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A Master Of Musical Understatement

Walter Becker on those endless (ridiculous) listicles ranking the “Guitar Gods of the 1970s.” He’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as major dudes like Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Page, or Duane Allman, or Carlos Santana, or Billy Gibbons, or Frank Zappa.

Becker, who died Sunday at the age of 67, stands apart from that class, off in a semi-neglected dark corner, his contribution to the rock canon less clearly defined. He had technical dexterity on the guitar, but was hardly a shredder. Or a flamethrower. He didn’t grandstand. Sometimes he didn’t even play the big solos — he regularly hired studio hotshots to provide firepower on the Steely Dan hits he cowrote with keyboardist and singer Donald Fagen.

If pop music is a constant tug of war between the reassuringly familiar and the jolt of the modernist new, Becker’s gift was the ability to hit both extremes at once. What Becker added to Steely Dan was an elusive strain of magic — the terse little melodic thing that turned out to be exactly what the music needed. And nothing more.

Becker and Fagen were also known jazzheads, and the music of Steely Dan embraces some verities of Sinatra-era song — the bridge sections and tricky chord progressions — while rejecting the smoother happily-ever-after storybook narratives. The duo worked on the lyrics and every other aspect of the songs together, and though Fagen was the “voice” of Steely Dan, his edge-of-sarcasm tinge needed softening.

Becker was a conjurer, sly and tactical. His lines could be weird and skronky while also accessible and melodic. He used strange configurations of notes and chords that at first seem odd, but later register as devastatingly apt. He had the basic guitaristic things covered — the Malibu singer-songwriter strumming and the greasy Memphis R&B rhythm, the arena-rock pitchbending caterwaul and the precision-minded Wes Montgomery octaves — yet rarely deployed them in conventional ways.

And though he took his share of solos (for ear-stretching delirium in a blues context, check out his romp on “Black Friday” from 1975’s Katy Lied), some of his most intriguing work is embedded in the background – the architectural arpeggios of “Aja,” or the wry, blues-tinged asides that dot the margins of “Hey Nineteen.”

Becker approached his guitar and bass playing (and, really, the entire production) as part of the songwriting process, an extension of it. He and Fagen were both obsessed with tone; there are countless stories of the duo chasing a particular snare drum sound for days on end in the studio. As a guitarist, Becker understood the ways distortion and other textural effects could change the atmospheric pressure of a track, and he used these devices to more musical ends than most guitarists. Becker’s rhythm-guitar accompaniments had a spiky, almost confrontational air. His bass playing was devastatingly simple, a smack to the gut. His leads could be brainy or spooky or confounding or obtuse — whatever would best enhance the vibe of the song.

Where most guitar heroes of his era charged into the center ring with fistfuls of notes and blazing chords, Becker preferred to sneak in through the back door, and in just a few measures and fewer notes, rearrange all the furniture. The result was something instantly riveting that you’d want to hear again and again — even if (especially if) you were not even paying attention to what the guitar was doing. Forget about the moment of solo glory; Becker wanted — and attained, with astounding consistency — the thick and undeniable vibe that made a piece of music magnetic.

And when Becker couldn’t conjure the mojo he heard in his head, he’d bring in a sharpshooter for the job. From one perspective, Becker managed the Steely Dan records as guitar salons, gatherings of prodigiously talented musicians who were tapped for strategic vibe infusions as Becker and Fagen’s vision evolved. Among the highlights: Larry Carlton’s searing “Kid Charlemagne” from The Royal Scam, Denny Dias playing electric sitar on “Do It Again” and guitar in a post-bop jazz mood on “Your Gold Teeth II.” The list goes on, and extends to “Lucky Henry” from Becker’s underappreciated 1994 solo effort 11 Tracks of Whack, which features brain-melting turns by Dean Parks and Adam Rogers.

All of those moments are improvisational, and reveal unique traits of each contributing instrumentalist. Yet they’re also the deliberate product of the duo’s refined aesthetic — if Becker is somewhat invisible from note to note on the records, he and Fagen are inescapable as creators and refiners of a instantly identifiable sound. Very few rock-era acts evolved the way Steely Dan did — from a modest live unit into architects of a high-gloss, impossible-to-replicate studio signature that sprouted new atmospheres with each album.