Mastering the Bass

Last Wednesday night, or Thursday morning come to think of it, Sarah and I were slumped away in the back courtyard of the Bank Hotel in Newtown enjoying post-midnight drinks. We ended up chatting away to this emphatic though rather didactic Australian guy who really liked the sound of his own opinions. He had this effusive, quasi-psychic manner about him that compelled him to point the finger at us to tell us what we were, without knowing anything about us. Sarah was a singer who could pitch five octaves. He told her to just concentrate on the singing, all the while ignoring (or not ‘seeing’) her prodigious songwriting and piano-playing gifts. I caught the finger from Kenny too. Without saying a word about myself or who I was, Kenny told me “…you’re a bass player. I know you are. Look at you! You’ve got the body tone, the build. Stick with the bass because there’s too many crap bass players around and good bass players are needed everywhere.” Well, I do more than just play bass, I thought, but the idea of being a solely a bass player appeals to me. I’d just performed a gig on the bass at the Newtown RSL a couple of hours beforehand. And I love the power that the bass commands, and respects, from audiences and other musicians. It was quite a compliment to be told that “I’m a bass player”. It made me feel like Jaco or someone. Kenny was fun company that night.

And yesterday, Sunday, on my way to an singy-songwriter gig in Leichhardt, I stopped over at the Bass People shop on Parramatta Road, Petersham, to purchase a book they’ve been advertising on their automated emails. This is bassist Victor L. Wooten’s
The Music Lesson : a spiritual search for growth through music. I’ve only just started reading it and already I’m blown away by relevance the book has to me and my life. For the book is a pervasive look at music, or rather, Music, as an organic, spiritual entity open to everyone regardless of whether or not they play instruments, rather than music as being something to merely divide, study, practice, and finally “conquer”. One of the publicity quotes on the back cover has Wooten being compared to Carlos Castaneda, in obvious reference to the more esoteric nature of the subject matter contained within, relating to the spirituality of Music. And as far as I’ve read, the teacher Michael tells the fledgling Victor that nothing can be taught, it can only be shown. It promises to be an enlightening and entertaining read.

Even though I take Kenny's advice with a pinch of salt I can't help but be moved by his and other people's appropriations about my bass playing. My good friend, the chiropractor and percussionist/drummer Pete Thompson wets himself over my bass playing, and he's said in so many words that I'm a bass playing God, or the like. All I do is play the instrument very musically, and with passion. It's an instrument I've come to love more and more over the years. Originally I took up the bass for the same reason that a lot of musos do, and that's because everyone wants to play guitar and somebody, well, ends up having to play the bass. I was the one intrigued enough to pick up the four-string behemoth and to stick with it, although I was resentful for a long time that I wasn't the guitar hero. I felt lumbered with the bass and yet I felt clumsy or naked with electric guitar, so I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's only when I returned to the bass some years ago I felt my connection to the instrument deepen, to the point where now I'd like to play the bass a lot.

I feel right with the bass. It suits my personality. It fulfills me. It gives me a lot of room to exert my presence and yet it always remains understated and precise. I love the musical rush combined with the sexual exertion I feel when I play bass live. I feel that it really enforces my masculinity, and it allows me to dive deep into the music, and my music as I'm performing it. By "my music" I refer to the music I performing at the moment-to-moment basis regardless of who composed the song. I feel in total command of myself and am utterly confident of my musicality when I'm on the bass. It's that low-note authority of bass playing that often gives it the edge over piano playing or acoustic guitar playing - both of which I love - and not to mention the ukulele.

I love the classicism of bass. The bass guitar is an electric (and most fretted) version of the classical double bass. There are variations to be sure; 5-string, 6-string basses etc, yet the most common electric bass is the four-string fretted version. Basically, if you can read a chart for double bass on any classical score, you can play it note for note (though plucked) on the bass guitar.

I practice bass by playing the left hand of Bach preludes and I've even bought a book called J.S.Bach for Bass that includes transcriptions for bass of intermediate level suites and preludes. This is where I prefer to improve my playing. For all of its rock and jazz and fusion/funk mojo, I love perceiving the bass as a "classical" instrument. It reminds me of reading scores of Beethoven symphonies years ago at Uni, when we had to do such things, and taking comfort and enjoyment in reading through the bass-lines to observe what he composed for the double bass, and to see how these lines worked and applied themselves to the rest of the score.

I don't like funk bass although I can be a little bit funky if I want to, or need to be. Most bass players are funky. You walk into a music store and invariably if someone's got a bass plugged in they'll be slappin' away. I might ask a shop assistant if I can try a bass and they always give me a full-minute slap-symphony before passing the bass on to me. I remain nonplussed, and kind of amused by it all. I just want to hear how the bass sounds and prefer to play only a few notes and maybe some simple folk lines. A mate of mine told me he used to know the bass player from AC/DC, whoever he was back then. This guy told my mate that he goes into a music store to buy a bass and gets the same sort of slap-treatment that's subjected to me everytime I attempt to play one of these four-string babies. He just wants to play a few notes, and he's the one making millions of bucks!!!

No. My favourite player is Steve Kilbey. This man is master of the bass, for his drive, his passion, his unbounded creativity, and for the way he divines such molten intensity through his instrument. He dives deep into the wells of the Earth and someplace beyond with his playing. I'm very fond of Sting's playing too, actually, and I believe him to be - and this is quite arguable - a finer bass player than he is songwriter. Another guy I really like is Chris Biondo who played on all of Eva Cassidy's recordings that required bass. To my ears I hear he plays an old Fender-P bass with the tone dialled down. There are many other players I'm fond of. I'm into Jaco but purely as a spectator. In no way do I wish to play like him but I do enjoy his genius from an admirable distance. His was a distinctive, almost other-worldly style of playing that is most wonderful and compelling to listen to. Jaco was a true genius on the bass.

But as I travel through the book I'm reading I may begin to break down my opinions about what I like and what I don't like. I'm looking forward to seeing where this book takes me, and I look forward to playing more bass. Anyone need a bass player??


A.M. said…
Wow! What a great post. I hope to hear you play bass sometime! Very interesting and intriguing indeed.

bass blessings!
Anonymous said…
Someone once said about the bass is that it is like drawing. A lot of artists rave about the painted image, but all the great artists agree that to be a good drawer takes much more skill than painting. So it is with the bass! To be an average bass player, well most guitarists can do root notes with rhythm. However, to be a great bass player can take a lifetime of energy and work. Think of all the great bands and you'll see a top bass player. It doesn't matter all the frills and spills (Guitarists/vocalists, etc), if that bottom isn't nailed, then the song goes nowhere. That's why Cream worked, why The Jam worked, why the Who worked, etc, etc.

Cheers, Gav

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