This week, I bought a new little practice amp from my good friend, Jim, out at Texas Music Emporium. In truth, I have not put a lot of time into practicing the bass guitar in quite a few years. When I was much younger, I spend countless hours hunched over my bass playing until my fingers were raw and my arms tired.
At this point in my life, that doesn’t really interest me as much, but I have felt the need to put in some practice time, if for no other reason than to see how I’m doing compared to lo those many years ago when I actually spent time with a metronome and learned songs note for note.
To my pleasant surprise, things that seemed terribly difficult to me back then are not nearly as tough today. I thought my skills had eroded thanks to years of neglect, but the lesson I learned is that the practical application of all those hours of work has not only allowed me to maintain what little skill I do have, but actually improve from where I used to be. In short, I may not be the next Jaco (he was kind of a big deal), but I’m also not completely devoid of ability.
Since I’ve spent the better part of 30 years working on this instrument, I figured it was a good time to pay tribute to the guys who literally informed every note I play — another thing I learned while jamming along to music this week. These are the ten bass players who have most influenced my playing.
I put them in no particular order because, well, they are all so good, it would be ridiculous.
When I was 15, I went to my first concert. It was Yngwie Malmsteen at a bar in Houston. The opener was Talas featuring the monster, shredder bass player, Billy Sheehan. While I certainly dabbled (poorly, I might add) in speed demon theatrics and ridiculous finger tapping as a young player, the thing that impressed me about Sheehan was the same thing that impressed me about many bassists: His strength.
Whether it’s Sheehan or Stanley Clarke or Ron Carter or John Entwistle, the best bass players are always guys who play(ed) with strength and aggression. I love how Sheehan would pull strings out of position and make the instrument growl like a guitar. A lot of how I simply approach the playing of rock music came from watching Sheehan grind strings and throw the bass around like a rag doll. I got to the point where I would put my pinky on top of my third finger just to push it down harder and that was all Sheehan.
The first time I saw the above video, my jaw hit the floor. I was probably about 15 and I had never heard anything like this before. Later, I heard the work Palladino did with Pete Townsend and I realized I had to have a fretless bass. There was such a fluidity to the instrument that just didn’t happen with frets.
Also, there was a tremendous funkiness to his playing, something that was common to many of the guys on this list. Like most of the great session guys, he knew how to add something really cool at just the right moment without stepping out of line — check some of his work for Tears for Fears as an example. I also first heard the practical use of an octave pedal from Palladino’s bass.
Even after he dropped his nearly singular focus on fretless to play r&b with guys like D’Angelo and the John Mayer Trio, you could always tell when it was that lanky Brit (ok, Welsh) guy on bass.
In my teens, I became friends with a guy that worked at Sound Warehouse, the chain of music stores eventually bought by Blockbuster. He would turn me onto really cool music. One day, after reading the latest Bass Player Magazine, I came in looking for Live and in Living Colour by Tower of Power having no idea what it was, just knowing the magazine said it was one of the best bass albums of all time. My friend was impressed.
I had never heard anyone with such precise command and freight train-like speed from his right hand. It was insane. To this day, I can barely make it through “What is Hip?” without my hand going into full on cramps, nevermind trying to cover all 23 minutes of “Knock Yourself Out,” which was the entire B-side of that live album.
Rarely are guys this funky and this busy at the same time. It blew me away and still does.
When Sting assembled his first solo backing band (his best, in my opinion), I had never heard of Darryl Jones. Hell, I’d never heard of Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland or Omar Hakim either. The making-of film Bring On the Night was a complete life changer for me, not because I loved Sting all that much, but because, at age 16 or 17, it opened me up to a world that I had never known before.
I was a little metal kid and this live film and album demonstrated to me that electric guitar could be inconsequential and the music could still kick ass. Once I heard Jones on this, I went out and dug up everything he did including his work with Miles Davis and John Scofield. I loved the smoothness of his playing and how sneaky he was at getting really complicated stuff into fairly simple songs.
The song above was and is my favorite Jones-Hakim groove.
Donald “Duck” Dunn
As a young kid, I was mostly influenced by the listening habits of my parents. Fortunately, my mom mostly played the oldies station in the car which consisted mainly of the Beatles, British invasion pop, Motown and Atlantic r&b, which is where I got my first inkling of funk music and the brilliance of Dunn. Once I saw The Blues Brothers, it was over.
I tended to prefer the earthier sounds of Atlantic with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Bar-kays, Ray Charles, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and others to the more sparkling pop of Motown and Dunn played on virtually all of it. His tone was fatter than that of his Detroit-based contemporaries as he owed as much of his playing to country music as the Motown guys did to jazz.
It set him apart and made him not only a melodic player, but a guy that could lay down a foundation groove as powerful and rock solid as you could imagine. The video above has perhaps my favorite song with Dunn and easily my favorite from Charles.
I am a self-confessed Beatles nerd. I love virtually everything about them. For many years, I was so focused on the songs, I essentially ignored McCartney’s beautiful and brilliant bass lines. I knew they were interesting, but my bass playing and my songwriting didn’t always cross paths, so I focused on the songs.
Later, I realized that some of this playing was seeping its way into mine, particularly the big, beefy, upper-register stuff that he is so known for. “Something,” to me, was nothing short of spectacular. Not only was it one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, but McCartney’s fascinating counter melody on bass brings it to life.
In the last verse, when he plays that bouncy melody in the giant gap between lyrics, I still try to stop people from talking and force them to listen to it. It’s pure bass player ecstasy.
There is very little that can be said about Jaco (note he and Geddy are the only bassists I refer to by first name partly due to the uniqueness of the names and partly out of respect) that would accurately describe his impact on the world of bass. He was nothing short of a genius on the instrument. If there were a bass guitar Mount Rushmore, his head would be one of the four.
His tragically short life (I remember reading about his death buried deep inside the Austin American Statesman) was as chaotic as his music was serene. “Portrait of Tracy” is a song that first introduced me not just to the possibilities of fretless bass, but a way to approach the bass that removed it slightly from its beefy undertones, making it light, airy and almost etherial.
One of the true “artists” of the bass guitar and the definition of a legend.
Whenever I would trace back the roots of players I really liked, all roads would invariably lead to Jamerson. It’s hard to imagine just how great an impact his playing has had on countless bassists throughout the years.
For me, the insane grooves mixed with all the accents and silky melodies he added underneath the dense musical arrangements of Motown’s dozens of hits are as instructional as they are remarkable. To hear that kind of swagger and funk buried inside the pristine melodies of Holland-Dozier-Holland is, in and of itself, miraculous. To be able to play them with such deft skill and subtlety is almost unimaginable.
Every time I listen to a Jamerson part — like the wonderful line in the above video he played while drunk and lying flat on his back (Jesus!) — I recognize all the little elements I try to incorporate into my own playing, realizing full well that I’m not 1/100th the player he was.
Geddy was my first true bass hero. How could he not be? He was playing incredibly difficult parts in a loud, albeit nerdy, rock band. The signature grind of his Rickenbacker bass became a staple of garage musicians hoping to be like Geddy and mostly failing miserably.
What constantly impresses me about him is the way he has grown over the years and improved as a player. His sound has matured. His playing has grown more deeply rooted in grooves — though he was and is clearly the most funky of the trio and not just funky by Rush’s standards, which are decidedly un-funky — and driven a band that is better today, musically, than ever.
There are few things about my playing that aren’t informed by Geddy. He’s quite possibly the greatest single influence on my playing and, like Sheehan, it was the WAY he played, not the complexity that drew me in, though I’d still love to be able to play the solo breaks in “La Villa Strangiato.”
John Paul Jones
No one combined the groove of r&b music with the power of rock like Jones. He was, at least for me, the one guy that could do it all. It didn’t hurt that he was paired with perhaps the greatest groove drummer in the history of rock and roll or that his session musician background provided him with both technical and practical skills.
More than anything else, Jones was the ultimate bass guy. In a band dominated by a guitar virtuoso, a drum god and one of the seminal rock singers of all time, Jones played the straight man and held it together. He was my greatest example of how to be the glue that keeps a band held together.
But Jones had chops. “Ramble On,” “Bring It On Home” and, my favorite, “Song Remains the Same” (see above) demonstrate a guy deeply rooted in blues and r&b with the aggressiveness and intensity of a rocker. If I could be one bass player, Jones would be it.
Wow, it has been a LONG time since I’ve written on this blog. Maybe I’m lame. Maybe I’m lazy. Well, I’m both of those things, but that isn’t the reason. I’ve been busy, damnit, and who are YOU to question me?
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Let’s move on amicably. Ok, great.
So, anyhoo, I wrote a cover story for the Houston Press this week. Kinda cool, right? The story is on KGOW, 1560 the Game, a small, independent sports radio station in Houston. I took the photos for the story as well.
Writing like 5000 words is not easy, but since my mouth is big enough to utter that many words in the span of mere minutes, it makes sense that I could type them too.
Plus, I’m not going to lie. It was fun and, quite frankly, a HUGE honor to be able to do this. I read guys like John Nova Lomax and Craig Malisow, who write feature stories with the kind of regularity I change my cat’s cat box litter, and I’m in awe. I can’t imagine doing this all the time, but it was a blast doing this one and I hope I can try my hand at something else in the future.
Until then, you can read this one:
I’ve had a few discussions lately with people who, with varying degrees of subtlety, told me that many of the things I like about music are just plain stupid. They can’t seem to understand why I prefer melody over noise. They can’t fathom how I could dare to think McCartney was Lennon’s equal. It’s worse than being music snobs. They actively think I’m an idiot!
Well, I’m here to tell you something: I do not give a shit and to prove it, I’m giving you the music I love and you hate. Happy Holidays! You can make fun of me later.
10. Phil Collins/Paul McCartney (tie)
These may very well be the two most unfortunately maligned singers from famous bands. Phil could never be as good as Peter Gabriel. Paul could never live up to John Lennon. The one problem with that theory is that it’s utter bullshit. Both of these guys are world class musicians and songwriters. They just happened to take different directions from their former parters. For many it’s almost as if to like either of these guys means you must hate the others and vice versa, which is almost as dumb as it is ridiculous. I love Gabriel and, without McCartney AND Lennon, there would have been no Beatles.
“Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that?”
9. Christmas Music
It’s the wrong time of year to even breathe the notion that I like Christmas music, I know, but it’s true. I’d listen to it in January if I weren’t worried that someone might strangle me with a strand of twinkling lights. Some great jazz and vocal standard music happens to be in the form of Christmas songs and a number of our most beloved seasonal tunes also happen to be wartime odes to home and family. Besides, it only lasts for the general public for about six weeks, so get over it.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
8. David Lee Roth
The first post-Van Halen DLR record, Eat ‘Em and Smile, is still one of my favorite records. The guy had life and energy and knew how to turn a phrase. He also understood the value of surrounding himself with great musicians, a lesson he no doubt learned from his time in VH. Eddie and company were never the same after he left (I always liked Sammy Hagar solo, but Van Hagar was mostly a travesty mixed with more than a smidge or shame) mainly because he injected some humor into what appeared to be some rather dour surroundings. Diamond Dave may have been corny, but the guy was also awesome on steroids.
“And the meek shall inherit shit.”
7. Billy Joel
Poor, Billy. This is a guy who always felt under-appreciated and, unfortunately, it’s true. The Piano Man was mostly known for his soft pop hits, but he was a master songsmith of the highest order. Sure, he made some missteps at times (who doesn’t?) and perhaps took bad advice on making videos on occasion (“Tell Her About It” should be banned and then burned), but the guy who wrote “Vienna” and “Summer Highland Falls” deserves better than being dumped in the same boat as Barry Manilow.
“There will be other words some other day and that’s the story of my life.”
In an era where music is more about atmosphere and sound than melody, these guys still do it old school: with hooks. Remember those? You know, catchy, interesting, singable musical moments that allow us all to join in? Yeah, those things. It’s also really refreshing to see a band that doesn’t pretend to be bad because they think it makes them cool. Their records sound really, really good and they are unapologetic about it. To add to it, these guys professional and humble and like working together. These are novel concepts in an industry fueled by controversy, noise and drug-fueled hazes making them a throwback and that’s cool with me.
“When you work it out, I’m worse than you.”
5. Hair Bands
I grew up in the 80’s and at that time you either liked new wave or you liked metal. Guess which one I liked. I may have grown into enjoying music more dominated by synthesizer and eyeliner than guitar and hair spray, but at the time, Yaz and Depeche Mode could suck my Dokken. Today, I may not yank out the Tesla or the Judas Priest with as much regularity, but I still have the ticket stubs to prove I saw them and it can still rock your balls off.
“I hot, young, running free, a little bit better than I used to be.”
4. Prog Rock
I went to see Rush recently, even reviewed it for 29-95.com. They were fucking phenomenal, better than ever. Prog rock bands like Kansas, Rush, Yes and others were just bands who wanted to bring complex musical arrangements into their material. As someone who was always striving to be a better musician, I greatly appreciate this. Plus, Rush is as loud and balls out rock as anyone and any band that can remain that way – let alone relevant – for 40 years has earned my respect even if they can’t earn it from the critics.
“It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between all I am and all that I would ever hope to be. It’s just a travesty.”
3. Light Rock
I’m a sucker for a good melody and I’m a child of the 70’s. The result is I like the Little River Band, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Bread and Ambrosia. Sometimes, all I want is a good hook that I can sing along with. I don’t really give a crap that you don’t like it. I don’t listen to “Brandy” to make you happy, but it sure does make me happy, which is the essence for me of what music is about.
“It’s hard to walk away from love. It may never come again.”
Even I will admit straight up and with no equivocation that a lot of that blend of rock and jazz we call “fusion” sucks donkey balls. Bitches Brew may be one of the most singularly horrible experiments in music ever created. But, just as Bob Dylan plugging in alienated a lot of people while moving his art forward, Miles Davis understood that doing the same thing over and over is the death knell for an artist. As a bass player, it’s fair to say that the best players of my instrument are not generally found in rock music. But Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and Jeff Berlin were some of the best of all time and that meant listening to a lot of stuff that I may not normally sit around and hum. And whatever if you don’t think Al DiMeola’s Elegant Gypsy isn’t one of the best damn records ever.
[Insert killer wanking solo that you couldn’t play if God gave you his guitar to play it on here.]
1. The Eagles
You hate them. Admit it. I can hear you out there bitching about them. For years, I was even convinced that I didn’t care about the Eagles and I certainly won’t call myself their biggest fan, but I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it is not easy to write good pop songs and they wrote a shit ton of them. Like I said earlier, I don’t listen to music to make anyone happy but myself. I listen to enjoy it and I enjoy the hell out of the Eagles at times. If you don’t want to, that’s totally cool with me, but don’t regard me as some sort of musical retard because I happen to like the guys that wrote “Life in the Fast Lane.”
“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”
While I do maintain my blog, Broken Record, over at Chron.com and have posted there on this subject, I thought I might put some of my personal feelings on my own blog. Honestly, I’m somewhat torn and I’ll try to cover the angles here as best I can.
First, it should be said that I really never cared for the programming on KTRU. To say that most of their programming was extreme would be a considerable understatement. Pitchfork Media, the purveyors of all that is cool in alternative and underground music, would check their playlist and think, “Wow, dude, that’s freaking weird.” I have honestly tuned in to KTRU in the middle of the day and heard guitar feedback for 3 minutes.
Having said that, I understand and appreciate the contribution KTRU has made to the community, particularly for local musicians. While its narrowly focused demographic didn’t make room for most local artists on the airwaves, KTRU did play local music and the new station, I’m fairly sure we can safely assume, will not leaving only KPFT’s limited music programming and KACC’s weak transmitter to fill the void.
Additionally, consolidating one of Houston’s four major players in the independent radio market can’t be good for consumers on the whole.
On the other hand, I am a fan of NPR. For too long, Houston has missed out on its in-depth programming and news. I am hopeful that vibrant music shows like World Cafe and great news programming like This American Life and Fresh Air will have their place in the new format for KUHF. If we don’t get World Cafe, I’ll admit that I will be sorely disappointed.
Being the fourth largest city in America means we should have good choices for news. Since KTRH left its news programming in the dust in favor of conservative talk shows, it will be nice to have a station that covers news for most the day, particularly one featuring NPR.
What has been interesting for me to watch since this news hit the internet is the disdain from those who consider KTRU “vital to the community” or should I say, more vital than classical music. There is this sense that, somehow, what KTRU provided in programming is so important it cannot be simply lost in this way.
As one of the commenters on Broken Record pointed out to me, most kids don’t listen to radio anyway. That fact really cannot be underscored enough in this situation. I cannot imagine that KTRU’s listenership demographic skews on the old or technologically feeble side. My guess is that many of them would be more than happy to continue to listen to KTRU online.
And this notion that classical music is so much more mainstream than the alt that KTRU provided is just preposterous. There have been a few instances of classical music stations trying to survive in Houston and they have all failed. Much like the alternative music of KTRU, classical and fine arts programming is a tough sell and very much a niche market. But, more importantly, classical music fans do tend to be in the older and less tech savvy demographic, making them far more likely to tune in to a radio station than seek it out online.
Bottom line is that I’m sorry to see a true college radio station go. I’ve long wondered why Houston didn’t have a legitimate college station with alternative and more mainstream programming. Even with KTRU’s broadly eclectic palette, it still served a purpose and I hate to see it turn to static. Some of that disappointment will, fortunately, be tempered by access to a full-time NPR station, something our city has needed for years.
It would have been easier for many of us had KUHF just bought a defunct station or some commercial radio station that programs the same 50 songs ever day. But, if this is what it takes, I guess that’s just how it goes.
Thanks Dictionary word of the day!
1. “Carouse” is a noun? Who knew?
2. I thought Brannigan was Laurie’s last name. GLORIA!!!