Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Low Should You Go?


Some Deep Thoughts for Us Bass Players

My first encounters with the electric bass were marked by ignorance and frustration. In the early 70's my older sister would listen to The Carpenters, anchored by session great Joe Osborn on a Fender Jazz bass, playing old, dirty flatwound strings with a pick. His relatively high, guitar-like lines on "Superstar" mesmerized me, but I couldn't reproduce them on guitar; it didn't go low enough. Somehow I'd failed to find out what an electric bass was. (Even though I'd seen Danny Partridge on The Partridge Family.) Still less did I understand how this powerful new instrument (barely on the market for 20 years at the time) had become even more crucial in some musical genres than the electric guitars that preceded it. Reggae, Latin, Gospel, Jazz - many of these gigs could succeed without a guitar player, but what if the bass player didn't show up? Time to panic.
The first time I got my hands on a bass, I immediately understood its appeal: Power. I was fourteen, and drunk with bass power. It was like trading a .22 for a 12 gauge. Boom! Those lines I couldn't emulate on a guitar were suddenly there for the playing. It would be a few years before I realized how critical and delicate the basssist's role is, but at least I could kick out those sub-guitar notes.
I got the powerrrrrrrrrrrrrr! 

Fast forward to 1980, when the bass player for the country band I was in got married and left on his honeymoon. Time to panic. But wait: I knew a good guitar player who also plays bass. But wait: He didn't know the songs, and we didn't use charts. I knew at once that even though I was far better versed in country guitar than my friend, that nonetheless I had to get out my Höfner Beatle bass and lay down the foundation while he tried to make his rock guitar lines sound a little bit country. To have given him the bass would have been a disservice to the rest of the band and to the audience, because he didn't know the songs the way a bass player should.
You see, we electric guitar players have it easy. In many contexts, we can just listen and respond, float around, sprinkling textures and fills and licks all over the place. If we need to lay out for a few measures, great. If we don't know the song, we can probably still make it sound good by staying close to the key center and waxing pentatonic. But just try that if you're a bass player. Actually, please don't.
Frank Zappa, indisputably one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century, described the bass player's function as "(telling) me what key I'm in." What, not to shake the room, rattle the windows and impress everyone with those flying fingers? Uh, no. That note at the bottom of the mix is so much more crucial than most people could ever know. I once played guitar on a major country gig in which a carefully rehearsed harmonica solo ended up sounding idiotic because the bass player played a I instead of a IV, causing a jazzy 11th voicing to instead sound something like "Long Tall Texan" or "Sweet Adeline." (The harmonica player was duly miffed afterward.) And how many of us have suffered in silence as a band or a church worship team is dragged throught the sludge by a bass player who hasn't done his homework, or can't tell a right note from a wrong one?
Okay, we've established that the bass player isn't really allowed to make mistakes (or at least that those mistakes should be rare exceptions.) Now for the subjective part, the one that compelled me to write a blog entry about what register a bass player should play in.
"Why not write about which of the Jonas Brothers is the cutest?" Hmmm, good point. I guess, though, that there are several hundred of us for whom this is even more important. (The rest of you can move on to
Stuff That Really Matters.)
Once I started playing electric bass, I, like many young guitarists, treated it like some sort of guitar on steroids. All those hot licks were so easy, since the fingering was the same as on a guitar . . . uh oh, what's this? They don't work? They don't make the band sound good? Aw, man, this wasn't supposed to be hard! You mean I need to listen to great bass players? Great what? Aren't bass players just failed guitar players?
Turn with me in your Bass Player History Textbook to Chapter 2. (Chapter 1 deals with Bach and Pachelbel and those other Dead Guys who gave us good basslines in the first place.) The early electric bassists were mostly converts from the upright bass, and brought with them a sensibility for what's best for the song. The upright only reluctantly lent itself to luxuries like soloing, so most of its techniques and lines remained intact through the early years of electric bass work in rock and R&B. In those days much music was listened to on small radios and phonographs, with limited bass response, and studio bassists quickly realized that their lowest notes sometimes didn't pop out of those tiny speakers nearly as well as higher ones. In fact, on dates where acoustic upright bass was still played, it was often doubled by a six-string 'tic-tac' bass guitar for that very reason. The standard four-string electric bass has the advantage of a relatively thick, rich timbre, even when played beyond the fifth fret, so when the first generation of influential rock bassists began to apply guitaristic techniques to the bass, it generally worked. The notes were audible even on a small transistor radio. And on the family hi-fi, look out! Woofers and tweeters and mids, oh my!
Any guitarist who doubles well on bass will very possibly find his bass skills more in demand than his guitar playing. That's because (sorry, my fellow guitar stranglers) bass is more important. In the nine years I spent in Venezuela, I estimate that up to 50% of my gigs (mainly church and jazz/salsa) were bass gigs. But the best bassists don't sound like defrocked guitar players. Sure, the guitarist may get to solo on every song, but that doesn't make the bass less challenging. When I listen to studio bass kingpins like Nathan East, John Pattitucci, Leland Sklar, or Abe Laboriel (the list could fill paragraphs), I'm intimidated (in a healthy way) by their ability to make everybody else sound good. The melodicism, the control, the deep pocket, the joy - it's enough to make you forget you even own a guitar.
When I started playing bass, there was nobody to tell me that there was such thing as taste, restraint, etc., so I felt my job was to produce the greatest quantity of notes possible. Then a pastor asked me to play on a slow, gentle song with only three chords: 'D', 'G' and 'A'. No problem - that's what I proceeded to play. But then he asked me to play 'F#' (the 3rd) instead of the 'D' (the tonal center, btw.) 'F#', 'G', and 'A'. Mi, Fa, Sol. "Dormez-vouz?" A little melody, underpinning a simple chord progression. Eureka! The congregation possibly asked themselves, 'What's that light bulb doing hovering over the bass player's head?" Answer: It was the cartoony-yet-appropriate visual manifestation of my realization that there's more to playing bass than, root-fifth, root-fifth (insert hot lick here), root-fifth. To this day, I'll sometimes start a new bass student by teaching them the intro to Josef Zawinul's Weather Report masterpiece, 'Birdland'.

Anyway, time to force the issue. Somewhere along the way I concluded that bass players should generally choose the lowest octave possible in which to play a given note, if the line permitted. Then in the mid-80's came Jimmy Johnson and his five-string bass (suggested by his father, a symphonic contrabassist familiar with the low 'B' string sometimes added to the double bass), and NY bass virtuoso Anthony Jackson, with his new invention, the six-string contrabass guitar, tuned from low 'B' to 'C' below middle 'C'. Suddenly there was this craze for notes below the serviceable low 'E' that for decades had defined the nether regions of our humble-yet-heroic axe. Thousands of bass players abandoned their Fenders and Rickenbackers in favor of Ken Smiths or whatever five- or six-string flavor-of-the month presented itself. Fender and Rickenbacker noticed right away and started offering five- and even six-string versions of their old standbys. Some of us questioned the future of the venerable four-string bass.
We couldn't even begin to question its past, though. It has been suggested that the electric bass (the original recipe, four-string variety) was more responsible for the dawn of rock and roll than any other instrument, even the electric guitar. And you would be hard-pressed to name a classic rock song that doesn't feature it.
That must have occurred to a lot of those early five-string converts. I saw Marcos Witt's longtime bassist, Emmanuel Espinosa in Mexico City in '97 with his Ken Smith (five- or six-string, I don't remember), then met up with him a year later in Venezuela, joyfully wielding a four-string G&L he'd rescued from a pawnshop in Houston. What about all those really low notes you played on the last few CDs? I thought. He didn't care. That night's concert proved it didn't matter very much. Most of us who made the change from four to five strings suffered from years of retroactive tactile memory, especially when we tried to transfer our slap/funk technique to the five. (We repeatedly hit the 'B' string, when what we really wanted was the 'E'.) What a relief to recover our funk chops simply by going back to the old Fender we'd thought had been rendered obsolete!
My all-time bass hero (now there's a new video game wating to happen) was John 'The Ox' Entwistle of The Who. Besides the grinding maelstrom of his roaring roundwound strings (practically his invention, it turns out) filling the empty space that threatens to strand the guitarist in many power-trio formats, Entwistle's sinuous, intricately melodic lines raised the bar for bass players seeking to mine the territory between flash and foundation. I was so obsessed with his tone that I put Rotosound Swing Bass strings on my poor, delicate Beatle bass, which groaned under the tension but delivered a most un-Beatle-like growl until I sold it to a friend who restored it to its rightful flatwound glory. I guess I liked filling out the sonic spectrum with frequencies beyond the pure, fundamental note. I even began to adopt a snobbish attitude toward most any bass sound that didn't do homage to The Ox. (Those years were full of inexplicable snobberies and prejudices. Thank God for old age.)
But why, I wondered, didn't Entwistle play the hard rock section of "Behind Blue Eyes" an octave lower than he did? (The part, BTW, that Limp Bizkit left out of their cover version of that song, thereby cementing their reputation for terminal Limpness.) And why did other bass visionaries like Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones venture so frequently into guitar register? Short answer: Basses don't sound like guitars, so they can get away with it, provided they do it at appropriate times. We can vary the intensity of the song structure by playing a part further up or lower down. We can use a pick (yes, real bass players often use picks) to add definition to the low end. We can use our fingers (yes, we need to be able to do that, too) to add body and warmth to those high register parts, thus making sure they still qualify as bass lines.
I hope I didn't step on the toes of those who favor the five- or six-string - I still own one, and I still compose music that goes down there, but I look forward to those Sundays when the songlist shows no songs in Eb or Ab, so I can leave it home and bring my trusty Jazz Bass to church. If you've actually read this far, you deserve a better conclusion to this diatribe than I'm giving it, but I hope you'll settle for my heartfelt gratitude for attending to a seemingly arcane issue that matters so much, yet is cared about (or even noticed) by so few. If we bassists suddenly stopped playing, then they'd notice.