Monday, March 17, 2008

Bassists I admire, and why:

Two disclaimers….

The first is, yes, I know that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." What can I say? I’m bored.

The second is that I basically picked a few of the bass players who I like the most. I’m not saying they’re the best ever, they’re just the ones I like. Please note the conspicuous absence of Victor Wooten, Stu Hamm, Michael Manring, et al. I’m not discounting anyone, but this is about my preferences, and not yours. Write your own blog, you jazz-funk snobs.

As to why these guys are important to me—well, some of them are guys who made me want to start playing, and others are guys who gave me ideas of what to play like when I did eventually start playing. Some, like Mike Watt, are as much philosophical influences as musical ones. Each of them is, in any case, someone with a unique approach to the instrument and what it can do.

So here we go.


Mike Watt

Mike Watt is the anthropomorphic personification of all that is good about punk rock, a flannel-clad Buddha. It’s 2008, which means that punk is actually about thirty years old; it’s kind of weird when you realize that there was less time between the Beatles’ "Help" and the first Clash album than there has been between the ’Class of ’77’ and the present. Paul McCartney’s still alive and divorcing, but Joe Strummer and most of the Ramones have died.

Among many musicians, punk rock is frequently sneered at as people who play singing songs they can’t write—and you know, more often than not, they’re right. The basic ethos of punk is basically democratic anarchy—you don’t have to have a degree from Berklee to learn a couple of riffs and bellow ’till your throat hurts, and whoever wants to listen can listen. Just get off your ass, do it as best you can, and make it your own. Make up your own rules as you go along, and be innovative. Throw the whole superstructure of music out the window. Ignore conventions. Ignore music industry A&R rules. Forget about radios and major labels and tour buses and light shows and fog machines—this is DIY rock and roll. If you can’t do it in a room with four bare walls and one light hanging from the ceiling, you can’t do it at all. Ironically, that particular pearl of wisdom was excreted by David Lee Roth…..

When you subtract all the hype and Sid Vicious fripperies from it, like safety pins and Mohawks, you’ll be amazed with what you wind up with—from an ideological and creative point of view, Beethoven was a punk. Stravinsky was a punk. Zappa was a punk. Robert Fripp is a punk. Anyone who has ever learned the rules enough to decide not to follow them is, in spirit at least, a punk. So is anyone who has ever looked at the rules established by authorities and questioned them—and that’s as good a question to ask of politicians as of the music industry. Ask yourself, do you really want to sound like Foreigner, Styx, or Journey? Or, for that matter, Fall Out Boy, The Fray, or Coldplay?

Watt has been doing that since the late 70s, when he founded The Minutemen, which later dovetailed into fIREHOSE (not to be confused with the mall-metal band Firehouse), and then went ’solo’ with Ball Hog or Tugboat, a 1995 record that’s a veritable who’s who of 80s and 90s alternative rock—the musicians include everyone from Eddie Vedder to Nels Cline and MCA from the Beastie Boys. He’s one of the few genuine first generation punks still around, and he’s busier than ever. The guy seriously has three or four of his own bands going at any given time, plus he’s playing bass with Iggy Pop and the Stooges. For those who say punks can’t play, just listen—he’s an amazing player, with a real instinct for groove and melody, and a unique style that’s immediately identifiable—two notes and you can tell it’s him—but which is also malleable enough to accommodate anything from jazz (i.e. the band Banyan) to the Stooges. I have to point out, though, that I was a flannel-wearer before I discovered Watt.


Allen Woody

Allen Woody was one of the three bassists here who I’ve been lucky enough to meet in person. He was, unfortunately, one of those people who became well-known only after he died. After playing in various local bands and second-string national acts (such as the Artimus Pyle Band, a leftover remnant of Lynyrd Skynyrd), Woody was recruited into the Allman Brothers Band when that group came out of retirement in 1989. He and Warren Haynes, who had likewise helped resurrect the Allmans, then left in 1997 to form Gov’t Mule, a trio that was hailed as the second coming of Cream or Mountain. He died of undisclosed causes in 2000. His friends and bandmates then put together one of the most elaborate memorial projects that any musician has had in recent memory, ultimately producing two CDs (The Deep End, vol 1 and 2), a documentary movie (Rising Low, which I recommend even for non-musicians) and a live DVD, much of the proceeds of which went to support his wife and young daughter.

Woody was sort of my version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, except as a bass player who distilled forty years’ worth of blues, jazz, folk, and rock into whatever it was he happened to be playing. He was straightforward, unpretentious, and unique, and underneath all the hair and tattoos he was, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. He was also a genuinely gifted musician who could play just about anything you asked him to, and in addition to bass he played guitar, mandolin, and a number of other instruments.

I learned a lot from Woody, in one way or another. The whole Rising Low thing was basically a grad school class in the theory and practice of playing bass, from a philosophical standpoint. I can’t really articulate that stuff in any sort of short form, so I’ll just tell you to get the movie, ok? Oh yeah, and 16th notes are useful.

Larry Graham

Larry Graham invented about half of the funk bass vocabulary. Most people have never heard of him, but he was the bassist with Sly and the Family Stone in the late 60s and early 70s, and then for Graham Central Station for most of the 1970s. He invented the ’slap and pop’ method of playing, and a listen to the Family song "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Again)" will teach you about 90% of what there is to know about that. There haven’t been many real improvements to it since then. He was also one of the first guys to use effects on the bass—Everyday People is fuzz, and Earthquake is fuzz, phaser, and probably a flanger to boot. On top of that, he’s just a holy mofo of a groove machine; he doesn’t play particularly complicated stuff, but ye gods, you just can’t sit still! I bet I can tell you who Flea and Bootsy Collins both spent a lot of time listening to. On the downside, he’s very much a lick player—he tends to recycle the same riffs and phrases over and over again—give him half a chance and he’ll bust out Earthquake, like he did when recording on The Deep End with Gov’t Mule.

Larry’s also a great singer, but sometimes what you need is a crazy bass solo.

No, I don’t know why he’s dressed as the captain of the Love Boat. I’m kind of ambivalent about the "Don’t let Armageddon catch y’all sleepin’!" tagline, too… because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he means it.

Granted, many cruel things have been done to the concept of funk bass since about 1972, including disco and Verdine White, but some of the worst have been done by jazz musicians playing 32nd-note diminished licks over a two-chord vamp and calling it funk because they’re either slapping and popping or doing the 16th-note Jaco thing. That can work for some people, but I’ll pass. Sometimes I just want to go BWOMP BWOMP BWOMP with a fuzz pedal.

The sheer cruel irony is that his most famous song is the utterly bassless and un-funky Barry White-style ballad "One In A Million You," which was played at almost every wedding, prom, and back-seat grope session from about 1980 on.

Jah Wobble

In the beginning, there were the Sex Pistols, which is to say that an ambitious clothing store owner thought he could use a rock band to sell clothing. In short, the Sex Pistols were basically sponsored by the equivalent of Hot Topic. John Wardle was a friend of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, living in the same London slum. Mr. Wardle, whose name was warped into ’Jah Wobble’ by a drunken Sid, was basically a thug, punk, and petty criminal at the time. He was almost asked to be the Pistols’ third bass player, but the offer was rescinded when the other Pistols realized they were too scared of him. They hired Sid instead. At some point Wobble borrowed, was loaned, or stole a bass and taught himself to play.

After the Pistols broke up, John Lydon, previously known as Johnny Rotten, hired Wobble into a new band called Public Image, Ltd, also referred to as PiL. This band was basically a hodgepodge of punk and art-rock—you could call them a gutter version of King Crimson, in a sense. Most of their songs were not as listener-friendly as this one.

If ever a band deserved an episode of Behind the Music, it’s Public Image, Ltd.—from 1978 to about 1982 they were probably the most dysfunctional rock band ever. Wobble called the band "four emotional cripples, all on different drugs." That pretty much says it.

In one love-it-or-hate-it apotheosis, they punked American Bandstand in 1980… How they ever got invited onto the show in the first place remains a mystery.

Wobble quit or was thrown out of PiL (or simply left without telling anyone) in 1980, after their second album was finished. The less said about most of the subsequent PiL records, the better (with the exception of ’Album’)—at one point, the band consisted of Lydon and some wedding band musicians who he met in a New Jersey bar and hired on the spot.

Mr. Wobble continued to be a rather poorly-adjusted individual during his time with PiL—at one point he set the drummer, Karl Burns, on fire. I guess the name was just too much temptation. He made a few post-PiL records on his own, then dropped out of music and spent a few years as a train driver on the London Underground, getting drunk and then ranting over the intercom at the passengers about how he used to be a famous rock star. By 1986 he was clean and sober, and by 1990 he was back in the music business, this time focusing on what could best be described as world music, which he’s continued to do ever since. This is not world music in the clichéd sense—viz. Paul Simon hiring some African drummers or the Rolling Stones using a reggae beat. Jah Wobble’s extremely prolific post-1986 output (about thirty albums!!!) meanders back and forth between Celtic music, English folk songs, dub reggae, songs made out of William Blake’s poetry, Indian ragas, and so on. He brought in Ronnie Drew to do amazing spoken-word vocals on The Celtic Poets, which is hands-down my favorite record of his. Listen to ’The Dunes.’

I kind of wish he’d stop calling half his songs ’dubs’, though-- I know the guy’s biggest focus was reggae, but when you’re working with a bunch of Laotians who are singing traditional love songs, you’re a little past the point where calling the song a ’dub’ makes any sense. Oh yeah, and now he’s composing orchestral music too—one performance with the London Philharmonic was performed in Latin, and was billed as "Jah Wobble’s Orchestral Dub." Not bad for a guy the Sex Pistols didn’t want, eh?

Tone and feel. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Sometimes one governs the other in any case. Jah Wobble’s been using pretty much the same sort of sound since PiL—if ever a bass could sound like an enormous, deep hole in the ground, it’s his. Check out the Public Image song I linked above… or this one. As far as feel goes, he really goes for a hypnotic sort of vibe, playing the same riff until your brain drifts off into a trance. Yeah, there’s a lot of reggae influence there, especially in the way he emphasizes beats, but it’s also very modal and spacey. If you keep playing the same riff while the chords everyone else plays are changing, you can get some very interesting results, such as here (you can skip the percussion jam intro at your discretion). Oh yeah, he’s also got a good sense of humor.

Just a side note…. I usually don’t put much faith in buying a certain type of instrument just because some famous player uses one. I did make an exception here, though—I bought the Magnum because Jah Wobble uses one. It must be a good bass, because it sounds good even when I’m the one playing it.

John Paul Jones

Yeah, I know, he played bass and other stuff for Led…Led…. Led Banana? Well, it was Led something anyways. Or maybe Deep Purple. I don’t remember exactly. White high school and college kids think they’re the best band ever. Jones started out as a classical organ player and choir director, worked as a session musician for most of the 60s, got into a band, became famous, made lots of money, and then the drummer died and the band broke up. By about 1999 he got bored enough to do a solo record, Zooma, and later a second one, The Thunderthief. I love these two records; there’s everything on them from heavy prog rock to acoustic folk songs, a gothic string section, and even a tongue-in-cheek punk song. There’s also no guitar, other than a few guest spots by the likes of Robert Fripp. I wonder if having had to put up with Jimmy Page for ten years led to the no-guitars approach?

It’s not that he was in a Very Important Band; he also basically ran the band while the two guys out front were posturing. Yes, you heard me. Whole Lotta Love? Black Dog? Nobody’s Fault But Mine? Achilles’ Last Stand? Living Loving Maid? Hello, those are all bass riffs. The Lemon Song, Ramble On, and Hey Hey What Can I do were pretty much built around these laid-back, meandering bass parts. Laugh about hippies and Lord of the Rings lyrics all you want, but Ramble on is a real mofo of a bass line, and it’s the one bit of instrumentation that runs through the whole song. This is the kind of stuff I play when I’m sitting on the back porch on a summer evening, listening to the neighbors smoke pot.

You can blame this guy for my interest in mandolins, steel guitars, and basses with entirely too many strings. I swear, this guy can play any instrument ever made. As cheesy as the Mellotron was, Jonesy did some pretty amazing things with it; I can even forgive him Carouselambra on most days.


Les Claypool

There are two pieces of music that I can remember, where the first time I heard them I burst out laughing. The first was Frank Zappa’s "Peaches En Regalia," which still rates as one of the best songs FZ ever voided out through certain orifices. The second was the intro to the Primus song ’Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver.’ Those two sentences should tell you a lot about both my taste in music and my sense of humor. Many thanks to Bryan for introducing me………..

Les is…. Well, hard to describe. He slaps, he taps, plucks with three fingers, strums chords, uses bizarre scales and chords, plays a 6-string fretless and a 1-string whamola, and all the while dances around the stage singing songs about pudding, masturbation, puppies, the Department of Motor Vehicles’ waiting room, and lawn ornaments. If you’re not laughing, you’re not paying attention. He’s the Generation X version of Stanley Clarke or Jaco Pastorius—the guy who gets pointed out as a virtuoso.

I went through quite a Claypool phase when I was in grad school—the first Primus songs I learned were My Name is Mud and Too Many Puppies, and I got quite a bit of mileage out of each (and slightly less out of Jerry Was a Race Car Driver). I still do the alternating left hand/right hand slapping from Mud a lot; you can do some really cool syncopations with it, and Puppies is where I learned about strumming chords and stuff.


John Entwistle

John Entwistle was the guy who made me want to play bass in the first place, but he was also the guy who for several years intimidated me out of starting. He was the bassist for the Who, which was for many years my absolute most favorite band ever, and he was the first bassist I ever really took notice of, mostly because of his out-front playing style. In many respects he helped start the whole ’bass thing,’ dragging the instrument out of the rhythm section’s own private Siberia near the drum kit and plunking it down, metaphorically speaking, right next to the guitarist and singer. In the process, he changed what rock and roll sounded like, and that influence extended through everything that rock and roll spawned, from punk to jazz fusion. Jaco Pastorius is generally given a lot of credit for revolutionizing the instrument by introducing chords, harmonics, and the use of the instrument as a lead voice in a band, but quite frankly, there is very little that Jaco was doing in the 70s that Entwistle was not doing in the 60s. The difference seems to be that John was in a rock band and Jaco was playing jazz, and Jaco got put on a higher pedestal because of jazz’s supposedly greater artistic merit. Is rock art too? Good question. Personally I’d rather listen to Boris the Spider than Portrait of Tracy, but well, that’s just me.

The obvious thing is that John Entwistle played very fast, complex parts, and played them very loudly (Live at Leeds, anyone?). Ok, we get the point, but hey, all you need to be loud is enough money to buy a truckload of amps. His whole wall-of-sound approach to things really revolutionized what rock bands could sound like—now you could HEAR the bass player-- and the concept of the bassist as someone other than just the least-good guitar player changed what bands could DO. The more subtle things will get you too, though—creative chord progressions (Heaven and Hell, for example), a knack for odd time signatures, and so on. On top of that, too, once you realize who’s playing what in the Who, you realize that the bass carries most of the songs, even the poppier songs like Substitute. I have to give him some cowboy credit, too—he was working in a very fluid environment back in the 60s, when there was basically no rule book for what to do, other than the general convention that the bass stayed in the back and just went thump thump thump ala Brian Wilson. When there are no rules, make up your own as you go, based on what you find to be true.

Tony Levin

I guarantee that nobody who isn’t a musician will know who this guy is, but I also guarantee that you’ve heard him playing—for example, on most of the Peter Gabriel songs put out since the late 70s, including all those big 80s songs like Shock the Monkey, Sledgehammer, etc. He’s sort of an antithesis to Entwistle or Mike Watt in many ways—he’s a trained orchestral bassist and a veteran studio player who’s played on about a zillion records—but I think the similarities outweigh the differences. He’s also a very creative player with a knack for taking a counterintuitive approach to things that puts a clever spin on something that might otherwise suck. He does a lot of interesting things with whatever he’s playing at the moment—even if it’s an electric cello or a Chapman stick-- but it’s always very economical without being boring or cliched. It took me a lot of listening to really understand that you could load something creative into bass lines even for stupid pop songs, and then use the same general approach—economy of energy and an emphasis on the foundation-- when playing something in an anything-goes band like King Crimson. Lou Reed’s "Walk on the Wild Side," Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, and King Crimson’s Elephant Talk—they’re all the same guy!


Justin Meldal-Johnsen

Most people know Justin as "Beck’s bass player." He played on most of Beck’s records and tours since Odelay (the album with ’Loser’ on it), and so on. He’s also done a ton of recording with other people—anyone who likes funky soul music should check out Macy Gray’s "The Trouble with Being Myself." It’s both ear candy and musically ballsy. One of the things I like most about JMJ’s stuff is his approach to effects—distortions, filters, phasers, etc.-- as part of the overall sound of both what he’s doing and what the band as a whole is doing. Treat the bass as a sound source that you process to create the sound you want, in addition to making a musical part with it—make the bass’s actual sound do part of the work. This has, unfortunately, led to me spending a lot of money on effects of my own—I have a dozen pedals on the board right now. Sometimes making Godzilla-versus-the-aliens noises is just as much fun as playing bum-bum-bum-bum.

Jeff Ament

AKA ’The Guy from Pearl Jam.’ Pearl Jam is kind of an unusual band in that they write pretty much exactly what they want to. Lucky them. Ament is a very good bassist who for some reason doesn’t get that much respect in the bass community, perhaps because he gets overshadowed by the whole Pearl Jam thing. Many of Pearl Jam’s most famous songs have very key bass parts to them, though—for example, Jeremy and Alive. The intro to the former is a riff on a 12-string bass, and the latter is built around a fretless part that builds the whole momentum behind the song (you know the part I mean—it’s what’s playing when Eddie’s climbing up the wall in the video). You don’t see too many sliding harmonics in rock songs, either. At the same time, he’s a really solid bassist, and that enables the other guys in the band to do what they do, without having to worry that the bottom’s going to drop out. The Pearl Jam rhythm section—no matter which drummer’s in it at the moment—is as heavy and solid as a cement mixer.

Jeff was one of the guys who clued me in on the sheer number of things a bassist can do to drive and color a song; I mean, what part of Jeremy is it that people whistle or hum? It’s the intro. He makes the songs better.

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