“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” has been covered by dozens of artists ranging from Bessie Smith to Janis Joplin. Each artist has created his/her own interpretation of this traditional blues song. Musically, it’s not that complicated a song. The chord progression is a modified 8-bar blues progression, which admittedly can take some time to learn, but the rhythm is a basic slow blues shuffle. On the piano, though, the bassline can make all the difference.
For the irocku “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” Advanced Level 7 piano lesson we opted for a traditional stride bassline which is quite challenging to play. In this lesson, the left hand mimics the bass and drum lines on Eric Clapton’s version from the “Unplugged” album. We use a full octave left hand stride which is very difficult to play while playing the chords and melody in the right hand. Here we’ll show alternative approaches to the left hand bassline with progressively increasing levels of difficulty. We show how these different basslines are used by the artists who have covered this traditional blues song.
The first Bassline (1) in the chart is made of single quarter notes and half-notes, or two-note chords, all played on the beat. Each beat consists of either just the root of the chord, or the root and the fifth, or the root and the octave above. While not exact, this is similar to how it’s played on the version recorded by Duane and Gregg Allman in 1968. This would be a good approach if you play in a band with a bass and drum. Staying on the beat and just playing the root and fifth will keep you from getting in the way of what the bass player or drummer is playing.
The second Bassline (2) in the chart is a slow quarter note shuffle rhythm. Each chord change is notated by a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note. The eighth note helps to anticipate the next beat and move the song forward. Like Bassline 1 each beat consists of either the root and the fifth, or the root and the octave above. While not directly played in any of the popular recordings of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, this shuffle pattern lays down the foundation for almost every version of the song. This would be a great pattern to improvise over.
The third Bassline (3) in the chart is based on playing just the root of the chord and anticipating each chord change with a swung eighth note, a chromatic half-step below the next chord. This is how it’s played on both the Steve Winwood/Spencer Davis Group recording from 1966 and the Derek and the Dominoes recording from 1970 and is a more contemporary approach to laying down a bass groove.
The fourth Bassline (4) in the chart is a traditional stride shuffle rhythm. There are many ways to play stride but they are all fundamentally the root of the chord for the first beat followed by an inversion of the chord in the second beat. The Besse Smith, Janis Joplin, and Clapton Unplugged recordings of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” are all based on a traditional stride shuffle rhythm. It can take years to master stride piano. Jumping from the root to a chord inversion an octave away is like shooting a basketball while blindfolded. And then try playing the melody with your right hand at the same time!!! The Stride Groove adds a considerable level of difficulty to any song.
Chuck Leavell fans will note that Chuck didn’t really play stride during his early years with the Allman Brothers. Dr. John introduced Chuck to stride but he didn’t fully tackle stride piano until working with Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones. For a deeper dive into stride piano, we have added a Rock Essential Videos series entitled “Chuck Leavell’s Stride Blues” derived from Chuck’s playing on his “Back to the Woods” recording.
Learn how to play rock and blues piano from one of rock’s greatest. Chuck Leavell, legendary keyboardist for The Rolling Stones, The Allman Bros, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, and more.