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Bass legend Jack Bruce (who turns 71 this month) recorded his 14th solo record, Silver Rails, at Abbey Road Studios—with a little help from his friends.
What do you like most about playing fretless basses?
You have a lot of freedom with fretless basses because you can play the pitches how you want to. It’s like singing to where you can hit a note in the middle or above it and it’s the same thing with fretless basses. You can be a lot more selective with the pitch. I like to use really light strings so I can bend them to alter my notes as well.
What was it like working with Warwick to design your signature bass series?
I love working with Warwick because they’ve been very good to me. It took us a long time to make my perfect bass because they’re always making things so heavy with their exotic woods. So I wanted to make something that was playable and something that beginner musicians could afford. High-end basses are usually very expensive, so it was important for me to make something that was accessible to most players.
Bruce’s first bass was an upright blonde plywood bass. He graduated to nicer German and Czech models, and then eventually tried an electric bass, which he says felt like “a toy” after playing upright basses for so long.
What components make an ideal bass to you?
It depends on what you’re doing at the time. The Precision bass is the standard that all other basses have to live up to. You really can’t beat the sound of a Fender Precision or a Jazz bass. It’s a beautiful sound, but I found early on that you couldn’t do a lot to manipulate it. I’ve always wanted something a bit unusual, which is why I use Gibsons and other basses so I could make my own sounds and get noticed. A good bass should be comfy to play and versatile so you can get a range of tones out of it.
What led you to become a bass player?
I was toying with the idea of being a bass player and my father took me to see a jazz concert when I was just a kid and I just fell in love with the sound of that bass. I knew that that was what I wanted to do. So I tried to stay true to the tradition of great bass players. After that concert I knew that was my path. I wanted to learn at school, but my hands weren’t big enough yet, so my teacher told me I had to come back in a year. So then when I was 15 I got really involved in playing cello and I got a scholarship for music. And then over time I got stronger and I was able to start playing the upright bass.
What was your first bass?
The very first bass I bought on my own was a plywood blonde bass. I was just a kid and I thought it looked good and it was really cheap, which was good because we didn’t have much money at the time. I started gigging around and playing a lot and then I got a nicer German upright, and over time I got a Czech bass as well. I still have those two basses.
How did you make the switch to electric bass?
I used to do sessions for Island Records in London and I started working with a guitarist from Jamaica and he said he wanted me to play a bass guitar. So I borrowed a bass for the session, and it was a great thing because after playing upright it felt like a toy. The first electric bass I got was a Japanese Fender copy. It wasn’t good at all and it used to shock me while I played it. That’s when I found the Gibson EB-3 bass. I think I paid 40 pounds for it and I knew it was the right way for me to go.
How has your tone evolved over the years?
I used to always play with loud, distorted tone, especially in my early days when that was the thing. But sometimes it wouldn’t be deliberate and it would be because I’d blown a speaker or two by playing too loud and too hard. In Cream I wanted to narrow my sound down and play nicer tones. I like my sound to be pure. That was something I really worked on in my time playing with Frank Zappa.
“Drone” from Silver Rails
Who are your greatest influences on bass?
James Jamerson really taught me just how important the bass can be on a record. And Paul McCartney plays a mean bass and he made things so melodic. That was all before Jaco Pastorius came around and changed the way bass players played. Although he didn’t influence me that much, I think I influenced him more than anything because he was a younger guy.
What advice would you give a bass player who wants to get to your position?
No matter what instrument you play, always pick up the best one you can afford. Some people don’t get past playing on a really bad instrument and that can end their playing days before they’ve started. Secondly, never give up. Once you know what you’re doing and once you’ve found your direction, never give up. The third thing is to get a good lawyer [laughs].