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What about Bass Players?

Discovering the breeds of great bass players: rock steady, melody men and showboats

Bass players get made fun of by snooty guitar players pretty often. But as guitar players, we know deep down that a great bass player can take a band to a much higher level, and they are hard to find. We also know that they’ll get about a hundred times more work than we get. So, what makes a great bass player? There are different kinds of bass players, and each can be great in their own way.

Rock Steady. First, there’s the rock solid player that you sometimes don’t even notice, but when you listen specifically to what they play, you’re left with your jaw hanging open. The chief of this style in jazz is Ray Brown. Brown never would show off, but the foundation he laid down was rock solid—and oh, man, could he make things swing. There is a feeling of lift in his playing that drives the music forward without rushing anything. Check his recordings with Oscar Peterson. In blues or funk, this rock solid playing can be heard in Jerry Jemmott. Listen to him with B.B. King or King Curtis. You may not notice him right at first, but listen to what he plays: lines that are just right, lines that become such an integral part of the song that it’s hard to think of the song without that bass part. In rock, you might give a listen to Rick Danko of The Band. He often played a wacky looking Ampeg fretless bass which had a very staccato sound. His lines are at once percussive and melodic, but also like the other guys, rock steady. I can’t leave this section without a bow down to Francis “Rocco” Prestia, of Tower of Power. If you haven’t heard him and you think you know good bass players, you don’t.

Melody Men. Another category is melodic bassists. In jazz, one of my favorites is Don Thompson. Thompson considers piano to be his main thing (he also plays great vibes), but his bass playing is beautiful. Check out his playing with Jim Hall on Live! or on his recordings with sax great Paul Desmond. Thompson has a style that supports what’s going on, but also has a conversation with the soloist—and when he takes off to solo, you’ll be left singing his lines in your head. In rock, ya gotta go right for Sir Paul McCartney. I expect you all are familiar with that old band, The Beatles? They were pretty good, and McCartney laid down some amazing bass. “Lady Madonna,” “Come Together,” “All My Loving”... all good. Check out “I Will” from The White Album. McCartney sings along with the bass part—way cool sound. You might not hear this stuff right off, but when you do you’ll be a happy camper. My all-time favorite melodic bass part would have to be the one on the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” which features Wilton Felder on bass. Granted, this seems to be mostly a composed line, since it is doubled on the piano, but it is a great bass part: well played, and an essential part of the tune.

Showboats. These are the guys who walk a dangerous line between virtuosity and maybe too much. But they can be a ton of fun to listen to, and I love these guys, too. In rock, the first great showboat was probably Jack Bruce playing with Cream. Bruce often played what amounted to a simultaneous solo along with Eric Clapton. They would dodge and weave, and it was damn exciting. How about Billy Sheehan? His galloping triplets are like having another drummer rocketing the band along. Check out David Lee Roth’s album Eat ‘Em and Smile. In jazz, have a listen to Scott LaFaro playing with Bill Evans. LaFaro seemed to solo the whole time and the level of interaction between him and Evans is astounding. Another amazing chops-a-saurus is NHOP—Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. The sheer strength in his playing is, on its own, amazing. Check his duo work with Joe Pass. NHOP at times leaves Pass in the dust with his lightning fast sax-like lines, and Pass was no slouch. Then of course there are players like Bill “The Buddha” Dickens and Victor Wooten. These guys are just crazy ridiculous, and all you can do is laugh in amazement when you hear them. Holy smokes how do they do that? It’s like playing the drums on the strings plus melody and harmony.

Of course, no bassist is all one thing or all the other, and checking out these different styles will just add to your musical toolbox. Thinking about groove, time, melody and harmony is good for all of us, whatever instrument we may play. Think about what you’re trying to get across. Are you locked in with drummer and feeling the time in your bones? Any of the guys I mentioned could lay down a groove on their own with no drummer around. How is your time? I can’t say it enough: any player should be able to establish a groove all by themselves. When we play with others, job number one should always be to make the other people sound great, not to show them up. Complement, don’t fight. Make what you play essential to the song, because the song is king. What can you do to take the music up a notch, or down a notch? Mull on this stuff and try to think from the perspective of each instrument in the band; what bass part would you want to hear, what drum part? And as always, listen, listen, listen!

Pat Smith
Pat founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.