Darryl Jenifer and Gary “Dr. Know” Miller of Bad Brains discuss their trailblazing fusion of disparate styles—from jazz to soul, reggae, punk, funk, and metal—as well as how their new album, "Into the Future," totally lives up to its name, and what it’s like to be both legends and underdogs more than 30 years into their career.
Photo by Frank Okenfels III
When it comes to bands who’ve altered the course of musical history with mind-blowing creativity and yet somehow never really gotten their due, Bad Brains is right up there with Spirit, the Velvet Underground, Moby Grape, and the Stooges. Despite these bands’ stylistic differences, each shares the distinction of dragging modern music kicking and screaming in a fresh new direction and heavily influencing countless bands that went on to greater fame and fortune.
To be fair, in the case of Bad Brains, the fault wasn’t entirely that of fate or a fickle music industry. The band’s lack of mainstream success has had at least as much to do with their two-edged eclecticism and the unpredictability and substance-abuse issues of lead singer Paul “H.R.” Hudson—a savant who, in his heyday, could seamlessly channel the most alluring elements of Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, Johnny Rotten, and a rabid old-school hip-hop emcee.
Formed in Washington, D.C., in 1977, the Brains began as a Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra-inspired jazz-fusion outfit called Mind Power. But then the four—H.R., drummer brother Earl Hudson, guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Miller (aka “Doc”), and bassist Darryl Jenifer—got turned on to Black Sabbath, the Damned, Bob Marley, and the Ramones (a song by the latter inspired their name change). Just as importantly, they all joined the Rastafari spiritual movement, which would henceforth imbue their work with a message of peace, positivity, and perseverance.
Even so, within two years of their newfound fascination with raging volume, seemingly incongruous genres, and “the Great Spirit,” Bad Brains had been banned from most D.C. clubs because of their raucous stage performances. And though Jenifer, Doc, and Co. went into the studio soon after relocating to New York City in 1980, the reverb-drenched reggae-punk tunes from those dates inexplicably laid dormant until the 1997 release of The Omega Sessions EP. Consequently, Bad Brains’ first official album was 1982’s eponymous ROIR Records release—a debut chock-full of breakneck beats, raging power chords, raw-toned shredding, and bass lines so thrash-tastic they make your hands hurt just listening to them.
Their 1983 follow-up, Rock for Light, was produced by the Cars’ Ric Ocasek and featured a more metallic edge, but it wasn’t until 1986’s I Against I that the band got any real visibility. Produced by Ron Saint Germain (Sonic Youth, Living Colour, 311), it boasted a masterful blend of dynamics, a more organic-feeling interweaving of styles, and an overall looser, funkier vibe—all complemented by just the right amount of studio polish. It got airplay on MTV and had an undeniable influence on bands like Living Colour, Fishbone, and the Deftones.
But from that point onward, H.R.’s eclectic personality, itinerant tendencies, and desire to focus more on reggae/dub, world music, and jazz, pretty much threw a monkey wrench in Bad Brains’ plans every time things got going in their favor with major labels and high-profile advocates within the industry. He and drummer/brother Earl left and returned to the fold multiple times over the years, and each time Jenifer and Dr. Know would soldier on with various frontmen and drummers, none of whom could hold a candle to H.R. and Earl.
H.R. hasn’t changed a whole lot in the new millennium, either. The 56-year-old is as unpredictable as ever (at a 2006 CBGB's show, he showed up wearing a bulletproof vest, a motorcycle helmet, and a headset mic that made it difficult to hear anything he said), but when he’s guided by a steady hand in the studio—as he was by the late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (aka MCA) for 2007’s Build a Nation—he’s stepped up to the plate and helped Doc (now 54), Jenifer (52), and brother Paul (55) hit it out of the park.
Last November, the legendary foursome released their 10th studio album, Into the Future. While the vitality and seething energy of H.R.’s youth is understandably in short supply—he’s now more inclined than ever toward reggae-flavored paeans to “PMA” (positive mental attitude)—he still turns in dynamic performances like only he could. Meanwhile, Doc, Jenifer, and Paul Hudson flex their juggernaut chops in all the ways die-hard Brains fans wanted them to—and then some.
We recently spoke with Jenifer and Doc about the sessions for the new album, their go-to gear, and their long, storied career as hardcore legends fighting to get their due.
Into the Future is stacked to the gills
with the sorts of inimitable Bad Brains
grooves that no other trio of musicians
on the planet can replicate—even when
the progressions are simple. What do you
attribute that to?
Darryl Jenifer: We started out in our teens and early 20s, and it’s about building chemistry. Our chemistry goes way back to, like, 1978. We’ve played together for so many years that it doesn’t really matter about the notes—it’s just the combination of our different sensibilities about what we’re doing. When we go to break it down to mosh sections of chunk, the way Doc mutes his guitar, the way I like to hear chords and octaves—it’s all about our sensibilities. It just comes from playing together—and struggling together, more than anything. I shouldn’t even say “playing together,” because a lot of cats can play together but they never really develop a chemistry. It’s about struggling together, living together, and trying to achieve your goals. I think any combination of musicians can achieve that.
Gary “Doc” Miller: That’s what it’s about. We went to school together, we’ve known each other for 40 years or more, and we’re brothers—and H.R. and Earl are siblings. [Laughs.] It’s personal and spiritual—it’s all connected.
Does that “chemistry” extend beyond just
Jenifer: I’m talking about lifestyle chemistry—growing up with each other, knowing if a cat’s grumpy or likes to joke all the time or if one guy’s serious. All these personality traits come together when we sit down to make music, because we’re brethren—brothers together. We get angry with each other, we get joyful with each other, and all of that comes through in the music. When we say, “All right, Doc, we’re going to go from G to G# and then we’re going to break it down here and do this and then take off really fast”—once we communicate that to one another, then our chemistry of knowing and loving each other and going through shit with each other takes over and, thus, you have the Bad Brains sound.
Doc, you were a pretty accomplished
fusion bassist before switching to guitar
in the mid to late ’70s, right?
Jenifer: He was a very proficient bass player. Like, way better than I was—than I am. Doc is sick on the bass. He was the dude that everybody wanted to play like when we were coming up as teenagers. He was so good on the bass that I didn’t even want to go around when he was there. He could play all that Graham Central Station stuff—like “Hair”—the way it really sounded on the record.
Doc: Yeah, I used to play the bass back in the day, and Darryl used to play the guitar. We were in garage bands playing funk covers and whatnot.
Did starting out on bass make you
approach guitar differently when you
Doc: Absolutely, absolutely. It made me a foundation and made me a good rhythm guitar player. It made me understand music from the roots. A lot of times I write on the bass or I think like a bassist—I think about holding it down. Both of us are like that. Darryl is like a rhythm guitarist and bass player in one. Every time I play with other bass players, I’m, like, “Where’s the oomph?” That’s why we never took on another guitar player, and that’s why I do my rhythms and my leads the way I do—because Darryl just holds it down.
Which players inspired you guys in the
Doc: I was really influenced by players like Verdine White [Earth, Wind & Fire] and Stanley Clarke. It was, like, “Damn—these dudes are out there.” Verdine is crazy. I used to dibble and dabble in the fusion of the early ’70s, too. I’d wear those records out trying to see what the hell was going on there. [Laughs.] Return to Forever was definitely influential on guitar and bass. It was inspirational for me to start playing the guitar when Al Di Meola got in [Return to Forever], because he was so young and such a badass. I was, like, “Yeah, uh-huh—I could do this.” [Laughs.] I liked all the Return to Forever guitarists—Bill Connors, Johnny Mac [McLaughlin]. I liked Allan Holdsworth. On bass, it was Larry Graham. I had the beautiful opportunity to see all these people over the course of a five-year span. We saw Earth, Wind & Fire four or five times, and P-Funk played every month in their heyday in D.C. Yes, Zappa, Thin Lizzy, Graham, and all the funk and soul stuff—Tower of Power. You name it, we saw it. It was all happening, every week.
Jenifer: As far as rock, it was Sabbath and “Iron Man” and shit like that—but I also grew up with a lot of stuff like John McLaughlin and Return to Forever. That was out when I was young—15 and 16. I listened to a lot of music-school cats when I was coming up, but also a lot of Motown.
You’ll be stoked to hear we’ve got an interview
with Larry Graham in this issue.
Jenifer: That’s my hero! Without him, I wouldn’t be nobody on the bass. Without Graham, there’s no DJ, to tell you the truth. Between him and [James] Jamerson. . . .
Darryl, you started as a guitarist—how
did that come about?
Jenifer: I had a cousin that played the guitar, and I was really young—about eight years old—and he had a band, a funkster sort of band, and I found it fascinating. All the amps and the chrome and all the sparkling stuff—I just got attracted to it at a very young age. My cousin told me if I could learn to play something then he would let me play in the band. He wound up selling me his guitar, and I taught myself how to play stuff like “Get Ready” by the Temptations—just the first part, like [hums opening riff]. And then it grew into a competitive thing, like, going into the alley—back then it wasn’t about rapping and all. I’d be out there and I’d say, “I can play Ohio Players” or whatever. And then you’d run in the house and get your guitar and come back out to the alley and show off that you can play little parts.
How long after that did you start
Jenifer: When I was about 12, the guitar went in the closet and I started playing with model cars and riding my bike. Then when I got to be about 13, I pulled it back out and got into bands around my neighborhood. I was in a little band called the Young Explorers, and we were playing early-’70s funk. I played rhythm guitar, but every time the band would take a break, I would ask the bass guy, “Can I play your bass?” I used to pay him sometimes—“I’ll give you three dollars if you let me play your bass for a little while!” [Laughs.]
Darryl Jenifer with his go-to ’81 Modulus graphite bass at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 5, 2007. Photo by Eddie Malluk
Do you think it affected your style to start
out on guitar and then switch to bass?
Jenifer: Because I was a rhythm guitarist and I was tuned in to Sly and the Family Stone—“Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and all that—I think it gave me a certain insight. I really know the inner workings of the motion between rhythm and bass. Some people hear me say that I’m not a musician. I give musicians credit because they took the time to learn music [theory] and all that, but I have the knack to lay it down. To lay it down is different than knowing music. There are a lot of cats that know music, but they don’t know how to lay it down. My whole career has been about inventing my own style on the fretboard. I look at the fretboard like Braille, in a way—it never meant notes, like, G and F and B and C to me. I guess I had ADD or something, because I never really cared about it in that way. I only cared about it in the way of creating these little passages and movements.
When you joined up with Doc and the
rest of the band, the roles were a little different
than now, right?
Jenifer: When we got together, Doc was on guitar and H.R. was playing bass, and Earl was playing drums. They had a fusion group called Mind Power, but we all went to the same high school and hung out in the same places. Being brothers and dudes in the hood and all playing music, we all knew each other. H.R. wanted to be the singer, so he said, “Let’s get Darryl to play bass.” Earl was just developing his fusion sensibilities, Doc was kind of getting into being an intellectual kind of guitarist—wanting to bring some sort of spirituality and thoughtfulness to his playing. He didn’t want to be a shredder. We wanted to be musicians, not just dudes playing some shake-your-rump-type shit.
So when we were on this thinking-man’s jazz-fusion trip, I was still listening to rock music, but my buddy Sid McCray came over to my crib and had the Ramones and all that stuff, and I thought it was loud and cool. Having a fusion background and aspiring to be like Return to Forever, and then hearing the Ramones, I just said, “Yo, if cats think this is fast, watch this.” What punk rock brought was a certain freedom to riffs. Bad Brains took the freedom and the raucousness and the roughness of punk rock, but brought a little thoughtfulness to the musicianship.
There are very few musicians on the planet
who take inspiration from Return to
Forever and the Ramones and Sabbath.
Jenifer: Everybody has their blessing—I feel blessed that I’m versatile. But it’s a struggle. When I was a teenager, my cousin—who I love—she used to say, “Darryl, why do you listen to [fusion]? You’re crazy—you can’t even dance to that!” There’s a lot of people that are, like, “How do you get enjoyment out of listening to [Return to Forever’s] Romantic Warrior over and over and over and over?” If they had Romantic Warrior on karaoke [laughs] . . . I know every riff, measure, beat . . . everything. I listened to that album a billion times, and I played the bass till I fell asleep. As a teenager, I was completely into it—I didn’t go to school . . . My father snatched the bass from me one time and held it up like a hatchet and wanted to hit me! Every time he saw me, that was all I was doing. Imagine you’re living with your teenage son in an apartment in D.C., and every time you come home from working hard all day, he’s sitting in there, the place smells like weed, and he’s playing the bass! [Laughs.]
Doc: We always liked music—from Bob [Marley] to Sabbath to the Clash to the Damned to Return to Forever. We would see these bands, and we never got pigeonholed or stereotyped music. As long as it was good music, we were into it. In the early ’70s, there was a lot of good music, and we were just open—like a sponge. Who’s to say you can’t play whatever you like? That’s why we are who we are. With the metal [influences], it was about the power. With the punk, it was the speed—although a lot of the fusion had the speed, too. It was marrying the power, the musicianship, and the speed to give it that superdynamic-ness.
Jenifer: Washington, D.C., is a really sophisticated music place in general. There was a friend of mine who brought records like Rare Earth and Return to Forever to art class. You’ve got the radio station WPGC, and they’re playing, like, “Taking Care of Business,” then you’ve got go-go music going all the time on the basketball court and everywhere in your life, and then you’ve got your Motown and soul music and your church music—it’s just all a part of your life. So if you’re a musician dude, you’re going to say, “Damn—I like that!”
I used to listen to . . . we used to call it a “white-boy” radio station. I used to be able to play [Kansas’] “Carry on My Wayward Son.” [Sings main riff.] So, as a teenager from a black neighborhood, I would hear it on the radio and know that it was a cool guitar riff. I knew how to play “Iron Man,” I knew how to play the beginning to “Stairway to Heaven.” But also I knew how to play stuff off [famed fusion drummer] Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. I knew how to play [New York City funk band] Mandrill. I knew how to play a lot of the [Larry] Graham stuff.
Were you two and Earl pretty much on
the same page with all of that, or did you
guys introduce each other to new music
and then evolve together because you
Jenifer: There were different levels between us all. Earl was more into the jazz-fusion—he was listening to a lot of Earl Klugh and George Duke—and when it got down to me, that’s where the Sabbath and the Zeppelin came from. As far as rock, H.R. and Earl were more into the Beatles and stuff like that—stuff I never really listened to. Doc was more about Mandrill and early Return to Forever, like, Where Have I Known You Before—before Romantic Warrior.
So you basically wanted to marry the
musicianship and phrasing of fusion stuff
with the tones and power of metal and
the chaos and freedom of punk?
Doc: Yeah, you could say that. It was the need for all of that, definitely. I’m sure there are a lot of musicians who have the same respect for different types of music, but were—or are—afraid to pursue that because of peer pressure.
They pigeonhole themselves because
they’re unsure of how marketable it will
be, you mean?
Doc: Definitely the marketability. I mean, how do you market us? That’s our biggest thing. It’s like, “Well, you’re not this and you’re not that.” We’ve heard it a million times, “We don’t know what to do with you guys. It’s [expletive] great, but what do we do here? What category . . . we can’t put you on the radio.” [Laughs.] It’s like, “Whatever . . . we do what we do. Thank you, but no thank you.”
Why did your first recordings, The
Omega Sessions, not get released for 17
years? They’re incredible—every bit as
good as your first official release.
Jenifer: Y’know, sometimes stuff like that is just a part of the life you’re living and it’s not really looked at like a product or something to be released. But I’d be the wrong guy to ask that—Doc would probably know more about that.
Doc: I don’t know what the heck happened, actually. We recorded it in a house. I was in the basement, Darryl was in one of the bedrooms, and H.R. was actually outside. We used a 4-track with big old knobs on the board—big ones. I think it was actually a Radio Shack [recording console] kit. I was, like, “What the hell is this?”
That’s amazing—that album has such a
live sound. It sounds like you’re all in the
Doc: No, we were all over—wires going everywhere. That’s why you can hear me say, “Can you hold this for a second?” [Laughs.]
Gary “Dr. Know” Miller onstage at the 2007 Virgin Festival in Balitmore, Maryland, with “Old Blackie,” an S-style axe with ESP body and neck, and custom DiMarzio pickups. Photo by Eddie Malluk
You guys got some early praise for 1980’s
“Pay to Cum.” Even by today’s standards—
where you can see a crazy-good
8-year-old playing on YouTube—that
bass line is incredibly fast and difficult.
What do you remember about writing
Jenifer: Well it wasn’t that fast at first. It started very slow, but the times change. We’d play “Pay to Cum” at a show in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the kids who thought we were playing fast would start their own bands and then they’d play faster than us. Then we’d end up playing at gigs where we’d come on after them—so then we end up playing faster than them. But it wasn’t conscious. That’s just what happened when Earl got back there and counted off with his sticks.
I Against I is often considered the first
fully realized example of all the classic Bad
Brains elements—it’s got hardcore, metal,
and reggae, but it’s also surprisingly funky.
Did Ron [St. Germain, producer] help
forge the Brains sound, or was he merely
witnessing part of your evolution?
Doc: The Spirit produces our records—us and the Spirit. Ron was influential in capturing the essence of the music. We went to a lot of different studios—like, the best studios in the world. Ron would dial that shit in and say, “All right, hit it boys—bam!” Ron will shoot from the hip. He’s so freakin’ talented.
Jenifer: He did some things, but mainly effects, like on “Return to Heaven”—he did the little delay shimmers and stuff that you hear in the chorus. But as far as “House of Suffering” and all the rock shit, no one knows what to do with that except to let us get a good sound and kick it.
As far as the bass lines, I was trying to bring in a little Graham [vibe]. Sometimes I play with a pick and my [plucking-hand] fingers and my thumb on one song. Like on “Secret 77,” I wanted to play the thumb on the verse, and then I dropped to the pick during the bridge, and then my fingers during the chorus. So I go from snapping it—not a real bona fide funky snap, but more of a hybrid funk snap—to regular, lay-it-down and complement-the-chorus- type finger work, like Jamerson.
Do you curl the pick up under one
finger or what?
Jenifer: It’s in the folds in the palm of my hand, and then I can drop it down when I need it.
Let’s talk about the new album.
“Popcorn” is prototypical Brains—it’s
got angular, syncopated power chords
ripe for the moshing, but it’s also evolutionary:
Doc, during the choruses
you’re playing these dense, complex
chords that are pretty uncommon to
hear in a setting with such thick distortion.
And Darryl, you’re playing some
of your most overtly funky bass lines
ever. How did that song come about?
Jenifer: That’s a song that’s driven by H.R. He was in one of his good moods—like, “It’s on like popcorn with all the pretty ladies!” That’s a D.C.-like rock-funk hybrid, a combination of being from the hood and go-go—like Chuck Brown meets the Bad Brains. Doc and I put our minds to the chunk, but we didn’t want the chunk to be the same old chunk. Doc is always reaching—always going somewhere else—and I’m always trying to make it so you don’t notice that he’s trying to go somewhere else! I’ll look at him and think, “Why is he looking for another chord or somewhere else to go?” I’m more of a minimalist, and he’s keeping it going. He knows what he wants to play—he doesn’t want to play that same old shit.
Doc: I don’t know how we do it—we just do it. Making all the different flavors fit is just second nature to us. We don’t even think about it. It just happens.
But do that many different types of
sounds come together pretty fast, or did
that song get hammered out and evolve
Doc: Ninety-nine percent of the time, they just come like that. It’s just, “All right, let’s go to the B.” “No, let’s go to the C.” “Play the Z# there. “Okay!” “Y’know that chord there—that Fmaj7minb5 to the fifth power? That! Here we go—bweeeeee!” [Laughs.] We don’t really sit down and beat the damn songs up—then all of the vibe is gone.
Speaking of musical technicalities, where
did you learn your chord and scale theory?
Doc: Books and just playing, y’know? I had an old Mel Bay jazz book. And I would buy Stevie Wonder tablature books and theory books on [scale] modes and whatnot. I picked out a few scales that I liked, and it was like, “Let’s write a new song. I just learned this scale—let’s start off with this.”
“Make a Joyful Noise” has some of your
most overt fusion tones ever, with those
Wes Montgomery-type octave parts and
the really clean, modulated tone.
Doc: This record was unique in the respect that we wrote it in the studio. So we had to rehearse after we recorded the stuff in order to learn the songs again—because we would write and record a song and then move on to the next one. We said, “Let’s just go in and roll the dice.” I always try to keep it fresh for myself so I don’t get bored. [Laughs.] It’s creativity—you can’t be a cover band of yourself.
On songs like “Fun,” where there’s this
really badass, syncopated chugging, do
you use a noise gate to make the cutoffs
between grunting chords tight and more
Doc: I mostly mute it with my hands. Live, I use a little gate, but it’s mostly muting with the palm.
Let’s talk more about your gear over the years.
Doc: My first guitar was a Bradley Les Paul copy, but Les Pauls were uncomfortable. I’d get a belly rash and arm rash—because we were digging in, y’know? In the CBGB’s DVD [Bad Brains: Live at CBGB 1982], most of that was an Ovation [UKII 1291] that Ric Ocasek gave me during the [Rock for Light] record. It had two humbuckers and was really light. [Ed. note: The circa-1980 UKII 1291 had an aluminum skeleton and a Urelite foam body that looked like mahogany.] I also had a B.C. Rich Eagle that got stolen. When they first came out I was a happy young man—they had all these phasing switches and different tones! [Laughs.]
I never really liked Strats because they were too tinny, but I got a black parts Strat[-style], which I still play live. That was when ESP first came out and they had the shop over on [New York City’s] 48th Street—they were originally a parts company. Old Blackie has an alder body, which I prefer because it has more oomph. The pickups are DiMarzios that Steve Blucher made for me. The [middle- and neck-position] single-coils are stacked humbuckers.
What about your newer guitars?
Doc: I have this 6-string from a [Swedish] luthier named Johan Gustavvson that’s basically a Les Paul Strat—it’s mahogany with a maple top and Strat[-like] cutaways. It’s a freakin’ badass guitar! It’s got Duncan pickups and a blower switch that goes straight to the humbucker, and three 3-way coil-tap switches—which is kind of like the B.C. Rich with all the switches. I’ve also got a Gustavvson 7-string and a Fernandes with a Sustainer in it. I use Floyd Roses on all of them.
Doc, in the early years, you used Marshall
stacks or old Fender combos, but for the
last few years you’ve primarily been using
Doc: Yeah. Oh man, I could shoot myself for all the stuff I got rid off. I had a Marshall that Harry Kolbe modified for me, and sometimes I borrowed people’s amps, usually Fender Twins. I’ve been using Boogies for a minute now. We were on tour with Living Colour, and Vernon [Reid]’s tech was a rep at Mesa. Vernon was using the Dual Rectifiers, but they didn’t have enough headroom for me. So I A/B/C’d the Marshall with the Dual and Triple Rectifiers, and the Triples had good headroom and could hold the bottom but also clean up like a Twin—because I need to have a very versatile amp. I use the 6L6 version, because it’s cleaner.
Darryl, are you still using Ampeg heads
and cabs? And did you use your trusty
old ’81 Modulus for Into the Future?
Jenifer: Yeah. I’ve got an old SVT Classic Anniversary Edition. Live, I use two of those and two 8x10 cabs. I use one bass—the green Modulus graphite bass. I’ve used that for all my rock stuff since 1982. When I first bought it, it wasn’t because of anything I heard about them. It was because I knew that it was a material that wouldn’t have to be babied. Every time I picked it up, it would feel the same and I could throw it around and it would fall on the floor and it would be okay. The bass has a sound that just stays no matter what.
After all the changes over the years, how
do you feel about the new album?
Doc: The records are what they are, though, y’know? People take months and years to do records. We go in, record the shit in two, three days, and then mix a song a day and that’s it—say, “Goodnight.” [Laughs.]
Jenifer: At this point in our careers, we just have to let the Great Spirit guide us through. We can attribute it to our talents and our perseverance, but at the end of the day it’s the Cosmic Force. To us, we’re a vehicle of the Great Spirit to spread a message of unity—the corny stuff, like hippies say: “Peace and love.” But I’m realizing after 30 years that mainly the message is that you can break the mold of what you’re “supposed” to be. Like, how the Beastie Boys could be the rappers, and we could be the punkers, and the Chili Peppers can be the funkers. There was a time in music when everybody couldn’t do that. But the Great Spirit, not by any choice of ours, made us cats that had to come out there, all black, and shredding. We were dead serious. I can only say, 30 years down the line, that if I was in the crowd when we first came out in D.C., I would’ve said, “Damn!” Because not only did we have our PMA behind us, but we were very competitive about making sure our fusion riffs were jumping off. That’s why I always described our music as progressive punk—we’re thinking about the music. Real punk-rock dudes don’t think about the music—they don’t give a shit.
Need proof of why Bad Brains is considered one of the most influential punk bands of all time? Check out these clips on YouTube to see the band in its awe-inspiring prime.
In this hour-long 1982 clip of Bad Brains at the legendary CBGB’s in New York, you get an amazing look at the band’s palpable energy. Backed by a makeshift wall of Marshalls, Gary “Dr. Know” Miller taps out the show opener, “Big Takeover,” and then singer Paul “H.R.” Hudson, bassist Darryl Jenifer (who, sadly, is off camera for most of the show), and drummer Earl Hudson join in to tear the place apart.
After 12 minutes of footage showing H.R. prowling the same CBGB stage as the human embodiment of hyper-kinetic energy, the primal frontman settles down, Miller kicks on some cavernous reverb, and the band lays back into deep reggae grooves as NYC punks of all shapes and colors dance alongside them onstage.
If you only watch one portion of this excellent 25-minute clip from a 1987 spring-break gig in Florida, start at the 3:30 mark and witness Miller—equipped with a Charvel “super strat”—lead the band’s raging intro to the then-brand-new song “House of Suffering.” Immediately after, there’s an über-funky rendition of the Beatles’ “Daytripper” that finds Jenifer getting the crowd moving with his go-to Modulus J-style bass.
Capable of delivering clean and responsive to overdriven tones, Ashdown''s CTM-300 is an an all-tube, 300-watt beast that boasts some modern enhancements, while still giving a nod to the amps of old.
Back in the day, if you wanted serious volume and tone, you had to schlep some heavy-duty and very heavy amplifiers. This was thanks to those mighty transformers powering all of those wonderful vacuum tubes—all housed on a thick chassis and protected by a solid-wood frame. Just ask any bassist what they used back in the day to compete with those stacks of Marshalls or Hiwatts. Though the comments may be accompanied by a groan or wince, they’ll likely reminisce about the good ol’ days when they moved SVTs up and down multiple flights of stairs.
Today, many bassists swear that tubes are still the ultimate transmitter of tone. Yes, there are plenty of digital pedals and preamps on the market that emulate the sound of tubes at work—and many are getting better at doing so—but no microchip has truly succeeded in replicating the natural compression and dynamic warmth that tubes provide.
Because a large demographic of tube-advocating bassists still exists, there are bass amp builders who continue to try to build a better mousetrap. One such company, Ashdown Engineering, has manufactured amps of nearly every shape and size over the years, and most recently, they’ve gone for the “full monty” with their Valve Series of amplifiers. The most traditional member of this team is the Classic Tube Magnifier—an all-tube, 300-watt beast that boasts some modern enhancements.
What’s Boiling My Electrons?
Peering through the top grille, one can quickly tell that the inspiration for the CTM-300 is rooted in British tube past. Bookended by two transformers, the CTM-300 houses six individually fused KT88 output tubes. This clever design allows the amplifier to function in case one of the power tubes fails. And for the quintet of preamp tubes, the CTM-300 utilizes an ECC83, ECC832, ECC99, and ECC82 (2x) configuration.
The front panel is a unique mix of vintage simplicity and modern technology. The typical high- and low-sensitivity inputs introduce the bass signal to the preamp, offering clean or potentially overdriven options to the signal. Below the inputs is the effects loop, typically found behind an amplifier. But this is arguably an ideal location for the loop, since most players run a pedalboard in front of their rig. Ashdown also gave frontal placement to the DI, along with the pre/post EQ switch located right above it, which might be pleasing to some soundmen. The tone-shaping area is straightforward, with bass, middle, and treble knobs, as well as switches to manipulate the EQ’s frequency ranges. And Ashdown wisely placed the mute switch right above the master dial, which allows a player to quickly alleviate a potential swell of feedback.
The self-biasing system and Ashdown’s characteristic VU meter are two very impressive components to the CTM-300. Historically, tube amp users had to either be savvy with the biasing process or frequently haul their unit to a trained technician. With Ashdown’s tube-selector dial, a player can select one of six positions, with each position corresponding to one of the power tubes. And when the audio/bias switch is pressed, the VU meter displays the performance of the selected power tube. If an adjustment is required, it’s made in the back of the unit where the tube’s trimmer can be tweaked with the turn of a small screwdriver. This may seem awkward, but the process is not only quite simple, it’s cost-effective since it can help minimize those pricey servicing fees. The other benefit of the dual-function VU meter—outside of looking cool and furthering the vintage vibe of the amp—is that it indicates the output level when in audio mode.
The Tube Musketeer
Tell any bassist they are about to move a 300-watt, all-tube amp, and chances are their face will get pretty serious while their upper body starts to swell like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk. This wasn’t the case with the CTM-300, even though it weighs almost 73 pounds. The unit was relatively easy to move with its top-located handles, which allow the muscles in the hands and arms to effectively support the amp.
Powering up this monster on top of a Glockenklang Quattro 410 cabinet, the CTM-300 produced a clean and warm tone, indicative of the KT88s. It also delivered notes with impressive response, be it Jaco-esque 16th-note runs from a 1964 Jazz bass, or dotted eighth- or 16th-note patterns on a Nash P-style bass. These characteristics carried over into a blues quartet gig, where the CTM-300/Quattro combo sat well within the mix, preserving its sonic space against a loud drummer and a Fender Super Reverb.
Compelled to hear the tubes cook up some overdriven roars, I knew it was time to crank up the gain and master dials. Since the neighbors were home, I took the CTM- 300 over to a friend’s studio where he and two fellow bassists had a bevy of instruments ready to play through this British beast. Utilizing an SVT 8x10 cab, we also organized a quick taste test of sorts by setting up the CTM-300 next to the American tube titan, a “Blue-Line” SVT.
Whether it was a late-’70s Fender P or an ’80s Wal 4-string, pushing the overdriven CTM-300 through the SVT cab conveyed a thick snarl to bass notes, as well as our faces. This distorted tone satisfied a couple of the most discriminating of players, who typically wield modified Big Muff and Bluebeard fuzz pedals. Compared to the SVT, the CTM-300 was a bit shier in the low end, with the SVT producing more warmth and big volume. But the CTM-300 was the clear winner when it came to a cleaner, more natural sound.
The Riddle of the Dials
While there were plenty of positives with the CTM-300, I found its passive EQ section to be somewhat frustrating. Proponents believe that passive EQs are more musical, as they are meant to provide subtle enhancements to an instrument’s overall sound. The CTM-300’s EQ, however, required some extensive experimentation since the knobs and switches reacted quite differently to each bass.
We played a total of ten different basses from a variety of manufacturers through the CTM-300, and while the treble knob consistently delivered various amounts of highs, the bass and middle controls would best be described as temperamental. For example, when a P-style bass was plugged into the CTM-300, the bass and middle controls had little to no impact in enhancing the instrument’s sound. Yet when an active bass (like the late-’70s StingRay in the lineup) was plugged in, the aforementioned knobs did provide low-mid tone-shaping. The switches shifted their respective frequencies, but depending on the instrument, the knobs’ activity ranged from generous to non-effective.
The CTM-300 is another nice addition to the wide spectrum of tube amplifiers that Ashdown has developed. It’s a solid nod to the amps of old and its self-biasing feature and thoughtful layout are welcomed upgrades to a classic formula. Those who prefer an overdriven sound and a simple signal chain might find the CTM-300 a good option, for its overdriven tone could allow you to leave your pedals at home. And while the CTM-300 also delivers a very clean and responsive tone, the amount of tone-shaping flexibility may not be enough for some bassists when considering its hefty price tag.
As far as bright colors and fancy appointments, the Fred Gretsch Company led the way. Gretsch achieved the pinnacle of luxury and style with its pièce de résistance, the White Falcon.
A stunning 1958 Gretsch 6136 White Falcon, serial #26356.
The exciting changes in the popular music of the 1950s also called for electrifying transformations in musical instruments. As the electric guitar became increasingly prominent, the top guitar companies battled to come up with the most innovative and attractive designs.
As far as bright colors and fancy appointments, the Fred Gretsch Company led the way. Gretsch achieved the pinnacle of luxury and style with its pièce de résistance, the White Falcon. The 1955 Gretsch catalog announced that “Cost was never considered in the planning of this guitar. We were building an instrument for the artist-player whose caliber justifies and demands the utmost in striking beauty, luxurious styling, and peak tonal performance and who is willing to pay the price.”
Gretsch’s special representative—the guitar promoter and demonstrator Jimmie Webster—designed the White Falcon. Webster drew ideas from a variety of sources including the gaudy Bacon and Day banjos of the Jazz Age. The 17"-wide body was finished in luminous white with gold sparkle binding. The gold-plated hardware included fancy jeweled knobs, Grover Imperial tuners, and a striking new tailpiece with a V-shape similar to the one used in the ’50s Cadillac logo. The gold pickguard was engraved with a flying Falcon.
LEFT: Designed by Jimmie Webster, the White Falcon represented the apex of the Gretsch line. With its six wheel saddles and threaded mounting bar, Webster’s Space Control bridge allowed a player to adjust string-to-string spacing to accommodate fingerstyle or plectrum technique. MIDDLE: The White Falcon’s tailpiece bore more than a passing resemblance to a ’50s Cadillac logo. RIGHT: In 1958, a horizontal Gretsch logo replaced the original vertical one.
This 1958 White Falcon has features typical of that year’s model—a gold sparkle horizontal headstock logo inlaid in the white Nitron plastic veneer (changed from the original vertical logo in ’58), Neo Classic thumbprint inlays in an ebony fretboard (changed from the original feather engraved hump-block inlays in ’58), Patent Applied For Filter’Tron humbucking pickups (replacing DeArmond single-coils), and a gold Space Control bridge (replacing the original Melita).
A new White Falcon sold for $675 in 1958. This guitar’s current value is about $20,000.
You’ll find lots of compelling photos and lore in 50 Years of Gretsch Electrics: Half a Century of White Falcons, Gents, Jets, and Other Great Guitars by Tony Bacon, The Guitars of the Fred Gretsch Company by Jay Scott, and The Gretsch Book—A Complete History of Gretsch Electric Guitars by Tony Bacon and Paul Day.
Original price: $675 in 1958
Current estimated market value: $20,000
Dave Rogers’ collection is tended by Laun Braithwaite and Tim Mullally and is on display at:
Dave’s Guitar Shop
1227 Third Street South
La Crosse, WI 54601
Photos by Mullally and text by Braithwaite.