Jack Bruce: The Silver Lining
Jack Bruce plays piano as well as bass, but he calls himself a “natural bass player.” He’s played many models, including Gibsons, but these days he plays his signature Warwick fretless thumb bass.
Legendary bass player Jack Bruce has accomplished enough musical feats to last several lifetimes. Known as one of the most influential and iconic rock bassists of all time, Bruce first stepped into the spotlight with his band Cream, where his powerful vocals and innovative playing—accompanied by budding guitarist Eric Clapton—helped sell more than 35 million albums in just over two years.
After stints with other rock luminaries such as John Mayall, Ringo Starr, and Frank Zappa, Bruce found his own voice as a solo artist, writing 13 albums from the span of 1969 to 2003 that gained high acclaim for his vocal prowess, groundbreaking bass work, and progressive songwriting. His rhythmically challenging and melodic style of playing electric fretless and upright basses have inspired multiple generations of bass players, including the likes of Sting and Jaco Pastorius.
On the cusp of his 71st birthday, rather than sit back and enjoy a quiet life at his home in Suffolk, England, Bruce is still hard at work pushing the envelope by releasing his first album in more than a decade, Silver Rails. The beautifully eclectic album blends blues roots with piano ballads and even shades of progressive rock. Songs like “Drone,” “Rusty Lady,” and “No Surrender” give nods to his days of playing in Cream, while the reflective ballads “Candlelight” and “Reach for the Night” show Bruce’s mastery of piano composition.
Joined by an all-star cast including keyboardist John Medeski, guitarists Phil Manzanera, Robin Trower, and Uli Jon Roth, drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana, and even his son Malcom, Silver Rails is one of Bruce’s most inspired albums to date. And to add even more sentimental importance to his 14th record, Bruce and company recorded it all at Abbey Road Studios, where Bruce has laid down many of his hits over the years. But even with his impressive band and studio setting, many wondered if Bruce would still have the magic touch after his 10-year lull between albums. As Bruce explains, that’s something that never goes away.
“When I began writing these songs, they just all sort of flooded out and the process was more fluent than ever. It’s just an extension of me now,” he says. “I’m always writing riffs and looking for a little sunshine in the rocks. I feel like songwriting is getting easier over time. Whether I’m playing my bass or sitting at the piano, these ideas just keep coming. It’s not something you can necessarily turn off.”
Silver Rails is an eclectic album with a lot of different styles on it. Was this your intention?
It wasn’t a conscious decision—the songs just kind of came out like that when I wrote them. It kind of happened when it happened. I’d been playing around with a couple of the ideas and then the musicians I brought in put their spin on it and would bring certain elements out in them. I usually never know what to expect when I begin to write and sometimes certain influences come out more than others.
What was the writing process like for this album?
I write on bass and piano depending on how I hear an idea in my head. My writing differs quite a bit depending on which instrument I’m playing. The idea for the song “Rusty Lady” came because I wanted to write a new version of the old Cream tune “Politician.” The riff I came up with for that just kind of popped into my head and so I played it on my bass. The songs “Reach for the Night” and “Don’t Look Now” are a bit more musical, so I sat down at the piano to write them. I like to record piano, guitar, and drums for those types of songs and then I add the bass to make it a bit more orthodox.
How has your writing on bass evolved over the years?
It’s very natural at this point and I don’t think too much about playing bass guitar while I’m doing it any more. I’m always searching for the perfect bass line. I have been my whole life. I’m always striving to find that line and that note that will make everything sound good. That’s the function of the bass—to make everything around it sound better. It’s not about being flashy, it’s all about enhancing the song. Playing piano is a little bit different because I’m not a natural piano player, but I am a natural bass player.
What was it like to record at Abbey Road again?
It was great fun to be back in that studio. I did a recording there two or three years ago, but every time you go in it’s a unique experience. They have so much great equipment and a fantastic team of people there. It’s always a remarkable experience and the history of that place is incredible. I think it brings your playing up a few notches because you don’t want to play a bad note in Abbey Road—you have to be sharp. You start thinking about all of the great stuff that’s been done there in the past and it makes you want to up your game.
What was your studio set up like for this recording?
I always like to go through a DI and use a couple of amps to get the sounds that I’m after. I don’t use big rigs in the studio to track, but I do like to use them to re-amp things. I’ve found that that’s the best way to get a big bass sound. I crank it up and it gets a really nice tone. But when I’m tracking I use smaller amps that really punch through.
How do you dial in your bass tone?
I like a lot of midrange and I like to be able to vary my volume, especially when I’m playing live. I don’t like to just crank it up, I like it to be set somewhere in the middle so I can adjust it while I’m playing. My EQ on my amp typically looks like a frown or a rainbow shape, where my mids are up and my highs and lows are down so it makes somewhat of a curve.
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].