Sly and Robbie Deep In the Pocket

If you care anything about grooves like I do, I’m a bass player, then you will find the groove in the above song fantastic.  Sly and Robbie, one of the greatest rhythm sections ever, having worked on countless great reggae recordings, lay down the stickiest and deepest of grooves.  Sly Dunbar’s drumming has me particularly captivated on this track.  An interesting side note:  Sly and Robbie also provide the rhythm tracks on Bob Dylan’s 80’s masterpiece Infidels.

Bass Lines, Bootstraps, and The Myth of the Individual

Last night I cut a baseline in a studio that I felt was really great.  I almost thought about bragging about it, in fact I totally did to a couple close friends!  However, I started thinking about how that bass line was the result of listening to lots of other bass players and that, whether it is good or not, I only had a little hand in its creation.  Also, on top of that, I have had friends, teachers, mentors, and parents, that have in some way shaped how I played, whether directly or in allowing me to learn my craft.  Not only that, but every musician on any record has a similar story of people that helped them to learn what they do.  You get four, five, six, ten people on an album, plus those doing the technical work, and all of sudden you have links to hundreds if not thousands of other people.  How many records did they listen to?  Who taught them?  Who paid for their first lesson?  If they were writing lyrics did they read a lot of different writers, who in turn have their own groups of people?

In America we like to tell ourselves that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  But doing something completely by yourself isn’t really possible.  We love the individual, and certainly some people are more unique than others, but the individual never accomplishes anything completely on their own.  The most you can hope to do is to combine things in a way that others have not done, and that is original enough for me, but to do something that has no ties to any other person is something that only exists in myth.

I also was thinking how we devalue music in our current cultural atmosphere.  Some people scoff at paying for songs.  But think about it, really think about it, and you will realize that it takes a staggering amount of hours and people to give birth to even the simplest of songs.  The same can be true of any art form.

I also reflected again on the ending of Mad Men.  (Spoiler alert)  A friend talked to me about the end of Mad Men, where Don Draper’s whole journey led him to create a Coke commercial.  His view was that one way to interpret it was that nothing created comes out of a vacuum.  In another way, and I would be one that can see it this way, this is a sad ending as a man’s life long struggle ended up as nothing more than a piece of advertising.  However, at the same time it is a great way to view anything that has been created.  Nothing comes from out of nowhere.

Ceremony by New Order

I have always loved New Order.  And, however much he seems like a hard person to work with, I have always loved Peter Hook’s bass playing.  He plays the instrument almost more like a guitar at times.  He often takes leads, plays with effects on it (especially chorus), and creates the kind of highly melodic hooks that are reserved for guitar and keyboards in other bands.  However, despite all this he seems like someone that always plays for the song, that always adds that perfect emotion that the song needs.  Even if he is playing a lead or taking a main hook, it seems to be complimentary and not showy.  There are many people that played like him since, but he is a true original.  Ceremony is a great example of his playing and also simply a great piece of music.  It does the happy/sad thing that New Order are so great at.  It is joy and sorror, it is that unexplainable thing, the thing words often fail, that we call emotion, created in sound.

Make it Shiny

Shinyribs

Make it Shiny

Above is a profile of Shinyribs band leader Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell in Texas Highways Magazine.  I play bass with this project.    I can neither confirm or deny any pertinent information in the above article.  The owls are watching.  For those of you that are interested, this article will give you some idea as where a good deal of the Shinyribs sound comes from.  It’s definitely music that has a regional flavor, although that being said it is extremely varied and largely accessible.

Kev has kept me gainfully employed these last several years for which I am grateful for.  Just in this last year I got to record with Shawn Sahm and the family of Ted Hawkins.  I also got to sing on stage with Eric Burdon, Ian McLagan, among others.  None of these things would have happened for me if Kev hadn’t decided a couple of years ago to work with me.  Hell, one of the only reasons I can work on this blog as much as I do is that it fits in nicely with a musicians schedule.

I should mention that we will be playing the State Theater in Austin, Texas on New Years Eve.  If you are in the area get tickets soon as they are going fast.

Billy Cox Allows Hendrix to Transcend

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about Adam Clayton and how his bass playing, despite often being deemed simplistic, is actually essential in creating U2’s sound.  While I was out on the road this weekend I was diving deep into the music of Jimi Hendrix, whom I have always loved, but haven’t listened to with this kind of focus for a couple of years.

Anyone that doubts Billy Cox, Jimi Hendrix’s bass player from Band of Gypsys on, only needs to listen to First Rays of the New Rising Sun.  There are some serious deep pocket grooves and some sixteenth note work that is especially challenging if you understand the bass.  He was much more of a traditional bass player than Noel Redding, whom I also love for different reasons.  Billy Cox had a thicker sound and a deeper pocket.  He filled up a great deal of space while Noel Redding played with a more frantic style that worked great for the early part of Hendrix’s career.

Anyway, I have been listening to Machine Gun lately from the Band of Gypsys album.  In many people’s opinion this is one of if not the high point in Hendrix’s career.  Hendrix was able to capture the imagery of the Vietnam War through the sound of his guitar.

Overall, the bass line is pretty simple compared to some of Cox’s other bass lines.  Although he occasionally branches out and jams, at around 7:25 minute mark for instance, but for the most part he lays down relatively simple deep pocket bass lines that hold the song together.  The most memorable one is the descending bass line that he starts the song with and employs throughout many of the songs twelve plus minutes.

First of all the bass line is very memorable.  If you listen to the song the part that will most likely stick in your head is this hook line that he plays on bass.  Also, even though he is playing somewhat simply he is playing with great tone and feel.

However, I again want to state that this main part of the bass line, and the bass line for most of the song, is pretty simple.  I am pretty sure it is something I could have played early on in my career.  But just because it is not extremely technically challenging does not mean it is not brilliant and functional.  Again, it is very memorable.  But what is most important about it is that it provides the glue and the foundation of the song.  Because of this foundation that Billy Cox creates it allows Hendrix the freedom to play transcendentally.  Hendrix doesn’t have to worry about holding the song together.  Cox does this and because of that Hendrix is free to let his imagination run rampant.

I stated in that post on Adam Clayton that someone has to stay home and block.  Someone has to hold a song together.  It is often the bass, but it can be any instrument.  Having someone in a band that is willing to subdue their ego is so important.  It doesn’t mean that they subdue their creativity, just that they are not concerned with having a staring role at all times.  Unless is it is AC\DC, Crazy Horse, or punk music, I’m not a fan of the simple root note style of bass playing.  I do want to hear some creativity.  I want to hear someone do something unique.  One should never confuse simplicity with lack of ability or lack of creativity.  Also one should always realize that when someone is onstage getting their moment to shine, it is often because someone else in the band is laying down a foundation that can be built upon.

Adam Clayton’s Zen Like Bass

I am a bass player by trade.  One of my favorite bass players is Adam Clayton from U2.  His playing is often disparaged by musicians.  This criticism stems from an old argument in music about technical ability vs. feel.  I also believe that some people don’t understand the idea that within a band people have different roles and those roles are crucial to creating the sound of a band.

Keith Langford, the drummer in The Gourds and Shinyribs, and I often have a discussion about musical roles in bands and we use a football analogy.  We often talk about how someone needs to stay home and block.  In each band there is usually a member that provides the glue in which keeps the song together while the other musicians play more expressive roles.  In different bands this role is held by different instruments.  In U2 Adam Clayton usually stays home to block while the Edge floats above him playing unique sounds and Larry Mullen Jr. plays polyrhythmic drum parts.  In New Order there is usually a rhythm guitar, keyboard, or sequencer part holding things together while Peter Hook, the bass player, flies around the higher end of the neck playing melodic lines.  One of the bands that breaks this rule is the Who.  Although Pete Townshend’s rhythm guitar is the thing that most often glues the band together, they are all often being expressive which leads to the chaotic nature of their sound which you can hear on an album like Live at Leeds.  But most bands are not like the Who.  Most bands have at least one person staying home providing the foundation for the song.  Someone needs to subdue their ego so that other members of the band have freedom of expression.

Although there are definitely periods where I see the point in criticizing Adam Clayton, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb comes to mind as he is playing nothing but root notes the entire record, for a good portion of U2’s career he has created simple memorable lines that form the bedrock for U2’s songs.  I view his playing as being very Zen like.  He plays the fewest notes possible, but crafts them in such a way that they are memorable and functional.  There are many U2 songs, Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World, New Years Day, and Bullet the Blue Sky being a few, where you could hear the bass line by itself and recognize the song.  Not only are these bass lines recognizable and hooky, but they also serve the songs functionally as they allow the other musicians to play in an expressive manner.  These are parts carved out of stone until only what is absolutely needed is left.

Adam Clayton also has great tone and feel.  Their 90’s albums, Acthung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, are especially full of great bass performances.  These are also records which are centered around strong grooves.  I particularly love the groove on Until the End of the World.  Or listen to his performance during the chorus of Mysterious Ways.  It is only four notes but it feels and sounds incredible.  In Bill Flanagan’s excellent U2 book Until the End of the World, he talks about, and I agree with this assessment, that a beat is like a target.  One can play on either side of the bulls-eye and doesn’t necessarily have to hit the target dead on.  Adam Clayton plays in a slightly dubby behind the beat style.  Larry Mullen Jr. often plays right on top of the beat.  Between the two of them they create a great foundation for which the songs can be built on.

Although Adam Clayton has always worked with great producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, which definitely help him to achieve a great bass sound, a lot of the sound of bass is how you approach it with your right hand if you are a right handed player.  How you pluck the strings with either your fingers or pick, and Clayton does both, goes along way in determining the sound of the bass.  The sound of a bass relies slightly less on technology than the sound of a guitar does.

There are plenty of great technical bass players, and Adam Clayton certainly does not fit that bill.  However, if you look at the roll that he plays in allowing his band to do what it does, and listen to the tone and feel of his playing there is a great deal to appreciate.  Taking three or four notes, and making them the perfect three or four notes, is something every player should try to achieve once in awhile.  Subvert the ego and aim for a certain Zen like aesthetic.  You just might create the most essential part of something while doing the least amount of work.

The Steve Harris Gallop

I have been ranting and raving about the new right lately.  They have tainted my blood and made me into some kind of feral dog, more beast than man.  So today I want to start the day off by focusing on something I have really been enjoying lately.  This is something that many of you may find ridiculous, but I couldn’t care less.  Lately I have been obsessed with the bass playing of Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris.

I love the fact that it is often complex and technically challenging, but never at the expense of melody or in performing a role within the context of the group.  In music players often develop different unique tendencies.  Often there are bass players that I like that have different tendencies than me.  I might play differently then them, and would not come up with what they do, but if I sit around and take the time I can usually figure out what they are doing and play it on a technical level.  They have a different feel than me, but it’s on a level that I can compute what they are doing.  Steve Harris is one of those players that I would call a freak.  He is playing with speed and stamina that almost super human.  If it were sports he would be running a marathon, at a sprinters pace.

One time I watched a documentary on the Ramones.  In the bonus features Marky Ramone described the drumming technique that is an essential part of the Ramones sound.  Basically he is playing the high hat twice as fast as most drummers would at that speed.  He relates a story about how Clem Burke from Blondie, a very good drummer, could not play fast enough and therefore was not capable of being in the Ramones.  As most of you know that know the Ramones, the Ramones are often pigeonholed as being a very technically simple band.  However, it takes muscle memory and stamina to do what they do for an entire night.

What Steve Harris does is impressive, again from a vantage point of technique and stamina.  While most players that play at this speed would use a pick, Steve Harris uses his fingers.  However, again as well, he is also a very melodic player that compliments the music of his band perfectly.

Although musicians are often not viewed this way, with good reason, there is an element to certain musicians’ style that is almost athletic.  There are many very technical players that lack any kind of originality or soul.  These would be most session musicians.  You can hear musicians like this all over the radio, especially on modern country radio.  However, Steve Harris has a completely unique tone and personality in his playing.

Listen to the song Run to the Hills.  In this song you will hear his trademark “gallop”.  It is a series of triplets played at an extremely fast pace.  Although I’ve read in several places online that he does this with two fingers, I can’t believe this to be so.  The only way that I can come close to mimicking what he does is with three fingers.  Even so I have trouble playing with the precision that he does, and definitely have trouble keeping the pace that he does for the entire length of the song.  I have been working on it for about a month and am getting closer every day, but it definitely requires a great deal of commitment and time to get down.

Truth be told I don’t know where, in either band that I am playing in, that I will utilize this “gallop”.  However, it just seems like a mountain that I want to climb and I enjoy pushing myself.

If you are a musician this post may be of some interest to you.  If not you will at least have an idea of the kind of conversations that take place in a touring van, in the middle of the night, on the road to nowhere.