Tag Archives: bass playing

Round on the ends and high in the middle

After thoroughly enjoying my new Ampeg bass amp (the magnificent BA300 115), I am reminded of something essential:

It’s NOT the lows or the highs, it’s what you do with the middle that makes all the difference.

Yeah, the highs and lows are important, but it’s the middle that defines who you really are. And that’s brought home in bass amps by the incredible phenomenon that is the “Ampeg sound.” Anybody can effectively woof or tweet. But unless you’ve got the middle right, it’s either just mud or screech.

That’s a metaphor for life, I want to tell you. Like your second and third albums, the middle of anything (life, a string, a circle, the universe) really gets to the core of your being — and it either works, or it doesn’t.

That’s why there’s such a thing as a mid-life crisis (or Chrysler, as a friend of mine used to say). Because if you get to the middle, you’ve got to either get your shit together or quit. Otherwise, you’re like a dull knife that just ain’t cuttin’ it; talking loud and saying nuthin’.

BTW, the new Ampeg is awesome – only 59 pounds and pure SVT sound. You can get Duck Dunn, Bootsy, James Jamerson, Gene Simmons, Geezer Butler or Victor Wooten all with the dial of a button or two.

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A New Technique for Slap and Funk Bass

OK … so here it is.

Last night whilst playing my usual gig with Hardrick Rivers and company at the Pioneer Pub in Natchitoches, I believe that I discovered a new (and potentially revolutionary) technique for playing slap, pop and funk bass.

I had been thinking on two different wavelengths prior to last night.

The first was Victor Wooten’s right hand technique, particularly the thumb technique where he uses his thumb as if he were wearing a thumb pick – as opposed to a Larry Graham/Bootsy Collins thumb technique which approaches the strings vertically (i.e., the thumb pops up vertically from the string in a primarily percussive thwack), Victor’s technique involves popping with the thumb horizontally so it can perform an upstroke for additional speed and effect. When he combines this with left guitarist technique for hammer-ons and pull-offs, the end result is dazzling speed.

The second was Jaco Pastorius’ use of chording and false harmonics. When exploring different chord shapes and voices around the neck, I sounded the chords out using arpeggios played with my thumb, index, middle (and sometimes ring) fingers – not an unusual approach when one is playing acoustic fingerstyle guitar – or banjo. Particularly claw hammer style banjo.

The innovation is the claw hammer approach. I admit I was troubled with the “double-thumb” technique of Victor’s. Why not just use a thumb-pick, as you would on a banjo, instead of resting (and in a sense, limiting the range of motion of) your thumb. I’ve always avoided techniques that involved resting the hand in anyway on the strings or nearby props (like the old Precision thumb rests). And my thumb slap technique was deeply rooted in the vertical style.

But to use the thumb and first fingers in combination, and move the thumb for a second combination stroke with subsequent index and ring finger “plucks”? Keeping an underlying rhythm going consisting of sounded notes and/or muted string unsounded notes while the hand floats above the strings (and along the neck)? That, my friends, is “claw hammer funk” bass.

I’m still working out the details and some of the mechanics. But the end result should be (provided that you have sufficient hand strength) a bass style that provides both thumb and finger pop and slap, with a fluidity and dexterity akin to Earl Scruggs banjo technique.

And there you have it.

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Dear Rotosound

Hi:

Not looking for any response, just wanted to let you know a little something.

I’m 43 years old and I’ve been playing electric bass continuously since I was 11 or 12. In that time, I’ve played a lot of different basses – Fender, Kramer, Gibson, Epiphone, Hagstrom, Musicman, Yamaha and Rickenbacker to name a few. Short scale, long scale, extra long scale. Roundwound, flatwound, half-round, nylon.

I’ve never been happy with anything but Rotosound strings. I’ve tried other strings (usually when I needed a last minute new set and couldn’t get Rotosounds) but they always seem to fall short of the mark. Jazz, hard rock, blues, punk, r & b or funk, small clubs, theaters, orchestra pits, bars or festivals -whatever the style, whatever the venue, Rotosound comes through with a consistent punch, clarity and beefy bottom end that no one else can match.

When I first started playing, I looked to inspirational bass players for tips on what equipment to use. It turned out that the bassists I loved the most – John Entwistle, Chris Squire and Jaco Pastorius, among others – all were Rotosound devotees. That was enough for me then. Now, younger and less experienced bass players see me at work and ask the same kind of questions. I tell them the same thing. Rotosound. Swing 66. It’s all you need to know.

Thank you, and best wishes for continued success.

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Home Bass

Last night, a friend and fellow bass player commented that after having seen me play lead guitar (I usually play bass with Hardrick Rivers, but occasionally fill in on guitar when another bass player is available and wants to sit in), he understood my approach to bass. He classified me more or less as a “lead” bass player, and also made the comment that I was a better guitarist than bass player.

Bear in mind this is a person who thinks I am a damned fine bass player – probably the best of the bunch that plays around town with Hardrick.

I was, I’ll admit, a little taken aback by the guitarist comment. My original instrument (down the long chain of history) was upright bass. I’ve played guitar for about 30 years, but it’s only within the past decade that I’ve ever had the audacity to call myself a “guitarist”. In addition, when you look at my primary bass influences, while they do include Duck Dunn, Jamie Jamerson, Bootsy Collins and Ray Brown, the “heavy hitters” are really Jack Casady, Paul McCartney, Phil Lesh, Chris Squire, Greg Lake, John Entwistle and Jack Bruce. What’s the commonality there? Melody. These are “lead” bass players. After mulling that over, I felt a little better about being that kind of player. Yeah, that’s what I am. Not a “popper” or “slapper” or a “walker” even (although I can walk like a MF). Although getting someone to recognize that I am in the same league as these other lead players? Forget about it (but that is the topic of another conversation altogether).

Most of what I apply to one instrument, I apply to others. It’s the same fretboard for guitar and bass, for the most part. The scales from one are applicable to the other. Why shouldn’t you bend, hammer on, pull off, slide, etc., on both bass and guitar? Melodic and improvisational constructs are melodic and improvisational constructs regardless of the medium.

So am I a guitarist who plays bass, or a bassist who plays guitar? Hell if I know. Do people like Leon Russell, Greg Lake, Dick Taylor or Steven Stills have the same kind of identity crisis?

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Every Bass Player Should Know These Names

B.B. Dickerson
Johnny Flippin
William “Bootsy” Collins
Larry Graham
Donald “Duck” Dunn
George Porter Jr.
James “Jamie” Jamerson
Verdine White
Carol Kaye

Add ’em to my already super-long list:

Gary Peacock, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Ray Brown, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Oscar Pettiford on one side, and

Chris Squire, John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, Jack Casady, Steve Harris, Tony Levin, Jack Bruce, Jack Berlin, Felix Pappalardi, Fernando Saunders, Louis Johnson, Robert Shakespeare, and Aston “Family Man” Barrett on the other side.

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Back to the Bass-ics

After years of playing rhythm and lead guitar, tonight I’m returning to the bass for a jam session at Roque’s Blues Hall here in Natchitoches. To reindoctrinate myself, so to speak, I’m listening back to my earliest influences and remembering why I loved the bass first and foremost during my musical development.

I started out at the end of the second grade playing classical violin. By the end of the fifth grade, my hands were big enough (and the need in the school orchestra was such) that I could handle the upright bass. Fortuitously enough, the orchestra director (Dr. James Loveman) was a double bass man himself. He gave me private lessons, and helped me blister my way through Simandl. By the end of the seventh grade, I was good enough to audition and be accepted in the Lima Area Youth Symphony.

But let’s face it — classical bass is pretty dry. I was listening to jazz and blues, and wanted to play them. I added Ray Brown’s bass method to my repertoire, and Charles Mingus, Ray Brown and Ron Carter to my turntable.

Again, fortune stepped in. My junior high band director (Dr. Dennis Mack) was a low brass and bass man, too — he played tuba, double bass and electric bass. And he was also the high school jazz band director. At time I came along, he was playing the bass for the group himself, to fill the student void. Although I was only in junior high, he asked if I would sit in. My reading chops were up to snuff, and I sailed through on the big double bass. But he wasn’t satisfied. I just wasn’t loud enough.

And here’s where the history really starts. He let me borrow his electric bass and amplifier to play with the high school jazz band. I added Carol Kaye’s electric bass method to my repertoire, and Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Bootsy Collins and Jamie Jamerson to my turntable. Of course, I also had some mighty rock influences — Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle. And I practiced my ass off. I slept with the bass in hand.

That was the beginning. By the time I graduated high school (with the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for outstanding high school jazz musician in tow), I considered myself capable of playing almost whatever I wanted (or needed) on the bass. That was the middle.

Skip ahead. Skip through orchestra gigs, skip missing the audition for Ozzy Osbourne’s band by a day, skip the Blue Wave Band opening for PeeWee Crayton (who said that I was “the baddest m*f* bass player” he’d ever seen), skip Peewee’s grandson Marshall wanting to put something together with me and Jeff Lorber (which of course fell through), skip through Sun Concert Bass heads, Gallien-Krueger cabinets, skip the Faith Assembly goth and the Moondogs psychedelic revival.

When I went to Berklee, it was on a voice scholarship. Because you had to submit review tapes, and it seemed like voice was more strongly featured on what tapes I had. But on the same day I did my voice placement auditions, I ventured over to the bass department and breezed through their tryout and placement process. They wanted me to switch majors. But that would have meant losing my scholarship. That was the beginning of the end.

I played a great gig with the Bloodfarmers in NYC; played bass, and rocked, because what they really wanted was Geezer Butler, who I could replicate with my eyes closed. For me, it was just a flashback. Somewhere along the line, probably when I had to sell all my bass gear before moving to Memphis, the guitar seemed easier to transport. And all those influences I’d picked up between the beginning and Memphis — Willie Dixon, Paul Chambers, Duck Dunn, Jack Cassady, Chris Squire, Tony Levin, Jack Berlin, Geezer Butler, David Porter Jr., Steve Harris — seemed to slip away. I started playing a lot of solo gigs, which definitely were easier with guitar.

And now, 32 years from when I first picked up a bass, it feels like I’ve come full circle. In that time I’ve played in a lot of bands. In those where I didn’t play bass, I never felt the bass players really got it. In listening to a lot of bands, and watching a lot of pretty good players, you start to notice there are probably only a dozen bass players that do. All the bands where I played bass seemed to fall apart once I left them. In other words, I used to be irreplaceable.

Now, I’ve got to prove that all over again. Fingers, don’t fail me now.

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