If a bassist slaps in the woods, is it musical?
Slapping. For the first 10 years of my bass playing life, I swore I would never do it. (I also swore I would never play a 5-string bass.) I enjoyed listening to slapping now and then, but in general, I thought it was annoying. And I know I’m not the only one who has ever had this aversion to slap bass. A nationally known guitarist I was on the road with for three years said that hearing an unplugged bass slapped in the dressing room before a show was his least favorite sound on earth—beating out nails on a chalkboard or a fire alarm at the mall. Ouch.
I just recently returned from NAMM. The show is filled with all kinds of sights and sounds, but it seems that the most prevalent one echoing through the Anaheim Convention Center’s giant halls every year is the sound of hundreds of basses being slapped. I totally understand that it’s hard to assess the quality and musicality of a bass by playing a tender ballad at moderate volume when you have a Latin percussionist feverishly playing a loud set of congas in a booth on one side of you, and a crazy slapping bassist on the other. But, the solution is not speed slapping.
Most of the slapping heard at NAMM isn’t the laid-back style we know from players like Louis Johnson, but rather an onslaught of notes coming at you like several rounds being fired from a machine gun. It is exceptionally unmusical in most cases, and in almost every case, it’s out of time, not grooving, and certainly not head-bob inducing at all. The strange thing is that many of these guys attract a crowd of people to watch them sweat while trying to rip out as many notes as humanly possible from a bass.
Meanwhile, some of the most legendary bassists on earth roam the halls like mere mortals, completely approachable and more than willing to talk music with you in most cases. When I left the convention floor on the first day of the show this year to wait outside for my Uber driver, Darryl Jones from the Rolling Stones was standing right next to me. Nobody recognized him. No crowd was gathered around him. Apparently he was safe because he wasn’t busy machine-gun slapping his bass. This is the guy who has implied in interviews that he doesn’t have “music-store chops.” I doubt that’s true, but point well taken. Most of us song guys [check out “The Song Guys”] are either unable to, or will not do the kind of slapping the NAMM-convention slappers practice.
You know that person at your local gym who has bulging biceps, but also chicken legs and an out-of-shape core? This is the guy who thinks that if the muscle people see first and most often is in shape, maybe they’ll think that the rest of his fitness level is at an equally advanced level. (I think you know where I’m going with this.) If the loudest, most-out-front technique of your bass-playing vocabulary is on point, maybe people will think your core skills are equally impressive? Speed slapping is often a cover-up for not being able to play in a slow and simple manner to achieve the same perceivably “impressive” result.
I shouldn’t just complain about the unmusicality of slapping in modern society without offering some kind of solution. For us to reclaim slap bass in the name of music,we have to revisit the basics. To quote Swedish bass great Jonas Hellborg, “There should be pauses in your phrases. The heaviest funk bassist is the one who can stand on one note in every second measure and make it swing like hell. Work up a good technique but use it sparingly.” There is a lot of truth to that statement. The ferocious attack of the thumb followed by silence makes the next attack of the thumb so much funkier and heavier in the process.
I now have a confession to make: I like to slap. When I slap, the note hits me in the gut instead of simply vibrating it, and it just leaps out of my speaker. When I have brand-new strings, I can hear every single overtone of my instrument like I would when playing a bass note on a grand piano. When I pop a note on the 1st string, I can cut through the rest of the band to make a huge statement. When I sit at home at night and just play without plugging in, I often slap because I can really hear the lines and the tonality of the wood.
I like to slap so much that I’m going to use next month’s column as a lesson in back-to-basics slap bass. There are plenty of instructional books and videos on the topic, but I have some personal-favorite exercises to develop a clean, simple approach for those who already play, but can’t seem to fit slap bass into a song properly.By the way, now I also play a 5-string bass 90 percent of the time. The 15-year-old me would be disappointed on several levels.