What’s been happening in the Wonderful World of Bass?
Hello, hello, hello;
It is distinctly possible that you have noticed a lack of entries here on Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World of Bass over the past few months. You may also notice that I have yet to publish the promised blog about building my dream Precision bass. Well, I’m here to update you on both of these things.
First off, I did finish the build, and it’s gorgeous.
But, despite keeping a journal over the almost year it took for this build to be completed, upon re-reading it, it’s terminally boring. Seriously, it reads like stereo instructions, though unlike the last thing to get that comparison, it lacks the Burtonesque quirkiness of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. So I won’t be publishing it, especially since giant chunks are me saying “Zim tells me that he’ll be finishing the paint job really soon….” as that was the most time consuming part. Fun fact, white paint on a guitar is great for showing flaws since every imperfection casts a shadow and becomes twice as noticeable.
Second is that, unrelated to the interminable wait for my guitarist to finish this job, he is no longer my guitarist. Or, more accurately, I am no longer his bassist.
I quit John Hughes Radio at the beginning of the summer; it was no longer bringing me joy, plus our drummer had given us his notice and I was not interested in starting all over again learning the songs with a new drummer’s groove. I had done that once already, and while I still feel very proud of the songs with our original drummer, Nator, I firmly believe that we truly found our sound with Chuck (Nator’s replacement). It was thanks to playing with Chuck that I began my serious study into groove and technique, and I will always be grateful for that influence on my playing.
Mostly, though, it was obvious to me that we were going down a path that I was not interested in sauntering down again. I realize that this may pique your interest, dear reader– “ooh, what does THAT mean?!?” your brain asks you with a healthy smattering of voyeuristic glee. Well, I’m not gonna tell you. I refuse to air our dirty laundry in public. Suffice it to say that every band has one consistent conflict over its lifetime, and ours was no different. People who cite “artistic and creative differences” for their departure are basically saying that they got tired of always having the same arguments over the same issues, and that’s what happened to us. I’m still friends with the guys, they have played at least one show without me and Chuck, and I wish them all the best. I wanted to accomplish a certain goal with my music, and they wanted something different. It’s not a matter of one side being right while the other is wrong, it’s like any relationship ending: different parties have different desires, and sometimes you need to go your separate ways to find your happiness.
So, what am I doing now? I’m focusing on my career.
I recently ended a fourteen year stint in food service to become an electrician, and that meant an entire upheaval of my life. New schedule, new responsibilities, new priorities. I even got a driver’s license and a car so I could get to job sites. Yup, it only took me forty five years, but I finally grew up.
This means that staying up late to play Rock and Roll and drink beer is not a viable option on weeknights, and while gigs are usually on weekends, practice almost never is. When you have to wake up at five, going to bed at midnight or later even one night a week really throws a spanner in your gears. Compound that with my tendency to use band practice as an excuse to keep my six pack crushing acumen up, and I’m looking at a world of hurt the next morning. Sure, I could reel in the boozing, or take a nap between when I get off the job site and practice, but I decided that I would prefer to not even have the mental responsibility to a band.
You see, I am always the cheerleader for every band I’m in. I genuinely believe that I am part of something awesome, and I want to shout it from the rooftops. This is also great for boosting the morale of my band mates during lulls or after bad experiences. The problem is that it consumes a huge part of my time even when I’m not playing, because I’m always thinking about it. Whether I am composing or refining parts in my head, coming up with ideas for marketing or image, or even trying to find solutions to the same arguments over the same issues, I spend an inordinately huge chunk of my time thinking about “THE BAND”. I decided that I didn’t want the distraction as I’m trying to start a new life, so for now, I’m not playing with anyone. I’ve put a lot of my basses into storage, given back the three that the other guys gave me, and set aside the stage worthy amps and pedals for the time being.
Additionally, I’ve rediscovered my love for guitar.
I purchased a whole new guitar rig with the severance pay from my corporate cooking job, and I am really excited to play six-string for a while, even if I’m just jamming out to my favorite records. It reminds me why I started playing, and it makes me really, really happy.
Unfortunately for you lot, though…this also means that I will be stepping away from the writing. I recognize that I’m far from Speedy Gonzalez when it comes to releasing content, but I don’t really have time for it right now. Plus, it tends to be part of that block of thought related to the band; as can be seen from many of my previous columns, I often get inspired by my experiences as part of an ensemble, and without those experiences…..
I do have a list of potential ideas to write about, but none of them are really inspiring me right now. A lot of them seem like I’m just turning a crank, since many are variations on a theme I’ve done repeatedly; specifically the “list of something nobody else has really tackled with some feeble attempts at humor” trope that so much of my writing could be accused of being. The reality is that most people don’t write about the stuff that I do because it’s not that interesting. Sure, it is to me, and perhaps to some of you, but I read my stats here on WordPress. It’s telling that after five years, I finally got my tenth subscriber. The most popular entry in my catalog is the one where I insulted Jaco and that got shared all over Facebook bass forums landing me the reputation as a contrarian at best and making me a pariah at worst. This blog has always been a hobby for me, and right now, I just don’t have the time or motivation to focus on it with the respect it deserves.
I’ll be back, for sure, I just don’t know when. I think I’ll wait for the inspiration to write another one of my longformthoughtpieces; those are always my favorite to write and the ones I’m most proud of when I review my work. The listicle format is fine, and I have certainly learned how to imbue that with some personality over the years, but I have grown a bit tired of it.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you who reads this blog. Thank you, thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. It’s been a great experience writing these columns, and I hope to one day find my muse again. But until that day…..
We all probably watch too much YouTube. Here’s how I waste my time there.
Hello, and welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World Of Bass! 80-90% of the time, when I am watching television, I am watching videos on YouTube. I have all kinds of interests that I can entertain– cartoons, movies, crafting, cooking, history, yo-yo tricks, cats, comic books, Stars of both the Wars and Trek varieties, literature, and my beloved British comedy and panel shows, but the bulk of what I watch is, unsurprisingly, music related. From videos to help me improve my playing, to ones that refine my comprehension of my craft, to ones that are just analysis or criticism, or even ones on advanced lutherie, I watch a lot of channels about music. Below you will find three sets of lists; one for channels I enjoy, one for channels I do not, and one for channels I’m on the fence about. These are not ranked, merely a list, and links to all channels, even the ones I don’t like, are included. I’m well aware that I am leaving a ton of people out, and that’s because even I have my limits. If there is one you would recommend based on my preferences here, I’d love to hear about it, so let me know in the comments!
Adam Neely’s Bass Lessons, theory, philosophy, and history: It should be pretty obvious why I like this channel. Adam is a trained Jazz bassist, and while he definitely is one of the Jacowootens I have bemoaned in the past, he does have an excellent approach to the instrument. On his channel and in his band, Sungazer, the songs are designed to demonstrate his prodigious technique, BUT when he is playing for someone else he always fits the role he is asked to fill. Even though he can play monster solos and chordal passages, that just isn’t called for when you are in the pit orchestra for a video game award ceremony, so he doesn’t do it. It’s almost as though he understands that bass is a foundational instrument, and while occasionally breaking out of the standard boxes is exciting for both him and his audience, the most important thing is to serve the song. Honestly, if more bassists like him existed, I wouldn’t harsh on Jaco so much.
Bass Buzz (Josh Fosgreen), refining technique: If I had to describe Josh Fosgreen’s videos in three words, they would be “foundation, foundation, foundation”. He is so committed to the idea of craft that he foregoes any showboating with the dedication to show others how to play correctly. This is a man who literally made a nine minute video analyzing the bass part to “Livin’ On A Prayer” and presented it without a drop of irony. Like Adam Neely, his skill is absurd, but there is no ego there; even his frequent character of “noob Josh”, while containing the stereotypical trappings of an uncool 80s style nerd, is not designed to talk down to the beginners. In fact, it is showing that by developing your craft you will become cool, and shed any personal sense of loser-dom you may possess. From videos that take a step-by-step/level-to-level approach to learning the physically demanding styles of players like Steve Harris or Chris Wolstenholme, to blind shootouts of entry level gear, Josh is a great resource for a bassist of any level. Even someone like me that has probably been playing since before he was even born can develop or refine new skills, and that is the mark of a great teacher.
Paul Del Bello, style analysis: This guy is so cliché it’s almost laughable. The sleeveless T-shirts, chains, dyed hair and painted on jeans all scream outdated cheese, and the bands he carries the banner for only reinforce that (KISS, Guns ‘N Roses, Mötörhead, etc). And yes, I recognize that he is old enough to have been doing this since it was trendy (he’s a few years younger than me) and he’s in a place where being a Rock and Roll Star is not looked upon with raised eyebrows, namely Italy. However, I have never seen anyone who shares my ideology as a player more than him. Flash is all good and well, but get in the pocket, play the groove, and do what the song needs, not what you want to do to ameliorate your own boredom. The way he analyzes players who sometimes have a skillset well beyond his is admirable; just because he can’t copy it doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand it, and that is a useful attitude to share to the world.
Paul Davids, technique, theory, philosophy Pretty much Adam Neely, playing guitar, with a Dutch accent and an immaculate beard. They’ve done a few videos together, and every time they do it’s like Batman and Robin on The New Scooby-Doo movies. That’s some chef kiss worthy crossover action right there.
CS Guitars, general knowledge/gear This wee man is a fountainhead of knowledge. Like myself, he is an electronics guy, though he winds pickups and I build pedals. His “TATAs (Too Afraid To Ask)” series is a resource I wish I had when I was coming up; I distinctly remember salesmen at guitar shops rolling their eyes at me when I would ask about the jargon I’d seen in guitar magazines, to the point that when I was selling and fixing guitars for a living I swore to myself that I would never be so dismissive. Unfortunately, too many experts are very gatekeeper-y with their wisdom, and people are left with confusion, misinformation, and downright lies that they try to build an entire playing style upon. Colin takes a claymore to all of that and lays it out straight in language that even complete novices can understand (his explanation of fuzz vs. overdrive vs. distortion is without a doubt the best one I have ever seen). He also has that fantastic brogue, which makes everything sound just a bit cooler.
Samurai Guitarist, general guitar related entertainment Probably the one on this list that I’ve watched the least, Ol’ Sammy-G leans a bit too heavily on the gimmick of being Asian. He is, without a doubt, a Canadian first and foremost with his love of hockey and general sense of pride to be from the great white north. It seems pretty obvious to me that the manicured eyebrows and top knot were added when he became a YouTube persona. On top of that, his speech cadence is sleep-inducing. So why do I like him? Because he never shies away from the fact that he was once awful. He shares songs he recorded as a teenager, talks about the crappy gear he had starting out without trying to downplay it, and he openly acknowledges that this is a universal experience. To get good at something, you need to practice, and he is constantly reminding his audience that improvement comes from effort, which he demonstrates by sharing his own journey. That is worthy of a lot of respect.
Casino Guitars, gear A gen-xer and a beardo talking about guitars, every day, for ten to fifteen minutes. Can’t go wrong with that. Baxter totally recognizes the ridiculousness of being an aging hipster, and unashamedly admits to liking things that people half his age would balk at, such as modern pop music. He is past the point of caring about maintaining “an image” and is truly comfortable in his own skin. Now he spends his days drinking coffee and talking about guitars. If only we could all be so lucky.
Ted Woodford and StewMac, repair/lutherie I’ve cited both of these channels before in my “Harsh Realities Of Guitar Repair” column, and can’t really say much more here. Stew Mac is an excellent resource for basic skills like setup and mods, and even gets into the more advanced techniques (as long as you use the tools they sell to do them). Ted Woodford is pretty much craft incarnate; his sense of detail is exemplary. I’ve seen plenty of other videos on building, restoring, and tweaking guitars, but nobody does it as humbly and entertainingly as Ted. Despite the fact that his audio was horrible in his earliest videos, watching him work is always inspiring, and the results are always astounding.
The JHS show, pedals There is a lot of hate for Josh Scott at the JHS show, and I get it. He used to be affiliated, both personally and professionally, with a hyper-Christian hate group, though he pretty much immediately severed all ties with them. His designs are criticized for being overpriced copies of other pedals, and that holds some truth. He has so much power that the mere mention of a lesser known pedal on his show will make the value skyrocket, and a lot of people rightfully resent the idea of anyone holding that much influence over the market. I cannot argue with any of these points except to say that people change, he’s not usually using the show as a platform to sell his product, and even he criticizes the collector hysteria that he is at the center of, similar to Bill Finnegan’s opinions on the value of the vintage Klon Centaurs he built himself. To combine the two points, the fact that Josh sold the first production Centaur for HALF A MILLION DOLLARS and it actually sold proves that he knows it’s preposterous. Hate if you want, but when I watch his show, I just see a guy who really loves pedals, and has taken the good fortune bestowed upon him in the form of his enviable collection and decided to share that with the world. Most stores don’t keep twenty different flangers in stock, and even if they did you probably wouldn’t be able to hear them in context and pick the right one for you. The JHS show gives everyone an opportunity to become a bit more informed about the history, tones, and technology of pedals, and I’d like to hope for that to be its legacy. On a related note, Brian Wampler has many excellent videos on the technology of pedals, but they are kinda cheaply shot and very dry despite being highly informative. If you really wanna dig into the tech of pedals, check him out, but if you just want to actually hear a vintage Uni-Vibe in use, Josh is your man.
Trogly’s Guitar Show, gear/market trends Austin is a most unlikely YouTube success story. He is a goofy looking nerd with a squeaky voice that reminds me of Emo Phillips at times, and yet he has become such an effective persona that he can do with mid-period Gibsons what Josh Scott does with pedals. Trogly pretty much sets the market on those Norlin-era models these days, and while I agree with his assessment of the value of those pieces, there is a tiny problem: I don’t think he’s taking the average viewer’s understanding of the music resale market into account. The truth is, most people don’t actually understand how the music resale market works. Honestly, most people don’t understand the resale market of anything other than cars, and I think that’s only because they have a tangible measure of how much mileage they have incurred. To his credit, Trogly tries to dispel the notion that “everything is worth it to the right buyer”, but that pendulum can swing the other way and create the belief that everything is overpriced (this is especially common in New England where I’m from; Yankee thriftiness is practically an art form, summed up by the old line that “there’s two kinds of people who will try to sell you the door from a broken washing machine: Mainers and crack addicts”. Nobody up here ever wants to pay full price). It is unquestionable that to a trader/dealer, the amounts that people try to sell stuff for on Reverb, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace is beyond unrealistic. If you look at the Orion Bluebook stats for an item, it loses half of its value in the first year, and then slips by about ten to fifteen percent for each year afterwards until it bottoms out around the twenty year mark, at which point it starts to climb again. This is pretty much what Austin is basing his numbers on, plus a generally good feel for that market since he works in it full-time. But people don’t like feeling like they mistook trash for treasure, even if they have a decent but non-collectible piece. What ends up happening is that they either junk a perfectly good guitar simply because it’s not an heirloom, or they refuse to accept the reality and ask for even more because they just know it has to be worth something. This is getting a bit convoluted, so let me explain it like this: you know how on Pawn Stars, when they bring in an expert to appraise something, and that expert gives a retail value which the seller then expects? At this point, there’s always the haggling process where it is explained that retail value is not what the store pays, and they need to make a profit, so here’s what they will offer; sometimes the seller understands and accepts, other times they just don’t get that, and proceed with the belief “if the expert says it’s worth two thousand dollars then why would I sell it for less than two thousand dollars?” assuming that they are in a position to sell it themselves. Now, they well may be. But most people are not, and this is why shops and resellers exist. You sell it for wholesale to somebody who has the ability to get it into the hands of someone who wants it and will pay retail price. They can maintain it, present it in an appealing way, and get it to a point where it is worth that top value, as well as back up that quality to the buyer, and for that they should be compensated, hence the difference between retail and wholesale. If you buy a guitar from a reputable seller, be it a brick and mortar store or a trader like Trogly, it will be set up, with fresh strings and playing at its best. If you buy it from some guy in the classifieds or on the internet (other than Reverb, because they really do strive for honesty there), it could have rusty strings, mile high action, and all kinds of issues they didn’t even know to look for. The expert eye and professional touch of guaranteeing your playing comfort is why that guitar is worth two grand from Trogly but only worth sixteen hundred from some rando on eBay. It seems pretty simple, but it’s astounding how many people don’t comprehend this. I cannot tell you how many scowls I got from people that refused to accept that the plywood bodied, bolt-on neck, Korean built Epiphone they are trying to sell me was worth somewhere between jack s%*t and diddly squat even though it said “Gibson” on the truss rod cover. It’s not a Gibson, it’s not even a nice Epi, it’s a starter guitar, and in that capacity it excels, but it has no monetary value, even if it is twenty years old (age does not make for higher price tags; quite the opposite if you look at the Blue Book example above). Factor in that I’m going to have to invest the same amount of money that I am offering you just to bring it up to a level where I would feel comfortable selling it to another person, and you can see why I am not really interested. I’m not lowballing you, I’m offering you fair market value, and if you don’t work in that market, then you have absolutely no idea what fair market value even is. Now, to be 100% clear, Austin is very transparent about the fact that he is a reseller and this is a business. He is also very careful to never admit what he truly paid for things. However, I am concerned that people will get the wrong message from him, and the market could go in a lot of weird directions as a result. This is no fault of his, it’s just another case of people being cheap and/or dumb, and I guess it is ultimately like flipping houses: some people are really good at it, but a lot of people could lose a lot of money and be very disappointed trying to do what he does.
5 Watt World, history Keith Williams is so avuncular that it almost seems forced. The fact that he is quite obviously reading from a script, and he keeps his flubbed readings in the videos, combined with the blatant edits and a soft-spoken demeanor is beyond charming. Plus, he reads the comments section of his videos. I’ve had conversations with him there, and he is unendingly polite, professional, and genuine. He is the epitome of “in it for the love of it”, since he’s not promoting a lesson plan, store, company, or service other than his sponsors. Almost all of the other guys on this list do this as a sideline to their main gig, but Keith just loves to talk about guitars. His taste in music runs a little too “boomery” for me, and I can forgive his friendship with Rick Beato (see below) because he doesn’t display any of the latter’s negative traits. He just seems like the kind of guy that would offer you an ice cream cone rather than a beer, and that’s just so sweet to me.
Guitar Nerds, history and entertainment Technically a podcast that makes the occasional video, I really appreciate how everything they upload to YouTube is very short.
“Sound Like” on Anderton’s TV, gear There are a bunch of recurring segments on Anderton’s TV, and I have issues with almost all of them. But, the chemistry between Rabea and Matt is fantastic, and they don’t waste my time as a viewer the way that pretty much every other ‘series’ on the channel does. Every video is introduction/who are we sounding like today/acquire gear/demonstrate. Some even skip a few of those steps! They always treat their subjects with respect; even if it’s a band they’re not fond of, they give it a go. Sometimes the miss the mark (their Rolling Stones episode was abysmal), but generally, I reckon they do a cracking job. Personal highlights for me include the “Sound Like Royal Blood Without Busting The Bank” which was where I first heard that band’s music, and “Sound Like MUSE BY Busting The Bank” where Rabea is completely gobsmacked by Matt playing the piano solo for “Butterflies And Hurricanes”. It’s been a while since they released any content, but the archive makes for a fun little binge (I should give a mention to the granddaddy of this concept, the Rig Rundown videos on Premier Guitar which is where these two often get their initial concepts for how to build these rigs).
David Bennett Piano, theory David Bennett has bits and pieces of several of the positive qualities I’ve already mentioned from other content creators. A dash of Trogly’s awkwardness, mixed with a pinch of Keith Williams’ quiet reflection, combined with Adam Neely’s tendency to explain theory quite easily, and filtered through Rabea and Matt’s distinctly British sensibility, and you have an idea of what to expect. Add in an almost pathological love of The Beatles and Radiohead (even he mocks himself for mentioning them in nearly every video), and you get a pretty clear picture of how this channel works. Not earth shattering, but a low-key, high content study of how theory is applied in pop music.
Glenn Fricker: Because he wants me to hate him. Mission accomplished, douchenozzle.
Rick Beato: The way this dude is so incredibly smug while ostensibly being an educator is abhorrent to me. Every video is like a rich kid making you watch him play with his toys while refusing to let you join in. Yes, one could say that about Josh Scott, but he is quick to point out other ways to get these sounds beyond the vintage units he has amassed, and will gladly sing the praises of a Boss or DOD pedal that the average player can afford.
Produce Like a Pro: Like Rick Beato, I don’t get the feeling that he’s trying to elucidate me, he just wants people to be impressed by his knowledge, skills, and technology.
Chris Buck: STOP PRETENDING BLUES IS VALID YOU MILLENIAL TURD. Guys like this who insist on clinging to outdated genres as a sense of pride make me ever so pissed. Rock is dead, Blues is boring, and you wasted a lot of hours on honing a useless skillset in today’s musical landscape. Trying to convince people that they need to do it, too, is like saying “I meant to do that” after tripping upstairs.
Scott’s Bass Lessons: Since I have endorsed his fundraising in the past, it may seem odd that he’s not on my favorites list. He just likes soloing too much. He propagates the myths that bass solos are worthy of admiration and that Jazz is relevant. But, he is extremely talented, well spoken and knowledgeable, plus it’s great to see guys like him and Adam Neely carrying the torch for bassists. It’s unfortunate that they both use Jazz as a jumping off point, but it’s better than every guitarist or producer cracking jokes at our expense.
Davie504: Cool premise, well executed, and unquestionably skilled. But kind of boring and pointless. Another video where this guy shows how freakishly good he is; so good, in fact, that he can approach the instrument in a comical way and still outplay people using conventional technique? Pass. Why would I want to feel bad about my playing? I might not be able to play slap with a chill pepper or use wrenches to play math-metal, but I’m a pretty good player and proud of it. I don’t want to be discouraged and say “I’ll never be THAT good”, I want to be inspired to play more. Watching other people show off doesn’t do that for me. Plus, like a few of the guys I don’t care for, he has a smug demeanor that really rankles me, though I feel like it’s a character he plays rather than his actual personality.
Music is Win: Tyler seems like a nice guy, and is a competent educator, but trying to be the king of the PRS and Klon crowd is like trying to be the world’s greatest sanitation worker– yes, you get the job done incredibly well, but you’re still working with garbage that leaves its stink all over you. Plus his acoustic playing is reprehensibly bad.
Robert Baker: Good on-screen presence, knowledgeable and articulate, but cut it out with the two minutes of jamming at the start of every video. I’m here for your words, not your notes. On that note, ANYONE who starts a video with a jam that lasts more than 45 seconds. This includes That Pedal Show, everything else on Anderton’s, and most videos of people in their practice rooms/studios. Stop playing, start talking, I want to learn from you, not fawn over you. Do you start your private lessons with ten minutes of showing off? No, you get right down to business. Treat your videos the same way.
Jared Dines/Steve Terreberry/anyone who relishes in ripping on others to build themselves up: Again, well made videos with well developed personae, but do you need to be so toxic? You were a noob once, too, guys. Don’t discourage people from playing just because they aren’t at your level of understanding. I get it, it’s extreme examples that you’re mocking, but not everyone is as tuned in to satire, parody, or sarcasm.
So there you have it, my personal “tour” of YouTube. I’m sure some of you are wondering “what about Phillip McKnight, Rhett Schull, Darrell Braun, 60 Cycle Hum or Norm’s Rare Guitars?” Quick answers: boring, meh, boring, meh, and went to crap when Lemmo took over from Agnesi. But, if you know of any high content creators that you think I would enjoy, drop me a line with some links! As always, thanks for reading, and until next time…..
Hello, and welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World Of Bass! Like many semi-pro and professional players, I have taken a vested interest in developing my craft. This means a conscious study of my own technique, being constructively self-critical, and finding ways I can improve the faults I discover. As an example, when I wrote the “Ten Things (All) Bass Players Should Do But (Most) Don’t” column, I was not a user of click tracks, and despite extolling their virtues, at that time I avoided them. I admonished myself for this error in my approach in the original text, but as you read it now you will see an editorial note that I have changed this behavior. I’m always trying to grow, learn, and improve.
BUT, some things just are the way they are. There are things about the choices I make as a player that others have pointed out as “incorrect”. Sometimes it’s a comment from a person I know, sometimes it’s a generalization from the internet. Often, it’s not even an error, just a deviation from the norm, and in those cases it’s almost universally something I don’t do simply because everyone else does.
So, with that in mind, I assembled this list of 20 Things I Do “Wrong” As A Bassist. Some are faults, but most are just me trying to be an iconoclast. I have even broken them down into sub-categories, so with no further adieu, let’s jump in!
My left hand
Hang-thumb: This ties in directly with a point that I will address below, but I play with my thumb hanging over my low ‘E’. This is often a source of debate within the guitar and bass community, as many technical players will insist on placing the thumb on the back of the neck, claiming that any other posture is incorrect. The counter to this argument is usually “Jimi played hang-thumb, and he’s the greatest guitarist ever!” While I don’t fully advocate either of these points, I can recognize that both have their benefits. Personally, I play this way because my hands are disturbingly large. Seriously, look at this picture of me playing a Jazz bass and tell me it’s not unsettling.
In spite of possessing these baseball mitts which I call hands, I am able to do some very dexterous things with them, so I go with what works most effectively for me. Playing hang-thumb is comfortable in ways that orthodox posture is not, and while I sacrifice speed, that’s not something I care about (as evidenced by pretty much every behavior in this category).
Slung too low: While not exactly a left hand problem, it does facilitate a bad habit, for sure. By slinging low with my thumb over the low ‘E’, I keep my wrist perfectly straight and help reduce the possibility of carpal tunnel. In addition, since I now deliberately avoid my ‘G’, this helps me lower the likelihood of overusing that string as I was prone to doing at the beginning of my career. But mostly, it looks really cool.
Too much pressure: This behavior was learned from playing 12-string acoustic early on. I started on my brother’s guitars, before getting my own plywood bodied classical guitar from the 60s, followed by the Epiphone Les Paul I mentioned in the last article, and then a 12-string Aria which I still have and use on records. Between the baseball bat neck of the classical and the tremendous pressure required to play the 12-string, I developed a tendency early on to squeeze really hard. Like the hang-thumb, this reduces my potential for speed, but as any regular reader of my work would know, I was always more interested in being a rhythm player, and speed is not that important for rhythm guys. And, once I realized that I liked the tone of a heavy left hand (it sounds more confident, and therefore more resonant, if that makes any sense), it was quite easy to adapt that to playing bass since it didn’t feel odd to squeeze those big, fat strings that hard, and they rang out so beautifully when I did. Of course, there is a downside to squeezing the stings as hard as I do…
Crazy wide vibrato: This is a problem whose sources are twofold; first being that extra pressure I just mentioned, second is cutting my teeth on crap guitars. With the amount of downward pressure I use, I often wind up trying to squeeze though the fretboard. This energy needs a place to go, and ends up going sideways. I then try to right this bent note, which still has too much pressure and it ends up going too far in the other direction, which I then try to compensate for but it only winds up going back in the first direction, which I then try to compensate for…..you see the pattern developing here. This honestly happens kind of subconsciously, and were it not for the vibrato factor, would probably sound terrible. I noticed it once when I was in the studio, borrowing an expensive guitar (on which that squeezing is even more dramatic due to the thinner strings) and it was quite obvious just how much it goes out of tune when I don’t concentrate on my pressure. I can only imagine that if I used a scalloped fretboard I would either get faux pedal steel bends or sound like some kind of microtonal Art-Rock hipster (probably the latter). Of course, in my early years of guitar, I used this tendency to wring notes out of the neck to my benefit; since most of my guitars had less than perfect intonation, and were usually too cheap to even set up properly in the first place, I got very used to bending particular notes in certain chords. I still sharpen the ‘A’ note in a ‘D’ chord by pulling it slightly towards the high ‘E’, though I now translate that into vibrato within the chord rather than use it for pitch correction. It sounds kinda Classical-y since there is usually pretty wide vibrato used on orchestral instruments; think of how many cellists have that left hand just flailing away with one finger rooted on the string. Perhaps my background as a Classical violinist was an influence, as well. Either way, it does create the occasional problem when I’m playing with people who use a light touch and are obsessed with correct pitch. Generally, I think it makes me sound like me, but I have rankled a few bandmates in the past with this habit, so it’s on the list.
Lots of middle finger licks: In Adam Neely’s “How To Play Bass (For Guitarists)” video, he comments that you can always spot a guitarist playing bass by their dependence on their middle fingers, while “true” bassists use this digit as a passing appendage. Since I first saw this, I have made an effort to curb my use of this finger, but decades of guitar playing make that a bit tricky. I do try to avoid using it to root my lines, building my patterns with my index and ring fingers, but when I’m not focusing on it that middle finger gets employed waaaaaay too much, in particular for landing gigantic leaps across an octave or to lead into a glissando. I did get a bit of a primer for avoiding this finger when I suffered an accident at my kitchen job where I effectively removed the last half inch of it. Six stitches later it was reattached, but it was going to take a while to heal. This happened on a Thursday when I had a gig on Saturday, so I had the doctor give me a splint for that finger and spent Friday relearning all of my parts with my ring finger picking up the middle’s notes and my pinky picking up the ring’s. I continued to play this way, splint and all, for a few months until I could safely put pressure on that fingertip. About a year afterwards it started to creep back into regular use, and now, thirteen years later, it’s being overused. Although it’s not as egregious as some of my other problems, it’s still a behavior that garners criticism in some circles, and since I am trying to correct this tendency in myself it warrants inclusion here.
Curling my pinky under:
I only recognized this one recently, and I do it a hell of a lot; mostly when I am doing pentatonic riffs on the lower strings in the middle of the neck. I first noticed it when I was playing along to “Banquet” by Bloc Party, which is all rooted from the sixth fret of the ‘E’. Completely unintentionally, my pinky was curled up and tucked under the neck, utterly removed from any use. I have absolutely no clue why I do this. It’s not like it’s a habit translating over from guitar, violin, or piano, though I noticed that when I am playing guitar and not using this finger I do tend to get it very far away from the rest, but that’s usually extended rather than squirreled away. In addition, when I am in first position I DO keep my pinky propped up tall for use in my patterns, but once I get past that fifth fret it scurries away and hides, curled up in my palm. It’s certainly a curious practice, but since I don’t do a lot of runs that require my pinky on bass, it doesn’t seem to be problematic. It is, however, incorrect technique, and that is what this whole column is addressing.
My right hand
Too much pressure, both with a pick and fingers: Several lesson books, websites, and YouTube videos that teach bass warn about using too much right hand pressure, or “digging in too hard”. It fatigues you easily, it reduces your speed, and most of them say it sounds bad. Personally, I like it. There’s a distinct “punch” that comes from digging in, and pushing through the string until your finger practically hits the pickup. Likewise, when using a pick, it growls more when you really hit hard. There’s also the sense of authority inherent in that much attack; the only possible reasons that one would pummel like that is if they either have no clue how to play or a commanding understanding of the instrument and are trying to achieve a certain effect. Or, as Ayveeare put it in Snarfquest:
This is an example of me choosing to be iconoclastic. Despite the fact that it is frequently cited as something “wrong”, I do it very deliberately, though I might still have an IQ of three.
Heavy-ish picks for fast playing: I have seen a few videos saying that the trick to fast, Punk-style playing is to use a thin pick. Thing is, I don’t like thin picks. Anything below a medium is too floppy for me to get any control, and I usually use medium heavy ones when I play bass. Now, I do occasionally switch out for a straight medium if I want a different feel or tone; there is also a tiny delay in my playing with a lighter pick since it bends a bit before it strikes the string, and heavier picks are more immediate. Thinner picks also “click” more than heavier ones since that bend eventually has to un-bend and there’s a large surface area crossing he string path as a result. The byproduct is an audible clicking noise, which can be cool but can also be really distracting. When I use an actual thin pick, however, I lose all control of my right hand. There is too much flexibility for me, so I end up torqueing down and trying to fold the pick like a slice of New York pizza just to get it to resemble the stiffness I’m used to. This locks up my wrist and forearm, and thus my fluidity of playing disappears. This is, of course, the exact opposite outcome of why people use thin picks for fast parts, but I just can’t do it. And, as I’ve mentioned a few times already, I’m not really into speed. When I need it, I can take those muscles that are already over-developed from digging in too hard and give them a serious workout. Or I can just write a part that isn’t fast, which is my usual choice since fast doesn’t lend itself to a lot of groove.
Another habit I only recently noticed, this is exclusively when I am playing fingerstyle and hopping between strings to my ‘G’, which is an uncommon occurrence in and of itself. I don’t know if this is a behavior people defame, but I don’t think I have ever seen anyone else doing it. It might be fine, but I think it looks weird, so I am calling myself out on this one. Unfortunately, I can’t hit that high string with any accuracy unless I do this, probably because of that “strapped too low” thing.
Too much low end: Now, I don’t think it’s possible to have too much low end, to quote my first column, “if you’re gonna play bass, play BASS“. However, there is the possibility of having too much low end at the cost of other frequencies, and that ultimately makes you disappear from a mix, which is bad. But I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about a generally well sculpted tone that happens to prefer the left side of the graphic EQ. I played a show once where the soundman straight up told me to turn down my lows and turn up my mids because he “didn’t want to damage the mixing board”. Now, I know a thing or two about how this stuff works, so I called bulls%*& on him, since lows don’t actually damage boards despite what engineers in the 60s thought. It was at this point that he informed me that he had my trim at -16 dB with the input pad activated and it was still redlining, courtesy of the “make it loud with EQ” phenomenon: if you boost any frequency by, say, 12dB, your whole signal will get louder. The more frequencies you boost, the more overall signal. I had ultra low, low, and low mid all boosted by 10 to 12 dB and the DI on the amp bypassed the volume knob, so yeah, it was a pretty hot signal in retrospect. We reached a compromise of having me turn down the ultra lows until it was manageable, but no way in hell was I turning up the mids. I hate mids on bass. And I obviously don’t mean low mids, I mean regular and high mids, which was what he was asking me to increase. I strongly believe that there is no reason for a bass to ever generate those frequencies, and I have my reasons: first, it fights with the guitar. If everything has a 2.5k boost, nothing is going to be defined. I think of sound like painting, and if every layer is the same color, there is no telling where one layer begins and another layer ends. Ergo, bass sits in one range, guitar in another, keys in another, vocals in their own pocket, etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum. If there is a sonic war between guitars and bass, guitars will always win. Second, and this is the big reason I flatten or even cut the frequencies in the middle of my EQ: it sounds like total assbutt to boost them. The vocal quality that so many players go for is horrifically bad to my ears. Chime-y jingle is fine, warm thuddiness is fine, even the occasional “camel hump” contour to increase the “mwah” of a fretless is tolerable in small doses, but cranking those “cocked wah” mids to help you cut through is sonically offensive to me. So like the heavy right hand, this is a choice to NOT not to have the sound that so many other players do.
Too much fuzz: Hoo, Nellie, if you want to see a disappointed face, come join me in the studio some time and take a gander at the producers when I tell them “no, that’s the tone I am going for”. While fuzzy bass has a long history from Paul McCartney to Lemmy, it’s rarely taken to the extreme I like to take it to. Pretty much Mike Kerr, Chris Wolstenholme and myself are the only guys I can think of who regularly use that much saturation, and in the last two cases, both sounds are courtesy of an early 90s green Russian Big Muff (which even before I became an acolyte of MUSE was my all-time favorite pedal of all time). Like Wolstenholme, I go for full bore, wide open, asymmetrical chaos that you reel in via technique. One of the reasons that fuzz snobs exist is because you have to actually play the pedal; you must alter your approach to how it responds, unlike a hard clipping distortion a la the Boss DS-1 or ProCo Rat. For my style, a block font green Russian or a modern Bass Muff loves how I attack, though I have certainly known other players who find them untamable. I’ve even graduated up to one with more power, the Electrofoods Colon Exploder, which is so gnarly that it can self-oscillate and feed back inside the circuit itself. But, even when using a more tame gain profile I routinely have to tell producers and engineers to crank up the distorted feed and turn down the clean one, contrary to their claim that “bass isn’t supposed to sound like that”. It is when I play it, buddy. That’s why I learned how to do it.
No SVT: Yet another entry on the growing list of “everyone else does this, so I won’t”. I absolutely adore SVTs, but I don’t want to haul an 8×10 up two flights of stairs to get to a gig, nor do I want to plug that head into a smaller cab. It’s just not right, somehow. And, as mentioned before, I have used them on stage on many occasions, and I used to have an Ampeg BA-115 combo that was awesome (now I’m kinda wishing I hadn’t accidentally blown that guy up). But when I was picking out the gear I wanted to use to sculpt my tone, the very first edict I made was “no Ampeg stuff”. This is obviously not any hatred towards the brand, simply a desire to carve my own path, because SVTs are so utterly ubiquitous that I am sometimes amazed that anyone else even makes a high powered bass head. While Hartke, Fender, Gallien Krueger, Ashdown, SWR, Trace Eliot and even Marshall all have their endorsees, when one thinks of the image of “bass amps on a stage” it is almost universally one of a wall of 8x10s, each topped with its own SVT head. Like the Marshall stack or the Vox AC30, there is something about them that just looks right, to say nothing of their spectacular tone, and despite that, I was having none of it. It can be hard to be your own person, but I am not about to give up on trying.
Yes, a P-Bass… But its not my #1: Just like the SVT, I chose not to use a P-Bass since it’s so generic. I love them (I have three basses that resemble P’s in either appearance, sound, or both), and there are definitely times that I use that particular sound because it works. But as we saw in the “too much fuzz” entry, the approach of “bass sounds like _____” is not one I accept. I find it ironic that the same people who routinely insist that bass and drums are “supposed” to sound a certain way are the same ones who will pontificate on the subtle differences in the sound of whatever their instrument is, usually vocals and guitar (I also often find them to be wrong from my perspective, like when they say that Stevie Ray Vaughn had “amazing tone”; I mean, if you like the sound of BBs getting spilled out of a coffee can onto a tin roof, then yeah, SRV sounds amazing, but if you have functional ears, then no). Other bassists even fall into this trap, saying things like “I like a P-Bass because it just fits into the mix so easily” and, while it does, it also can vanish just as quick because guitarists and keyboard players learned long ago how to bury that tone. It’s the same as Rock musicians complaining about Rap, or some Blues wanker claiming that “click tracks and synthesizers are ruining music”; people use P-Basses because that’s what they are familiar with, and they are confusing preference with familiarity (just like boomers with Classic Rock). There’s an old piece of home-spun wisdom that says “a path of least resistance is what makes a river grow crooked”, and that is certainly the case with the P-Bass. Make no mistake, they deserve the pedestal they are put upon for they are amazing, but if you are trying to do your own thing like I am, they are not conducive to that. It’s just a shame that more people don’t allow for that freedom of personal expression from bassists, and until they do, I will be proud to be “wrong” about this point.
General indifference about my equipment on stage, as long as it works: Ok, I quite obviously have preferences, but I won’t let them ruin my performance. How many bassists will complain about their tone not being right in this room, or get snippy when the soundman tells them to turn down the stage volume? How many will insist on using their ridiculously complex bi-amp and tri-amp rigs at the corner bar? Fortunately, in the town were I live this isn’t a huge issue; most of the bassists are either serious pros who have an excellent sense of what is required of them from gig to gig, or they are a guitarist or drummer who is helping out their buddies until a “real” bassist comes along and therefore don’t actually have any gear to speak of, and just use whatever they can from other bassists on the bill. In fact, in all of the bands I have ever played with, I only saw backlining in two scenes: when I was in high school, and where I currently live. I’ve seen lots of drummers and bassists that insisted on bringing their gear to open mic night (granted, usually after finding the house gear to be inadequate for their purposes, but still, they didn’t offer to swap out the house gear for everyone to use, they just swapped it out for their set and probably cost another performer their time slot as a result), or ones who took forever tweaking every little thing between sets at a multi-band show at a club. My point is, I don’t do that. Sure, I love my gear. Like, a lot. But I don’t need it. I’ve done pickup gigs on borrowed gear that was physically painful to play, or so underpowered that I couldn’t hear myself at all beyond a dull thrumming, or even entire shows without an amp. I’ve had gear die mid-set and continued on without it. As long as I can play, that’s good enough. Do I prefer to have all of my kit available? Totally, but hauling a sixty pound rack, two speaker cabs, and anywhere from two to eleven basses with me to play a dingy club to a crowd of six people isn’t practical. I will bring my Stingray and my pedalboard, or even just the bass sometimes, and use whatever is there, even if it’s just plugging into the PA system. While I might obsess over the tone and performance of my parts on a recording, when it comes to a live scenario or a quick jam, “bass goes brrrrrrrr” as they say in the modern parlance, and if you are gonna ruin someone else’s gig for a detail literally nobody but you cares about, then you are in serious need of some introspection. It’s about playing, end of list, and as long as the gear doesn’t kill you, it will work. However, this is not the popular opinion amongst “serious” bassists; take a gander at any random thread on a bass forum and you will quickly see someone insisting that they need a twenty-four fret bass or that boutique compressor, but dollars to donuts says that if any of these guys ever get to join a band, they will be playing first and second position walking patterns that would be just as effective with a P-Bass run though a DI. Somehow it’s sacrilege for me to not only accept but advertise that fact.
Total lack of subtlety, even in my most danceable grooves: As you can gather from my talk of both squeezing and hitting too hard, I am not a subtle player. Not only do I frequently play in genres that are not known for using these techniques, but the “go for broke” mentality that spawned them manifests itself in an interesting way: if I am emulating something, be it a specific artist, song, or musical style, I am doing so unashamedly, and I want you, the listener, to know that yes, I am emulating that. This is also uncommon, since there is this belief that betraying your inspiration to your audience somehow reduces your credibility. People frequently try to hide their influences even when they’re obvious (Greta Van Fleet), though some take the exact opposite track and name drop them at every opportunity (Nirvana). I could never understand why the former is a thing; I mean, is someone who likes Dexy’s Midnight Runners for their incomprehensible caterwauling with a vaguely Celtic vibe suddenly going to stop liking them when they cover a Van Morrison song that sounds exactly like the original, namely full of incomprehensible caterwauling with a vaguely Celtic vibe? I guess I sort of get it since I did once know a guy that loved Guns N’ Roses but hated Aerosmith and The Stones, but he was literally the only example I’ve seen of that in all of my forty-five years. As far as my influences are concerned, I take a “lean into that curve” approach, and I will not deny anything I am cribbing. Yes, those are Bee Gees harmonies; that’s why I did a bad Barry Gibb impression when I sang them. Yes, that is a straight rip of a Cure style bass part; that’s why I used a Thunderbird. Yes, I’m trying to do a Tina Weymouth part; that’s why I stay the same while the band changes around me, even if it sounds awkward. It’s not subtle when I am citing an influence, and I don’t think it should be. I want to pay tribute to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand, and I feel wholly uncompelled to take any credit for their ideas which I am borrowing. As we’ve established, this is not how the average person approaches this scenario, but as should be apparent by now, I am not the average person.
Building boxes horizontally rather than vertically: Another problematic method of playing that I consciously do for a reason, this is such a component of my style that I have to stop and think about it if I’m trying to do it the “right” way. Normally, when building ascending notes, one works in boxes that climb up the strings like steps. You play a few frets of the ‘E’ string, move that pattern on the same frets up to the ‘A’, then follow that with the same pattern on the ‘D’ before concluding it on the ‘G’. If you need to go higher, still, you can shift into a box built higher on the neck somewhere along the way, usually around the middle of the overall climb, and continue as you were. I don’t do this. I just keep stacking notes on top of each other on the same string. Rather than, for instance, go third fret-fifth fret-sixth fret on the ‘A’ to third-fifth-sixth on the ‘D’, I’ll go third-fifth-sixth-eighth-tenth-eleventh all on the ‘A’. Why? because I don’t like the sound of the higher strings. You know from earlier in this column that I set my EQ for little to no mids, since those frequencies emphasize the notes on those higher strings I don’t like. In my “History Of The Extended Range Bass” column, I give an explanation of how the notes repeat as you work you way up the strings, namely in the section on the Fender V and its attempt to keep a bright, cutting tone for all of the notes available. BUT, if you go the opposite route and play high frets on low strings like I am wont to do, it makes this huge, thunderous tone that just explodes out of the speakers, and that is waaaaaaaay better sounding to me than the chiming punch of a thinner string on a lower fret. It is a rare technique, the only other person I have ever seen routinely build their boxes horizontally is Eliot Easton from The Cars, and he’s a Berklee trained lead guitarist who is probably just doing it for his own amusement. Like lots of things, it robs me of speed and makes for the occasional stumble between notes when using the “proper” technique would have made it almost foolproof, but if it sounds like garbage, I’m not gonna do it, even if it does mean doing it the hard way.
I don’t follow drummers…. they follow me: I mentioned a while back how I used to be in a band with a drummer that wanted to be the star . This was only possible because I have pretty good timing and a mathematical mind that really understands how rhythm works (spoilers: it’s fractions). These two factors combined to mean that I always knew where the one beat was, so if anyone got lost, drummer included, just look over to me and I’d have your back. Thing is, I had been doing this for a very long time before that band formed, and I still do it now. I also talked in that column about how I was always locked in with the drummer when I was a guitarist, usually due to a scenario where we’d have to cover for the bassist. In my earliest days of playing in Rock bands, I was working with drummers who were complete amateurs– not that I was a pro, but I had years of experience playing my instrument when they had months or even weeks with theirs upon joining the band. So, keeping time for everyone just sort of became normal to me, even when those drummers got really good. And, when I transitioned to bass, this was a useful skill because it covered up for fluffy playing not only on the guitarist’s part, but on the drummer’s. Nowadays, even with a click track, I still guide the rhythm, not because the drummer needs me to for timing, but because I usually have a pretty keen grasp on how the arrangements go and giving cues for “here’s the bridge” helps everyone. Plus, I can establish the overall “feel” of the tune really well . Are we leaning into this one, or sitting back? Should we be ahead of the beat, on top of it, or behind it? These are things I can direct quite effectively, and since I usually am emulating some influence (see above), I can adopt their vibe and take the song to a new place. So yeah, I’m still locking in with the drummer, but I am usually driving the bus. There have been a few times that I have played with other guys in pickup bands that I don’t have this symbiosis with, and it’s a learning curve for me. Usually though, if the groove is good, nobody really has to lead, since we’re all feeling it. But on those occasions where it does get a little loose, I’m always ready to go above and beyond the regular duties of my station and guide the ship back into port. I consider this one a necessary aberrance, brought about by a unique musical development, and while it is antithetical to routine, I find a lot of drummers like having the freedom it provides.
An overall disinterest in Jazz and real Funk: I just think they’re boring. Too much showboating in both genres; too much smugness from the audience with Jazz; not enough dynamics in Funk. I like the stuff that culls bits and pieces from them, but I am simply not interested in listening to Coltrane or Parliament; I’d genuinely rather listen to their followers like The Beastie Boys or INXS. I’ve met plenty of people that cannot fathom how a bassist who is dedicated to this degree of self-analysis could dislike Jazz and/or Funk since they are the genres that really let the bass shine. Well, I don’t want the bass to shine, which leads me directly into my next fallacy…
An active dislike of Jaco, Wooten, and any other flashy, “star” bassists: Any regular reader of my work knows that I rip on Jaco a lot. There is a Facebook group where I am a pariah because I had the temerity to call Jaco, quote, “a wanker”, end quote, in my “12 Most Iconic Individual Basses” column. I stand by that. I don’t like the idea of bass a solo voice UNLESS the whole band is built around that. As I have said before, Primus does this effectively as do Violent Femmes. Zeppelin, The Beatles, and The Who all prove that complex bass work is possible without it being the focus. R.E.M., Nirvana, and MUSE demonstrate that you can play off the vocal melody rather than the guitar and get stellar results. You don’t have to step all over everyone else to play something intricate or dexterous, and guys who are the heroes of bass forums the internet over get revered because that’s exactly what they do. They cannot accept the reality that they play an instrument that people generally don’t care about, so they overplay with crap tone and force themselves upon everything they do. They don’t care if it serves the song because it serves their ego, and that is the exact opposite of the role bass was designed to play. And sadly, this is becoming the norm for bassists. They either want to be the star or they get lazy and play parts that take little to no effort. Sure, they might fit, but do they take the song anywhere special? And, like so many other things here, I abjectly refuse to adopt this attitude or behavior, even if it makes me an outcast. Serve the song, play at your best, and if you want to solo, play guitar.
Having opinions: Here’s the biggest mistake/deviation I make, and I do it all the time. I have opinions. Strong ones. Bassists are not supposed to have opinions according to the bylaws of popular music. Now, I fully recognize that this motivation is completely the same one that fuels all of those Jacowootens I was just bemoaning. Like them, I don’t like to be ignored, I don’t like being told what to do and I especially don’t like being treated like a dummy because I play bass. But those stigmas of “bass is easy” or “anyone can do this” or “why don’t you play a ‘real’ instrument like guitar?” still plague the world, and honestly, the Jacowootens aren’t helping. There is an arrogance built into their style, so if the average player thinks the only options are an vainglorious twat with an attitude problem or a mouth-breathing knuckle-dragger who can barely remember what the root notes even are then it makes sense that an accomplished player who is articulate in conversation is going to remind them of the former, not the latter. So, when I start speaking my mind, the hackles go up and the idea that “here comes the ego” takes over, and even if my opinion is to serve the song, it is already assumed that the only reason I would speak up is because I want more recognition. To their credit, nearly every band I have ever been in has been super cool with this. Sometimes, it is made clear from the get-go that I am a hired gun, and while I should feel free to contribute ideas, don’t be surprised if none of them stick. Sometimes, I am given a leadership position. Sometimes, it actually is a fully collaborative endeavor. There have been a few instances where I was brought on to contribute my voice only to have it immediately silenced when it became obvious that I was not, in fact, welcome to contribute, and what was expected of me was well below what I am capable of. For the most part, though, I have been really lucky, but from what I gather, this is not the regular pattern for us four-stringers. I have no intention of changing this either; if being wrong means that I can speak my mind and challenge myself in an attempt to make the whole band sound better, then I don’t wanna be right.
And with that, we reach the end of this journey, I hope that this has been informative and entertaining. Perhaps it gets the wheels turning in your mind about what needs improvement in your own playing, or perhaps it reinforces your desire to blaze your own trail and damn the torpedoes. Either way, I thank you for reading, and as always….
A journey down my path from inquisitive teenager to middle aged guy making pedal clones.
Hello, and welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World of Bass! Perhaps I am in a creative drought lately, since I have been writing “bass adjacent” rather than “bass centric” columns, but I could also be evolving. I mean, people evolve as they grow; palates broaden, tastes change, new knowledge and skills are acquired….I’d be willing to wager that anyone reading my work with more than five years of playing experience has a whole different set of inspirations and goals than they did half a decade ago; I can certainly say that my playing has shifted dramatically over the twenty plus years that I’ve made it a focus. Perhaps my writing is doing the same thing.
Another thing that has evolved for me over the years is my ability to make electronic circuits. It’s well known that I used to be a repairman, and a readthrough of the “My Bass Rig” column demonstrates a lot of little tweaks if not straight up custom builds to accomplish various audio processing tasks. These days, I build entire pedals from the ground up–well, actually, I usually connect the ground wire close to the end, but you get my point. Today, I’m going to take a look at how I went from being a kid who was notoriously curious and rather poor/cheap to an adult who scratch builds and modifies his own clones of stomp boxes both iconic and iconoclastic.
Let’s start at the very beginning: for my fifteenth birthday, I bought an electric guitar. It was/is an Epiphone LP300 Custom, the kind with a bolt-on neck and semi-hollow plywood body, and it was magical. I still have it, in storage at my dad’s house, though I’ve not used it since 2004. I’d been playing guitar for a few years by the time I went electric, and in a matter of weeks I had a band. Somewhere in those first few months of playing, I broke a wire inside the guitar and took it to the local electronics repair shop (those still existed in 1991), and the repair guy took off the control plate, de-soldered the lug where the wire broke off, stripped a few millimeters off the wire, and re-soldered it to its original connection. He then reattached the control plate and handed it back to me. All of this took about five minutes, and cost me five bucks. Now, I gladly paid that amount, but it was not lost on me that for five bucks I could have bought my own soldering iron; adjusted for inflation, five dollars in 1991 has the buying power of almost ten dollars as I write this, and in those days Radio Shack was still a very successful business with plenty of affordable soldering irons in stock. So, the following week I took my allowance to the local Radio Shack and bought an iron, some solder, and a cheaply printed book on the basics of electronics. Sadly, there was almost nothing on audio circuits, but there was a good tutorial on how to solder. It took me a while to get my technique really clean and solid, but I was off to the races.
Next up was the summer that I was sixteen and decided I wanted another electric guitar, but this one I would build. And build it I did, using a pre-fab neck and parts from StewMac, a bridge pickup bought from a now defunct luthier in Portland, and a body made of hard rock Canadian maple. I liked the words “hard rock Canadian” as I thought it was self-descriptive, unaware that a solid maple guitar would be stupid heavy. My cursory research had indicated that maple was a tone wood, so it should work, right? I got a friend of the family who was a carpenter to cut out and rout the body for me, and the rest I assembled myself, including the entire wiring harness. This got my mind thinking about switching, realizing that it was just like the model trains my brother had when I was younger, or the full size version my father and grandfather shared an affinity for. You see, each possible path that the electricity can take is like a different segment of track. By assigning the trains to go on different tracks, they will reach different destinations, so a locomotive leaving Boston could wind up in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, or thousands of other stations, and all by routing it to different tracks which are fixed in place. Same thing with electricity. We tend to think of switches in the most basic off/on sense due to our interacting with light switches on a regular basis, but they can do so much more.
Now, obviously by this point I had started reading the StewMac catalog along with ones from instrument retailers, and I noticed that they had all kinds of switches available- three position blade switches, five position blade, three way toggle, single pole/double throw stomp, double pole/double throw miniature, push/pull pots… and my mind began to explode with the possibilities of what one could do just with switches. Back in those days they had a section in the middle of the catalog called “Trade Secrets” where they would talk about everything from how to adjust a truss rod to how to modify vise grips into a fret press, and in one issue there was an entire section on basic guitar wiring and simple mods. I didn’t immediately understand coil splitting, phase inversion, or series/parallel wiring, but it was exactly what I was trying to learn. When I discovered that I could touch different lugs of the switch in my wah pedal while it was plugged in and hear which ones were connected via the hum coming from the amplifier, I had my first realization: the A/B switches being sold for fifteen bucks were using the same switch as my wah pedal, and electronically speaking it was almost exactly the same configuration as the toggle switch in my Les Paul, minus the middle position. To test this theory, I built one with an old footswitch chassis inherited from a former bandmate and spent about three bucks on some 1/4″ jacks and a giant toggle from Radio shack. AND IT WORKED!!!! I could plug both my guitars in, and with the flip of a switch assign which one was driving my pedals. Eventually I upgraded from the toggle to a proper stomp switch harvested from my brother’s wah pedal when it gave up the ghost.
My serious tinkering started when I was seventeen. I bought books on guitar wiring, took apart and reassembled my equipment as I had done with my toys as a child, and then in one issue of Trade Secrets there was an article on converting old school Fuzz Faces to “true bypass”. Now, I did not own an old school Fuzz Face, nor have I ever even played one to be honest (though I have played a bunch of repros and clones), but this idea intrigued me. “Why wouldn’t one make their pedals this way?” I wondered, and while I now know the answer, it was a mind expanding read for me. To my non-technical friends, true bypass is when a pedal is wired in such a way that the input and output jacks bypass the circuit board of the pedal altogether when it is not engaged. While this is very common now despite having its own set of problems, at the time it was not standard. Most pedals of that era had the input jack permanently wired to the board, with a separate connection going from that same jack to the switch. The output jack would be wired to be assigned either to that input tap or to the output of the board. The end result was that some signal was always flowing between the input jack and the board via that permanent connection, and even though most manufacturers had long since addressed this issue, that was not common knowledge to the guitar playing public at the time (though it does noticeably suck the tone out of your guitar if it isn’t compensated for, and a vintage Fuzz Face has none of this compensation).
One thing I did immediately recognize was the fact that true bypass was literally two A/B switches face-to-face with a shared actuator. And hey, would you look at that, Stew Mac now carries the switch you need to do this mod, and they are….EIGHTEEN BUCKS A WHACK!?!?!?!?! Remember, this is the early 90s, so that’s about thirty five bucks today. As you can imagine, I didn’t order one right away. I did eventually get one, and it was worth more than gold to me; I used it in at least three different builds, often harvesting other parts along with it. Like most things, there are now cheap ones available, and I currently have a bag of even more complex stomp switches that cost me less than three bucks each, so, yay, capitalism!
But, back to my tale. I saw that this was described as a Double Pole/Double Throw switch; this means that within the switch itself there are two separate sources that can each be sent down two separate paths. To revisit the train analogy, picture two trains on parallel tracks, and one switch will send BOTH of them either East or West yet still on parallel sets of tracks. As mentioned, I couldn’t afford one of these just yet, but there was another option…DPDT mini toggles at Radio Shack. While these are commonly used for those aforementioned coil splits, phase switches, and series/parallel mods, I started using them to build boxes to switch between audio sources, be they mixers, microphones, pedals, guitars, whatever. One of the first applications I put these to permanent use for was in an assignable effects loop for my ever expanding pedalboard. While I had my set batch of pedals that I would always use, I allowed for adding on to this board as my tastes and skills grew, along with my pedal collection. The idea was that by flipping a series of switches, I could put other pedals plugged into a pair of jacks at the beginning or end of my effects chain depending on where they would perform best.
I then started to experiment with signal routing. By this point, in addition to pedals, I had acquired more guitars and more amps. I had discovered the majesty of running my signal into a bass amp in addition to my guitar amp, and the particular low end “whomp” that gave me was especially titillating. While I wasn’t running in stereo, I did design and add a mod that allowed me to assign my delay pedal to only one amp, thus allowing me to play call and response parts with myself. I only used this on one recording, and never on stage since it was a bit fiddly to worry about getting the right balance of amps in a live scenario. The effects loop did get used on stage fairly often, and both circuits stayed on this board until I tore it apart to build a new, stripped down version for my next band.
Also worthy of mention from this era is my first uses of that DPDT stomp switch, one of which was “the solo in a box”: this was a true bypass circuit that dropped the guts from my old amp in front of my new one to give me a huge boost for solos (most boost pedals are around one to two watts, I was doing it with thirty). More important was my first pedal build, which I did from a kit. It was a ring modulator from PAIA electronics, straight out of Craig Anderton’s Electronic Projects For Musicians book, and was, in fact, the reason I bought that DPDT switch. It took me days to build, and I only used it twice. It was not a very musical sounding pedal, and it took two 9V batteries to operate which entailed me opening up the enclosure to install them every time I wanted to use it since I didn’t have the foresight to add any kind of power switching. Sadly, no photos exist of it, and what fate befell it I have long since forgotten. There is a happy ending of sorts to this story, but that comes later.
I’m going to skip forward a bit since the only real innovation I came up with on my next build was adding a 9V power tap to my effects loop, allowing me to power extra pedals using the same supply as the one in my board; a feature I still have on both my guitar and bass boards. I had recently discovered that I could daisy chain my pedals together from one power supply rather than having dedicated ones for each. Like all things in the music world, there are advantages to dedicated power supplies, but for my purposes, there wasn’t a noticeable benefit (and still isn’t). The other big step forward was my first experiments using switches for AC power; yup, I was playing with the voltage coming out of the wall, kids! As long as it’s done safely, carefully, and sturdily, there is really nothing to worry about, but the idea that I trusted myself enough to put a connection with the potential for that kind of juice underneath my own feet was a bold step forward. Like the ring modulator, there aren’t any pictures of this rig in my collection, and it was merely a down-sized and streamlined version of the last one.
After that, I became a bass player. Like most bassists, I used few effects if any, maybe a distortion pedal or the built-in chorus on my amp for a song or two, but other than a tuner with an A/B assign, I really didn’t do a lot of mods or customization. This was also when I was working at the music store, and my inspiration had shifted to record production. Most of the money I earned playing gigs was spent on mics, mixers, and recording gear, nearly all of which I have since sold or worn out, though some is still around. And then, about six years ago, my passion was reignited. I joined a band with a guitarist who was amassing a pedalboard to put my old one to shame, and between the maintenance and modifications to his gear, I began to rediscover my love for learning about circuits. So much had changed in the time I’d been away from the music gear scene, and yet lots of the old ideas were back in vouge. Fuzz in particular had become something people started to get persnickety about, and I was finally able to hear the differences between assorted classic designs. This is also when Josh Scott started his YouTube channel, so comparing six different chorus pedals was now quite easy. He also talked about how the circuit topology of a design is pretty much the same from maker to maker, and the alterations to that basic topology are what gives different pedals their personality. To pour even more gasoline on the fire, a few years after that was when I returned to college to get my Electrician’s Certification and one of my required classes was Intro to Electronics. After that course I actually understood what happens when you saturate a transistor and why a BJT sounds different than a JFET.
The first major build of this new era was my bass pedalboard for that band. I’ve detailed this in my rig column, and included the schematic (which is also the cover picture for this entry). For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to avoid repeating myself and not talk about that build. Likewise, my guitar pedalboard is detailed in that writing, so I’m not going to talk about it, either.
Shortly afterward, I decided to try something a bit more difficult, and built a clone of my Musicman Stingray’s preamp to put into my Stingray copy. This worked so well that I built another to go into my Squier Jazz Bass, and a third as a standalone unit that could be used externally. However, since this circuit was not meant to be external, it didn’t work properly. It’s designed to be attached directly to the pickups in the instrument, and having any substantial length of cable between those pickups and the preamp neutered the treble and lowered the overall output, and even beefing up the treble resistor didn’t give me the desired results. I had heard that signal buffers compensate for this cable loss, but I was skeptical. Still, they are cheap and easy to construct, so with nothing to lose I built my first buffer circuit. I immediately discovered, to my amazement, that buffers are a great tool. They do, in fact, compensate for the signal loss of long cable runs, and in the case of my standalone preamp, they give the input the kick it needs to work when there is twenty feet of cable in front of it rather than the six to ten inches it’s designed to have feeding it. Buffers are also how pedal manufacturers got around that pesky “input jack tied to the circuit at all times” issue–by buffering the output of the pedal, there is effectively no signal loss, and is in fact a clearer signal than if it had been true bypass. But, too many buffers and your tone will eventually break down, so having some of both styles is generally the way to go since true bypass introduces tiny amounts of capacitance and buffers reduce capacitance via impedance conversion. I know, lots of tech words, let’s just say buffers are salt and true bypass is a potato. As long as there is some mix of flavors it’ll be tasty, but too far in either direction isn’t appealing to anyone.
Buffers are a great example of “utility circuits”, things that are practical but don’t make funky noises. These are the bulk of what I build, and include (but are not limited to) studio switchers, a SubKick, custom cables, and lots and lots of DI boxes. DI boxes convert the signal coming out of a guitar or bass and make it match what a mixing board likes to see for input. There are passive ones that use a transformer, and active ones that use chipsets to accomplish the same goal (I prefer the sound of active, personally). These utility builds are kind of an ongoing project, I’m always tinkering with something that will make life better in the rehearsal room, on stage, or in the recording studio.
I also built an A/B/Y box for which I designed my own circuit. This expands on that original A/B circuit I first learned by adding a “both” function. I mostly did this to experiment with these new LED indicator rings I had discovered; they sit around the footswitch rather than as a separate piece elsewhere in the chassis. The A/B side is a color change between red and blue, and the Y or ‘both’ switch turns the color change off and lights up purple. While I didn’t immediately have a use for this, my other guitarist, Solak, did, and since he frequently drives me to and from practice I was more than happy to give it to him.
But let’s be honest….that stuff is all kinda boring. “Tell us about the pedals, Chris!” Okay, I will. After my initial success with the preamps, I decided to try building a pedal. Since I knew that a basic Fuzz Face circuit was A) tiny and B) something Zim had expressed a desire for, I decided to give it a shot. The first experiment ended poorly. Long story short, I had ordered reverse polarity parts and while I could build a circuit with them, it would never be practical with a modern power supply. Take two was better: I got the right parts, but my design for a layout on the board did not work. However, when I connected them together point to point, it worked great. Not wanting to scoff at success, I simply hot glued this version of the circuit to the inside of a mini chassis, added a knob to adjust the fuzz level (volume was permanently set at max), wired up a footswitch with an LED indicator ring, and BOOM! My first scratch built pedal. This was also when I decided to drop the cash on a forty dollar drill bit to make the holes in these project enclosures, prior to that I was hacking away with drill bits of other sizes until I got something that basically fit. Often I’d overshoot it, as evidenced by the A/B/Y box having a facing made of electrical tape to cover an oversized hole on one of the footswitches, but from here on out, my drilling would be accurate and much cleaner.
Zim thought this pedal was okay, but he was in the mood for something a bit more flexible. Since the Fuzz Face is literally a copy of a simplified version of the SolaSound Tone Bender, the next build was obvious….I was gonna make a Tone Bender. The main difference is that a Tone Bender has an extra amplification stage and a tone control. I also was sure to keep the volume knob on this one, the Fuzz Face can get a bit unruly when it’s driving other pedals. This was also my first experiment with “dot board” rather than “strip board”; with dot board you connect all the points manually to each other while strip board has traces you solder to, adding breaks and jumpers as necessary. I have since decided that I prefer strip board, and that isn’t uncommon amongst pedal cloners. This build mostly went without a hitch, probably the most notable thing was that I didn’t think it sounded right, and when comparing the parts layout I downloaded to an actual schematic, I found an additional diode added in the layout version. Since diodes are frequently used to choke a signal (they are how hard clipping distortions like the Boss DS-1 or the ProCo Rat achieve their…distortion), I took it out. BLAM! Instant improvement in performance. Both fuzzes still reside on Zim’s board to this day.
After that I figured, “well, that’s two of the classic fuzz circuits, how about a third that is completely different?” After watching the JHS video on Octave Fuzz 101, I decided I liked the foxx Tone Machine the most, so it became my next build. This time, I would do my own enclosure, just to see if I could. The only snag was a point where I got a few wires crossed and it started picking up the local soft rock station instead of outputting glorious, asymmetrical chaos, prompting the thought “S%*&. I have invented the worst pedal in the world. You turn it on, and it plays ‘Hotel California’.” I quickly corrected this error, and it turned out pretty boss. I did end up accidentally cracking the tone pot, and ended up dropping in whatever I had kicking around so it’s not the right value and doesn’t work that great, but I am not that crazy about tone controls, anyway. I usually just leave them turned mostly down on pedals, and mostly up on guitars. This was also the first pedal I christened with a name: the “Cosmic Splat”, a name stolen from my old guitar player who I no longer speak to. A little vindictive on my part? Probably, but it’s a cool name and he’s not using it.
Now that I had some experience, I got to feeling nostalgic about where this all started, and decided I wanted to take another swing at that ring modulator I built all those years ago. I even tried to track down the same enclosure and stick-on vinyl letters I used back in the day, but upon re-reading the chapter in the book about how to build it, I decided to add some stuff to this version. It mentions that one can shift the range of the effect by swapping out a particular capacitor, so I thought, “why not put three on a switch so I have low, medium, and high octaves? ” It also mentioned adding expression pedal control to a particular knob, and I thought “cool idea, but wrong knob”, so I allowed for the knob of my choice to be affected by an external foot treadle which only activates when plugged in (otherwise the knob on the unit adjusts that parameter). With that in mind, I ordered all the parts I needed, including a powder coated enclosure instead of a plain aluminum or black one, namely, a lurid purple that is quite reminiscent of Grimace from McDonaldLand. This was a tribute to the DOD Gonkulator, probably the most famous ring modulation pedal, which has dark purple, yellow, and lime green aesthetics. I chose a similar color scheme. What I had forgotten was the two battery thing. Unlike other two battery pedals, this was not two tied together in an 18V circuit, this was two separate 9v power sources of opposite polarity. To explain the problem, think of it as two one way streets. Each intersects the same major thoroughfare, and are directly across from one another. When you get to the main drag, there is nowhere else to go because if you try to drive down the opposite street, you will incur a head-on collision and die, so turning onto the main drag is your only option. Make sense? It’s compounded by the fact that both polarities are needed to fuel the circuit, so using only one side yields no results. This also means that it can’t be easily adapted to modern, single polarity power supplies. Sure, I could put one battery in there and plug in the other half, but if I’m pugging it in at all, I don’t want to use any batteries. With a little digging, I found a solution: a charge pump/voltage inverter circuit. It’s simple, tiny, pretty much self contained on its own chipset, in fact, and it outputs voltage both as an inverted and non-inverted supply. POW! Problem solved, and after a few hours of building I had me an upgraded replacement for my old ring modulator. Told you there was a happy ending.
Okay, I thought to myself, that was pleasantly quirky and I solved a huge problem rather creatively. Let’s do something else sorta obscure, but perhaps a little more practical. I started digging for boost circuits beyond the MXR Micro Amp; I’d already built one of those in my bass pedalboard and was looking for something that I might be able to do in stereo. You see, Zim uses a stereo rig and I’m always designing interesting ways of playing with signal routing with him in mind. Maybe one of those designs could have a boost stage? That was when I came upon this circuit. It’s super easy, and it involved a component I’d never used, namely a JFET. This is a type of transistor, but is thought to sound a bit more “tube like” than the BJTs one uses in a fuzz box. From a construction standpoint, this makes sense, and I won’t go into the technical aspects other than to say that the nature of a JFET filters out some of the ugly frequencies that a BJT amplifies. Plus, I am a fan of FET powered solid state Marshall amps, I have a couple and they sound really good for having no glowing glass inside. So I ordered up the parts, including a ridiculously oversized knob, and put it together in about an hour including drilling out the enclosure. I’m not sure why I picked yellow, it just felt right. Holy. Cats. This may be the best pedal I have ever built. Despite the incredible simplicity, it sounds astounding. Not snarly like a hard clipping distortion, not abrasive like a fuzz, and not boring like a soft clipping overdrive, this is it’s own unique beast. I describe it as “AC/DC” distortion, very rich and full without having a boatload of gain. It really sounds remarkably like my JTM45 turned up, I’m actually quite gobsmacked, I must say. Per request of a good friend of mine, Ryan, the creator of The Other Ass and spiritual father of The Electrofoods Colon Exploder, I’m building a second one for him. He even gave it its name: “The Knob”. Another neat feature I added later was an LED in the line on that knob. It’s a subtle touch, but I think it’s pretty cool.
Most recent at the time of writing is yet another fuzz pedal, though one that was a long time coming. Years ago when I was working at the music store, I built a custom switcher for my buddy Joe to use on his looper. It was super simple, just two footswitches and a jack if I remember correctly, and when it was done he asked if I could build a ZVEx Fuzz Factory. You see, like myself Joe is a huge MUSE fan, and the Fuzz Factory is the go-to pedal for their guitarist, Matthew Bellamy. At the time it was well beyond my skillset, but nowadays, it seemed feasible. The hard part was tracking down some “new old stock” germanium transistors; I eventually found a functional set made in the early 90s in Russia. Obviously, these aren’t impossible to find, but you can’t always guarantee their functionality, and you may spend good money on a piece that’s D.O.A. They aren’t that expensive, about five bucks each, but since modern silicone ones are between thirty-five and fifty cents, it is a quite a bummer if one is not working. The stumbling block with this one was that no two websites had the wiring configuration of the pots written the same way. I even consulted an actual schematic and drew up my own wiring diagram based on that, but it didn’t match anything I’d seen elsewhere. Ultimately, I found one buried in the deep corners of the interwebs that had several confirmations from people who had built it successfully, and while it was a tiring build, I got it done. Like the Tone Bender, there were some extraneous resistors not present on the schematic or any other version, so after testing it and finding it a tad anemic, I took them out and PLUG IN BABY! There was the sound in all of its Velcro ripping sexiness. I still haven’t taken the time to get to know this pedal well, by all reports that is a necessary part of Fuzz Factory ownership, but since I literally finished it this morning, I need a bit of time away from it before I start playing with it. This one has also been christened with a name: The Forged Fuzz. This is both a nod to the original pedal’s name, and an acknowledgment that it’s a less than perfect copy of someone else’s work.
And with that, my friends, we reach the end of another installment of Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World of Bass. I can say with one hundred percent certainty that there is more building in my future; I’ve already had another order for The Knob from Solak, so perhaps I’m onto something here. Not every hobby needs to be monetized, though, and I really enjoy building since each build is learning something new. There are very few things on Earth I enjoy more than learning, and I often find that learning by doing is even better since you end up with a tangible product at the end. Either way, I thank you for taking the time to indulge my writing about my various side projects. Now if you will excuse me, I have a stack of repair work and customizations to attend to before my vacation runs out, to say nothing of the two orders for The Knob to fulfill.
An overview of the world of guitar repair: what you should know as a player, and a few things to consider if you want to enter the field.
Hello, and welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World Of Bass!
I have mentionedon a fewoccasions how I used to work at a music store where one of my primary tasks was repairing instruments. I also have had an awful lot of free time over the past year, and one of the ways I’ve been biding said time is with videos about craft. Wood turning has become almost Zen like for me to watch, and time lapse videos of people building guitars are also quite soothing. Now, the reason that the YouTube algorithm suggested these to me is because I subscribe to a few repair channels, namely Stewart MacDonald Guitar Shop Supply (henceforth referred to as “StewMac”) and Ted Woodford, who is simply delightful in his Canadian-ness. Since these channels both demonstrate repair techniques in detail, I find them absolutely fascinating, especially Mr. Woodford since the bulk of what he does is outside of my wheelhouse as a repairman, but he makes it seem easy. This got me thinking about my days on the bench (I still do a lot of repair work, just not as a full time job and rarely for money), and this column began to appear in my mind. So, I give to you The Harsh Realities of Guitar Repair:
The important thing to realize is that instruments are organic, and as a result, they need regular maintenance. Since they are traditionally made predominantly of wood, the individual fibers can swell up or shrink depending on the ambient air temperature or moisture content, and this can be devastating if not compensated for. Sometimes, no amount of adjustment can fix a bad design; anyone who owns an Ovation with a giant crack down the top can attest to this. Nine times out of ten, though, that giant crack appears when the guitar is either left in a very dry environment for extended periods of time (an extremely common occurrence where I’m from since so many houses are wood heated), OR when a massive shift in temperature hits the instrument, for example, putting it in your car after a gig in February. The thermal shock of going from a hot bar/club to a frozen vehicle has wreaked havoc on countless instruments, and yet, people still refuse to learn. I used to see guitars all the time that were abused unwittingly, for instance, kept on a stand in the living room next to the wood stove without a humidifier in it. I would warn my customers when I would sell them the guitar to invest in a humidifier, but Yankee thriftiness triggered the “here we go with the add-ons” reaction and they would refuse, insisting that it would be fine; that the environmental issues that plague so many others would not befall them. A few months later they’d walk back in wanting a warrantee replacement since the top had a crack in it, and I would have the unenviable task of telling them that no, they cannot have a replacement since what they did counts as abuse. Another common problem was people putting heavy strings on their guitars “for better tone” but not dropping the cash to get it set up. I’d warn them, “you need to get your guitar adjusted to take the extra tension” and they’d insist it would be fine, since “so-and-so has been playing on heavy strings forever and he never got his guitar adjusted,” only to walk in a few months later with action high enough to drive a truck under at the twelfth fret, and expect me to fix it. I could usually bring it down somewhat, but never back to factory spec. Often times, especially with acoustic guitars, not only were the necks bent but the tops were caved in from these heavy strings, and there was nothing I could do about that. As a general rule, If you wait until it’s difficult to play to get it repaired, it’s probably too late. I would frequently try to explain the importance of routine maintenance to my customers by equating their guitars to their cars– “don’t you get an alignment when you switch to your snow tires? Why wouldn’t you adjust your guitar for different strings?” or “sure, that cable will connect your amp to your speaker, but it’s the wrong kind of cable; it’s a guitar cable, and you need a speaker cable. Just because it fits doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for the job. You can pour diesel into your gas tank, but the car won’t run on it, and you’ll ultimately damage the engine if you try”. This sometimes had the desired effect, but usually just got those aforementioned Yankee thriftiness hackles up.
So what are we, as instrument owners, to do? Well, the easiest, safest, and most economical way to prevent catastrophe is to think about the life the guitar is going to have in your care. It’s always wise to invest in a few extra pieces when you buy the guitar; get a case, and if it’s an acoustic and you don’t have a humidity controlled home, get a humidifier (basic ones cost around $20). You don’t need an outboard machine in your home for this, just a simple case humidifier works great as long as you check in on it regularly. Even without a humidifier, keeping a guitar in its case when not in use will prolong its existence, since it kind of creates its own little world in there removed from the outside. This is also true for electrics, though they tend to not be as persnickety as acoustics. Outside of the temperature and humidity concerns, play your instruments and get an idea for how they are feeling. To continue the car analogy, we all know people who rush to the mechanic the second they hear any abnormal sound from their vehicle, and while I don’t condone that level of paranoia, I do suggest that if your guitar feels “off” and you don’t know why, get it looked at by a pro. Chances are it will be an easy job, probably just routine maintenance, and by getting it done, you will save a lot of money, trauma, and possibly the guitar’s life.
Now, about that routine maintenance… I’ll level with you: those tasks are a Luthier’s bread and butter. They are where the real money lies, like playing covers in a wedding band versus performing your original project. And, like the wedding band, they’re all done somewhat begrudgingly. Repair guys know that this is what they have to do, but they don’t really like it. The fun stuff is what they yearn for, especially when it’s a sweet guitar (who wouldn’t want to do a full restoration on a pre-war Martin D18?). But those jobs are so incredibly rare that most of the work is rather mundane. To continue the car analogy, yeah, rebuilding the engine of a ’64 1/2 Mustang is awesome, but you’re gonna see many a Subaru Outback come in for an oil change before that Mustang appears. Having said that, it seems that the Luthier community as a whole has warmed up to their previously arcane knowledge becoming commonplace. Heck, some of the earliest videos StewMac posted were tutorials on routine maintenance. It’s quite possible that there is nobody in your town that can do this work, so it could be up to you to learn it. The good thing is that, with very rare exception, these routine jobs aren’t going to ruin or even devalue the guitar if you do them less than perfectly. Some can mar the finish if you aren’t careful, but as far as irreparable damage, you should be fine. So, I recommend that every guitar owner learns these basic tasks:
Truss rod adjustment
Setting the action on an electric guitar
Cleaning a guitar correctly, and which products to use
Basic soldering: learn how to solder a good joint, and how to undo one
Very basic fret dressing , in particular, the edges (frets extending beyond the edge of the fingerboard is incontrovertible proof that a guitar is too dry, but occasionally a manufacturer does trim them a bit long, or the guitar needs to settle in after it gets to its new home, so sometimes those edges do need a bit of touch-up).
Videos are easy to find on the internet explaining all of these, and you are safe to learn these skills. It should be obvious that if you go too far, you can break the instrument, but it will generally warn you. If you really have to torque on that nut to get it to move, DON’T DO IT. At that point, it has reached its capacity, and brute force will not fix the problem. On the other hand, if you don’t feel confident in your abilities, that’s fine. Most bands or scenes have at least one guy who has studied this stuff a bit, and if your town doesn’t have a repair guy, it’s probably got someone who will gladly adjust the truss rod for a few bucks/beers. Oh, and when you hear repairmen talking about “doing a setup job”, the above tasks are what that entails. Learning them is easy, fun, and a great way to keep your instrument in tip-top shape. I recommend giving it a going over every time there is a major shift in the weather; summer is pretty wet and winter is pretty dry, so depending on when it was last set up, it might not respond right to the current climate. At least go over it, and if you think it needs tweaking, then get it tweaked! (or tweak it yourself).
However, some tasks are incredibly difficult and should not be attempted by the average player. These include, but are not limited to:
Nut and saddle work
Reattaching an acoustic bridge
Fitting new parts that don’t have the same specs as the originals (tuners and pots that need holes reamed, positioning a new bridge, etc.)
Neck resets on acoustics
Anything that involves cutting/routing a hole in the guitar: adding more pickups, putting a humbucker where a single coil used to be, electrifying an acoustic, installing a Fender style trem/upgrading to a Floyd Rose, adding a Fernandes sustainer, etc. (drilling a small hole, for instance to add a strap button to an acoustic, is fine. But if it’s a big hole, and you are not mechanically inclined, leave it to the pros).
If you want to learn these skills, it is possible. But you definitely run the risk of causing permanent damage to the guitar, so proceed with caution. From here on out, I am going to write under the pretense that you have decided to delve into this world a bit, and are planning to hang up your shingle in this field. You may develop an area of expertise or you may be good at all of it. Maybe you are only interested in one facet of it; my guitarist, Zim, is great at finish work but still has me do his setup jobs. I can rewire and customize the electronics until the cows come home, but I have never tried to reattach a severed headstock, done a refret, or reset the neck on an acoustic (Kung-Fu style or otherwise). With that in mind, these are some things to know if you want to get really into this:
First off, if you have any doubt about your ability to fix something, DON’T TRY. Subcontract it or refer it to someone else who can do it. I learned this the hard way by trying to develop new skills on the job using books and articles on the web, but I only had disappointed customers as a result. It didn’t happen often, but the few times it did still leave me feeling cruddy inside over a decade later.
Conversely, the only way to really learn it is to do it. While this initially seems contradictory, it is true. To put it another way, don’t charge for a job you don’t know how to do, but always be learning on your down time. Buy crappy busted guitars at lawn sales and junk shops and experiment with harder tasks. When you are good at it, you can charge for that job, but don’t take a penny for your first ever refret or neck reset. Likewise, if you do try something a bit beyond your skillset and cause a problem, own up to your mistakes. If you screwed up and it took you three hours to fix your mistake, the customer does NOT owe you for that time. If you can’t fix your mistake at all, then you shouldn’t charge them anything, since they are going to have to spend more money to a better qualified tech to get it restored. You might lose that customer, or they just might appreciate your honesty and continue to give you business. Either way, treat them with respect, know your limits, and be ready to make good when you do bad.
Okay, so that’s the scary part out of the way. Just remember, this is a specialized skill, and like any specialized skill it takes refinement. Another thing it takes is tools, and to learn the art of Lutherie, you will need access to some very specific tools, such as nut and saddle files, fret files, a fretting hammer, nut drivers and Allen wrenches in multiple sizes, special purpose screwdrivers, screw extractors, and for the really complex jobs, assorted clamps and jigs of all sorts (bridge clamps, spool clamps, routing templates, neck removal jigs, neck setting jigs, headstock clamping jigs….) Some common tools are also required, like a soldering iron, multimeter, caliper, multiple regular screwdrivers, and a drill and bits. Professional refinishing requires a whole additional set of tools, like spray guns, a ventilated work area, and buffing wheels. This is not even close to a full list, there are many companies that sell these supplies exclusively; StewMac being the best known, though I am rather fond of Luthier’s Mercantile International. Granted, you don’t need all of this to start, but deciding what tasks you want to learn and acquiring the right tools is a big step. Perhaps you can apprentice or even get hired at a local guitar shop with a repair department, but even if you can’t, you can learn the fundamentals even without top level equipment. I cut my first nut with a steak knife and sandpaper, long before I even saw a proper nut file. Zim does all of his respraying with rattle cans, and pulls off some incredible thin skin nitro work. The most useful tools, however, are ones you cannot buy: patience and perseverance. Just like learning to play the guitar, it took a while to get where you are, so don’t assume that you are gonna be great at fixing them right out of the gate, either. Keep at it, and you’ll get better with practice.
So, flashing forward, you’ve got your tools and have learned some skills to the point of being good enough that you feel comfortable charging people to apply them. Here’s a few quick things to consider:
No aftermarket parts are direct drop in. Every one of them needs to be adjusted to the instrument itself. Whether it’s fine tuning the height of a new pickup or whether it’s turning a bone blank into an accurately intonated saddle for a twelve string, all aftermarket parts need a bit of dialing in to get them perfectly settled in their new home, and this was probably the hardest thing I ever tried to explain to my customers. “I need that thing up by the head where the strings go through,” they’d tell me. “You mean the nut?” I’d ask, often pointing to one on a nearby guitar. “Yeah, that part.” “Okay, what kind of guitar is it?” “It’s a Fender.” “Acoustic, electric, bass…..?” “Electric.” “American, Japanese, Mexican, Squier….?” “I don’t know, just give me that thing for a Fender.” Here was the moment where I would try to explain, in the simplest possible terms, that there isn’t one universal part. Depending on the factory, era, or model, that nut could be 1 11/16″, or 1 5/8″, or 1 3/4″, with a round bottom or a flat bottom, and even when they got the right thing it would still need to be final fitted to the instrument itself since the depth that the mounting slot was cut to could vary wildly between two guitars made back to back… I’d even use the car analogy (again) and say “there isn’t just one transmission for a Chevy, and even if there was, would you try to do that job yourself?” Of course, in rural Maine, yes, they would unquestionably try to do that job themselves, so this is where the comparison falls apart. But I’d still emphasize that, to put a new nut on your guitar, you will need to bring it to a tech (like me, for instance) who has the tools and knowledge to install it correctly. And, like the humidifiers and heavy strings mentioned above, they would think that I was trying to rip them off, and they would insist on buying the part, trying to put it in, screwing it up completely, and then bringing it to me to fix. And yes, I admit to a bit of schadenfreude at this point, because while replacing a nut was a job that I would round to a flat rate, me fixing your mistake, regardless of the task, was on hourly rate, and you can best believe that I am gonna charge you a whole lot more to do the job after you didn’t heed my advice the first time (and they were not pleased when I would tell them that they could have saved a ton of cash by just having me do it in the first place). It’s a sad reality, but you will have a lot of customers who are cheap and/or dumb. Learning how to deal with them takes some finesse, though you will most likely still get their business at the end of the day, because they will screw it up and someone will need to make it work again. This isn’t always the case since pride can be a tremendous thing to overcome. As a result, I have encountered my fair share of people trying to trade in guitars that have shoddy nut and/or saddle work done to them, to which I would always say, “this needs to be repaired before I can resell it, so I have to devalue your trade-in accordingly” and that would almost universally kill the deal. But, you can’t pull one over on the guy with genuine expertise, no matter how hard you try, and the mark of an expert versus an amateur is making the repairs imperceptible. Being able to fit aftermarket parts correctly is the first step towards being an expert.
Do not get emotionally attached to anything you are fixing. You didn’t think I would reach the end of this column without one of my signature anecdotes, did you? One of the first repair jobs I did for money was a Squier Bullet II from the early 80s. It came in as a box of parts and I was tasked with turning it back into a guitar. I did, in about a week’s time, and hung it on the String Swing above my bench and called the customer. Three and a half years later, they came in to pick it up. Now, I wasn’t particularly fond of this guitar, I don’t think I even touched it again except to make room for other instruments when I needed that wall hanger, but it became something of a fixture in my tiny little shop room. It hung over my bench like a picture of Jesus in a Catholic home, and when it was gone, I felt a bit adrift, spiritually. It had been there as a totem of my abilities, a benchmark (no pun intended) of what I was capable of and how far I’d come, and a reminder of what I aspired to do. I got over it eventually, but it stung for the first few weeks when I’d tell my boss or my coworkers that I needed some time on the bench only to go up there and not see that Squier.
Know the value of your work as well as the value of what you are repairing. This is an important point, because some people will pay three times the market value to restore grandpa’s beat-up old Harmony. This is shockingly common with something as personal as a guitar; perhaps it’s due to their respective affordability, but this is another place where the guitar/car comparison just falls apart. Most people fondly remember their first car, but they got rid of it long ago. Not so first guitars. It could also be the sheer size of the object, since one can’t really toss an old two-door Tercel in a corner of the attic to be rediscovered later. BUT we as humans do develop strong sentimental bonds to objects, especially ones that help to define our personalities. That first car represents freedom, independence, and responsibility. That first guitar represents personal expression, self-discovery, and your unique brand of creativity. Both are objects we employ to discover who we are. But, since the guitar is smaller and cheaper, we still have it, and one day, we will probably want to get it restored. Or, like many that I have done that kind of work on, the bereaved relatives of its former owner want it restored. Either way, be up front with the customer. Tell them openly and frankly that this is a hundred dollar guitar that needs three hundred dollars worth of work. Often times, the cost isn’t important, but the value is, in particular the sentimental value. Having that object that your parent/grandparent/child/aunt/uncle poured so much of themselves into restored to the glory that they always saw in it is a huge thing; it can almost make the departed come alive again. And I know that I just said to not get emotionally attached, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be emotionally invested. These repairs were always my favorites. Not because of the money, but for the looks on their faces when they’d see it for the first time after I’d fixed it. And part of them could tell that I put a bit of myself into that repair, that my love for all things guitar was now a part of that instrument’s lineage. It did not supersede the emotional investment of its former owner by any stretch, but it certainly complimented it. Putting more love into a cherished object is a valuable investment for me, and knowing that there are a few guitars out there that I was able to put that love into is a really good feeling.
And with that, we come to the end of another column. As has been the trend lately, I have been delving into some non-bass topics, though they are certainly bass adjacent. One thing to look forward to is an upcoming column in which I demonstrate some of these techniques as I build a bass. Zim and I have been working on it for several months, now, and completion is right around the corner. Until then, I thank you for reading, and as always:
How many notes do you really need? Sometimes, the answer is just one.
Hello, and welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World Of Bass! I was recently watching a video on one-chord songs, and I noticed something interesting: none of them had one note bass parts. This happened to coincide with me getting really into a song that has a bass part that is 90% one note, and as I am prone to do, I started pondering this phenomenon before coming up a with a handful of examples. It makes sense that the list of one-chord songs presented in the video didn’t have one-note grooves; most of the time, one-chord songs are built on riffs so the lack of melodic diversity in the backing track is an afterthought instead of the goal. Often there is a lot of motion in the vocal melody, for instance “Get The Party Started” by P!nk or “Chain Of Fools” by Aretha Franklin (both of which are examples from the video). These usually end up having one of those melodic instruments playing a simple part, thus allowing the bass to have plenty of motion. The one-note groove, however, is all about leaving room for lots of melodic motion in other instruments, from guitars to keys to horns. The goal is to keep it simple yet powerful and not step on the toes of your bandmates or make it confusing for the listener. In both cases the intent is the same: don’t clutter it up.
To be clear, the examples presented below are not one-note songs. Some are, but even those usually have a grace note or a gliss to break up the monotony. These are moments where the bassists use a pedal tone while the rest of the music changes around them to great effect. As I always do, I’m gonna start with the one the inspired it all:
“Destination Unknown”, Missing Persons; played by Patrick O’Hearn Let’s get this part out of the way: Dale Bozzio dressed weird and she has a very unique singing style. It seems everything I read about this band mentions those points first, so I’ll play along. They then all go on to talk about how they are mostly ex-Frank Zappa band members, some even point out that the famous live version of “Titties & Beer” features drummer Terry Bozzio as the Devil, and includes a point where he asks “Hey Dale, would you like to come up here and hold my pickle to satisfy this weird man out here on the stage?”. Then it’s usually a history of the band, and possibly something bemoaning their relative obscurity. What they rarely mention is their songs and how well they play them. It is always kind of waved off since it is assumed that anyone who is ex-Zappa is a stellar player, and while this is true, I think it deserves to be expounded upon. I don’t really know much from these guys; three, maybe four songs, tops. Since they have five studio albums plus a bunch of live releases, compilations, and collections of previously unreleased material, I have barely scratched the surface of what they have to offer, so I am in no way an expert. But I really like what I’ve heard, and especially this tune. It’s all about the groove on this one. Terry and Patrick just lock right in with each other, while guitarist Warren Cuccurullo and keyboardist Chuck Wild create some absolutely perfect New Wave with a “post-Cars” bed of palm muted twang over a swirling maelstrom of arpeggiated square waves. Throw in Dale’s predilection for wide hops in her melodies (for instance the lyric “I CAN see”) and Patrick is very wise to simply drone an ‘E’ until the mid-chorus bridge where the whole band shifts into a climbing pattern before going back to the groove. It really gets interesting when they double the chorus the second time around and Terry adds some hi-hat flourishes, before Patrick finally plays a three note line as the song fades out. It’s the part we’ve been waiting for all song, and it only happens at the end. This, my friends, demonstrates the awesome power of the one-note groove: it satisfies our musical desires, but just enough. It’s a very subtle tool in a bassist’s arsenal, but when applied correctly is absolutely devastating.
“Everyday People”, Sly And The Family Stone; played by Larry Graham It is a bit strange that I am thirty columns in and I have never mentioned Larry Graham before. This is the man who invented slap bass; his importance to the instrument is without question. But….I don’t really like slap bass. Sure, I can do it, and like hyperactive soloing and chordal patterns, it’s a skill I reserve for the right application. Adding it to every song is just not my style, though I admire players that can use it frequently and have it fit. I am not so funky as they. On this tune, however, Graham does not slap. He does not pop. He does not even change notes, opting for a steady eighth note pulse driving a single ‘G’ note. No grace notes, no glisses. One note. And it’s awesome. There’s a certain confidence in playing well below your peak, and doing it with conviction is even trickier. Here, though, Graham just crushes it. There’s really nothing to debate, it is literally everything you need and nothing you don’t — a study in efficiency, which just oozes confidence. Even Josh from Bass Buzz has extolled the virtues of this tune, and he does this stuff for a living, so I have a bit of support on this opinion.
“Magic Bus”, The Who; played by John Entwistle “But wait, Chris,” you say while waving a finger at the screen, “you previously mentioned this song in your list of tunes where you don’t envy the bassist because of how monotonous it is. Now you’re saying it’s awesome? What gives?” If you recall, I did not say the song was bad, the whole bit about the Live At Leeds conversation demonstrates that. I just really don’t care for the execution of the recorded version. As a comparison, let’s look at piece of literature that has been adapted countless times; since I am writing this in late December, I’ll use A Christmas Carol to demonstrate my point. Let’s say that you really dig the 1983 adaptation of the Dickens classic starring George C. Scott. Let’s also say that you find the 2009 motion capture/CGI one starring Jim Carrey to be creepy and unsettling. Does this mean that you don’t like the story? No, it just means you don’t like the way it was told that particular time. It also means that you are a perfectly normal human, because that Jim Carrey movie is some serious Uncanny Valley s%*t. That’s also the case with “Magic Bus”. It has the potential to be a good song, and part of that potential is in Entwistle’s restraint. I don’t dislike the tune, nor do I think that it needs more notes in the bass. But I don’t envy him for one simple reason: HE’S JOHN FREAKIN’ ENTWISTLE. He’s The Ox. Thunderfingers. He is one of very few players that can make overplaying a strength, and mostly because he’s trying to keep up with Keith Moon who is the textbook definition of overplaying. You see, I have become very sensitive to overplaying in the past few years. I have worked with a lot of bassists who overplay; and for a long time I was one (and nearly all of us overplayers were once guitarists). Don’t even get me started on drummers who overplay; that’s annoying and loud. As a result, I have dedicated the last few years of my life to learning how to drop into a pocket and just groove, and this song is demonstration of that idea, even if I am not really that into it. I think it’s interesting that the man who played “Won’t Get Fooled Again” recognized that all this song needed was the one note. Usually people like him who are not only known but lauded for their embellishments cannot resist the temptation to always play that way. I’m sure he tried to fit other stuff in there, and none of it stuck, so if he ultimately decided that more notes were unnecessary, who am I to argue? (who who/who who?). It’s true that I would not want to be in his position of having to play a one-note groove because nothing else really works, especially since he is legendary for his ability to do so much more. But the fact that he did go that route, and the fact that it is still effective as a bass part, propelling the song forward when little else does (albeit with the stiffest groove of any of these eight songs) garners it a place on this list.
“Tomorrow Never Knows”, The Beatles; played by Paul McCartney I usually try to avoid musical analysis of the giant acts like The Beatles, Stones, and Beach Boys, and while I certainlyhave done itbefore, I have always tried to approach it from a personal/emotional perspective rather than a theory based one. I am pretty sure that if you took every word I have ever written in my life, it would not hold a candle to the number of words written analyzing these artists. There is literally nothing new I can say about them, and I feel like a hack regurgitating what is either common knowledge to obsessive fans/armchair music critics or flat out stealing someone else’s work and trying to feign cleverness. I could talk about how this song was inspired by LSD and The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, or expound on its innovative use of samples and tape loops, or even wax poetic on how it was written specifically to eschew all of the previously established foundations of pop songcraft: its lack of chord changes and the impossibility of performing it onstage as a four piece rock band. But I won’t. Just go listen to it. It’s amazing and it doesn’t need me to speak for it.
“Runnin’ With The Devil”, Van Halen; played by Michael Anthony I am not ashamed to admit that I really like Van Halen. I even enjoy Van Hagar. While I am a greatest hits guy, through and through, I still firmly believe that they are incredibly significant to the history of Rock And Roll. So significant, in fact, that I really don’t care that Eddie was apparently a colossal prick and Dave is unquestionably a complete tosser. The force that grounded that whole band is, was, and forever shall be Michael Anthony. In addition to those high tenor vocals, he was the heart and soul of that band, to the point that bringing Dave back into the fold felt like a cash grab and not a happy reunion, since Michael wasn’t there, replaced by Eddie’s son Wolfgang. Crucially, Michael played to the strengths of the group, not for his own ego. While Wolfgang probably did what his dad told him to, Michael seemed to always know what the right part was. I mean, think about it: if everyone was playing at their peak capacity all the time, it would be unlistenable. The fact that Alex and Michael tended to “dumb themselves down” speaks volumes. We know from “Hot For Teacher” that Alex is a monster behind the kit, and Michael would often play solos during their stadium tours, though not as part of a song, proving his prodigious talent. On this tune, though, he opts for the one-note groove. While clearly not a one-note song, that thudding low ‘E’ sets the tone right away. Even if you don’t recognize the swirling car horns that preface the instruments, you definitely recognize that steady thunk that opens the tune. This leaves plenty of room for Eddie’s guitar pyrotechnics and Dave’s over-the-top vocal gesticulations (“GoddamnitbabyyouknowIain’tlyin’toyaI’monlygon’tellyouonetimeAhhhyaaaa!”, anyone?), and suggests instantly what the pace and attitude of the song are going to be. Menacing, thunderous, and just aggressive enough, it leaves no question what kind of ride we’re about to go on. This is a master class in the one-note groove, and I wish more bassists could recognize when to pull it back and let the song breathe.
“My Mathematical Mind”, Spoon; played by Britt Daniel This one is kinda cheating, since the one note is in fact an octave gliss, but it’s still only one note: ‘G’ (curious how many of these songs are in either ‘E’ or ‘G’). However, since it is technically one note just in different octaves, I’m gonna let it slide. Like most of these entries this is not a one-note song, but the points where it is holding one note are extremely effective. Using a steady pulse to reinforce the 12/8 rhythm, the execution of which is very Bonham-esque, this is a bit more plodding and monotonous than the others on this list (except for “Magic Bus”). Rather than try to find the ebullience or insistence in the one-note groove, this tune has something of a feet dragging vibe, rather dark and gloomy. Given that the lyrics directly reference the apocalypse, though in a positive light, this isn’t really that surprising. Spoon rarely tie in a musical mood to their lyrics, their songs are often self-contained contradictions in theme and tone, like how “The Underdog” is a meditation on the impermanence of the human condition accompanied by Mariachi horns or “Outlier” is a bouncing dance track about losing respect for a friend. Even later on the album this song is from we have “Sister Jack”, a tune that apes mid-period Beatles songwriting with lyrics about playing in “a drop-D Metal band we called Requiem”. Here, though, the lyrics and mood are in sync with one another, and a big part of that is the one-note groove. The bass almost doubles the left hand of the piano, while the right hand shifts between chords with an anticipated feel, built around a three over two vertical hemiola, known in some circles as the “nice cup of tea” rhythm . This is, in fact, a remarkably flexible groove to play in, allowing multiple time signatures to be superimposed on top of it depending on whether you follow the three side or the two side. I hadn’t noticed that they were using the hemiola until I sat down to write this column; it’s a rhythmic technique I’ve recently started putting some thought into since I use it on one of my band’s songs and I just did a recording of “Carol Of The Bells” for this Christmas season, and that song is all about that rhythm. On this tune, the bass is following the three side, as are nearly all of the instruments, it’s pretty much that right hand on the piano that is locked into the two. Either way, it’s an extremely effective application of the one-note groove, and noticeable because it’s in an unconventional time signature.
“Walk Idiot Walk”, The Hives; played by Dr. Matt Destruction I openly admit that I am cheating a bit here, too. While there are grace notes aplenty (they open the darn song, after all), the main pulse of this tune is that pummeling ‘E’ note. The guitar riffs and vocal melodies change, but Dr. Matt just beats all the life out of that note and continues to hammer on it relentlessly. I’m giving this one a pass because one could hold that ‘E’ throughout the bulk of the song without the grace notes and it would totally work. Like, I can picture a bunch of kids in a garage or basement, playing this song without the subtleties of the original performance and it still sounding right to the average listener. Granted, that would never happen because kids don’t form rock bands any more, and if they do, they certainly aren’t playing stuff that sounds anything like this. Of course, that scenario is apt since The Hives are one of the pillars of the “Garage Rock Revival” from the early 2000s, and one of the few who actually sound like legit Garage Rock. I dig The Strokes, and I can tolerate The White Stripes and The Black Keys, but they owe more to underground Rock and Blues acts than any of the genuine icons of Garage Rock. Let’s be honest, The Strokes are trying to sound like The Velvet Underground, and both The White Stripes and The Black Keys tip their hats to Hound Dog Taylor and John Lee Hooker pretty frequently. But if you give “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by The 13th Floor Elevators or “Have Love, Will Travel” by The Sonics a spin, you can immediately hear what The Hives are trying to accomplish. And holy hell, do they accomplish it. This is absolutely majestic to my ears; a perfectly distilled version of what makes Rock And Roll so magical. Pounding drums, spiky guitars, vocals shouted to the point of cracking, and that aforementioned pummeling bass; this, right here, is why Rock music exists. I’m all for experimentation and intellect, but ultimately, Rock music is about the energy and man oh man, The Hives understand that like few others.
“Thunderstruck”, AC/DC; played by Cliff Williams I can confidently say that nobody in the history of popular music has ever gained as much mileage out of the one-note groove as AC/DC. While they have incorporated it so much that trying to enumerate examples would basically be a Wikipedia page, “Live Wire” and “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock n’ Roll)” (both played by Mark Evans) defined the trend, and “Thunderstruck” is where it really shines. The amazing thing is that even the guitars lock into this groove. Yes, I know I am overusing that word in this column, but if there is any word that epitomizes AC/DC more than “groove” I have yet to find it. Malcolm Young was possibly the greatest rhythm guitarist in the history of mankind, and almost exclusively by choice. By all reports, not only was he a capable lead player, but he was better than his kid brother. However, Angus had the personality, the swagger of a lead player, and Malcolm knew it. He therefore chose to play the chords, and a legend was born. I have talked before about my love of great rhythm playing, and while my passion may have initially come from Keith Richards and his acolytes, once I found Malcolm Young, I knew I had found the best of the best. Of course, this worked so well because of the economy of their sound, and a major component of that was the bass NEVER interfering with the guitar. Even if that means holding one note while the guitar chords change, AC/DC lives and dies by the adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t break it”. Heck, they even tour with the same gear that they’ve been using for almost forty years. That is astounding. And yes, while there are several songs that display the one-note groove, I am going with “Thunderstruck”. It’s one of the few Brian Johnson era tunes I genuinely love (I’m a Bon Scott man at heart), and the way that it builds is sublime. From that signature guitar lick with a steady count on the hi-hats to the “THUNDER! a haa haa haa aah aah” backing vocals, it’s a slow crescendo. The entire time Cliff holds a ‘B’ note. Even when the song kicks in at the first chorus (I guess you’d call it that, it’s where they say the name of the tune), he still holds that pedal tone. Malcolm is emphasizing other chords as necessary, Angus goes from that famous lick to chords as well, and Chris Slade shifts to a drum part in earnest, whilst CLIFF PLAYS ONE NOTE IN THE SAME RHYTHM. He literally does not alter this until the lead-in to the second chorus, which is a whole new part. And honestly, every time the bass changes for the rest of the song it’s a whole new part. Sure, they’re all slight variations on a theme, but they are three distinct chord structures, hinted at earlier by Malcolm, that are glued together by that one ‘B’ note. There is a reason that this is considered the last “classic” AC/DC track: unlike the albums they’ve released since; unlike the albums they released between Back In Black and Razor’s Edge; heck unlike most of the rest of the Razor’s Edge album, this one does not sound like they are trying to sound like themselves. It’s easy to write an AC/DC song, Jim Breuer has a comedy bit where he impersonates them playing “The Hokey Pokey” that is uncanny, and a huge part of that is how his bassist uses the one-note groove. It’s unfortunate that they were pretty much a self parody for so long (and still are, sadly) but “Thunderstruck” will always exist as the last flame lit by the original spark.
And with that, we have thirty columns complete. As you can probably fathom from the fact that I have taken four and a half years to write these thirty columns, I am more interested in quality than quantity. Sure, I could spit out a new column every couple of weeks, but I would ultimately deviate into negative stuff like “why bass solos suck” or “ten reasons I can’t stand Jaco”; or perhaps boring crap like “Fender basses you didn’t know existed” or “awesome bass parts volume four hundred and two” and I just don’t want to put that stuff out. I’ve considered a lot of it, and some of the things I’ve released included text that I salvaged from pieces I threw out whole cloth because I was unhappy with them. I’d rather wait to write something I can be proud of, even if that means months between entries, than turn a crank and parrot my previous successes, or worse, delve into topics that would guarantee my failure .
That is also how I approach my playing, and in case it’s not obvious, that is what I admire about these songs. Like a lot of the topics I cover, there are probably many examples of this that I am not including at the time; for instance, the entire genre of Djent. That could not exist without the one-note groove, honestly, but my knowledge of it begins and ends with Jared Dines making fun of it. Either way, if you can think of other examples, I’d love to read them in the comments.
As always, thanks for reading. Here’s to thirty columns and more to come!
There are some who say that sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers. I’m going to test that theory.
Today on Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World Of Bass, I’m going to do something radically different: I’m not going to talk about bass. I know, I know, it’s in the title of the blog, but there are occasionally bigger concepts to be addressed, and since I write about the pop culture aspect of bass rather than the music theory side, I’m gonna do one of my thought pieces about one of those bigger concepts. Theory guys on YouTube often do “bigger concept” videos, like Adam Neely demonstrating how to count in a 7/11 time signature or, well, pretty much everything David Bennett Piano does. So with that feeble justification established, I want to talk about my love/hate relationship with Classic Rock.
It has become something of a joke at band practice that one of our guitarists, Solak, loves anything played on Classic Rock radio, and the other, Zim, hates the bulk of it. As the resident “well, actually” know-it-all in the band, I am extremely vocal when I disagree with Solak’s carte blanche acceptance of everything on the radio station in our town whose name is literally a reference to Led Zeppelin (WBLM, a.k.a, “The Blimp”). After about the hundredth time that I was unable to turn off the compulsion to explain, in excruciating detail, why Steely Dan is the worst band in history, or why Bob Seger has only written two good songs in his entire career, I got to wondering why we had such vastly different approaches to the same material. It’s no secret that I tend to like “uglier” music than Solak; he doesn’t get the Velvet Underground and I think they are one of the most significant bands in all of Rock. I tried to play him Gang Of Four once, and after about thirty seconds, he was making a face like I was flirting with his mom, so I turned it off.
I should warn you ahead of time that I do get a bit vitriolic, which is contrary to my general approach to try and spread joy. But if I’m going to express the “hate” side of a love/hate relationship, that’s bound to happen, and ultimately, I’m not really an angry person. I just get really annoyed when everyone else is so obviously wrong(!). So with that established, let’s dive in…..
I was born in the mid 1970s, and came to adulthood in the early 1990s. As you can surmise, I was privy to New Wave, Synth Pop, Hair Metal, and Grunge being played on the radio as I progressed through the years, and nowadays all of these genres have been added to the “Classic Rock” canon. I’m totally okay with this, since that has been my default radio genre since I was a teen; nearly everyone I know my age listened to Classic Rock, Contemporary Pop/R&B, or New Country growing up. If you liked loud guitars, you would generally listen to the stations that played Zeppelin, Floyd, AC/DC, and so on, regardless of what your actual favorite bands were. This was mostly due to the fact that the genre had yet to adopt the “Classic” moniker, they were just Rock stations, equally prone to play an Aerosmith song from 1975 as a new release from Guns N’ Roses. When they divided in the late 90s into Classic Rock (Zeppelin) and Modern Rock (Godsmack), the bulk of the stuff I liked would be found on Classic Rock stations. This was extremely common among musicians in my age bracket, since we’d all been fed the same musical diet, we just kept consuming it even after we’d moved beyond what was immediately available on the radio. As a result, someone who loved Iron Maiden was just as likely to listen to Classic Rock broadcasting as someone who loved The Ramones, since neither band got much coverage on mainstream airwaves, and the stations playing Blues based arena anthems were more palatable than the ones playing canned thumping electronic beats and tender bedroom ballads, or worse, boot scootin’ line dancing soundtracks. Subsequently, there’s a batch of people who were groomed by listening to, owning, and appreciating a particular cache of artists and records that became a shorthand of what it meant to be a Rock and Roll fan. You could prefer other styles, like the aforementioned New Wave, Metal, College Rock, Grunge, Punk, Glam, Arena Rock, and so on, but if you were gonna call yourself a fan of Rock and Roll, you were expected to agree that the material on Classic Rock radio was beyond reproach. Unfortunately, Classic Rock contains an awful lot of garbage (like every genre), yet nobody seems to want to acknowledge that fact. Well, that’s what this column is all about. Folks, we have long worked under the idea that everything on Classic Rock radio is good. Some songs might not be as good as the rest, some may be incredible, and there might even be a song here or there that we actually dislike, but overall, we are led to believe that if it’s from that window of time after Beatlemania but before Disco, it is somehow a sacred text that is above criticism. As my generation enters their fifties, the time span of acceptable music for these stations increases to include the decades of our childhood, and, ironically, the playlists now are practically identical to the ones we had growing up. But despite that sweet, sweet milk from the nostalgia teat, I just don’t understand why we are expected to revere Classic Rock as flawless but not other genres. Oldies are recognized for having dopey content, whether it’s schmaltzy songs about getting home before curfew or the over-the-top vocal gesticulations of Doo-Wop (“bom diddy bom de dang de dang diddy diddy” and such). Marches are reserved for civic pride moments, and Classical is for weirdos. Jazz has pundits for both the early Swing era and the more advanced Bop stuff; even the free form atonal mess that it became when they decided that intellectualism was more important than being able to dance has its defenders, and all of these factions will disagree about which is the true Jazz. Blues has proponents of the original juke joint/Delta/gutbucket stuff, where one guy with an acoustic guitar will bemoan his circumstance, possibly accompanied by a harmonica; as well as advocates of the Chicago style– full band jump Blues played loud to encourage people to dance erotically. Even Country has pockets of listeners who can’t stand the “Bro” style popular now, favoring the trappings of the genre up to and including the Hee-Haw years, but nothing beyond that. Pop is an outlier in that its approach is the opposite: it almost never acknowledges its history, by definition, it’s about what’s popular now. Classic Rock, though, is fed to us in such a way that it becomes an all or nothing proposition, and I gotta tell you, I sometimes think that I should have opted for nothing a long time ago. I am convinced that the mentality of “all Classic Rock is good” is courtesy of Baby Boomers. I have said before that Millennials have no cynicism in their nostalgia and I thoroughly believe that they learned this from the Boomers. Boomers practically invented the idea of equating memory with quality, rather than applying a rubric for either. As a proud member of Generation X, I have nothing but rubrics, and especially for nostalgia. I’ll give you an example: when I was a kid in the late 70s/early 80s, I absolutely adored the various cartoons of DC superheroes branded as The Super Friends. Each season had a slightly different title, and different lineups, but they all had Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, and to my pre-pubescent eyes, they were the bee’s knees. They went off the air when I was around ten or so, and after a weekend or two of being upset, I didn’t think much of it. I had the toys, anyway, so the adventures could continue well after Saturday morning had faded into memory. Fast forward to my early thirties when I had cable and one of the networks started to run the old Super Friends shows, which I immediately set about rewatching. They were horrible. Cheap animation, weak voice acting, paper thin stories, and the characters meant to appeal to minorities were blatantly racist stereotypes. I remembered them as good, but theymost certainly were not. However, I still enjoyed the experience of revisiting them. The pleasure was in how bad they were, a reflection of not only my own development, but an appreciation of the kitsch that they possessed. They weren’t quality, but they were fun, and that has value in itself. Boomers don’t do this. They perceive themselves as the curators of culture; a culture they did little to nothing to create. It’s akin to when you hear a sports fan talk about their favorite team as though they play on it. “We were down twenty three points at the half, but we sure came back in that third quarter, didn’t we?” Did you? Please tell me exactly: how did you watching TV, drinking domestic beer and eating junk food have any effect on the game? This is how Boomers approach culture, especially music. Most of the bands beloved by Boomers just emulated black music from two decades prior, a fact many of the performers willingly admit to while the fan base tries to turn a deaf ear to these claims. There certainly were some exceptional people in their generation, but Boomers wrongly attribute that exceptionality to the era they were born in, not the motivation and influences of the individual, and then they apply those attributes to themselves by proxy. All those Blues lawyers who think that owning a pre-CBS Strat will make them play as well as Jimi did demonstrate this mentality, despite the fact that Jimi was doing what he did on contemporary, i.e., CBS Strats, and before he could afford one of those, he was doing it on a Danelectro. The fact that Jimi was an innovator with an incredible imagination and a passion unfettered by conventions is overlooked because “he was a Boomer, so therefore all Boomers must be amazing”. Technically, Jimi wasn’t even a Boomer; like the members of The Beatles, Stones, and most of the first wave of Classic Rock bands, he was part of The Silent Generation, but Boomers lump those guys into their collective to make themselves feel significant. Now, my cynical Gen X ass is completely hypocritical in this regard: I am not better by virtue of my generation, but they are worse by virtue of theirs. That is a completely unfair and biased comparison, full of cognitive dissonance to prove the crapulence of Boomers, and I don’t care. We observed their generation, as Millennials and Zoomers have observed ours, learning an assortment of behaviors and attitudes, and we all made mistakes. Boomers, however, refuse to recognize their mistakes. Sure, there was some amazing music, cinema, and cultural progress in the years they ruled the zeitgeist. There were also the seeds sown for the environmental destruction, systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia/transphobia, and economic collapse that plague our planet now. The rampant selfishness of this generation is single-handedly responsible for the problems we are now trying to solve, and while I can say that the apathy that my generation adopted as our default state unquestionably exacerbated the problem, we are now trying to do something about it. Boomers think that they have already done their part by dropping acid at Woodstock or signing a petition supporting Doctor King back in the day. This manifests itself in the way we are encouraged to appreciate Classic Rock. There was a sketch on Saturday Night Live a few years back called “Millennial Millions” where Millennials tried to win money by listening to Boomers complain about their first world problems (possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen on the show in years), and when they introduce “The Collector Boomer” by having him react to Three Dog Night by saying “now THIS is music!” it demonstrates perfectly what I’m talking about. Three Dog Night is not a good band; I mean, they turned Harry Nilsson’s “One” from a frail meditation on isolation and solitude to a bombastic, overwrought mini-opera. I’m all in favor of massive orchestration, but while it fits songs about blue skies overtaking days of rain or Scaramouche doing the Fandango, it does not fit a song addressing how miserable it feels to have nobody else in your life. And this extrapolation, that belief that Three Dog Night is quality because they were born at the right time is so ingrained in Classic Rock that people who aren’t even Boomers demonstrate it.
Perhaps my biggest annoyance with the Classic Rock logic structure is the talent debate. Now, I’ve come out against thismany times before, and I hold to that opinion. Talent does not equal quality, period, and neither does passion. For me, quality is defined by craft, which is a mix of talent and passion, and ultimately is codified by a simple question: how well do you convey what you are trying to convey? Are you trying to tell a story? Does that story have a moral, or is it just a narrative? Are you trying to express an emotion? Do you want your audience to experience the same emotion, or just empathize with it? Are you trying to broaden or even change minds, or do you simply want to express your side in hope of finding kindred spirits in your audience? All of these require craft to accomplish, and as mentioned, talent is a component of craft. It is not, however, the be all and end all. Since the Boomer generation was the first to have free time and disposable income, something like getting good at guitar became a worthy goal for a youngster in the late 50s/early 60s. Therefore, most people have an idea of what is required to develop a dexterity with the instrument, either from direct experience or indirectly from witnessing someone they know attempt it. An even more rudimentary version would be singing; it stands to reason that everyone who can speak has tried to sing at some point to varying degrees of success, so we all know what a “good” singer sounds like (and whether or not we are one). One could say the same of drums, since anyone who can clap, bang, or stomp has a concept of rhythm, even if they can’t create it fluently. Using myself as an example, I can play deeply danceable grooves, but I am easily the worst dancer I have ever seen; I am embarrassingly white when it comes to cutting a rug. So with that in mind, we can see why people think that if you are talented at something, it must be quality. Whether that’s a talent from countless hours of refinement, or whether it’s an innate ability is irrelevant, it is assumed that if you can do it technically better than most, then you must be worthy of reverence. That is wholly wrong. Let’s say we have a guitar player who can peel off long, complex runs of notes with both speed and precision. Let’s also say that this player’s timing is metronome perfect. Does that mean that their output is quality? No, and here’s why: there is no accounting for any of the other multitude of factors that contribute to a quality tune. How is their songwriting? Is it catchy, sticking in your memory and activating the pleasure centers of your brain thus making you want to hear it again, or is it just a series of uncommon scales over a nondescript chord progression? How about the production: is it evocative and dynamic, or does it just sound like some guys in a garage or at the corner bar on open mic night? Are the lyrics interesting, telling a story or expressing an emotion, or are they mindless pap and sophomoric innuendo? Does the guitar’s tone sound good, or is it shrill and piercing or, conversely, muddy and undefined? Does that metronome perfect timing blend well with the groove created by the rhythm section? Do those complex note runs take the song anywhere, or is it just an excuse to show off? A great demonstration of how this can go wrong would be the Shred movement from the 1980s. It never went mainstream because it was pure technical accomplishment; tons of talent but almost no good songs. Sure, Steve Vai sold a lot of records, but more people heard him backing up David Lee Roth and didn’t care who the guitar player was. Satriani wrote a song that had a distinct enough melody that when Coldplay used the same one, they got a career defining hit. Why didn’t his version sell millions of copies? Because his feels like a bunch of carefully selected notes chosen after a chord progression was written or possibly even calculated, while theirs feels like a proper melody; that is, something that popped into to the songwriter’s head and seemed like a good idea to build a song from. There are still guys that are butthurt that Yngwie and Michael Angelo Batio “never got their due”, and Eric Johnson is anachronistically lauded as relevant today. Joe Bonamassa makes a comfortable living by regurgitating his culturally appropriated brand of wankery to huge crowds in awe of “his talent”. But none of these artists, NOT A ONE, has created a song that actually affects the human soul. Sure, they can get you thinking, or even impress you with their chops, but they aren’t gonna make you want to dance, laugh, or cry; and you sure as hell aren’t gonna stand outside your lover’s window holding a boombox over your head blasting one of their tunes. They have been focusing on developing and refining their technical ability, because they believe, erroneously, that it is the only arbiter of quality in their field. And points to ‘em, they make a living off of it and I don’t, so my opinion doesn’t really matter to anyone but me. But that ain’t gonna stop me from believing it or expressing it. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention where this lie began: Eric Clapton. He’s certainly created some incredible music; I like Derek And The Dominos, and there are even isolated songs or moments from his solo career that hit me in the right place- “Tears In Heaven” is a beautiful song performed well (even if the overall result is cheesy as hell), and there’s a crazy, over-bent note in the solo of “No Alibis” that still gets me every time I hear it (a trick he recycled on every solo from his appearance at the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary tribute concert, especially on “My Back Pages”). But, his followers latched onto the fact that he consciously studied the patterns of Blues music and filtered them until they were palatable to a white audience; unsurprising considering his opinions about fascism and immigration in the mid 70s. And before anyone tries to defend Clapton as a passionate auteur, let me point out that the second chapter of his autobiography is him detailing how he studied the masters and broke down their techniques to incorporate them into his own playing. His initial motivation may have been emotional, but his execution is completely intellectual; he learned what notes you need to play the Blues, rather than what it actually means to play them.
Okay, so we’ve established that Boomers take all the credit for anything good that happened in their lifetime, and pass the blame on anything bad. We’ve also seen how people ignorantly associate talent with quality, but there’s one more piece of the Classic Rock puzzle to fit in yet: the populist mentality.
In my experience, most Classic Rock fans cling to the idea that if it sold a bunch of copies, it must be quality; the “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” approach. While not every artist is considered iconic, many are given a very wide berth when discussing their output. Take Def Leppard, for instance. While plenty of people I know genuinely like Def Leppard, most laugh at the “what has nine arms and sucks?” joke, too. With rare exception, nearly everyone who bought Hysteria or Pyromania as new releases now sees how silly they always were, and yet they get regular rotation on Classic Rock radio. Like the Super Friends example from before, there is a lot of self-reflective, slightly embarrassed nostalgia involved in singing along with “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, and that’s totally fine. They fit the same role as KISS; they’re fun, dumb, and accessible, and that is its own form of craft. They wanted to write a simple song about bumping uglies that people could sing along to in an arena, and they hit that nail squarely on the head. It doesn’t have the transcendence of “A Day In The Life”, but it’s noticeably more refined than “Wango Tango”. To put it another way, not everything needs to be art, but it is always better when there is at least an intent. The issue is when stuff that doesn’t deserve any acclaim because of its lack of craft is cited as sacred simply because everyone bought it. I can disprove this with two words: Debby Boone. For those who don’t know, Debby Boone released a version of “You Light Up My LIfe” in 1977 (infamously, the same week that The Sex Pistols were on the cover of Rolling Stone), which sold like gangbusters. It sold so well that even in 2013, it was the ninth best selling single of all time. Yes, even less than ten years ago, it was in the top ten best selling singles in history, a feat not even The Beatles accomplished. Or Michael Jackson, or Mariah Carey, or Elvis or Madonna, or Elton John, or any of the icons of Pop music. Take a second for that to sink in. So, if it sold that well, it must be an incredible song, right? Have you heard it? If you have, I’m sorry. If you haven’t, you can educate yourself if you want, but I’d suggest counting your blessings instead. And while she finally left that top ten in 2018, for nearly four decades after its release, her single was still one of the greatest success stories ever. It clearly isn’t iconic of the era, it doesn’t even get regular spin on Easy Listening stations (I assume; I’ve not spent much time in an office cubicle or dentist’s waiting room in recent years, but back when those were oft visited locales, I didn’t hear it, either). Within the Classic Rock milieu, one of the most commonly cited examples of this ideology is the first Boston record. Why is this held up as an all-time classic? How good is it, really? Sure it sold twenty million copies, but so did a lot of things like Lionel Richie and Tracy Chapman, and they are not considered “must listen” artists. Now, I’d personally rather listen to Boston than Lionel Richie, but given my druthers, I’d prefer to listen to neither. Boston has a distinct sound, and some well crafted songs, but are they really worthy of icon status? Maybe they are, maybe not, but I’m pretty sure that nobody says that Boston is their all-time favorite band. They’re fine, but not worthy of the pedestal they are put upon by Classic Rock fans. If you genuinely like them, that’s great. But if your only defense for them is that they sold twenty million copies of their debut album, I say fie on you and damn your eyes for you are only defending Debby Boone with that argument. And, like Clapton with the talent thing, by far the worst proponent of this is Van Morrison. As with Clapton, he has a song or two I enjoy, but overall, his output is shockingly bad. He makes no bones about the fact that he does not care about the art, and is only in it for a paycheck. He once recorded an entire album of deliberately terrible songs to get out of a record contract early on, and that flippant attitude has stuck with him to this day. There’s literally a song from this album called “The Big Royalty Check” that demonstrates how little he cares about anything else, since he couldn’t bother to tune his guitar, write lyrics ahead of time, or even sing on key. He wasted other people’s time and money to throw a hissy fit because he wasn’t getting paid what he thought he deserved, and he got away with it: he was dropped by that label and signed to another immediately. For pretty much the rest of his career, he has shown how unimportant craft is to him, since he knows that the suckers will always buy it. “It’s the guy who sang “Moondance”,” they’ll say, “that song was playing at the Winter Carnival when I had my first kiss!” So what? That doesn’t mean it’s good, it just means you remember it. But those get equated in the Boomer brain, and Moondance and Astral Weeks are presented to subsequent generations as iconic records when they are in reality a boring set of flaccid tunes by a lackluster singer who only wants your cash in his pocket. At least when he squeezed into a purple jumpsuit and got coked out of his mind with The Band he had some energy and gave a mildly entertaining performance, but beyond that incident, pretty much everything else I’ve seen and heard from him reeks of how much he’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, and spending your hard earned dollars in the process. Plus, he’s a Covid denier who opposes social distancing because he doesn’t like the way it makes a crowd look. What that really means is that you can’t get as many bodies in the room, therefore less tickets sold, therefore less money for him. Typical selfish Boomer.
Now, I’m guessing that some of you are thinking “wow, Chris, you really hate Boomers”. Well, no, not really. I just am very disappointed in the state they’ve left the world in, the messes they made that they expect others to clean up (like, oh, I don’t know, the Gen Xers, maybe?). And realistically, the only one of those messes I can legitimately complain about is the programming on the radio stations they prefer. I’m angry that I was spoon fed this as Rock and Roll for so long that I thought it was good. Steve Miller Band? Bob Seger? James Taylor? Who actually likes this stuff? And I don’t mean “who thinks they’re okay, but only because they’ve heard it forever”, I mean who collects their albums, knows their deep cuts, and pays for tickets when they come to town? Obviously somebody does, but do they genuinely like it or is it just familiar? To paraphrase Jim Gaffigan, we all have our own McDonalds; is that the role these bands fill? It’s the only way that their popularity makes sense to me. I guess I kind of get it, since I can appreciate how cheesy Journey and Styx are, and part of why I can do that is because they took themselves soooooo seriously. It’s laughable, and I enjoy that about it (I think that is what people younger than me call “liking it ironically”). At least they aren’t as tepid and anemic as Jethro Tull or Steely Dan.
Some sharp eyed readers might ask “aren’t your parents Boomers? You were born in the mid 70s, you opened this column with that fact”. Nope. My parents were both from that Silent Generation, born during the war; Boomers are the immediate post-war generation. I’m also the younger of two, and my parents were married for nearly a decade before they had my brother. To put it in sharper focus, by the time The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan, my dad was 24 and my mom was 21. They appreciated the new sound, but their tastes were well established at that point, and by the time the Fab Four were making innovative records, Mom and Dad didn’t even notice since they knew them as a band for kids. Ultimately, they both came to find beauty in the sound of The Beatles, but not to the point of scholarly study that people five to ten years their junior had dedicated themselves to. Mom always preferred The Beach Boys, anyway, since it was evident that they had some classical training like she did.
So the obvious final question would be “well, if you hate Classic Rock radio so much, why do you listen to it?”. And the answer is I don’t hate it. I think a good 90% of it is fantastic, and a lot of acts that I really dig get regular plays on those stations. While my favorite bands are either missing or underrepresented (you might hear The Clash, Talking Heads, or The Ramones, but if you do, it’ll be their biggest hits only), that works out pretty great since I frequently listen to them on my own time. Classic Rock radio gives me another listening option that I universally enjoy. I am more than happy to hear The Beatles, The Stones, Queen, Zeppelin, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, The Who, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Creedence, The Police, Tom Petty, David Bowie, et al, I just don’t tend to play it myself. I actually don’t really mind hearing Clapton, Three Dog Night, Boston, or Van Morrison, and I’ll even endure a tune by Steve Miller, Bob Seger, James Taylor, or Jethro Tull*. Just don’t tell me that they are icons simply because someone else told you they were. If you genuinely think they’re great, that’s awesome. But ask yourself why you think that, and if your reasons are “they’re so talented/they sold a lot of records/because everyone else says they’re great” then perhaps it’s time to do a reality check and discover what you truly believe.
And that, my friends, brings us to the end of our journey. I would hope that the takeaway from this is that I don’t actually hate Classic Rock. Hate is an ugly word that makes people do ugly things, and the only thing on Earth that I genuinely hate is bananas (don’t ask why, just accept the fact). At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you listen to, or what you think the measure of quality is. Perhaps all you need is “I like it. Don’t know why, I just do”, and who am I to say that you’re wrong for thinking that? Personally, I require a bit more analysis in everything I do, probably as a result of my interest in science and math, though the Pisces in me makes damn sure that I don’t forget the emotional reaction. More than anything, I just wanted to write this. The next column will definitely be bass-centric, and it may take a while to compose, so until it arrives, I at least gave you a nice big piece to chew on, even if it’s not completely true to the spirit of the rest of my work. Thanks for your support, I’ll be back soon with another heaping slab of….
Honesty. Integrity. BASS.
*Steely Dan can still suck it, though. They are horrible, especially since they demonstrate remarkable craft, yet create such lackluster music. I honestly cannot fathom how one can miss the mark so badly.
Hello, hello, hello, and welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World Of Bass!
I’ve sung the praises of underrated bass playersbefore, but what about the instruments themselves? Nearly everyone seems to use one of a handful of standard basses: The P-Bass, The Jazz Bass, The Stingray, The Thunderbird, or a Rickenbacker. But what about the less popular models that have been responsible for some of your favorite records and live shows? Today, I’m going to look at a few. Now, for the purposes of this column, I am not going to include any model made by Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, or MusicMan. That was a tough one, since the Fender Mustang Bass was a long unsung hero for the bassist on a budget, or one with tiny hands. But, since these have been back in the catalog for a decade now, in multiple versions at multiple price points, I can’t really call them underrated; that “best kept secret” factor is long gone. Besides, they say “Fender” on the headstock. The brand name association alone is enough to make anyone who knows the tiniest thing about guitars assume that they’re a proper bass, rather than wonder what the heck it is. I am also excluding boutique builders, so please no comments about the non-appearance of Alembic, Fodera, Ken Smith, Carl Thompson, and so on. Those are anything but underrated. I am also omitting anything that is quite obviously a derivative of one of the models from the major manufacturers, so Sadowsky, Lakland, Suhr and any other builders making high-end versions of Precision and Jazz models will not be included. Lastly, I’m not saying that these eight models are my favorites. Several of them I don’t really like that much, but I have to acknowledge their appeal to certain players. I’m sure some of you will be yelling at the screen with “hey, what about________!?!?” comments, but this is my list. If there are enough of those that I neglected, I might ultimately do a part two. So with that said, here’s my picks for the Eight Most Underrated Basses (in no particular order):
1) The Ibanez SoundGear Series
If you are starting out and NOT using something Fender inspired, chances are you are using one of these. These are the granddaddy of sleek, modern basses, and while they did not pioneer the concept, they really seemed to get it right. In production since 1987, and with a wide enough array of options to fit any budget, these really are great basses. Heck, I don’t even like them and I have two in my collection (granted, they were both given to me; I didn’t spend any money on them). In my years of doing repairs, I saw a ton of these come through the door for routine maintenance, and even the most basic, entry level versions were built solid, played well, and sounded good. While I may automatically associate these with bands whose guitarist uses a Line 6 amplifier on the “INSANE” setting, they are just as practical to a Blues vamper, Jazz cat, or Country stomper. Other than the fact that they don’t fit my personal aesthetic, I really can’t say a bad word about them. I tip my hat to Ibanez for updating the bass for a modern player; they really knocked it out of the park with this series, and the fact that they’re showing no signs of stopping thirty three years after their introduction is a testament to their quality.
2) The Danelectro Longhorn
Back before every kid that couldn’t afford a Fender played an Ibanez SoundGear or a Chinese copy of a Fender, these were seen in the hands of almost every garage band bassist in the 60s. I mentioned the ubiquity of these in my first column, and those words still ring true. Introduced in 1958, these were available in both four and six-string versions, and offered a whopping two octave range on the neck (the guitar version had two and a half octaves!), and their shorter scale and skinny necks made them extremely comfortable to beginning players. Plus, the affordable materials used in construction made them very comfortable to a beginning player’s wallet. A curious thing with that construction is that the originals didn’t have truss rods reinforcing the necks, so their strings were ridiculously thin. These thin strings and low cost were very appealing to a young John Entwistle, to the point that when he would break said strings it was more affordable to buy a whole new bass. By the time The Who were recording their first album, My Generation, he reportedly had three of them, and while he wanted to do the solo for the title track on one, they all had busted strings, so rather than buy a fourth, he used a Fender Jazz instead. Still, if The Ox liked them, they must have something going on, and they have been reissued in many different versions since 1998. You don’t see them that often but you sure notice them when you do.
3) Spector Basses
This could really be any of the ultra modern, overtly curvy basses, like Warwick, Zon, or pretty much anything from the first wave of “let’s modernize the bass” that ultimately gave us the Ibanez SoundGear. I chose these because I have actually played one, and can attest to their reputation. Started in the mid 70s, Spector grew out of a woodworker’s co-op in Brooklyn, and the classic design was imagined by Ned Steinberger, an engineer and furniture designer who would later make a huge impact on the bass world (more on that below). Using the philosophy of “form follows function”, he conceived the iconic sculpted, through-neck design we now associate with the company. As they say on their website, they truly “struck pop-culture gold in 1983, when a white Spector NS-2 bass was sold to Sting, at the start of The Police’s Synchronicity tour”. Curiously, these are most often seen in the hands of Metal players, though the occasional Hip-Hop, R&B or Rock guy can be seen playing them, most prominent in my mind would be Gary W. Tallent of the E. Street Band and Mark Kelley of The Roots. Well, that’s not really true. The most prominent user in my mind is my old pal Long John, who used to be the house bassist at the open mic night in my hometown, and when he moved away, I quickly took his place. Occasionally we’d both be there and I’d use his teal blue Spector, but since he used a non-adjustable strap way up high and I sling fairly low, I soon started to bring my Stingray, before it was supplanted by a maple board Japanese P-Bass that the host bought as a house bass. Second to Long John is a member of a band I used to share a practice space with. I never knew the person’s name, but they must’ve liked them because they had five or six on a dual-tiered hanging stand that one of my bandmates called “the tree of mediocrity”. While I am inclined to agree, I can’t fully commit to the dissing. They are incredibly well built, reliable, good sounding basses that just happen to be rather “meh” in their presentation. Maybe that’s why Gary W. Tallent plays one.
4) Steinberger Basses
Calling Steinbergers underrated may rankle a few of you, because for a time they were the hippest thing under the sun. Hugely successful bassists like Tina Weymouth, Sting, and Geddy Lee all used them, but they are now relegated to the pile of cheesy 80s artifacts, alongside neon clothes and Memphis Art style sunglasses like Meschach Taylor wore in Mannequin. They mostly pop up now as a key component of acts parodying the Reagan years, used by the likes of Marky from Test Pattern or Paul Salmon from Barney Van Halen. In their day, though, they were revolutionary, stripping away all of the conventions of the electric bass right down to what they were made of. After using his engineering background to design the classic Spector bass, Ned Steinberger tried to solve what he perceived as flaws in the fundamental design of the instrument. Why did they need to be so heavy? What purpose does the body even serve? Can it be made of a better material than wood? All of these innovations led to the L2 bass, which is still one of the most groundbreaking instruments in the history of guitar. Like the Fender Broadcaster, the Ovation Electric/Acoustic Guitar and the Floyd Rose Tremolo, sometimes the best solutions can be found by looking through an engineer’s eyes and not a musician’s. They still hold up as incredible instruments. Like many on this list, I find a few things about them less than ideal (I’m a huge fan of adding glissandos to nearly every song I play, and without a headstock, I can go completely off the neck), but they are a marvelous feat of engineering. They even won multiple awards in the early 80s, mostly from the engineering and plastics manufacturing camps, and they have left and indelible mark on our hearts as an icon of “The Yuppie Decade”. I’d like to make a special mention of this killer article on Steinbergers from RetroJunk; much of the information for this entry was gleaned from there and it’s a really good read if you want to go more in-depth.
5) The Ovation Magnum
This behemoth of a bass is one that is on my wish list. I have never seen one with my own eyes, let alone played one, but my God they are amazing. Hitting the market in the mid-70s (some say as early as ’72, some people say ’74/’75, though Mark Agnesi claims they were launched in ’77 and I tend to trust him) these are famous for their bowel shaking neck pickup. Even the mighty Gibson Mudbucker must bow down to the brown sound generated by this titan of electromagnetic force, and when paired with a super-honky bridge pickup, it makes for quite a contrast, to be sure. An interesting thing about these pickups is that they have individual trimpots for each string, so the player can dial in the correct balance for their sound. These basses also have features that, like Steinbergers, are coming from an engineer’s perspective, such as an aircraft aluminum reinforcement frame that doubles as a thumb rest or tug bar, an adjustment system on the bridge that is notated so you can dial in precise intonation relative to the scale length of your preferred brand of strings, and a pop-up mute like one would see on Gretsch guitars in the 60s and early MusicMan Stingrays. While not seen in the hands of many famous players, these are a hidden gem in the bass world, and highly coveted by a select group. As for celebrity users, Kelly Groucutt of ELO can be seen playing one in the video for “Don’t Bring Me Down”, and Tool’s original bassist, Paul D’Amour, occasionally used one; other than that, Kim Gordon, Ross Valory, and Barry Adamson are about the only ones I could find. Fun story, I was so convinced that I’d seen one of these used in Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense concert film that I watched it twice before realizing that I was confusing it with Documentary Now!, where one is used for “I’m Alert” and “Everybody’s Moving Around”. Yup, that’s two mentions of the “Test Pattern” episode in one column. If you don’t know the reference, go look it up. You’re welcome. Having never played one, I am going to trust the reviews I’ve read and the demos I’ve watched and say that these earn their reputation. I’ve played a lot of Ovations over the years (the store I worked at was an Ovation/Takamine dealer), and while my tastes in acoustic guitars swing toward the traditional, I can’t deny that Ovation is a reputable company with some very innovative designs; a truth that manifests itself nicely in the Magnum bass.
6) The Yamaha BB Series
Like Steinbergers, the Yamaha BB series of basses just screams 80s. While not as visually gimmicky as those headless carbon fiber wonders, they were extremely common when video was killing the radio star. Introduced in 1977, they quickly became a go-to alternative to the outdated Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker models that didn’t fit the image of the hip, young musician on MTV. In addition to that, with the exception of Rickenbacker, most major American guitar builders had really let the quality slip in the 70s. With Fender being bought out by CBS and Gibson being bought by Norlin, the corporate bean counters were making the decisions rather than qualified R&D personnel, leaving the instruments themselves to suffer. Japan quickly emerged as a powerhouse of guitar manufacturing, and Yamaha led the pack. Having established themselves with well built acoustics in the 60s and some incredible electric models in the “Lawsuit” era, the pump was primed for Yamaha to be a giant in the industry, and in the 80s, they were. Part of that success was the first commercially available five-string bass, the BB-5000 in 1984, but the entire line was highly regarded by players of all levels and remains so today; in particular the neck-through BB-2000. These were also some of the first basses to employ the now standard P/J pickup configuration, taking the best of both worlds from Fender’s two main lines and putting them together in one instrument. Truly an underdog in the bass world, the Yamaha BB series is a workingman’s best friend, and like the FG acoustics before them and the Pacifica electrics that came after, they prove that Yamaha consistently builds reliable, good sounding instruments for the average player (I’d also like to give them a shout out for their drum hardware, namely their hex mounting system and externally adjustable spring tension on their hi-hat stands. While my drumming skills are weak at best, the engineering side of me absolutely adores the way they designed that stuff).
7) Wal Basses
One thing that most of these basses have in common is that, to the right audience, they aren’t underrated. Each and every one of them has their fans, evidenced by the fact that, with the exception of the Ovation Magnum, they are all still in production in one capacity or another. Wal basses will probably be my most contested entry, simply because there is a huge group of players that lust after these, namely Tool fans. Justin Chancellor has kept these relevant, though he is far from the only star player to use them. Starting in 1976, Ian “Wal” Waller began building custom basses that quickly became recognized as something extremely special. Roxy Music bassist John Gustafson was their first endorser, and they quickly set their sights on the professional market. These were not for blokes slumming through the pubs, these were for serious bassists that cared about playability and tone. Guys like Bruce Thomas, Geddy Lee, Flea, and Paul McCartney have all used them at one time or another; I seem to recall that even my beloved Paul Simonon could be seen briefly using one during the recording of Give ‘Em Enough Rope in a deleted scene from Rude Boy, but I can’t confirm that since my DVD is long missing, and nobody seems to have uploaded those scenes to the interwebs. Regardless, like nearly every other bass on this list, Wals have a specific engineering detail that makes them distinct: their pickups. Typically, a pickup consists of one coil of wire going around multiple magnetic pole pieces that line up with the strings and literally pick up the signal from them. Wals have individual coils around the pole pieces (a feature apparently shared by the neck pickup of the Ovation Magnum). What this creates is an extremely powerful, extremely balanced tone; harmonically rich, punchy, and round. They are amazing sounding basses, and it’s kind of a shame that Justin Chancellor leans to the thinner side, EQ-wise. I mean, I get it, he was replacing Paul D’Amour who had established a very distinct tone that was a huge component of the band’s sound, but making a Wal sound like a Rickenbacker is like using a Ferrari for a grocery run. Yeah, it does the job, but it was meant to do so much more. These are another on the “I’ve never seen one, so I’m gonna trust the reviews and demos” list. Like Spector and Steinberger, they started out as a boutique builder that went into mass production, though tragically, at the peak of their popularity in 1988, Wal himself died of a heart attack at age forty three. His business partners kept the company going, and they still thrive today holding true to his original ideals of building an exceptional bass for exceptional players.
8) The Epiphone Jack Casaday
In my highly controversial Twelve Most Iconic Individual Basses column*, I mentioned how Jack Casaday took the unpopular Les Paul Signature Bass and had Epiphone tweak it to his preference into something that has gone on to be a top seller for the company. I have a soft spot for these, and unlike every other bass on this list, I have spent my hard earned cash to own one, and it’s awesome. When I posted that acquisition on my personal Facebook page, a few of my bass playing friends commented on how they love the sound or look of these, yet they all continue to play P-Basses. Don’t get me wrong, I love P-Basses (an upcoming column will be the journal of me building my perfect version of one), but why purchase yet another Precision when these are A) something different both sonically and visually, and B) more affordable than an American or vintage Fender? While I would never make it my number one bass, I am tickled six shades of pink to have one since it is utterly unique in my collection. It’s basically hollow, has low impedance pickups, and looks badass. The only issue I have is due to how I play and not the instrument itself, and that’s corners. If you are a low rider like me, it will become immediately apparent why nearly every solid body bass has a top contour, since these will really dig into your picking arm, and I say that as a guy whose two favorite guitars are an acoustic and a Telecaster. I like me some chunky slabs, but dang if this isn’t just slightly misaligned to my personal ergonomics. I choose to suffer for my art. Either way, I have been impressed with these since I first tried one at a shop almost twenty years ago, I’m utterly gobsmacked that more people don’t use them. I guess I’m glad they don’t though, because it makes me stand out that much more when I do.
honorable mention: The Peavey T40
These aren’t really that great, so calling them “underrated” would be a misnomer. In my experience, they weigh a ton, tend to sound kinda lifeless, and are awkwardly large to play (note that I own a Casaday, so……yeah). But they reek of more 70s cheese than an unwashed fondue pot, and as a guy with a Luke Skywalker haircut who only wears corduroys, you best believe that I have an unhealthy interest in that decade, so I would still totally play one of these if the opportunity arose.
And with that, we come to the end. Are there any I forgot? As mentioned at the top of the column, I may one day do a sequel; I’m already envisioning a “most underrated basses from famous makers” column…but that’s one for the future. Until then, as always:
Honesty. Integrity. BASS.
* If you’re curious, the controversy was because I referred to Jaco Pastorius as “a wanker”, and apparently some sacred cows are too sacred. Whatever, I don’t care, I still can’t stand him or his playing; bite me.
A lot of people think the bassist doesn’t matter. Here’s proof that they do.
Hello, and welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World of Bass!
It’s pretty common for bass players to get lost in the shuffle compared to the spotlight grabbing demonstrated by singers, guitarists, and drummers. Most people who know of a famous bassist tend to know them as the singer- Paul McCartney, Sting, Gene Simmons, etc. Some bassists do have the rare ability to grab the spotlight, such as Brian Ritchie or my arch nemesis, but they are extremely few and far between.
As a result, the bass player’s creative voice tends to be stifled, too. I mentioned long ago how bassists rarely form bands, they join them; so frequently the concept of the band is courtesy of the guitarist, singer, or occasionally keyboard player. More often than not it’s a combination of those types of musicians getting together with a common vision and hiring the rest of the band.
However, there are the rare times that the bass player decides “I’m gonna make a band like this:_____” and subsequently does. Even more rare than that is when said bass player isn’t the singer. In fact, it’s so rare, I could only think of five. Now, technically all bands are a collaborative effort, but for the purposes of this column, it was/is the bass player that either formed the band with the concept already in mind, guided them creatively through their heyday, or continued the vision when the rest of the founding members fell by the wayside (oftentimes, most, if not all of these are true). You may notice one omission you might consider glaring, and that’s Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I opted to leave him out because even with his obvious contribution to the sound of the band AND the fact that he was a founding member, they seem to have always functioned as a collective rather than as a band with a clear leader. I’d be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that Arik Marshall, Jesse Tobias, Dave Navarro and Josh Klinghoffer were all contractually bound to much smaller paychecks than John Frusciante; they all felt like hired guns, and that’s because the Chili Peppers really do seem like a family, not just a band. So, I’m sorry RHCP fans, Flea doesn’t make this list simply because he isn’t “the leader”, at least not from a public perspective. So who did make the cut? Well…..
Iron Maiden, led by Steve Harris
Iron Maiden is the archetype of a bassist led band. Started by Harris on Christmas Day 1975, he is unquestionably the leader. While guitarist Dave Murray has been along for most of the ride, Harris has been there since day one. He writes the bulk of their music and lyrics, plays keyboards on the band’s albums, produces or co-produces and mixes said albums, and even edits their live footage and occasionally directs and edits their proper music videos. He does all of this while playing an instrument so overlooked in his genre that it’s practically a punchline at this point, and even though he’s one of the few players to rise above the throngs of nameless, uninspiring Metal bassists, he doesn’t ever lose sight of the fact that he’s part of a band. He is nothing without them, and they are nothing without him. He’s also the cornerstone of their sound, because what do you think of when you think of Maiden? THE GALLOP. I’m sure some of you heard it in your head as soon as you read his name, I know I always hear dotted sixteenths when he comes up.
Sadly, the average listener would probably think that they’re led by singer Bruce Dickinson. Not only is he the singer, but he’s the one you see interviewed in documentaries and making public statements on the band’s behalf. Conveniently, Iron Maiden doesn’t really have any average listeners; you’ve either never heard them or you worship them. Okay, it might not actually be that extreme, but it sure seems like it when you meet someone who is truly into them. As a general rule, Metal fans are fiercely loyal, and when they find a band they like, they listen to nothing else. I’m not a Metal guy myself, but I do appreciate it. While I find a lot of it silly, the good stuff is really good, and Maiden is the good stuff.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who likes Rock music that dislikes them, to be honest. There’s just something so quintessentially awesome about what they do; it is both very traditional in its composition yet very progressive in its execution. The almost Medieval vibe it creates takes us back to a time before tired Blues cliches, where there is a sense of male power fantasy without the preposterous dissimulation inherent in bands that actually use that as a visual gimmick like Dio or Manowar, but it owes as much to the artistic leanings of Yes, Genesis, and Jethro Tull as it does to Madrigals. To put it another way, it is very, very British.
And that is all because of Steve Harris, who is himself very, very British. We’re talking about a guy who trained to be a professional footballer (or as we heathens on this side of the pond say, “soccer player”) before deciding that, no, this wasn’t the right choice, and opted to be a bass player instead. He didn’t lose his passion for the sport, though- he’s still so devoted to his beloved West Ham United Club that his bass is done up in their colors with their crest proudly displayed above the bridge, and he even has his own amateur team, the Maidonians.
Truth be told, I think part of the reason there are so few bassist led bands is because most popular acts are American. We Yanks tend to be much more ego driven that other nations; the aspiration we’re sold since birth is all about the individual: MY house, MY car, MY land, MY white picket fence, MY money, MY FREEDOM. “The American Dream” is decidedly not “Keep Calm And Carry On”, so American musicians are not prone to listen to the bassist, even if they have the best ideas, simply because their instrument is “not as important” as the others.
Of course, if you can ignore that ego driven impulse and be part of the greater good (“THE GREATER GOOD!”), which it seems our British friends come by quite easily, you might find that there are some amazing ideas that would only exist due to the perspective of a bass player. Hey, you might even define an entire genre……
Yes, led by Chris Squire
What is Yes known for? That song with the guitar that goes “ping!” at the beginning? Compositions that are at least seven minutes long? Tremendous instrumental and vocal prowess? A fanbase that is comprised mostly of socially awkward men who haven’t touched a vagina since they were pushed out of one? Okay, that last one might be a bit harsh, but it demonstrates my point. Yes are known for all of these things, and they somehow are hugely successful. Similar to Rush, who I am truly convinced nobody actually likes regardless of what my guitarist Solak says, Yes has a very dedicated and loyal following, which intrigues me. The major difference is that while Rush has enough songcraft to create tunes that can feasibly be played on the airwaves, whenever the Classic Rock DJ puts on a Yes song, it feels like s/he’s trying to convince us to let our kid brother join our play group. Rush does write some catchy tunes, and Neil and Geddy are an amazing rhythm section, but Yes is just meandering and scattershot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on them, they do what they do really well, but they kinda have musical Tourette syndrome. Smashing ideas together, from pastoral to heavy with no transition beyond a full stop, ambiguous lyrics repeated ad infinitum, and rarely if ever creating something one could even fathom dancing to, Yes makes absolutely no sense as part of popular music. As a cult band, totally, but on mainstream radio, not at all. They are, without a doubt, a product of their time. The 1970s was a very weird decade, musically speaking, and everything from the Singer/Songwriter movement to Arena Rock to Punk to Disco to Glam to AOR to Folk Rock to Bakersfield Country to Nashville Countrypolitan to Smooth Jazz to Soul and R&B to schmaltzy Pop had a major audience in that ten year stretch, and many of those genres blended and their fans crossed over between them, not unlike what’s happening today in the 2020s. Even other Progressive Rock acts like Rush, Jethro Tull or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had Pop sensibility, but Yes is just straight-up Prog. Pretty much them, Genesis, King Crimson and Gentle Giant held steadfastly to the artistic ideals of Prog throughout the 70s. Obviously Genesis eventually took a turn into pure Pop under the guidance of the criminally underrated Phil Collins (yeah, I said it) in 1978 and continuing in that vein throughout the 80s, but for most of the 70s, they were Prog and lesser known. And yes, Yes tasted Pop success with their stab at the charts via “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”, but what they are best remembered for is a few huge songs from the 70s, mostly “Roundabout”, “Seen All Good People” and “Long Distance Runaround”, which were giant hits in spite of being from a Progressive Rock band. This was very uncommon, and still feels odd today. To draw a parallel to modern music, Coheed And Cambria draw big crowds and sell lots of records, but you aren’t going to hear them in between Ed Sheeran and Imagine Dragons. Yes would get played alongside Elton John and Cheap Trick.
Present for all of this was bassist Chris Squire. He founded the band in 1968, and was its only constant member until his death in 2015. Eighteen other people went through the ranks in that time, some longer lasting than others, but Squire was always there carrying the torch for music with a theatrical ideology and Classical theory. Like Steve Harris, he wrote or co-wrote most of their material, and his playing defines the sound of the band. His tone is distinct, to put it mildly; it’s simultaneously heavy and thin, but with a little growl in there. That tone combined beautifully with his carefully constructed lines to create an utterly unique voice; to this day I think he’s the big reason Rickenbacker basses are popular. Obviously, I know Lemmy used them, too, but his were heavily modded or customized while Squire kept his stock, and few people have demonstrated the sonic potential of that instrument as well as he did. Often cited as the definitive Prog bassist, Squire rarely faltered from the original musical vision of the band, keeping all the others who floated through his transom on the same page, and it worked. That deserves respect.
Mr. Big, led by Billy Sheehan
We here in the USA consider Mr. Big a one-hit wonder (perfectly summarized by Todd In The Shadows), but in Japan they are HUUUUUGE. Well, they were huge. Now that guitarist Paul Gilbert is busy with solo projects and drummer Pat Torpey has died, the band is effectively over. Even though they keep teasing a new project with some of Torpey’s favorite drummers sitting in for him, it has yet to materialize at the time of writing.
For those of you who don’t know Mr. Big, or maybe are too young or too cool to remember their one hit from 1992, “To Be With You”, here’s a little backstory. Billy Sheehan is from the Shred school of thought, but he happens to be a bassist, which is a very rare combination. Most bassists who want to show off either get all slappy or go to the dark side like my nemesis and play endless Jazz solos. But, I digress: in the late 80s, when we thought being able to rip a bunch of notes was the barometer of quality, Sheehan blasted onto the scene as part of David Lee Roth’s post Van Halen solo band, along with histrionic guitar icon Steve Vai and drummer Gregg Bissonette and his amazing mullet. Roth discovered him while on tour with VH; Sheehan’s band Talas got to open for them when they swung through his home town of Buffalo, New York. Having developed a style that was more commonly seen in guitarists of the day, Sheehan routinely wowed the audience with his playing. Roth took notice and contacted him when he went solo, and Sheehan immediately joined up. Unfortunately, since all of the players in Roth’s new band were virtuoso level, this left little room for cohesion, as everyone was showing off all the time, Roth included. Sheehan soon realized that he wanted to be part of something more song driven, and not all about flash, plus he was not fond of the Poppier direction Roth’s music was going. So, after a few years establishing himself on the national stage, he went his own way in 1988 and formed Mr. Big with some hand-picked, like-minded musicians; namely, guys who could shred but ultimately wanted to write songs, not just platforms for soloing (nearly all of this is covered in Todd’s video that I linked, and yes, I am going out of my way not to quote it directly).
While they put out a few singles at the turn of the decade, they were mostly a niche band. Guitar Player magazine loooooved these guys back in the day; they were perfect for the target demographic of that publication’s readers. Seriously, I remember a stretch there where every issue either had an interview with Gilbert, Sheehan, or both; or a lesson on how to play one of their songs; or countless ads for Ibanez guitars, Yamaha basses, and Hartke or ADA amplifiers featuring one of them. Again, if you weren’t there it might seem hard to fathom, but all of the talk of Rock music changing overnight with Grunge wiping out Hair Metal isn’t that hyperbolic. Many contemporary guitar players refused to acknowledge it, too, since they’d spent the better part of the past two decades thinking that talent equaled quality, and striving towards goals based on that ideology. Sadly, it wasn’t true then and it still isn’t true now, but that was the pervasive mentality of the time among that clique. Curiously, the stuff that was popular was almost exclusively dandies with few, if any chops, i.e., Poison, Bon Jovi, and Cinderella. The guys who were genuinely talented tended to dumb themselves down to be more accessible to the masses, for instance, Winger, White Lion and Dokken– Reb Beach, Vito Bratta and George Lynch are highly technical players, but you wouldn’t know that to listen to their hits. Another trend of Hair Metal bands was the almighty “power ballad”, frequently released as a second single, such as “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, “Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone”, “Heaven”, and the one ring to rule them all, “More Than Words”. That last one is unique in that it established the band to the mainstream, rather than showed a different side to a band that already had some notoriety. Many people did not know that Extreme was, in fact, a full on Rock band with a Neo-Classical guitarist in their ranks, and the same thing happened to Mr. Big, probably because of Extreme.
By late 1991, it was becoming apparent that poofy-haired, glammed up fashionistas in neon spandex outfits and scarves with a Captain’s hat perched at a jaunty angle looked kinda foolish. Even within the Hard Rock and Pop Metal scene, the image was shifting towards the more streetwise look of Guns N’ Roses, or the more earthy and honest vibe of The Black Crowes or the unadorned “jeans and a t-shirt” wardrobe of Metallica. While icons like Van Halen and Aerosmith were still doing well in this era, pretty much every other band I’ve name checked in this entry seemed incredibly lame once the thrift shop chic of Alternative took over MTV. I know I’m talking a lot about image here, but it’s for a reason: in that video, Todd theorizes that Mr. Big was never that…big because they weren’t great songwriters, but he then goes on to point out how “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” is a complete earworm. Personally, I think it’s because they weren’t pretty enough, or they weren’t the right kind of pretty. Singer Eric Martin looks too soft, or as Todd points out, “like Tiffany”, and Gilbert and Sheehan are both kinda ugly, at least by the standards of the genre, though Torpey was rather photogenic. That was true of Extreme, too, but they were able to push past that and succeed based on a very heartfelt song that was easy for the listener to identify with, which happened to have a deceptively complex guitar part that sounded rather simple. Lo and behold, Mr. Big was in exactly the same boat! Whether they noticed the similarity with Extreme or their label did is information I don’t know, but I would be absolutely shocked to learn that the success of “More Than Words” had nothing to do with the release of “To Be With You”. So they put it out, and crested that wave notwithstanding it being atypical of their output, probably knowing that whatever fame it brought wasn’t going to last; heck, Extreme tried to follow up their own success with another acoustic track, though “Hole Hearted” is more hootenanny than ballad, and it did not sustain their popularity. The lesson being, if the guys you’re modeling your career after can’t maintain theirs, it probably doesn’t bode well for you.
However, as mentioned, they were and are still enormously popular in Japan. Sheehan is still considered one of the all-time great bassists, and Gilbert is quite successful as one of the few “flash” guitarists out there. He still has an endorsement deal from Ibanez and recently established one with JHS pedals. Theirs is really a tale of a music industry that no longer exists: where one can make a career based on sheer talent; where local bands open for national acts and get noticed; where a bass player can be a star without playing slappy Funk lines or self-indulgent, annoying Jazz solos. Man, I miss the 90s.
The Beach Boys, led by Brian Wilson (for the good stuff, anyway)
There are countless articles, books, and movies about The Beach Boys, so it’s highly unlikely that I am going to say anything original here. And, as some of my readers will know, Brian didn’t play bass on a lot of their albums, using session musicians like the “oh-so-frequentlymentionedin mywriting” CarolKaye to cover the low end duties. So why am I including him? Because he did start as the bass player even though he was a piano player by training, and he was always the leader (as seen in this clip from 1963). Even after he’d passed the bass role on to others, be they session players in the studio or touring members like Glen Campbell and Bruce Johnson, he was still the major motivating force of The Beach Boys AND the creative genius behind them. Take a minute to ponder the unique position they were in as a band: Brian, after a nervous breakdown, retired from touring and stayed in California writing all of their material and recording it with session players, while the other four were out on the road playing the previous batch of songs. When the tour ends, they go into the studio, Brian shows them their vocal parts, they record those, and occasionally add an instrumental bit. Then back out on the road to perform this batch of songs while Brian creates the next round.
This is unprecedented.
Literally any other bass player would have been fired when they announced that they were done with the road, and if Brian had been a guitar player, he probably wouldn’t have left any room on the albums for the other guys and just sang it all himself. I mean, he did that with “Caroline, No”, and it doesn’t sound dramatically different than “God Only Knows”, “I’m Waiting For The Day” or pretty much anything else on Pet Sounds. To someone intimately familiar with their individual voices the difference is quite obvious, but to the average person, it just sounds like the Beach Boys. The fact that he always kept the other guys in mind when composing; choosing which parts should be sung by which member for maximum timbral effect is a very bass playerly thing to do. It is our job to make everyone else sound better, and a big part of that is recognizing our band mate’s strengths and weaknesses, encouraging the former while disguising the latter. The fact that Brian proved he could do all the vocals himself, yet still composed parts with Carl, Mike, Dennis, and Al in mind is really quite nice.
It is no secret that he eventually went a little nuts with this system; hundreds of hours of tape exist of him trying to get “Good Vibrations” to match the sound in his head, and that only spiraled further into oblivion as the sessions for Smile dragged on and on, only to eventually be abandoned and finally revisited almost forty years later as a solo project.
In a sad turn of events, this relationship proved dangerous for Brian. As he slipped further and further into his own mind, his isolation and paranoia increased (exacerbated by heavy drug use), and the output and quality of the music suffered. This also coincided with the band’s popularity waning; in the aftermath of Altamont and with daily coverage of the atrocities in Vietnam, the sunny Pop of The Beach Boys seemed saccharine and quaint. Throughout the 70s, other members started to contribute more to the writing and recording process, and while this era does have some hidden gems, most fans agree that 1969’s 20/20 marked the end of an era. By the 80s, Mike Love had taken the reins, and we wound up with “Kokomo”. Their 1992 LP Summer In Paradise effectively ended their career as anything beyond a nostalgia act, culminating with Brian coming back into the fold later in the decade. Like Mr. Big, Todd In The Shadows has done an excellent video on this album, too, and I’ve gotta hand it to him for mostly avoiding the extremely low hanging fruit that is John Stamos.
I always told myself that if I ever met Brian Wilson, I would look him in the eyes and ask “how did you hear that in your head?” In January of 2007, while attending the National Association of Music Merchants trade show, I got my chance since he was doing an autograph signing. After a short wait in line, they announced no more autographs or pictures, but everyone could at least walk past and say hello to Brian. I did, and I looked him in the eye and simply said “thank you for such amazing music”, but it was like staring into the abyss. He was not looking back; I doubt he even knew where he was. He was probably heavily sedated to deal with the throngs packed into that convention center. It’s a rather ignominious end for such an incredible band. On the plus side, Brian is finally recognized by the public as the musical genius he was and is, not just a merchant of dippy oldies about cars, girls, and surfing. Mike Love now owns the name and runs the band, and while both Brian and Al Jardine are still officially members, they don’t tour with the group, often doing their own things to profit from their history, and by all reports they don’t like each other very much anymore. But for their golden era, when their unbelievably sophisticated “teenage symphonies” resonated with the zeitgeist, the only force that could top them was The Beatles, and they had at least three if not four times as many creators chasing a vision. Brian was a singular entity, alone in his own universe, staring into the abyss until the abyss blinked.
Fall Out Boy, led by Pete Wentz
Okay, 100% honesty, I don’t get the appeal of this band. I recognize that they craft some passable Pop songs (I am a well-known sucker for a good Pop tune, after all), but these guys don’t seem that spectacular compared to every other band that was popular in their era. The only thing that differentiated them from Simple Plan, New Found Glory, and all the other TRL bands is that Patrick Stump’s vocals are utterly unintelligible [NSFW]. Maybe the appeal is exactly that—like Nirvana’s appeal to my generation, could it be that their popularity is because a teenager can assume the lyrics are whatever they want them to be? People ten or fifteen years older than I generally didn’t dig on Kurt Cobain’s marble mouthed wails when they were tearing up the charts, so perhaps I’m just the wrong demographic.
More likely than not, their success is due to bassist and band leader Pete Wentz being really good at social media in the earliest days of its existence. Despite the fact that I find him an insufferable, preening twat (and a crap bass player, to boot), I can easily admit that he was extremely talented at turning his pretty boy persona into a viably marketable product, and he deigned to drag his band mates along with him. For the record, they all seem like genuinely nice and normal guys in all the interviews I’ve seen, and they probably would have languished in obscurity if not for Wentz, so I will throw them a bone and compliment them for their luck of aligning themselves with someone with such great business savvy.
Like all the other entries here, there is no doubt that Wentz is the leader of this band. They refer to him as such in their interviews, he dominates the stage during their live performances (even with Joe Trohman’s tendency to whip around like a ballet dancer on cocaine), and he’s the only one who seems to care about maintaining a media presence. The other three are happy to retreat from the public eye and raise their families, go fishing, or just bum around until they get the call that Pete invested all of his money in a skinny jeans factory that isn’t paying out the expected dividends, at which point they crank out another album that all their fans say “isn’t as good as the old material” and subsequently tour behind it. They kind of remind me of Harrison Ford in the 80s; you almost never heard about him in the tabloids as he preferred to live a quiet life building furniture until the next interesting or high paying role came around. Being an actor was his job, not his passion, and he did his job well. The guys in Fall Out Boy are Rock Stars as a job, not as burning desire to create art or to try to change the world.
Frankly, it’s refreshing to see. The fact is a lot of people who get into music go into it thinking that they are the next great thing; some kind of underappreciated genius who deserves a turn in the spotlight and won’t let go of it once they get a taste (Kanye, I am looking squarely at you, you need to shut up and go away; you’re not even a good Rapper). For Fall Out Boy, it’s disposable Pop and they know it. And as long as people keep buying it, they’ll keep selling it. They aren’t “artistes”, they are Pop Stars, and Pop Stardom is fleeting. But thanks to Pete Wentz, they can keep riding the Millennial nostalgia train until the cash dries up, because he always seems to know exactly when that generation needs another dose of “wasn’t your childhood awesome?”. Now, I’m not saying that Gen-Xers like myself don’t have a healthy sense of nostalgia, we do, but Millennials differ in that there appears to be no shame in theirs. We know the stuff we loved as kids is dumb, that’s why reliving it feels good. However, I’ve had more than a few discussions with people ten to fifteen years my junior who defend the artistic merits of Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco and the like, refusing to acknowledge that it is product, marketed at a specific audience of which they were a part and nothing more. The fact that you remember it doesn’t necessarily make it good; I remember all my childhood cartoons incredibly well and they are horrible to my adult eyes (most are blatantly half-hour toy commercials with incredibly low rent animation). But they are fun, and Fall Out Boy is fun, I guess. So points to you, Fall Out Boy, and especially Pete Wentz. You had an idea and you used your talents to make it pay off incredibly well for you, and that is more than most people can say.
And with that, dear readers, we come to the end of my list. Did I forget any bands? Feel free to let me know in the comments; if there are enough, I may one day write a part two.
Four, five, or six strings…even eight or twelve… it’s all bass, baby.
Hello, hello, hello! Welcome back to Christopher A. Neal’s Wonderful World Of Bass! As a general rule, I play “standard” basses, to the point that I sometimes (okay, frequently) refer to myself as a “four-string slinger” when discussing my musical endeavors. But there are plenty of other options, and just because I don’t use them doesn’t mean I dislike them. I’ve actually recorded with a proper five-string in the past, not just the down-tuned four that I currently have for those extra low notes; and for a while at my music store job, we had a Hamer twelve-string that I enjoyed experimenting with, so they aren’t unfamiliar to me. I just don’t own any. This did get the old hamster wheel in my brain turning, though, as I started to wonder the other day about the history and evolution of extended range and multi-course basses. What circumstances created the need for them? Who invented them, and when? Some of these answers I already had, but I quickly came to discover that there was a lot to learn.
While I realize that a lot of people separate them into two different categories, for the purposes of this column, I am going to consider them one; i.e., basses with more than four strings, whether or not those strings allow for pitches not conventionally found on a concert tuned four-string.
I will also not be going into the extreme versions developing now with upwards of eighteen strings, you know, the ones that definitely DO Djent, since A) that is recent enough history that it’s pretty easy to not only determine but remember, and 2) those instruments are mostly custom jobs or experimental instruments like that Ibanez with a half fretted/half fretless fingerboard, and are not as ubiquitous as five and six-string alternatives.
Like many things in music history, the tradition of extended range basses is waaaaaaaay older than most people think. Fans of popular music, be it Rock, Country. Hip-Hop, whatever, seem to act like culture exists in a vacuum. In my experience, it’s quite the opposite, but unlike Aristotle’s thesis on nature, culture does not abhor a vacuum, in fact, it’s usually quite happy to live there. Sure, we acknowledge that Rock came from Blues, and Country came from Appalachian Folk, but where did those come from? Well, African and Celtic Folk, respectively, and those descended from something prior. Ultimately, if we want to, we can trace it all back to the first cave person who banged two rocks together and thought “I like that”. My point is, we tend to act like every great movement or idea is completely original, and while some certainly are, most are derived from something before them. More often than not, new ideas are born out of necessity, and are frequently abetted by the technology of their era, as we shall see. Anywho, the oldest reference I could find to a bass instrument being expected to deliver more….bass was in the late 1700s where double basses were occasionally offered in a five-string variant which went down to a low ‘C’. My research also indicates that one of the more conventional tunings of the day had a low ‘F’, with the modern ‘E-A-D-G’ tuning not becoming standard until the early twentieth century. However, depending on the composer and era, there are records of nearly fifty different tunings for the bass since its inception, which we also don’t know the date of (though the first illustration of a bass viol dates from 1516). Since many composers were pianists, they routinely wrote bass parts that went as low as a piano does, which, for the non-bassists out there, a conventionally tuned four-string bass does not.
This led to two innovations: one, the five-string orchestral bass, first mentioned in print in 1880, that became briefly popular with German composers in that era; and two, the C Extension still in use today by some performers. These are an extended fretboard below the nut, resting on top of the scroll, that allows the low ‘E’ to be tuned to ‘C’ without altering the paths, lengths, or pitches of the other three strings. Some of these are played mechanically, similar to the keys on woodwind or brass instruments, and some are fretted naturally.
Of course, we are talking about electric basses here, which did not exist as a mass produced object until 1951 in the form of the hallowed Fender Precision Bass, or “P-Bass” for short. By the time Leo Fender developed and released these on the market, the orchestral standard tuning had been accepted, and these instruments, as well as most every one to come after it for the next thirty five-ish years would use this tuning.
One notable exception is the Danelectro UB-2 from 1956. A mere five years after the invention of the instrument itself came this model, which had six-strings instead of four. It was tuned exactly like a guitar but down an octave, so ‘E-A-D-G-B-E’ rather than the modern six-string tuning, which we will discuss later. These were designed with a scale length (which is the length of the string path from nut to bridge) half way between that of a Fender P-Bass and an electric guitar so that guitarists could play them comfortably; a P-Bass has a scale length of 34” and most electric guitars are around 25”, so choosing a 30” scale was a happy medium. These were also intended more for melodic work, rather than as a replacement for the upright, though they certainly could be used in that capacity if desired. However, it was in that original concept that they had their greatest success: Duane Eddy, the “King Of Twang” bought a second version Danelectro six-string bass, the iconic 4623 “Longhorn”, and used it extensively on his The Twang’s The Thang LP before getting a more staid looking black UB-2 for stage use.
They also became incredibly popular in recording sessions of the day, including (but not limited to) Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser”, “ I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline, and Elvis’ “Stuck On You”. In these sessions, it was used to compliment the upright bass, often played with a pick and set for a bright tone, hence the nicknames of “click” bass or “tic-tac” bass depending on the producer. Multiple basses on a recording session even remained common throughout the 60s, before the era of completely self-contained bands took over. By the time this trend caught on, Danelectro was pretty much the only game in town for six-string basses. Since they were famous as a “cheap” brand, with their instruments being sold in Sears and Woolworth department stores, Fender saw an opportunity to market a higher quality version of the instrument and introduced the Bass VI.
Lots of things about the VI stood out immediately. Sharing the offset waist design of the company’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars, as well as the Jazz bass, the VI had three pickups and a tremolo arm and was unlike anything else at the time. Aiming for the same market of guitarists doubling on bass or people wanting to explore the melodic territory that was otherwise unavailable on a conventional four-string, the VI was almost instantly popular with both camps. Perhaps its best known users are Jack Bruce from Cream who used one for the first few albums before switching to his better-known Gibson EB3, and John and George from The Beatles who acquired one during the “White Album” sessions. George can be seen playing it in the “Hey Jude” video, and John uses it to strum chords on “Dig It” in the Let It Be film. Despite being given a Jazz bass by Fender for the “Get Back”/Let It Be sessions, it was rarely used in preference to the VI. In fact, many of the British invasion acts used the VI at one point in their career, including The Shadows, The Hollies and The Who, and they would later become popular with more atmospheric bands like The Cure (whose Robert Smith used one extensively in conjunction with Simon Gallup’s four-string), The Cocteau Twins and The Church. To this day, they are still a common texture in popular music, showing up in the hands of Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys and John Frusciante from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“But Chris,” you ask, “what about five-string basses? I see a lot of people playing them, when were they invented?” Well, that’s a bit tricky. Short answer: 1965. Long answer: 1965, but the version you are thinking of was in the late 70s/early 80s. Let’s start with the 1965 version. Our old friends at Fender are at it again, marketing the first five-string bass ever, called, rather unimaginatively, the V. But it’s not what one would think of if they are used to a modern five-string bass: the major difference is the tuning. Yup, just like with six-strings, there are two distinct versions of this instrument out there, and they have entirely different applications in mind. To explain this to non-bassists, I have to explain a bit about the mechanics of playing the instrument, so bear with me, experienced bass-people. Now, with the way a bass is tuned (‘E-A-D-G’, for those not keeping track), certain notes repeat themselves. For example, if I was to play the notes on the low ‘E’ string in sequence, they would go ‘E-F-F#-G-G#-A’. That ‘A’ is the exact same note as the ‘A’ string, and from here, the notes start to repeat. So, the first fret of the ‘A’ is ‘B flat’ and that’s also the sixth fret of the ‘E’. The second fret of ‘A’ is ‘B’, which is the seventh fret of ‘E’ and so on. There are different timbres, or tonal qualities to notes depending on where you play them on the neck; ones on lower frets tend to be brighter than ones on higher frets. And yes, I completely recognize that it’s silly to try to make a column about bass guitars make sense to a non-bassist, but I do have some people who read these because they are my friends, and they are not musicians. Thanks for sticking with me.
So, the V had an additional high ‘C’ string, which allowed for more upper register playing without having to shift further up the neck and losing the clarity so desired by musicians of the time; at least ones using electric instruments. You see, the designers of said instruments were on a quest to get the “pure amplified tone” of the string, hence solid bodies and amplifiers that were designed to minimize distortion. Since they were wont to advertise that fact, it became a desirable trait for players. Even the earliest modifications to amps and one of the first outboard devices for guitar were designed to increase treble; the Vox AC30 amplifier gained the legendary “Top Boost” circuit around this time, and the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster hit the market in the same era. Granted, this was more of an overall boost circuit, which overloaded the input of a tube amp into glorious distortion if pushed hard enough, but the treble frequencies certainly get some impossible to ignore “oomph”. Compound this with the fear of low end damaging recording equipment and you can see why the idea of a bass with extended upper range made marketing sense. Unfortunately, this was also right when the tide was turning for bass tone, shifting from bright to thick thanks to James Jamerson and Paul McCartney, so an instrument that meant you could get higher notes on lower frets was pretty much obsolete when it hit the shelves. Add on an reputedly uncomfortable and inconveniently short neck, and only about 200 were made before the bodies were scrapped out and used for student guitars in the early 70s. Famous users include the aforementioned James Jamerson, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and the bassist for the worst band in history, Walter Becker of Steely Dan.
And with that out of the way, we can now discuss the modern five-string. The major difference is that modern five-strings have an additional low string, specifically, a low ‘B’. Why the subsonic frequencies? Well, by the mid 70s, big, booming bottom end was pretty commonplace in popular music. By today’s subwoofer pinning standards, it’s not that impressive, but at the time it was pretty significant. Studios had learned that it wouldn’t blow up your board if you pumped the low end; home stereos started to come into vogue with separate speakers for bass, midrange and treble in one enclosure; and progressively louder concerts created more powerful amplifiers that really put the bass in the audience’s face. On top of that, stars of the instrument started to emerge that weren’t Jazz players; guys like Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, Jack Casaday and Phil Lesh, all of whom contributed to the idea that bass was worth listening to, which was previously an unfamiliar idea in the public consciousness. We also saw the emergence of a whole new style of instrument in this era: the synthesizer. Synths could do things other instruments simply could not, including extremely powerful, extremely clear, extremely low frequencies. That bit earlier where I talked about composers going to the lowest notes of a piano and expecting other bass instruments to do that? Synths could do that and go even lower, all the way down to pitches we can’t hear but man, can we feel them. While this technology was initially very expensive, as well as being kind of pointless since most stereos of the day cut off bass frequencies at a threshold higher than those notes, by the 80s that was starting to change. Synths became cheaper, and speaker technology had evolved that allowed stereos to put out more bass at a consumer friendly price. Therefore, more recordings, including ones made in project studios could have these sounds on them. Here’s where the war between bassists and synths begins.
I cannot confirm that the first ever modern five-string was built to compete with synths. What I can say is that many sources mention Jimmy Johnson as the designer of that bass in 1975, and it was built for him by Alembic (serial #76 AC418), and sadly, that historic bass has been missing for decades as a result of theft. Johnson is a Jazz player, and that is a genre that tends to be more experimental; several Jazz acts were incorporating synths into their sound long before they became commonplace on the Pop airwaves, so perhaps he was trying to hit the notes that they could get. Synths were expensive and bulky, and unless you were Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, or Stevie Wonder, you probably gigged with an organ or electric piano. And yes, Hammond organs have those bass pedals, but they’re rarely used, so the theory that he was trying to comp for those thunderous lows courtesy of a Moog holds some weight.
It is known that a myriad of bassists were relieved by the emergence of five-string basses in the early 80s, since it meant that the days of having to learn a simple part on the CasioTone while playing the Pop hits of the day in a cover band was a thing of the past. Many of them resented the proliferation of synth bass on contemporary records, a good example of this being Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which used both synth bass and bass guitars, sometimes simultaneously, to achieve its world conquering sound. Now, because of the extended low range, they could do all of those parts on one instrument, easy-peasy. But what was the first commercially available, mass produced five-string?
Many boutique companies had been offering them for years, such as the previously mentioned Alembic and Tobias, but those were far from common. Steinberger offered it as a custom option in 1982 on the L2/5, but again, these were not mass produced. From what I can determine, the first five-string bass that one could walk into a music store and pull off the peg was the Yamaha BB5000 in 1984, followed quickly by the Ibanez RB885 in 1985. Next was the Musicman Stingray 5 (Tony Levin’s weapon of choice), which hit the shops in 1987.
I distinctly remember the wave of five-strings starting to creep into my beloved catalogs in the early 90s; first a few Fenders, plus those Yamaha, Ibanez, and Musicman models that had been there all along, then the Jacksons and Charvels that were so popular at the time, then a Rickenbacker, eventually a Gibson, and by the middle of the decade I was seeing budget ones. By the turn of the millennium, it seemed that every bass came in a five-string variety.
Contemporaneous to the development of the modern five-string was the development of the modern six-string. This, conveniently, is a very easy story to tell, since it is entirely due to a few men, all of whom are still alive and have been extensively interviewed on the subject. It starts with Anthony Jackson, another Jazz bassist. In 1968, sixteen year old Jackson had the idea to expand the range of the bass in both higher and lower directions. To quote: “Why is four [strings] the standard and not six? As the lowest-pitched member of the guitar family, the instrument should have had six strings from the beginning. The only reason it had four was because Leo Fender was thinking in application terms of an upright bass, but he built it along guitar lines because that was his training. The logical conception for the bass guitar encompasses six strings.” Unlike the previous versions of six-string basses with their “guitar down an octave” tuning, he conceived a whole new idea that was similar to the relationship of orchestral instruments but built around the guitar platform. With violins, violas, and cellos, many of the tunings share common notes but in different octaves; violin is ‘G-D-A-E’, viola is ‘C-G-D-A’ (notice the three shared notes), and cello is the same but in a lower octave. Double bass is the outlier with its ‘E-A-D-G’ tuning, which is a whole different relationship of notes– to use the technical terminology, violin, viola and cello are tuned in fifths, while guitar and bass are tuned in fourths; if you want this explained, there’s plenty of “introduction to music theory” sites on the internet and YouTube. But with this relationship in mind, the logical extrapolation would be an additional low ‘B’ (down a fourth from ‘E’), and a high ‘C’ (up a fourth from ‘G’). This is precisely what Jackson desired, and in late 1974, custom builder Carl Thompson agreed to build one for him. It was dubbed “The Contrabass”. Sharp eyed readers may notice that Jackson’s Contrabass has both of the additional strings that earlier five-strings had. And you may be wondering “if the high ‘C’ was pointless on the Fender V, why did Jackson add it?” Well, that short neck on the V is the answer. The highest note on a V was the same as the highest note on a four-string P-Bass or Jazz bass, you just didn’t have to climb so high up to reach it. Since Jackson’s Contrabass had a full-length neck, it did allow for higher notes, well beyond the reach of four-strings, plus an extended lower range.
As you can imagine, the first one was a bit unwieldy. After two attempts from Thompson, Jackson started to move on to other custom builders, namely Ken Smith, and ultimately his apprentice, Vinny Fodera. Fodera eventually formed his own boutique company and made multiple versions for Jackson, as well as extremely high quality and expensive (and in my opinion, butt ugly) basses for many of the virtuoso players of today, particularly Victor Wooten. At the time of writing, six-string basses are not as common as fives. While several major makers, including Ibanez, Peavey, ESP, Musicman, and Dean have all produced them, the most prominent players of them, such as Jackson, Les Claypool and Tye Zamora, use custom instruments rather than off the shelf varieties. And, the original style of six-string bass lives on thanks to Fender (who still make the VI as part of their Squier Classic Vibe series), Gretsch, Schecter, and a revitalized Danelectro.
But our story doesn’t end there. Nope, now we’re gonna jump into the wayback machine and look at the history of multi-course basses. What is a multi-course bass, you may be asking? It is an instrument where two or more strings are played simultaneously. If you’ve ever seen a mandolin or twelve-string guitar, you have seen this concept applied; and even if you’ve never consciously seen these instruments, you’ve definitely heard them. Mandolin simply doubles the strings, and slight inconsistencies in the tuning create a natural chorusing effect, sort of like two instruments playing in unison. Mandolin has been a staple of Country music since the Bluegrass days, as it was the instrument played by that genre’s inventor, Bill Monroe. Twelve-string guitars, however, have the lowest four strings doubled in octaves, and the highest two doubled in unison, making a very broad sound. They have been a crucial component of Folk music since Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter made one his main guitar in the mid 1900s. Icons like Pete Seeger followed his lead, and with the introduction of the electric twelve-string in 1964, many former Folkies started to use them prominently, particularly Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. Of course, the most famous user of the electric twelve-string is George Harrison of The Beatles, whose use of one on “Hard Day’s Night” immediately crashed out of the speakers with its instantly recognizable clanging opening chord and fleet-fingered solo; it was summarily dubbed “the beat boys secret weapon”. The sound of acoustic and electric twelve-strings persisted into later decades, being heard clearly on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” and The Eagles’ “Hotel California” in the 70s, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive” and The Cure’s “In Between Days” in the 80s, and on nearly every song by Lush in the 90s as Miki Berenyi used one almost exclusively. Leo Kotke is famous for his instrumental work with a twelve-string, and in the modern era, they can be heard on songs from artists like Death Cab For Cutie and Pale Waves, to name a few. However, to a large group of people, the sound of a twelve-string is synonymous with the 1960s, which is also when the story of the multi-course bass begins. One of the many changes to occur in this decade was a full scale shift in popular music; the overall dominance of Rock And Roll is well documented, and one of the innovations within that genre was the introduction of the power trio. Acts like Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Ten Years After emerged, and were greatly benefited by two major factors: one, the acceptance of instrumental virtuosity in lieu of vocal charisma (Clapton, Jimi and Alvin Lee were pretty lousy singers, but boy could they play), and two, the technology of the era, specifically high wattage amplifiers that allowed for powerful, saturated guitar sounds and Earth shaking bass. Bands like The Rolling Stones had already proved that you didn’t need to be exceedingly talented or remotely handsome to become famous, and groups like The Who proved that you could subvert the musical conventions of the time and be successful. In this era, it became apparent that an aspiring Rock Star only needed a couple of friends to round out the lineup of a band rather than a full ensemble.
The music of power trios was very popular with the garage bands of the day, including one named The Aristo-Cats, featuring a fellow named Eric Krackow. He wasn’t particularly fond of the idea of guitars having to double bass lines when covering power trio material, so to allow more sonic freedom for the whole group, he conceived the eight-string bass. It was literally built using the same principles as a twelve-string guitar, with strings doubled in octaves and creating a sound like a guitar and bass playing in unison. He built a prototype by modifying an existing four-string before pitching the idea to the Univox company in 1967. Univox was the distributor for Hagström guitars, who promptly snapped up the idea and started manufacturing them that year. The initial run of 500 did well, so they continued to produce them for another two years, making a total run of 2,249 pieces. Probably best remembered for their use by Jimi Hendrix on his Electric Ladyland album, the Hagström eight-string was not the only model produced. Rickenbacker, Hamer, ESP, Washburn and others have made them over the years, and like six-string basses, they still exist in small batch manufacture in many different price brackets, and like five and six-string models, show up in the collections of many professional players who seek diverse sonic palates.
One of those players is Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick, who took the idea of an eight-string and decided to go one better. Around 1973, he wondered “why have one octave when you could have two?” and imagined a new instrument, a sort of conceptual hybrid of a bass, twelve-string guitar, and mandolin. Not only was there the sonic density of a low note and its upper octave, but there was now a unison to that octave creating the artificial doubling effect mentioned earlier. In 1977, Hamer built him his first twelve-string bass, called “The Quad” (so called for its quadrophonic output option), and they have been a mainstay for him since. As I mentioned at the top of this column, we used to have one of these at the store I worked at, and these things are beasts. First off, you’re playing three strings simultaneously, which is a feat in and of itself, and secondly, you’re having to kind of hold the whole thing up at the same time. The additional weight of the enlarged headstock and additional tuners create a phenomenon called “neck dive” which is exactly what it sounds like: the headstock perpetually doing a Greg Louganis impression with the floor as the pool. Some four-string instruments, in particular the Gibson Thunderbird, are notorious for this, as is the ever popular Gibson SG guitar. This is fundamentally a design flaw, and while not all of them have it due to the materials they’re constructed from, it is pretty common. Twelve-string basses on the other hand seem predisposed to this by their nature. Granted, I’ve only played the one, but I’ve never seen a picture of anyone using one with their hand off the neck. Even when posing with them, they need support from all that weight; the alternative would be to make the body so heavy that it would fuse your spine as soon as you strap one on.
What do they sound like? Listen to the opening riff of “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, it’s probably the most famous example of the twelve-string bass sound. They can also be frequently found in the hands of Doug Pinnick of King’s X. While these are extremely uncommon, they have been made by many manufacturers over the years, and while Hamer is the best known, you can also find versions from Gretsch, Dean, and several custom builders.
And now, we have reached the end of the journey, the present day. The bass guitar is one of the few instruments to still have a role in modern music; while the current trend is to use digital sources, it’s fairly common to see the bigger acts backed by a live band, or at least a bassist and drummer. Guitar oriented music is no longer the dominant sound in the zeitgeist; as horn based music waned from popularity, be it Marches or Jazz, now the era of guitar is at an end. There will always be a market for it, I mean, it’s not like people stopped making Jazz when it was supplanted by Rock And Roll, and there always seems to be enough brass, woodwind, and orchestral players to round out the half-time shows and holiday celebrations in even the smallest town, so I have no fear that guitar is doomed to extinction. But, as a bass player, my position is secure for the time being, because the world still loves sick grooves.