Beck's "Sexx Laws"
Justin Meldal-Johnsen's Complete Bass Line
Bass Player Magazine
Published March, 2007
Beck, the master of retro-hipster musical eclecticism, has been on the cultural radar for over a decade now, and as such it's easy to take his uniquely groovy stew for granted. But when an artist is drawing from genres as disparate as ‘60s soul and R&B, modern hip-hop, ‘70s big-band Elvis, country, and James Brown-inspired funk, material doesn't just show up as received wisdom. It takes musicians who somehow get it all, can put it into their own musical processors, and come up with parts that work every stylistic angle at once, all the while with a tongue planted firmly in cheek...and, on a live gig, while dancing. For Beck, the guy who leads that charge is his bassist, musical director, and friend of over fifteen years, Justin Meldal-Johnsen.
In 1999, when Beck released the high-energy Midnite Vultures (Geffen), the leadoff track "Sexx Laws" became a huge hit. Amidst the jam-packed arrangement - with old-school-R&B horns, strange synth bursts, banjo, and an uptempo funk groove that could get just about anyone to take their pants off - the track's bassline stands out as a masterpiece of what's possible when the rules are all being broken at once, and yet The Groove is still steering the bus.
"Beck wanted something highly distinct and very driving. I think he wanted the bass to seem like it was coming unhinged at every turn," says Johnsen, explaining how he created the bassline. "The basis of the track was some of the horns, some low, twangy guitar samples and probably an elemental version of the beats. My bass was the first non-sampled instrument to be recorded... Beck looped the song for me, and I just jammed on it until I came up with the parts that Beck really liked, then we tracked a few takes."
The tune kicks off with a greasy vamp that serves as the song's intro and outro, verse foundation, and interlude between choruses and following verses. The changes alternate between B major (the tune's key) and G# major three times before the two-bar turnaround of A major and F# major. Johnsen lays into the roots with an 8th-note pulse and anticipation, usually followed by a quick 16th-note run up into the next change. There are slight alterations to the end-bar lick throughout the tune, but the purest form of the line can be found starting at bar 9, throughout Verse 1.
(Click here to see a PDF of the full transcription.)
One of the coolest parts of the whole line is the turnaround (bars 7 and 8), where Justin cranks out a wild, stuttering run of 16th-note anticipations and approach tones that would make James Jamerson blush. Over A major, he hits the root, then the 7th (G) and 5th (E) before sliding up into the 9th (B), then works his way back down the chord tones with the help of an open string (D). The coup d'grace occurs over the F# chord, where he string-skips his way through a blinding fast major pentatonic run of A#-C#-D#-F# and then plows down to the root, hitting the b3 blues note (A natural) along the way. The turnaround is played consistently throughout the song. And mind you, this entire line is played with a pick.
"I was getting a lot of laughs at that ridiculous, almost country guitar phrase I would drop at the end of every eight bars in the verse," Justin admits, calling the overall line "cheeky" for good measure.
The song's chorus is a quirky and relentlessly major and dominant progression (there's not a single minor chord in this song!) over which Johnsen cranks out a furious and frenetic line of 16th-note funkiness. Using the first chorus as an example (bar 17), the E7 bars climb up chromatically and then fall down on the 7th (D) and 5th (B), hammering-on the grace notes; the two following bars (G# and C#) have a similar rhythmic feel as they hit the octave, 5th and 7th chord tones; another two-bar climb in G7 leads up into a high root-fifth-octave line in F#; a chromatic climb in E falls into a two-bar line in D before finally breathing for four consecutive quarter notes...and then the vamp re-enters and the groove starts all over again.
While the chorus may seem somewhat random, it's actually a very consistent line. The first two choruses are quite similar...the verses, not so much. The second verse flies off into a whole other universe (Bars 36-51), containing an alternate-picked, slightly "out" lick (Bar 37) and an entirely new root-fifth-octave motif (starting at Bar 44). Further on, after the breakdown (letter H) there's a fancy one-off lick (bar 78) in F# that sets up the final chorus and outro vamp. By this point, Johnsen starts playing around more with the line, but never loses the essence of what makes it work in the first place.
That includes the tone - dark, boomy, vintage, gritty, and not always completely articulated in the mix. It never gets in the way of the sparkly goodness present in many of Beck's tracks. Justin did it with a Guild Starfire Reissue (circa 1998), with the signal split into a Brent Averill Api 312 Mic Pre and a Sans Amp PSA-1, and then into a Urei 1176 and "some other compressor" (he doesn't remember).
Johnsen's line in "Sexx Laws" is as if someone took vintage James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins, kept their essences in place, put them in a blender, and like The Bionic Man, created a newly-programmed bass-freak robot, named Justin, that was better, stronger, faster...and capable of coming up with a part that could not only make you dance, but also make you appreciate the tremendous amount of musicianship contained within. Dig it, baby.
Sidebar - "Enforcing Johnsen's ‘Sexx Laws'"
Have fun, but push the envelope: The guys were getting some amusement at the fact that I was sweating bullets trying to correctly play this monster I had created. That's my favorite thing to do:write things that are at the threshold of my ability.
Relax, baby: Your fingerboard hand needs to be so relaxed as to be almost rubbery, while your picking hand actually needs to be very tight and economical. Physically, it's a strange hybrid.
Make it sound Sexx-y: Sonically, the ideal scenario would be some sort of medium or short-scale hollowbody with flatwounds, get a gritty tone, and dig in fairly hard with a pick to get some attack.
Reprinted with permission from the March, 2007 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.