“Rockin’ the Path to Bass Enlightenment” – Walking the Bass Line #4

I didn’t start out playing bass as my first instrument and the funny thing is, a lot of other bass players didn’t either…

  • Lemmy had just joined Hawkwind as a guitar player when he found out he was surplus to requirements due to Dave Brock deciding he was going to play lead instead. But when the band’s bass player didn’t show up for one of their free gigs because he wasn’t getting paid, he had also inadvertently left his bass and amp in their van. So, Lemmy, stepped in, and played bass for the first time live on stage at a gig! (That does make me laugh…)
  • Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers started out playing trumpet and was pretty good at it too by all accounts.
  • The Who’s thunderous John Entwistle started out on piano, then moved onto trumpet and French horn before he picked up a bass guitar.
  • Jaco Pastorius was first and foremost a drummer and only stopped playing after a wrist injury on the soccer field made it more difficult to play – that, and a better drummer had rocked up on the scene, so he stepped aside for this guy to take his place in the band. It was only because the bass player left at the same time that he picked up the bass!
  • Carol Kaye played jazz guitar and by the knock of opportunity, moved onto bass when she filled in for a recording session when another musician didn’t show up!
  • Tina Weymouth – who provided the bass-bedrock of Talking Heads signature sound, started out playing hand bells – which has slightly freaked me out as I used to play them when I was a teenager too. Apparently, she taught herself guitar before picking up the bass when she formed the band with David Byrne and her now husband, drummer Chris Frantz.

2014TinaWeymouth-Suzy-Starlite-Walking-the-Bass-Line-Blog

So there you have it – historically, bass is rarely the first go-to instrument of choice for many musicians and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Heck, the first instrument I dabbled with was the harmonica because it was affordable and I could easily play a tune on it; if I needed a singer, I just used to go outside and play loud in the garden where I was soon accompanied by our neighbours dog, fondly referred to as ‘Howling Socks’.

I started thinking why is the path to ‘bass enlightenment’ so heavily influenced by chance, opportunity and more often necessity when the ‘Land of the Low End’ is such a dynamic and inspirational sonic landscape? So perhaps a better question would be: Is the electric bass player understood?

Paul McCartney said:

“None of us wanted to be the bass player. In our minds he was the fat guy who always played at the back.”

Is it because people don’t want to be the bass player because of the perceived role, or not fully understanding what they actually do??

Cue bass jokes 😉

Anyway, being a bit of a geek when it comes to detail, I have been trying to pin things down in order to create a clear, concise job definition for myself: something that I could tell anyone and have a good chance of being understood. An elevator pitch so to speak!

Music has essentially three parts;

  • Melody – lead instrument (BASS/vocals/guitar/sax/piano/hammond/violin etc),
  • Harmony – accompaniment (BASS/guitar/piano/hammond/brass and string sections etc)
  • Rhythm – el groove (BASS/occasionally piano/drums/percussion)

The bass sets the foundation for both harmony and rhythm! Plus the occasional and dreaded bass solo…

Harmony: When you hear multiple notes at the same time (harmony) your mind uses the lowest note as a reference point, which influences or colours the way you hear the rest of the other notes being played! So, what it means is that the bass influences the feel of everything – and I mean everything!!

Rhythm: most people understand what the bass does in terms of the rhythm; like a tight drum it’s punchy and percussive, but much more than that, it contributes to the harmony, tonality and most importantly, creates movement within the song.


Where would these tracks be without the bass?

Chic ‘Good Times’

Talking Heads – ‘Take Me to the River’

Pink Floyd – Money

David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’

This is a good example as both the guitar and harmonica share the same melodic lines with the bass, and then they branch off, leaving the bass (which is locked in solidly all the way through) to keep the feel and movement going – great groove!

And then there’s full on BASS!! Thanks Lemmy – Rock on!!! 


So, in conclusion…

Next time you play some music, try and listen out to what the bass guitar is doing? It takes a little bit of getting used to, especially if you are listening using small earpieces. I think you’ll be amazed at what you’ll hear and be surprised on how loud and upfront it is in the mix…

This new appreciation of the low end world has changed and enhanced the way I hear and experience music; I hope you agree!

Squeeze the Lemon – Walking the Bass Line #3

John-Paul-Jones-Suzy-Starlite-Blog

A lemon is great for killing parasites in chicken, a zesty addition to a large vodka and tonic and also apparently an age old tradition in the playfulness of sexual innuendo in Blues music: way back in 1929,  Joe Williams was singing “You Squeezed my lemon/Caused my juice to run” in the song ‘I Want it Awful Bad.’

But all that pales into a smoothie of citric insignificance when you consider the mightiest lemon of all time for players of the electric bass guitar – ‘The Lemon Song’ from the album Led Zeppelin II.

Here’s the back-story:

There I was in my own little world of wonderment – in the throes of first love with playing my bass guitar; enjoying the simple lines and losing myself in the groove when I asked my husband Simon that fateful question: “Got any ideas on what you think I could learn next?”

Being a professional musician and guitar player with a British Blues Award nomination under his belt, I am always grateful for his input and his encouragement has served as a rocket up my ass on many occasion…. but when he suggested Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song – I listened to it with the innocence akin to that of the child accepting a lollipop from the Child Catcher in the film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and then I heard a mighty CLANK!! The world went dark and my whole musical world momentarily imploded!!

There was absolutely no way I could play that!!!  No bloody way!!! And that was that!!!!

A couple of months later – I decided to lift the carpet that I had firmly nailed to the floorboards and take another sneaky peak at the song to see if there was any way I could conquer this mountain of a song! I kept reminding myself of a note I had pinned to my wall when I was at Uni which read:

“It’s only difficult because you haven’t learned it yet!”

and tried to listen to the song with fresh ears!  But, again I had the same response and thought there is no way I can do this!

But, not one to give up easily when I knew it would dramatically improve my bass playing – I also thought:

“A mountain is conquered one step at a time”

and that is where I started –  one phrase at a time!

Starting at the beginning I would play a phrase of the song over and over and over again trying to work out what notes were being played, then tried to cross-reference with any half-decent videos that were out there to make sure I was playing in the right place of the neck, then unlearning phrases because I had made a pigs ear of it and made things doubly difficult (at times impossible) for myself …and so it continued for months! And by months I mean half a year!

I would fall asleep with the bass line running through my head – and wake up with the same bloody line there to greet me: like a cross between the Cheshire Cat and Jack Nicholson’s big happy sinister grin of obsessive toothy joy – MORNING!!! LET’S PLAY BASS AGAIN!!

It almost drove me crazy!! Don’t get me wrong – I love playing but this was an absolute brain mangler at times – especially dissecting the faster parts – it made me feel like I was spinning on a never-ending mad fairground ride!

And to now!

Tomorrow night Simon and I have been invited to play a few songs as part of a massive Daze of Dawn & Friends ‘Rock Party’ at 16 Toneladas in Valencia ! I think there are over 25 musician guests playing with the band and it will be my first outing playing The Lemon Song on bass!

Key of E! Wish me luck – or better still – wish me ROCK!!!!

P.S. All I can say is if I ever meet John Paul Jones in person, I won’t know whether to hug him … or throttle him!!

Keeping it Simple – Walking the Bass Line #2

The-Beatles-Suzy-Starlite-Blog-Bass-Guitar-Paul-McCartney

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Isaac Newton, 1676

A lot of music leaves me feeling detached and unengaged because, putting it simply, it doesn’t make me feel anything.  Sometimes it’s just that the song is not that great, but there are plenty of times when that has not been the case.

I was trying to work out why that is as the world seems to be full of technically proficient bass players and I think part of the reason is that there is not enough space left within the song itself to allow it to breathe.

If you think about music like colours painted on a blank canvas, sometimes things can be unnecessarily ‘busy’ which can detract from the overall perception and experience of the piece.

What I have really enjoyed about learning the bass and appreciating its role within a song is the absolute joy experienced by keeping things simple. There is always a little pressure in the back of your mind to up your game and play more advanced and complicated lines and I appreciate that, but sometimes, simple is all that is required.

“As a session musician, I can never remember being asked to play more notes or play slap!” – Andy Seward

As a case in point, when studying a couple of Beatles songs for a celebratory gig in Valencia I have been invited to play at, ‘My Guitar Gently Weeps’ completely mesmerised me and hooked deep into my soul. The haunting McCartney bass line is simple, sublime and melts me every time…

New personal mantra:

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!”