Going further down the rabbit hole of bass-intro gems in rock history.
Last month, I lamented over guitarists having a seemingly endless supply of recognizable, classic intros to choose from. With the simple beginning of a song, they can make an entire house party crack a grin of recognition within the first three seconds of picking up an acoustic. Truly memorable bass intros are in shorter supply, but they’re definitely out there, so I shared some of my favorite classic bass intros in my previous column. To keep the theme of song-starting goodness from the world of rock bass going, the following are a few more riffs that sit atop my list of favorites.
“No More Tears” – Ozzy Osbourne
This is an open-D-string riff that starts with a hammer-on from the whole step below the upper octave, and then goes back to the open string. That’s it! Mike Inez is credited with “bass inspiration,” since he wrote the bass line and is a writer on the song, but the riff is played by Bob Daisley on the album.
You can hear the heavy compression on the bass track, which helps the simple, picked riff feel urgent and aggressive without the use of distortion. Making this riff feel good and heavy on its own, in spite of not being in the lower register of the instrument, is a lot of fun.
“Peace Sells” – Megadeth
Those of you who also grew up on MTV will likely recognize this bass line. During the channel’s heyday, this hooky riff was played often with the network’s logo to go in and out of commercial breaks. The line is up-tempo and busy, and has a few interesting and noteworthy features.
First of all, it’s only two measures long, so it flies by at its tempo. Secondly, it makes for a solid string-skipping exercise for pick players and fingerstyle players alike. On a technical level, it’s playable with different fingerings. I’ve found that using the 10th fret of the 4th string for the second note and then keeping the entire riff in that higher position on the neck makes the riff more fluid, which is notthe way Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson executes it. Ellefson, however, plays the riff with precision and incredible evenness. Because the tone has lots of musical information in the upper frequencies, the riff sounds punchy and clear, even through tiny cellphone or laptop speakers.
Along with his attack, Ellefson’s use of a pick and active pickups enables this riff to really cut through. I also like that the tone is clean. A common trap for heavier bands is to heavily distort the bass when played solo to make it sound “tougher,” and then dial the distortion out once the guitars kick in for more clarity in the mix.
“Badge” – Cream
While exceptionally simple from a technical standpoint, Jack Bruce’s riff in “Badge” has a sexy flair, and the trick to keeping it that way is to not rush the eighth-notes at the beginning of measure two. These four staccato notes are quite the stylistic break in a blues scenario, where a fluid, legato feel is more common. The beginning of the riff is simply an Em triad (E–G–B)—the very foundation of a lot of rock music.
Bruce’s intent and execution of this triad, and the use of a distorted tone that sounds like it comes from a miked amp, is what makes the line interesting. However, this simple, classic riff gets the bulk of its attitude from the two slides. Yet another standout is that there is no drumbeat, shaker, or hi-hat to establish time. It’s simply muted rhythm chords on guitar to support the bass riff, which is stunningly effective.
“Would” – Alice In Chains
To my ears, this bass line sounds exactly like a snake slithering in the grass. To get more technical, the line manages to effectively sound “mean” withoutbeing in your face. That’s truly a great musical statement for a bassist or drummer to be able to make. The magic of the starting whole-step hammer-on from the Ebto F gives the line its greasy feel, initially.
The second measure of the riff starts with a b3—Gb in this case—which is the same note measure one ends on. This makes the measure line feel very fluid, which helps add to the riff’s mystique. And the drums accentuate this fluidity by playing a tom pattern rather than a traditional backbeat.
Some of these lines are very simple to the ear, but as bassists our job in many modern genres of music is to analyze the seemingly simple and make it brilliant. And make a riff that “anyone can play” sound like a professional bassist executed it. Happy riffing!
On Bass: Island Bass
Examining the bass lines from classic reggae tunes to help grasp the genre’s spirit of simplicity, feel, and groove.
Last month, I delved head first into the technical and spiritual benefits any musician can reap by learning the basics of reggae bass. Long before I even picked up a bass, I was smitten by reggae after hearing it come through the wall of my older brother’s bedroom, and from that point on there was no turning back from my love and appreciation for the genre. Even though I don’t get the opportunity to play it in a band setting very often, I feel like I get a “bassist realignment” of sorts every time I play reggae lines. They’re just so incredibly void of any embellishments or unnecessary notes. This month I’m going to discuss a few lines that really encapsulate the deep, round groove that people all over the world love so much, no matter their home’s climate or latitude.
The 16th-note feel: “Buffalo Soldier.” First up is one of the big Bob Marley hits. This song is a good entry point into the reggae world because the bass is playing a lot of downbeats, like most other genres. The intro has a delicious island feel even though the bass is simply playing 16th-notes on the root note, which is A. By “island feel,” I mean the notes are played neither straight nor swung, per se. Playing along to this intro while intently focusing on getting the right amount of “slop” in the part is both fun and challenging.
The verses have a pattern where the 16th-notes are split up into groups of three and two. Playing the notes in that fashion provides the song a forward-propelling feel while still giving the groove a little air to breathe. After two repetitions of the pattern on beats 1 and 3 of the measure, the phrase turns around with a nice little descending line consisting of F#, E, and C# over the F#m chord. The very feel and note selection in this bass line is a hook to me.
The pickup notes: “Jamming.” While we are on a downbeat-centric feel, this Bob Marley song features 16th-note patterns and starts with quarter-notes to loosely double the piano in the intro. To get those quarter-notes in a nice place in the pocket and not rush them is a good exercise. The challenge is in making sure the groove feels fat—not rigid or stiff at all—especially since more instruments are hinting at the same part.
The verses of this song contain another seemingly simple pattern worth examining: an eighth-note pattern in groups of three that plays the eighth-note right before the downbeat of each measure (the “and” of 4) and the following two eighth-notes. The next group of three is right before beat 3 (“and” of 2) and the following two eighth-notes. This verse offers a simple but effective use of pickup notes.
Look ma, no downbeats: “Stop That Train.” This Peter Tosh tune is “two-drop” reggae, which means the kick drum is only played on beats 2 and 4 of every measure. The cool thing here is that we are leaving the downbeat completely open and thereby making our way into heavier reggae territory. The bass tone on this song is so thick you can barely discern the pitch. It’s also very upfront in the mix and at a level that only this genre seems to get away with. What’s also noteworthy about the bass part is that not only is beat 1 left empty, but so is the last eighth-note of every measure. This leaves the middle of every measure with all the action, since we’re omitting downbeats.
The power of doubling: “Positive Vibration.” This Bob Marley song has the bass line doubling the actual vocal melody note-for-note in the choruses. (Or maybe it’s the other way around, with the vocal doubling the catchy bass line!) This is another great example of how reggae operates a lot like old Motown records, in that the bass line mustbe good enough to be the main hook of the song. Simply said, the feel of the chorus in “Positive Vibration”is greasy and, well, absolutely amazing. To get into the true spirit of this chorus, following the vocal feel more than the drums is a good trick.
The guitar doubles the bass in the verses of this song, and the guitar is a thin Stratocaster-single-string sound completely void of low end. It essentially just adds a little click sound to the very bottom-heavy bass line. This treatment makes the monotonous bass line more defined and almost more menacing. It’s quite similar to the method common on old country records, which you may know as the “tic-tac” technique.
There are hundreds of songs in this genre that teach us the value of simplicity, repetition, and feel as bassists. Reggae is a style of playing that makes us put our egos aside to, a large degree, and just groove. Reggae also makes us play big, important notes that are featured in often-well-crafted parts. There is way more to it than just jammin’, man!
On Bass: Entering the Reggae Trance
Stirring up your skill set with some reggae technique will do plenty more than simply allow you to play the genre.
I grew up in Sweden, which means I was bombarded with great pop melodies and well-executed, often technically challenging heavy metal. These are the musical styles Scandinavian countries are known for to this day. The affection and prominence of these genres in Scandinavia have their historical and cultural explanations, but perhaps most importantly, there are climate-related and geographical reasons for what we listen to and grow up on over there. It is a cold, damp, and dark part of the world—far removed from the beaches of Jamaica.
I also grew up alongside a brother who’s four years older and the jock of the family. I was the artistic one, but he was still a very avid consumer of music. The music he listened to, however, made very little sense to me at first. I heard a steady stream of Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull coming through the walls (thanks to adjoining bedrooms), and even though I’m a fan of those bands now, I didn’t necessarily appreciate the volume when I was trying to get to sleep for school in the morning.
As a budding bassist, what I didn’t mind was feeling the deep, sub-bass sounds of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Black Uhuru vibrating through the walls of our small-town suburban house. Those grooves, those vibes, and that overall feeling were so incredibly exotic that it made me feel like I was travelling to a completely different culture and world for free. It’s a feeling that all great music, film, and literature can give you. Even though exposure to the genre was a true eye-opener, I didn’t actually follow through by playing reggae until quite a few years later.
When I finally did play a top-to-bottom set of actual reggae, I felt elated and physically amazing. Maybe even high. It was one of those rare moments where my ego had been completely removed from my playing and my own need or want to express myself had been hijacked in a beautiful fashion—all by the spirit of being completely in service of the music. In fact, that initial reggae gig confirmed I had chosen the right instrument when I decided on bass all those years ago.
Trance-scendence. The reggae genre demands—much like vintage R&B and some vintage rock ’n’ roll—a religious commitment to repeating the same short, often very simple, pattern many times throughout the song. The benefits of this are immense for me. This kind of bass playing enables me to enter a trance-like state where note selection and rhythmical placement is predetermined and repeated so much that my only concern becomes how good I can possibly make this feel. My point here is that playing reggae will improve your feel on the bass when playing almost any genre.
Reggae is also quite unique in the way it’s so much about being felt more than heard. Some of you have likely heard versions of a saying about guitar and piano appealing to the mind and the heart, but that the bass appeals to the human parts below the waist. Whether it makes you want to make love or just dance, it’s a feeling that doesn’t have to be rationalized. To achieve this, reggae bass playing requires a completely different approach to touching the instrument and getting the notes out.
Plucking the strings close to the neck (with the neck pickup soloed) is a good starting point to get the feeling of the note and the slowness of the attack through to your audience. Legendary reggae bassist Devon Bradshaw calls this hand positioning “the sweet spot.” Using old or flatwound strings and rolling off the tone knob is key, and using a foam mute is another good way to make your strings even more dead sounding. For those of you already dabbling in vintage R&B tones, you’ll find that these measures are what you use to achieve those tones as well. But despite the superficial similarities when it comes to how you set up and play your instrument, the bass sounds are profoundly different. The low-mid thump of the James Jamerson approach is not very present when playing reggae, but if you permanently set up one of your basses with slightly higher action, a foam mute, and flatwound strings, at least it can achieve both Motown-like and reggae sounds.
When it comes to legends of reggae bass to check out, the first should be Robbie Shakespeare, who performed with Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru in addition to his celebrated work as a member of Sly & Robbie. Aston “Family Man” Barrett from Bob Marley and the Wailers is another legend of the genre. His lines are a master class in “kotch,” which is a reggae term for a hook. “Stir It Up” is just one example of how tremendously singable Barrett’s bass lines are.
Next month, I’ll take you on a journey through a few specific bass lines and more in-depth techniques that will simply make you feel good!