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Interview: Larry Graham - Sheer Energy

Larry Graham–legendary groove master for Sly and the Family Stone and pioneer of electric slap bass–recounts the birth of "thumpin'' and pluckin''" as well as his new Graham Central Station album, Raise Up, which features guests like Prince and Raphael Saadiq on 13 boot-shaking tunes.

Photo by Erich Francois

“When I hear other bass players playing like me,” says Larry Graham—the funk god who invented and popularized the electric-bass slapping-and-popping technique with Sly and the Family Stone in the late 1960s—“I just think, ‘There’s another one of my children!’”

That’s a lot of kids. The technique— heard in megahits such as “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”—won Graham a page in music history and went on to become a cornerstone technique for players from Stanley Clarke to Bootsy Collins, Marcus Miller, Les Claypool, Flea, Doug Wimbish, and Victor Wooten, each of whom has spawned his own fanatical following, thus exponentially increasing Graham’s influence. Indeed, although Graham prefers to call the technique “thumpin’ and pluckin’,” it’s no overstatement to say that his playing has impacted the world of electric bass with the same force and universality that Jimi Hendrix’s did for the electric guitar.

Graham has been leading his own Graham Central Station band for nearly four decades now, and his first album in more than a decade, Raise Up, proves the legend hasn’t slowed down a bit. With newly recorded versions of GCS classics like “It’s Alright” and “Now Do U Wanta Dance,” as well as fresh new tracks like “Throw-N-Down the Funk,” Raise Up both frames the breadth of Graham’s legacy and demonstrates his band’s potent live sound. In addition, the album features cool cameos by players such as Raphael Saadiq and Prince—who plays drums, keyboards and backing vocals on the title track, and lays down liquid lead-guitar tracks on “Shoulda Coulda Woulda.” Throughout, GCS churns out funk fire and finesse, with Graham dialing up fuzzy, phased tones in spots, and longtime guitarist William Rabb and blazing new drummer Brian Braziel turning in dazzling performances on a furiously funky cover of the Stevie Wonder classic “Higher Ground.”

“I’m very fortunate,” says Graham. “All of our players were raised on my music, and at the same time they’re very open to progression. So they can play the old stuff as close to the originals as possible, but when it’s time for where we’re going next, they’re all right there.”

We recently spoke to Graham, 66, about his pioneering playing and the influence he’s had on the world of bass guitar. Like many veterans who’ve been at it their whole lives, he’s at the point where gear and tone settings are secondary or even tertiary to feel and vibe. He prefers to let his recent music speak for itself, but he was more than happy to talk about the cataclysmic funk that one inspired player with fantastically attuned hands and ears can deliver.

You get a really full-throated tone on the new album. How do you capture your sound in the studio?
I close-mic the amps in the studio—because I want that amp sound—but I still record direct, as well, because I want the cleanness and the power and the punch from the direct sound. Once I record them, I blend the two by ear to make it sound the way I want it. It’s different, live: I don’t mic the amps onstage, although I do send a direct signal out of the back of two of the amps to the mixing board.

What were you trying to accomplish with Raise Up?
I intended it to be a complete piece, like a book, with a great beginning, a body of content in the middle, and a great conclusion. The idea was to create a complete journey. That’s why I wanted to include some of the early GCS stuff, as well as the current stuff. It’s also why I wanted to include Prince—because of this close connection between him and me—and also Raphael Saadiq, being out of Oakland, and Stevie Wonder, being such a close friend and having done so many things together. I think it really says what I’m all about. If you were to pick up a book and read about me, that’s what it would sound like!

Can you tell us a bit about your songwriting process?
A lot of it’s just singing the parts into a tape recorder before I even get a chance to sit down with the instrument. Sure, if I’m at an instrument—say, a guitar—I’ll play the chords, like I did when I wrote “Ole Smokey,” which is a guitar-type tune. Songs like “Today” or “Just Be My Lady” or “Hold You Close” are things I wrote on the piano. A song like “Hair” is obviously built around the bass, so it was written on the bass. “Got to Go Through It to Get to It” is built around a pretty intricate drum beat, so in that case the beat came first. I’ve been blessed to have learned quite a few instruments, and though I’m not a master of those instruments—no one’s going to ask me to be the drummer in their band—I can lay down the parts I hear in my head, and many times I’ll even keep those parts in the final recordings. If I record something at home that works great and I can’t seem to duplicate it, I’ll keep that, too. I played guitar before the bass, and I played the drums before that—so, I’m not locked into any one method of songwriting. However [the song] comes, I’m going to move forward from that.

Over all these years, you’ve steadfastly stuck to calling your revolutionary technique “thumpin’ and pluckin’.” Let’s talk about why you like to make that distinction.
Well, it really is thumpin’ and pluckin’! You can give it another name, but it’s still thumpin’ and pluckin.’ When you hit the string with the side of your thumb, you’re thumpin’ it more than slapping it, and when you’re poppin’ that G string, like I do on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” you’re really pluckin’ it. Y’know, for people who aren’t musicians, I can understand why they don’t understand that—and they can call it anything they want, as long as they’re referring to the same technique. I’m sure that in the future, some new names will get added—I’ve heard “pop bass,” and “chopper bass,” which is what some people call it in Japan. There’s a whole list of names, depending on where you live, but when you see and hear it, it’s all the same thing.

Larry Graham lays down the funk with Sly and the Family Stone at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Photo by Jason Laure (Frank White Photo Agency)

Has the style you developed way back in the ’60s changed much over the years?
My technique is fundamentally the same as it was back in the late ’60s, because my heart hasn’t changed—and when I play, I play from the heart. Of course, you grow in your understanding of harmony, your grasp of different feels, and you benefit from exposure to other people’s music. I mean, since I came up with this style, we’ve all lived through so many different genres and styles, and the way that I play the bass has now spread throughout all genres of music. So, my style is basically the same, but everything I’ve experienced as a person, as a listener, and as a player all comes out in my playing now.

Do you remember the first time you thumped and plucked?
Y’know, the first time I played bass I didn’t immediately start thumpin’ and pluckin.’ Before then, in my mother’s group [the Dell Graham Trio, which Graham joined at age 15], I was on guitar and my mother was on piano and we had a drummer. So when I would take a solo, she would be playing the bass lines with her left hand on the piano, and when she would solo, then I would play bass lines on the guitar. So the biggest influence for me, in terms of bass patterns, at that time, would be her left hand. Later, when my mother decided to no longer use drums—and I still don’t know if that was mostly for economic reasons—that’s when I started to thump the strings to get that groove going.

But the way I started playing bass in the first place was that I had been playing the bass pedals of an organ with my feet at the same time as I was playing the guitar. We were getting used to having that extra bottom there, but at some point the organ broke down, so we missed the bottom. That’s why I went out and rented this St. George electric bass, and I rented it because I was going to take it back as soon as the organ was repaired! My first love was still the guitar! But it turned out that the organ couldn’t be repaired, and that’s how I got stuck on the bass. When my mom decided she was no longer going to have a drummer, that’s when I started thumping the strings—to make up for not having that bass drum—and plucking the strings to make up for not having the backbeat on the snare drum. I was basically trying to play drums on the bass to compensate for not having a drummer.

Larry Graham plays his signature Moon J-style bass with Graham Central Station at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City on June 16, 2010. Photo by Adam Sands (Frank White Photo Agency)

Do you recall getting a strong reaction from people when you started playing that way?
I don’t remember any strong reaction to it at the time, though I remembering thinking that if any professional musicians heard me, they’d think, “What is he doing? He’s not playing the correct way.” Meaning, y’know, the correct overhand style of bass playing. But the people at the club were just enjoying what they were hearing. When I look back, I wonder if my style would have ever meant anything to anybody if Sly [Stone] hadn’t come down and heard me at the club, loved what he heard, and asked me to join this new band that didn’t even have a name yet.

But because of all those hit records we had, and because of other bass players seeing me on TV and wondering, “What is that guy doing?” it really caught on. Even in the ’70s, if you were in a cover band playing those Sly songs, you really had to play them the way I was playing them. So as a result of our success, other original bands started writing stuff that required their bass players to start thumpin’ and pluckin’ on their original songs. Of course, from there it spread even further. But until it became something famous, I really didn’t see anybody trippin’ on it. I never got that sort of “Wow, look what he’s doing!” People just seemed to enjoy my mother and I as a duo, with both of us singing and playing.

So where exactly does your right hand thumb contact the string?
Most of the time, it hits the string just ahead of the back [J-style] pickup—between the two pickups, but much closer to the bridge pickup. You get a slightly different tone back there than you do if you thump the string closer to the edge of the fretboard—which I also do, depending on the sound I’m after. If you’re hitting it closer to the pickup, it’s like the difference between singing up right on the microphone or standing back a little bit. Now, I do play overhand style as well, but most of the songs I’ve created incorporate the thumpin,’ so that’s how I tend to play. And this might sound funny, but most of the songs that other people have written with me in mind also incorporate that style, so it becomes even harder to do things overhand- style—other people have sort of helped me to lock into what I do even more.

And the popping or plucking is always your index finger?
Yeah, it’s mostly the index finger for popping—it’s the strongest finger, and the one naturally closest to the string.

So where do the ghost notes come from—the percussive stuff that’s often non-harmonic?
A lot of that actually comes from the left hand. You can hit a ghost note with your left hand that you can actually attack with your right hand. And you can accent notes just by how hard you press down with your left hand, even if you’re just playing one note. Take, for example, on “Everyday People”: That’s just one note, but that rhythm— that BIM-dup, BIM-dup, BIMdup— comes about by how hard you hit the string with your right [plucking] hand. Harder and softer, harder and softer. But it also comes from how hard you press down on the notes with your left [fretting] hand. That’s how you create that sort of galloping rhythm thing, even on just one note. So both right and left hands have a part to play in that.

The one change in your playing over the years seems to be that you’ve added more melodic information, such as in bass lines like “It Ain’t No Fun to Me.”
Well, again, that comes from growth within yourself. You can know how to do something pretty well, but as time goes on you keep doing it over and over, and that fundamental technique just gets better and better. I have to say that, these days, I don’t think about playing that much—I think a lot more about the overall performance, and that includes singing and dancing, and communicating with the audience. Of course, in the studio, working on a record, that’s a time to focus in 100 percent on your playing and your parts and your technique. It’s easier to focus in when you’re concentrating on one thing, and there’s no audience, no distractions. In front of an audience, though, I can’t just stand there and play bass—well, I could, but I’d get in trouble!

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from being both a legendary sideman and a well-known bandleader?
All those years with Sly, and with my mother before that, I was quite comfortable following the leader. I’ve always felt that, though I’m in a contributing role, I’m constantly learning. With Prince, for example, very often I’m in the background role, just being the bass player. Of course, with GCS, I’m out front as the bandleader. So I’m very comfortable and content in either role. In other words, I don’t have to be the leader. In fact, I became a bandleader out of necessity—I wasn’t seeking the role! I was working with Hot Chocolate as a producer, and I was writing all the tunes as well, so when I suddenly found myself also in the band, bandleader was the role I naturally assumed.

Larry Graham’s Gear

Moon Larry Graham Snow White bass with Bartolini J pickups and 27-volt Bartolini preamp

Warwick WA 600 class-A solid-state amps powering WCA 410 and WCA 115 cabinets

Ernie Ball volume pedal, Dunlop 105Q Cry Baby bass wah, Danelectro fuzz, Roland Jet Phaser, Mu-Tron Octave Divider

Strings and Accessories
GHS Boomers (.035–.095), Ernie Ball straps

Obviously, I had great training and great role models, and I’ve seen a few bad examples— how not to treat band members. Sly was a great songwriter and producer, but one thing that was a part of Sly’s genius—and, I think, part of the band’s success—was that he allowed each person in the band to be themselves. He asked me to be in the band because of what he heard me do. So, if he’s going to write “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” and he’s going to bring that to the table, why change up the way I play the bass? Just let me do my thumpin’ and pluckin’, like he heard in the beginning! Freddie Stone is a great guitar player— one of the greatest rhythm-pattern players—and though Sly is a guitar player, too, he wasn’t going to try to change up the way Freddie played. So I may play drums, but I’m not telling anyone they need to play it my way. Just bring the song to the people, and have them contribute what they do.

It’s the same thing with Prince: When we play together, I can be in the background playing bass on his stuff, or I can jump out front and be myself. He’s not trying to say, “Do it like this” or “Do it like that.” As a player and as a bandleader, that’s the way to enjoy what you’re doing.

YouTube It

Graham demonstrates his music-redefining technique on GCS and Sly classics. Note how the right hand shifts position from the rear pickup area to just beyond the fretboard.

GCS live at the Vienna Jazz Festival, playing “Throw-N-Down the Funk.” Dig Graham’s use of a Roland Jet Phaser during the slap breaks (e.g., at 2:10).

You won’t see much of Graham in this live clip from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 Woodstock performance, but you’ll hear his rumbling bass—including a throbbing solo at 3:10—powering one of the greatest, sexiest grooves of all time. The influence of this track on Miles Davis’ work of the era and into the ’70s is unmistakable.