G: What were you practicing in the early days? What was the first lesson? How did you know what to teach yourself? How did you know what was right to do and what wasn’t?
JS: Truthfully? I had no idea what was right and what wasn’t. I knew, from watching groups in concert, that bass players had a variety of ways of playing. Some guys used the standard two fingers to pluck, some guys used a pick, and some guys used a combination of those things, as well as using their thumb. Entwhistle used all four of his fingers and sometimes it sounded like a couple of toes as well. I figured I was free to use whatever was most comfortable.
Actually, this question sort of gets ahead of the story a bit. I didn’t try to learn the bass until after I had already been in a band. The name of that band was World’s End. I don’t want to re-write that whole story, so I’ll give a link to a short history of that squad. I think your readers will find it entertaining. And it’s important to the continuity here.
(OK, so I’m going to assume some people actually went to read that story. If not, their loss. The rest of this won’t have the same joie de vivre for them.)
I bought the $10 bass strung with rusty cable, still had the amp I had been using for the keyboards in World’s End, and then started trying to play along with records. What did I play along with, or at least try to? Deep Purple, Grand Funk, Black Sabbath – the usual heavy metal suspects.
I learned to play using mostly my thumb. This is because the weird bass I bought for $10 had the thumbrest BENEATH the strings rather than ABOVE them where it should have been. I hooked my fingers onto that thumbrest and plucked with my thumb, whereas if it had been in the right place, I would have done it right. As a result, I still play mostly with my thumb, but I can do things with my thumb that most guys can’t. I do both upstrokes and downstrokes with it, much like using a pick. An advantage to my style, early on in my career, was that downstrokes with the thumb sound much smoother than beginner’s plucking fingers.
It takes a brave man to say this, because you almost automatically brand yourself as someone outside of the cognoscenti, but Grand Funk was what I was trying to sound like. Mel Schacher, on those early Grand Funk albums – especially “Live Album” – has this overwhelming, monolithic, slab of thickness going on. I mean, it’s not for everyone. Obviously, Grand Funk drove some people right up a wall and out through the roof, but I could listen to Schacher’s bass on, say, the live version of In Need for about three hours and not tire of it. The tone, the timbre, the way it just filled the air and propelled the songs… Pure joy. Of course, when they became “good”, all of their producers lopped off a bit more of Mel’s balls with each succeeding recording, so by the end of the road you could hardly even hear his bass. For all his faults as a producer, Terry Knight got it right when it came to Mel’s sound.
This leads me to a general rant. Most music critics have no fucking idea whatsoever about what makes a bass player good or bad. They honestly don’t. You’ll notice that the majority of them never go into any detail about the bass playing. They’ll say something safe, like, “The bass was competent.” This comes after they’ve either excoriated the rest of the group or decorated them with medals. They just don’t know what in the hell they’re listening to when it comes to the bass. So, they play it safe and gloss over it and, most of the time, they get away with it. That’s because some listeners (and some producers…) don’t get it, either.
(I’ll try to make it clearer in the answer to your question 7, I hope.)
Now, I haven’t exactly given my credentials as the foremost authority on good bass playing by naming Mel Schacher as one of my favorites. I’m NOT saying he’s the greatest technical player in the world. But I like him, and I know why I like him. That’s the difference.
G: Who were you listening to a lot in those early stages for inspiration, and why? How did you train your ears?
JS: Well, I pretty much answered the “who” part of this in the previous question, so I’ll stick to how I trained my ears. Not much, really.
To begin with, in case I haven’t made it abundantly clear by now, I’ll tell you that I’m self-taught on every instrument I play. The only exception is the bass, which I took four weeks of lessons on at a place called “The Guitar Workshop” in Boston. Great teacher by the name of Joshua Levin-Epstein, who (if he’s as intelligent as he was then) will disavow all knowledge of me if he gets wind of this interview. I took his lessons long after I had acquired the good bass, so I enrolled in an intermediate class. I’ll skip the humility and tell you that I was the most advanced student in the class. And, by the time the classes ended, I was the only one still coming. I got individual lessons for a while.
Anyway, Joshua gave me what little ear-training I ever got. While teaching me some rudiments of reading music, he also taught me to listen with an ear towards pitch. After his lessons, I trained myself to be able to recognize things. I’d have a girlfriend of mine, who played some piano, just hit notes at random, and I’d try to identify them or match them on the bass. I got proficient at it. I can still jump into the middle of most songs without hitting a clam while trying to find the right key. Of course, if you hit a clam, you just hit it a few more times in a row, with some rhythm, and then people think that’s what you meant to do all along
(As an aside, here’s what I can play. I’m an excellent bass player; a decent rhythm guitarist; a mediocre lead guitarist; a passable drummer, so long as you don’t expect much more than a beat and some simple fills; a fairly execrable keyboardist, who can play decently with his right, but not much at all with his left; and I’m able to get interesting noises from almost anything else you put in front of me. I can fake anything for a song or two, if nobody is listening too closely.)
Anyway, I was born with a decent sense of pitch. Certainly not perfect pitch, but (as the saying goes) close enough for rock ‘n roll. Combine that with what I picked up via osmosis from the many influences my folks were programming me with, and my self-training, and it worked out OK.
G: If you were to advise beginner bass players 5 most important aspects of the bass, both from your own experience and from watching or listening to others, what would they be?
JS: OK, this is a great question. I’ll try to do it justice.
a) Remember that your instrument is part of the rhythm section. In most rock bands, you’ll be a support for the guitar. You won’t be called upon to play too many intricate lines in any form of music, really, outside of jazz. If you don’t at least occasionally dig playing simple and repetitious lines, this is NOT the instrument for you. And sometimes, what you DON’T play is as important as what you do. If you’re working from sheet music, it’s all laid out for you, but if you’re improvising, laying low and not getting too fancy is sometimes better than trying to blow the roof off. The re-entry of your instrument into the fray, after a short time out, will often be more exciting than if you played steadily through everything.
b) On the other hand, there’s no rule that says you can’t take the lead once in a while. Try it (in a spot where it has a chance to work – location, location, location!) If you’re good enough, folks will dig it. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know (or the other guys will let you know.)
c) Tone is vitally important. Use the right strings on the right instrument through the right amp. Lots of treble doesn’t generally work well in metal, and a sludgy bottom doesn’t generally work well in jazz. There are exceptions, but generally. However, good tone will make up for some lack of ability. If your tone is right (and you’re in tune, of course) you can get away with playing simple stuff and folks will give you credit for knowing more than you do. Have the wrong tone and folks will not be impressed with you blasting out 120 triads in a minute. Use your own taste as a guide. Would you like to hear Geezer Butler playing with George Shearing? Or Jack Six instead of Nicki Sixx in Motley Crue?
(Well, actually, I would, but I’m odd. Most folks wouldn’t, so take it from there.)
d) Learn to play in every style you can think of. Don’t limit yourself to one style that you love. At least have a bit of everything to call upon. That goes for your right-hand technique, as well (or left-hand, if you’re left-handed.) Learn to pluck, learn to pick, learn some thumb tricks, make use of every digit and digital trick you have at your disposal. I’d suggest learning one style and one technique very well, first, and then branch out, but that’s just how I think it’s easiest, which leads to…
e) Play what you like, how you like it. Don’t let anyone else bully you into playing it the “right” way. By all means, listen to everyone. But then decide for yourself if what they’re telling you is something that will help your creativity or hurt it. Bottom line: If it isn’t fun, why do it?
(Unless you’re getting paid big bucks, of course.)
G: You’ve written quite a few originals. Would I be stepping out of line if I asked you to play for us your first song, and your most recent and explain what you hear in terms of how your playing, writing, and recording has changed?
JS: You wouldn’t be stepping out of line by asking me to play the first song I ever wrote, but you’d be asking for whoever is reading this to throw rocks at you. The lyric is actually contained in one of the pieces on my blog that I referenced earlier. The title was “World’s End” and it was about (surprise!) the end of the world. It was accompanied by a very simple, extremely slow, Sabbath inspired riff of E – A – G.
I’d rather folks listen to something newer. Here’s one called “Chopped”. I think it perfectly illustrates what I said concerning my abilities. Really good bass player, not too bad on rhythm, very mediocre lead player. In any case, the bass is good, and this is the sort of stuff I love writing and playing. If you enjoy early metal and/or punk, it will probably resonate.
I don’t know that discussing how my playing has changed since I began would be terribly instructive. Since I’m not a well-known musician, examples of my early playing aren’t available for comparison. I’d rather that whatever I’m capable of now stand for criticism, so maybe if folks would like to click onto the link for the song now, that would be cool. The only explanation I’ll give beforehand is that anything you hear is being played by me, excepting the drums which come from a somewhat cheesy machine. These would be, I suppose, on the level of a demo tape for the song; something like what I might put together before bringing the song before some bandmates for consideration.
I hope you enjoy it.