Getting In Over Your Head
(Soapbox Column #3)
Bass Player Magazine
Published December, 1999
If they're going to call this column "Learning Curve," then I'd better get around to the process of learning sooner or later, right?
Maybe you're not like me. Maybe you sat and drilled yourself silly with scales and modes and metronomes to the point where a light went on over your head when you were able to play a three octave Eb half-diminished scale in sixteenth notes at 150 beats per minute on your 7-string. But for me, the key was learning songs. After all, why did you start playing bass in the first place? Was it because you wanted to play along with John Bonham, or because you felt the need to master a fingering exercise?
I'm not saying that practicing scales and technique aren't important - without the proper tools, a craftsman finds himself scratching his head when asked to build a house - but with all due apologies to Jeff Berlin, I've found that the most significant breakthroughs in playing occur when learning a tune that, for one reason or another, is slightly over your head. Something tells me I'm not the only bassist in the universe who heard a song with a killer bass line and said to himself, "Man, if only I could do that, I'd be so much happier."
And in the process of becoming happier, a funny thing occurs: you learn a new technical or mental aspect to playing that you never would have considered otherwise. These magical tunes are different for everyone, as different strokes make for different blokes. For me, though I could name hundreds if given the column space, these were the four that hit me the hardest.
"In My Time Of Dying," Led Zeppelin. It was no accident that I mentioned Bonham above. One of the Zep's more overlooked epic tunes, "Dying" clocks in at over ten minutes and contains three distinct sections. The first is a drawling, stop-and-start, grinding groove centered around Page's slide guitar motif, with John Paul Jones harmonizing the main lick a third above. Then, just when you think the song is merely plodding along, it cracks into one of the funkiest up-tempo bits never to frequent AOR radio. It's a solid four minutes of Jones and Bonham backing Page's slide solos to the hilt, with Jones in particular pumping out the sixteenth notes fat and fierce. Finally, after a furious lick ends the solo section, the main riff comes back in a completely unexpected way. Just listen to Jones keep his line steady while Bonham plays fill after deadly fill, each sequentially meaning more than the previous one. By the time Plant is ready to meet St. Peter, it's easy to forget than Bonham and Jones are the ones who got him there. But not if you take the time to learn this gem from back to front, and in the process glean the secret to Zep's rhythm section magic: Bonham swings everything. Jones was clever enough to lend his lines a dash of bounce for compatibility's sake, and - voila! - rock groove was redefined. Get Jones' bounce under your fingers, and you've got a new weapon in the arsenal.
"Reza/Giant Steps," Jaco Pastorius. Sure, "Come On, Come Over" or "The Chicken" would be the more obvious choices, but we're not about obvious here. The climactic tune of the Invitation CD (sometimes referred to as Twins stateside, as Invitation was available only as an import for many years) features Jaco stretching out over Peter Erskine's 12/8-inside-4/4 Latin-inflected groove while lead trumpet John Faddis solos for nearly five minutes. The master Pastorius slides effortlessly in between the tonal center of A minor and myriad other possibilities, sometimes a half-step away, occasionally hitting the major third, even footballing the tritone-and always emoting the underlying menace of the building solo. When the big-band-arranged horns step in, he lays back and grooves in the key as only he can, but just for a short while before the tune explodes into a hyper-paced Caribbean take on "Giant Steps." But instead of walking like a maniac, Jaco chooses to play only half-notes, and the same ones repeatedly at that, leaving plenty of space for a steel drum solo. Not to worry - he simply takes over the track for the final two minutes, playing with the overdrive on full when the main theme returns. If you can't feel the desperate emotion in his 32nd-note root-oriented burst neat the tune's end, you haven't been listening close enough. To me, the passion he put into this performance is worth more than any amount of chordal harmonics and perfectly executed Jaco-style sixteenth notes. It's easy to miss the point with Jaco because he was so technically sound, but this song will not let you. It was him being himself at his peak. Are you able to tap that same emotion in yourself?
"I'll Get Away," The Raging Honkies. What? Who? Perhaps you've heard of guitarist Michael Landau, LA session ace extraordinaire, list of credits longer than your 1998 tax return. But you probably haven't heard of his brother Ted, the bassist for this now defunct power-trio. Along with Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums - a true Bonham for the 90's - these guys released two records, did some shows around LA for a year or so and then called it a day. Which is too bad, because that means you probably never got to hear them do this cut live. It's basically one slow, greasy, face-cringing lick over and over again, with Michael Landau doing a frightening Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughan-inflected solo for all he's worth (which is a lot), but the hidden treasure is the bass track. At every turn, while Michael burns the musical landscape to the ground, Ted just pumps out the line over and over again, never playing a fill, not wavering even once. It's a masterful discipline you can only truly appreciate by hearing the track, as Ted's stubbornness in the face of his brother's and Abe's madness is a lesson in and of itself. Bonus: this is the perfect song for first-time pick players. (FYI, the name of the CD containing this track is We Are The Best Band. Cute, huh?)
"Scophile," John Pattittucci. The master class. John Scofield, John Pattittucci and Vinnie Colaiuta careening downhill with no brakes in the key of G. The head is tough enough, and the B section is even harder (those without a six-string will find themselves learning new fingerings and the concept of octave displacement by necessity). Then comes Scofield's solo, under which Pattittucci - freed of Dave Weckl's more formal rhythmic approach by a typically crazed Vinnie - explores reggae-style thumbing, descending chromatic lines both in and out of tonality, and finally, slapping. Of course, the prize here is the bass solo. What this guy does over "G open" is practically indescribable. Soulful blues licks and the most out bebop lines imaginable fly by your ears seemingly simultaneously. How does one even approach something as dense as this? Transcribe it, preferably with the aide of a half-speed tape machine. (Hint: it's all in 4/4.) I did this in 1992 for a Berklee final exam, and my life - not to mention my musical technique and vocabulary - as a bassist changed forever. Could I ever play it up to speed? Well, after practicing it for six months solid...almost.
You'll notice the lack of written musical examples to go along with the above tunes. No coincidence there. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to create your own. And if these tunes don't do it for you, fine. Find your own and tackle them with abandon. Just make sure that, for one reason or another, they're slightly out of your reach. Either that, or you can click on the metronome and hit that two octave C# locrian scale one more time.
Reprinted with permission from the December, 1999 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.