Monday, April 29, 2013

CTS Intervention

The next installment of my bassist blog comes with a deteriorating left hand, finally succumbing to the persistence of carpal tunnel syndrome. Yes, for a musician who is attempting to write about one of his great loves, to be debilitated by this nagging ailment is irony at its best. But I’m gonna persevere with the assistance of a somewhat able right hand. Besides, I type like 5 words per minute when I am at %100, so I’m not stopping for all 37 of my loyal readers!

It was recommended by a close friend that I offer up a quick ‘music speak’ vocabulary lesson. That seems fair. I’m no music theory ‘Nazi’ and I certainly want to make this user friendly. The importance of these writings is for you to get the same level of joy and excitement that pulses through me! So here’s a quick music verbiage flow chart.

Melody:  The main musical “theme” in the song. Sometimes accented or propelled by the bass line.
Alternating pattern: Often a pulsing bass line on multiple strings and played differently as the song progresses for variation.
Lower register:  The low notes you feel as well as hear- also called “the bottom end”.
Higher register:  These are higher notes on the bass meant to “stand out” and often are used as bass fills (see next description).
Bass fill: Breaking from the pattern to add a flourish of notes that add tension or liberate certain parts of the tune.
Picking: Using a hard (or softer) plastic pick to hit the notes. Usually adds a harder attack depending on the style of music.
Finger-style: Alternating between index & middle (sometimes ring) fingers to play notes and is often viewed as the most common in a variety of musical outlets (but we could argue on that one too- that’s someone else’s blog!)
Slap & Pop: Using the thumb and then index & middle as a percussive tool to create rhythm’s with a funkier edge. Often used in many styles but allowing for the music to groove, based on what notes are hit and ‘popped’.

Still think bassists are the lonely guys in the corner with their backs to the crowd? Ha-ha… You never thought that, did you?!

My hand is saying “Please stop”, so I’ll chill for today. Look for next week’s piece, as I have a growing list of bassists and albums that caused a great stirring in me (still do!). In no particular order: Muzz Skillings (Living Color), Karl Alvarez (All, Descendents), Andrew Weiss (Rollins Band) Dirk Lance (Incubus), Rick Skatore (24-7 Spyz) and the completely under-rated Monty Colvin of Galactic Cowboys. That one will be a pleasure to write and I’ll need to add to the verbiage for sure. Thanks and stay tuned!

Often “Unheralded”, but no longer overlooked…

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

G. Norton

If you read my last blog and I think three people did (all family members), then you are aware of the song and dance I’m peddling! I have a love for music; specifically the bass in the mix and I'm breaking down some of my favorite bassists and integral albums that assisted in my development. Last week it was Billy Gould and his multi-trick pony bass attack that propelled Faith No More’s “The Real Thing”. Wow, that was a mouthful! I hope you got a chance to listen to the tunes I highlighted. If you haven't caught some of the albums I am going to break down and are interested, then please go to Amazon (you’re welcome) and purchase and enjoy! The compact disc is not dead yet and most of these sell for a few bucks or a penny, which is a shame for them and good news for you!

I have to admit, the next bassist and album that inspired my early playing came to my mind first, but for whatever reason I chose “The Real Thing” to critique up front. Before the proprietors of Nu-metal came along (and I don’t think Faith No More would care for that honor); there was a plethora of alternative and college radio saturating the radio and MTV. Those early college radio bands would entirely shape "Grunge" rock a decade later. I first heard R.E.M’s “The One I love” and wondered what cave I had been dwelling in and why I hadn’t heard of them, because they had already released a half dozen records?! Before Soul Asylum spewed out the sympathy inducing ballad “Runaway Train” to the airwaves, they were a sludgy bar band from Minnesota- and amazingly unrefined! And believe it when I tell you that Black Flack’s angular and riff crazed attack, alongside Henry Rollins coarse delivery wasn’t for everyone, but damn- when the mood was right!

So the first and most significant bassist to even get me hearing the bass was Greg Norton from the influential power pop/punk band Husker Du. The Husker’s were a critics’ darling and as prolific as they were in just a few years; they eluded the “household name” that a lot of their peers would be granted. I caught onto them after they had already disbanded, but fortunately they had left a considerable discography and I am focusing on their last double album released in 1987; “Warehouse: Songs & Stories”. The elastic Norton pumped some melodic life on many tracks, even sounding like a hybrid of Squire and McCartney on the last few cuts; songs that to this day inspire me to pick up the bass! If you read last weeks excerpt I talked of rocking hard in front of a full length mirror with a hockey stick? Well, it was almost exclusively to this album! Something in the way Norton constructed his lines that didn’t just “sit” idle in the groove. They were astute and at times bounced along in grave indifference towards Bob Moulds' open chord wall of crunch! As far as specifics with finger or pick technique, I’m going to have to guess a little here as the album sounds like a bit of both. Live footage of the band has Norton picking on a P-bass and a Gibson (you know, the Gibson that is not a Thunderbird?!) and in the video for “Could You be The One?” we see him playing finger style. There is a warmth that you can hear on some tracks, so my guess is he played both ways.

The track “Ice Cold Ice” has Norton blowing through the verses with tenacity. Eighth note alternation that pulse behind Mould’s single chord strum held out for the measure and then a chorus that sees Norton following the descending pattern with the root notes, while not allowing the rhythm to stagnate. The song drives hard in the verse and it is Nortons’ line that makes that work. Jump ahead to side 4 (yeah, It was a double LP folks!!), and what would be some of the strongest compositions: the Grant Hart song “She’s a Woman (and Now He is a Man)”, the slipperiness of  Bob Mould’s “Up in the Air” and the final track; Hart’s cathartic release of an ex-lover “You Can Live at Home”. The driving bass tone of “She’s a Woman” is where Norton shows consistent ability to make his presence known and felt. The bass tracks on the majority of this release have a density that allows the guitar to “space out” at times and be very minimal (as Mould progressed as a songwriter, he lightened the crunch on his guitar). Regardless of my affections for the bass as an instrument; I believe most listeners would feel and sense it too. The bass grooves are strong without being cluttered. This track is representative of that. “Up in the air”‘, where the buttery and loopy bass leads the entire verse is an example of Greg opening the melodic throttle, as he did on many of the stronger tunes on “Warehouse”.   

The closing track is a steady and booming quarter note bass shuffle accented by Hart’s syncopated ride cymbal and patented tenor wail. The chorus line “Walk, walk away…” has Norton accompanying in a subdued manner until Mould re-enters with an obscene string bend (coming out of nowhere!) that throws the song headlong back into the shuffling outro. The last track fades out with all the cacophony suitable for a massive, sprawling 20 track release, and the final album from a talented band and an exceptional bass player. These songs still makes me shudder and emotive for my last days in High School and will hold a special place inside of my youthful designs.  Memories of me, a hockey stick and a mirror; and my love for something I was only beginning to understand.

Often “Unheralded”, but no longer overlooked…

Sunday, April 21, 2013

B. Gould

I wanted to start this by saying that I am a musician and a music fanatic. Those constants have followed me since my pre-teen days when I first heard my brother spin LP's on our basement record player/stereophonic 8-track/furniture type mutation, and  those early beginnings have given way to great amounts of satisfaction in my life. I have been able to experience a lot of highs and lows as a musician as well, but the fan in me has rarely been disappointed by the sheer joy that listening provides. I got my first record in 1981- Joan Jett and The Blackhearts (!) and then later received my first bass guitar at the age of 16. A cheap Fender Jazz copy that I swore at the time was the greatest piece of stringed bliss ever built!  Those two moments were pivotal, and they remain fresh in my mind. And those loves have lead me here: to share that adulation with you.

When I got that bass as a gift on my 16th birthday, I distinctly recall my Dad prodding me towards the "6 string" model. "Why the heck do you want that one- no one hears the bass anyway". Well, that certainly wasn't true of me. When I listened to all my favorites in High School, I always heard those low tones and how they drove the song or moved the melody in a certain way. There was so much importance in what the low end delivered. Before I had that bass I would stand in front of the mirror with a hockey stick and simulate what the bassist might have looked like; how he played with conviction and took his place in the song and in the context of the band. Damn, I must have looked stupid! But as my formative years projected me to a lifelong love of both the instrument and its place in music, I had to find my "heroes" I could emulate and learn from. Enter Billy Gould of the band Faith No More.

The summer of 1990, the last glorious outing before my senior year in High School, was a whirling social party remiss of any network that required any "likes" or "favorites". I wouldn't have had time for that anyway. I was working part time at a K-mart, hanging with some of my closest buds and playing the bass at any other moment of the day when I was awake. I also was exploring some music outside of my normal college radio, otherwise known today as "Alternative" music. R.E.M, Black Flag, Replacements, The Cure & Husker Du commonly bludgeoned my audible senses daily and I had lost interest in the heavy metal thrash or hardcore rap that was on the musical fringe, and so prevalent among my peers. That musical landscape (and my own interests) was getting a facelift in the late 80's/early 90's and exploded just before everyone threw up their arms, gave into flannel and realized guitar riffs could be barred with one finger! There was a heavy funk influenced scene coming out of California from the likes of Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pscychefunkapus and funk metal stalwarts Faith No More. That summer was there official "coming out party", as the single "Epic" could be heard on rock and mainstream radio and MTV every hour, on the hour! The track "Epic" came from Faith No More's 1989 release "The Real Thing" and bassist Billy Gould would become my phantom teacher for the next year. My bass playing would grow tenfold by the time I graduated High School.

My understanding of bass playing and technique was rudimentary by the time I procured a copy of a notation for The Real Thing. The book was concise and depicted every bass-line with linear notes about Billy's style and finger, pick and thumb work. For many bass players, the circulating (and never ending) argument about pick or finger playing has many trolling every corner of the net' to land an opinion. The thrill for me in learning each track off of "The Real Thing" was that Billy used fingers, an aggressive plectrum (pick) attack and a slap and pop that showed off skill, but also supplemented the specific song. He wasn't just showing off- he was doing what was appropriate for the individual tune! This lesson was a good one. A great example is the track "Surprise, You're Dead!" where Billy alternates between a nimble sixteenth note right hand finger pattern and the bridge where he tears through at double time. He riffs along with guitarist Jim Martin, using a pick and only down-strokes (try it, your wrist will want to lock like crazy!)! The other great track as an exercise for proper technique and feel is "Woodpeckers From Mars"; an instrumental where Billy uses a thumb slap & pop that also uses left-handed hammers and pull offs. The song is an exercise in fluid motion. He utilizes just about every flashy bag of tricks a bassist could use without seeming over the top. Amazing. Re-visit the songs or check them out for the first time if you haven't- I promise it is worth your time!

I learned through my affections for the songs off this album- that the bass players importance was not something to be written off! Any other approach wouldn't have accented the songs in such a way.

I'll be looking at other bassists often overlooked in upcoming blogs. Don't expect to see icons like Flea or Jaco; we all know they're great and why. Please stay tuned.

Often 'Unheralded' but no longer overlooked...