Bassists: I Love You; Play Less

22 Nov

Perhaps I’m becoming a bit more sensitive in my old age, perhaps it is because I have been spending a considerable amount of time mixing the always understated, wonderful bass playing of Brian Fox, but last night at Cafe Du Nord, my ears got completely sidetracked by a bass onslaught, most of it quite unfortunate.

Four strings will suffice, guys.

Four strings will suffice, guys.

I was at the show to see Lindsay Garfield’s band, Or, The Whale, but as we got there early, we hung out through all of the opening groups, as well.  (I should also note that, other than some intonation stuff towards the end of the set, I thought that OTW’s bassist did the best job of the night.)

There’s no vendetta  for any of the opening groups here or anything, but I thought I’d try to capture some thoughts on what I’ve come to see as the most important instrument in the band: the bass.

So, after the break, I’ve come up with the four things that I listen for when working with, recording, and listening to bass players.

1) Time. This is the single most important attribute a bassist (or anyone else, for that matter) can have; it is the difference between a being great addition to your band and presenting a huge problem.  What kills me is how skull-smackingly easy it is to develop one’s time – seriously, there is only one approach that works – practice with a metronome. Don’t tell me about organic groove, or how you and your drummer find your own time.  That’s nice, and I’m sure it’s true, but if you want to get better at bending time (which is what the concept of an individual’s groove is, in essence), then sit your ass down with the metronome and get perfect first.

It's kind of like this.

It's kind of like this.

2) Big, Floppy Dumbo Ears. This one is tougher to quantify, but basically, it’s like this: There is a point in just about every song ever played when the time either starts to pick up or slow down.  At this moment, a good bassist, like a plate-juggler, follows cautiously beneath the band, arms outstretched and eyes open, keeping everything supported, and listening, listening, listening to where the group is going next.  This ties into #1, as well, because it’s not about playing like a clock – listen to Rocco and Garibaldi in Tower of Power, or Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen with Oscar Peterson – those bands speed up pretty significantly once they get cooking, but they do it together, and the groove never falters, because they’re listening to one another on a level that’s both totally batshit insane and totally natural and simple.

3) Tuning. I can imagine that this one might seem a bit picky, but it’s a deal-breaker.  If you’re gonna be hitting a hot, small stage in a local club, you’ve gotta be aware of the fact that your instrument is going to go out of tune over the course of your set, and when you’re rocking your giant honking Ampeg cab in all of our faces, you can bet that we’re going to notice.  Tune that monster up, yo – hearing a bunch of sharp-ass bass notes leaves the rest of the band skating around on marbles and ice; if the floor’s unsound, then the walls and ceiling aren’t gonna hold.  Get a tuner and use it.

4) Good Self-Editing This is the rarest quality of all, though it is the quality that every  good bassist I’ve ever known possesses in spades.  Perhaps it is rare because so many middling bass players used to be guitar players, and take a top-down approach to things, but swear I’ve never heard as many unnecessary bass notes as I heard during one of the opening sets last night!  Nothing will kill my cadence-climax wood faster than some joker wanking off a ton of bass arpeggios in the middle of the buildup – fuck, man!  Get out of your own way!  Give yourself one octave, maybe a tenth, and work with that.  If there is a part of the tune that absolutely demands a bass riff, go ahead and give it to yourself, but maybe even write it out beforehand.  When the band is really rocking down, rock with them, but for pete’s sake, keep your shit together.  The world does not need another Victor Wooten.  We are happy with just the one.

The Sum, she is greater than her parts. Here’s the thing of it: when all of those traits come together, they have a tendency to produce my favorite kind of musician – someone who sees the forest for the trees, is highly attuned to the interplay between instruments in a band, can build a good sound from the bottom up, and is capable of creating single-note counter-melodies that weave effortlessly with other melodies.  Two of my favorite musicians of all time are bassists (Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Avishai Cohen), and somewhere in the top ten is Royston Langdon, the bassist, singer, and creative mind behind his amazing ex-band, Spacehog.  Bassists I’ve known over the years have gone on to become great recording engineers and producers (Jeff Hiatt, out in Philly, rules, and my buddy Tommy Harron in NYC is a killer in the studio as well), and out here, I’m hard-pressed to think of a bay-area producer who does better work behind the board than Jon Evans.  During our time in Squaretape, there was never a more level head in the room than Fox; the dude had better feedback and advice on the sound of the group than just about anyone I’ve ever worked with.

It’s not a coincidence – these guys possess the traits I just listed, and it’s made them not just great at bass, but great at ensemble music in general.  And really, that’s what I’m talking about here – it’s a fundamental question of whether you can put in the time to get it on that basic level. (Geddit? Bass-ic?) Far, far too many guys pick up a bass, find a band, and don’t put any thought into this stuff at all.

I should state in the interest of full disclosure that I’m a top-down, horn and guitar-playing, time-rushing MFer, and my bass playing isn’t so hot, either.  That said, I’d like to think that, as I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a good deal of time working with fantastic bassists, I have absorbed a little wisdom from them and from their playing.  Four-stringers of the world, take note: you have the potential to be the band-maker; don’t settle for being the groove-killer.

Aaand, to end this post on a positive note, y’all should really check out Or, The Whale – they’re a super fun, high-energy group, and their first record has some great tunes on it.  And there’s nothing wrong with a bunch of beard-y dudes and hot chicks sweating and wailing away onstage together.  Their new record, due out in the springtime, is gonna be a killer.

Melville would be proud

Melville would be proud.

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