Five Best Walter Becker Guitar Moments: Steely Dan Sunday
*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***
Last week we touted our favorite Steely Dan guitar solos, but with only two of the fifteen entries attributed to the esteemed Walter Becker, you could make the argument that we gave the axe-playing half of the songwriting duo the short shrift. Becker aficionado Preston Frazier rectifies things by picking out five instances where Walter truly shines on both Steely Dan and Becker solo records as much as the highly-touted session players who get all the glory for their hired-hand contributions. But Becker and SD partner Donald Fagen always knew when to pick the right spots for Becker, and he’s always made the most of it.
Here are Preston’s picks including a few I’ll bet you probably would never think of, but hear him out. A lot of Becker’s sublimity is subtle…
5. East St. Louis Toodle-oo: Rumored to be Walter Becker’s first appearance on guitar on a Steely Dan album, he shines on guitar. In fact, the entire song is a gem and has the distinction of being the only time Becker and Fagen covered someone else’s work. Here they set a high bar with a cover of this composition written by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley in 1926. Becker plugs in his guitar to a talk box like filter mimicking the original’s trombone solo. The effect is weird yet strangely effective in the context of Jim Gordon’s swinging drums, Becker’s floating bass track and Donald Fagen’s saxophone breaks (yes, Fagen is on sax). What more could you want? How about Jeff Baxter’s pedal steel as a perfect foil to Becker’s lead guitar. Unfortunately, this one isn’t played live too much with the 1996 tour being the last time I recall. A pity given Becker’s funky feel on it.
4. Hard Up Case (from Walter Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack): Sure, Dean Parks provided the solid rhythm guitar track but it’s Becker who buzzes in his economical and disparate solo. In fact the song perfectly fits the theme of urban angst depicted in Becker’s pleading and angry lyrics. 11 Tracks of Whack is full of tasty guitar parts by Becker, Parks and Adam Rogers. There are also a few appropriately tasty and mean licks. Becker’s solo here is the latter. This is one they played live, too, during the 1994 Steely Dan tour.
3. Black Friday: Most Dan Fans will say that The Royal Scam is the definitive Steely Dan guitar album but “Black Friday” and its audio companions make a strong case that it’s actually the Katy Lied album. The duo knew they needed a strong guitar core the match the funky rock shuffle Jeff Porcaro provided on the drums and the galloping Walter Becker bass track. Becker rose to the occasion and propelled the song into the league of classic Steely Dan album openers. Distorted, delayed and fast, Becker is at his blues-rock best here chasing Porcaro for all he’s worth and almost making fans forget the departed Jeff Baxter. The song has been a staple of Steely Dan’s live shows in one form or another since the 1994 tour. Recently, the band has played it as a slow blues shuffle with Becker taking a more clean tone and trading solos with Jon Herington. Any way you shape it, this song and Becker’s performance are great.
2. Two Against Nature: During the second act of Steely Dan’s career Walter Becker solely wore the lead/solo guitar fez, not sharing solo spots on record with other guitarists. Becker’s confidence in his playing is evident as a vast majority of the rhythm guitar parts are also played by Becker. The Grammy award-winning Two Against Nature album is filled with neat little guitar licks and rhythm parts. Additionally, the song “Two Against Nature” boasts a sassy middle solo and a clipped and funky end solo. The track is also bolstered by rhythm guitar support from guitarist Jon Herington on his first Steely Dan performance.
1. Gaucho: Gaucho is a troubled album and Walter Becker was a troubled soul during its making. Still, there are many moments of guitar greatness on the album such as Steve Kahn evocative Gibson 335 solo on “Glamour Profession” and Walter Becker’s solos on the title track. Given Becker’s well documented issues during the making of Gaucho and the recording Gods lining up against the duo, Becker was limited to solos only on “Gaucho” and “Hey Nineteen”. His middle song solo was provocative, clear and ringing. His end solo, direct melodic and all too short. This is perfection and grace.