection the two guitarists had.
But it was when they each branch off into their solos that the true magic gets conjured up. Dias hones in on his jazz background, bringing in slides and runs that were more common for bebop horn players. The dexterity of Dias’ playing is in direct contrast to the feral attack that Baxter shows off during his solo towards the song’s end. There’s an unhinged quality that feels very rock and roll about Baxter and his playing style, and Steely Dan needed that balance of technicality and explosiveness.
Baxter left the band during the sessions for their follow up, 1974’s Pretzel Logic. After being sidelined on most of the album’s tracks, barring a solo on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, Baxter jumped ship and eventually landed with The Doobie Brothers. Dias stuck around, although in a diminished role, all the way up to 1977’s Aja. 1980’s Gaucho was a far more guitar-sparse album, and the lack of either Baxter or Dias forever changed the makeup of Steely Dan.
Check out the isolated guitars on ‘Bodhisattva’ down below.