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Entries Tagged as 'bass ideas'

Teaching Ideas Pt 3 – Teaching is therapy

July 8th, 2008 · Comments Off on Teaching Ideas Pt 3 – Teaching is therapy

I think it’s safe to say that for almost every person playing a musical instrument, there’s a part of it that is about exploring a part of their character and personality that they don’t get to exercise elsewhere. Whether that’s me as a solo bassist writing music that expresses all the stuff I struggle to put into words (which is why so many of my tunes are inspired by death), or the bloke who works in a garden centre learning speed metal to play in a pub on friday evenings, because he’s desperate for the garden centre to not be the sole defining entity in his life, there’s something that music gives us that would otherwise be sorely missing from our lives.

Being a ‘bassist in a metal band who happens to work in a garden centre’ is actually a pretty cool place to be in life. It has cache with your work friends, it has the security of a wage from the job, and it’s not the kind of job that’s going to drag you off away from rehearsals with your band, which means you can be fairly well committed to what’s going on.

It also often means that you can afford to have – and have time for – lessons. So when I get to meet with players in that situation, and am entrusted with the task of providing them with the tools, the process and the inspiration to learn more about their instrument, my role becomes a rather therapeutic one.

It’s not good enough in that situation to dismiss the style of band the person plays in and hand them pages of scales and arpeggios to learn, along with a load of tunes that you the teacher like.

No, a degree of personalisation – both of content and delivery – has to take place in that kind of transaction for it to be of value. I spend the first couple of lessons with a new student discovering things about them – why they play, what they play, what they do when they first pick up their instrument, and technical bad habits they’ve picked up, any erroneous ‘rules’ they’ve been told by other people about what you can and can’t do with music, any bogus (or useful!) terminology they’ve picked up in the past, and what they instinctively are capable of.

I very often get them improvising in the first lesson, just as a way of showing how lax the rules are on what ‘works’ and doesn’t ‘work’ – within some fairly broad tonal boundaries, anything can sound ‘good’ if you keep it simple enough, and build on it… the value of discovering that creativity doesn’t require induction into Dumbledore’s Inner Circle or the Knights Who Say Ni! or something (see my Creative Choices blog post for more on that).

I also get them working things by ear as early as possible, and encourage them to experiment a lot with fun things that may or may not end up sounding cool…

Why? Music is an incredible space for us to stretch the boundaries of what we define as our own creative limitations. It’s an utterly benign form, given it’s completely abstract nature (lyrics notwithstanding) and as such the worst that happens is you make an unpleasant noise. So you can go nuts and see what happens – it’s like taking a wild lashing serve when you’re break point down in tennis, only nobody loses if you get it wrong. It’s like declaring your love for a colleague on the day they leave the office because you’ll never get another chance, only no-one’s going to laugh at you.

Music is a space in which people can discover what they are capable of, and a good music teacher makes that possible, inspiring and an attractive proposition.

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians

Teaching Ideas Pt 2 – There's no syllabus for punk and reggae.

July 7th, 2008 · Comments Off on Teaching Ideas Pt 2 – There's no syllabus for punk and reggae.

In the last post, I mentioned that my main aim when teaching is to instill in my students a love of learning. A huge part of me having a right to teach them anything is me respecting the music they listen to. Nothing is a bigger turn off for a student that a dismissive teacher.

At one college I used to teach at, I got hauled over the coals by the head of the place for not giving my drum students a transcription of the parts we were working on when I was teaching them some reggae. “But they’ll never have to read reggae!” was my response. Doesn’t matter, was the come-back, they expect a transcription, it’s a music school and we’re meant to be getting all academic on their asses.

I didn’t give them a transcription. Why? Because Reggae is folk music. It’s an oral tradition, with musicians learning by listening and playing. None of the great reggae bands played off written parts, especially the drummers, and the nuance in the feel and timing in reggae drums would be impossible to notate. To give drummers a score to learn reggae would be like making them listen to Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder as an example of authentic reggae. It would sell them short, ill-prepare them for playing reggae professionally, and would be lying to them about how the great musicians who play that style learn to play like that.

The only place one is ever going to need to read a reggae drum part would be a theatre pit, and even then it’s more likely to just say ‘reggae feel’ or even more patronisingly ‘island feel’…

See, academics in general don’t deal well with folk traditions, especially not contemporary forms of folk music like reggae, punk, hip-hop… the magic in any of those styles is in the subtlety, not in the stuff that can be conveyed on a score. Handing out written bass-parts to ‘Anxious MoFo’ by the Minutemen or ‘Maxwell Murders’ by Rancid isn’t going to make your punk student a better punk player, but getting them hooked on Mike Watt or Matt Freeman’s playing might… That’s not to say they wouldn’t both make a cool transcription exercise as a way of introducing your lil’ punks to the wonders of writing music, but scores are not generally the way that material is passed around in the punk world, and to suggest that it is is disingenuous.

I’m not into lying to my students – I don’t want to make things easy for myself by selling them short on what’s going on with the music they listen to or want to play. If their aim is to be a rock star, I’ll tell them

  • just how unlikely it is,
  • how unpleasant an experience the road to ‘rock stardom’ is for most people and
  • how much better off they can be playing the music they love, finding an audience for it, and letting the ‘lottery of stardom’ bit happen by itself…

What I do want is to teach them

  • how to practice actual music – not just getting good at exercises
  • how to listen and dissect the mechanics of what’s going on in the music they love,
  • how the musicians they admire get to where they are (one of the beauties of having written for a bass mag is I’ve met and interviewed many of my students favourite players – always handy when I’m asked about a particular tune or technique 🙂 )

If I have students who play punk rock, I want to teach them the very best information I can about the world of punk rock, I want to show them how the great punk bassists get their sound, I want to introduce them to the music of the punk pioneers, the influencers of the genre, the attitude behind it… There’s nothing sacrilegious about transcribing punk basslines, but like reggae it’s largely an oral, experiential tradition – turning up to an audition for a punk band with a music stand and pile of manuscript is going to get you laughed out of the room…

As I said before, Context is everything, and there’s no reason to teach out of context, or lie about the context in order to try and shoe-horn one specific set of musical skills into a style that doesn’t require them…

Are there other artistic disciplines that have been spoilt by being “over-taught”? Does this happen with poetry and visual art, that the ‘academicization’ of it misses the mark for large sections of the discipline? Thoughts please…

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians

Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

July 4th, 2008 · Comments Off on Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

The state of contemporary music teaching in the UK is terrible. Actually, the state of music teaching across the board is pretty awful. But at least with the classical stuff, the method makes sense, even if so many of the teachers are failing to inspire the students (do a straw poll of the people you know, find out how many played an instrument as a kid, and how many quit in their late teens. The percentages should be 90% keeping it up. In reality, well under 5% of the people I know have stuck with it…)

The huge problem with the way that pop/rock/jazz/punk/funk etc. is taught in the UK is that most of the methods are still based around the classical idea that you’re learning repertoire. If you’re learning an orchestral instrument to play orchestral music, there is an expectation that you’ll play your instrument a certain way, learn how to take direction from a conductor and play the way other people want you to. That’s what orchestral musicians get hired to do. Because of this, a set of graded exams that measure how far along that widely recognised scale you are is a great way of providing benchmarks on your journey towards proficiency.

I think I’m on fairly safe ground stating that pretty much no-one takes up the electric bass (or guitar, or drums) in order to play in an orchestra. People play bass for a couple of different reasons – MOST (not all, but most) people take up bass to a) play the music they love listening to and b) form a band with some mates. (Despite bass being the greatest solo instrument on God’s green earth, those are the primary reasons people play it 🙂 )

I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that there’s no set path to aims as nebulous as ‘playing the music you love’ – what is the music you love? any stylistic boundaries? Any desire to put your own spin on it? At what point does writing your own music become important in the journey?

There are a million questions that can be asked, and the answers are different for every single person. Sadly, this wasn’t taken into consideration when most of the bass teaching materials I’ve ever come across were prepared – the old model of taking the student through a set course, as though this was the repertoire they’d need, is still the way that instruments are taught in our ‘post-repertoire age’.

I’ve never liked the idea of graded exams, I don’t like the way it says that your ability to play a particular piece, or to sight read (whether or not your area of musical interest requires it), or in the case of the ‘rock school’ grades, to ‘improvise’ in a style are measured against any kind of fixed criteria. It seems to fly completely in the face of what makes music special.

Most of all it ignores the fact that pop music is essentially folk music – music BY the people and FOR the people. It’s not an academic exercise, measurable metrically and verifiable by an examination board, it’s about self-expression, shared language and history, identity, culture, branding, etc. etc.

So what am I saying? That all music teaching is futile? That music colleges are a waste of time? Clearly not. What is vital though is that the skills being taught and how they are measured have to be demonstrably related to the end result.

I have a few rules for myself when teaching, and number one is that Context Is Everything. A huge part of the value of having lessons is learning how to learn – how to extract valuable principles and concepts from whatever the actual material is that’s being looked at. Whether it’s a group of notes (key/chord/scale), a rhythmic subdivision, the bassline to a song or an approach to improvising, there are lessons within the material that are found by playing with it in context. Remove the context, and the material becomes sterile.

I refer to this distinction in lessons as ‘active learning‘ and ‘passive learning‘ – passive learning is about learning the material as is, ticking a box and moving on. ‘active learning’ looks at what’s there and says ‘what can I deduce from this? What does this tell me about the way music works? what does this tell me about the style I’m exploring? What does this give me in terms of skills needed to write and perform my own music?’

Those are things that are incredibly hard to map out as a mark-scheme for an exam. Incredibly hard, but not impossible. It just relies on the exam board recognising the value in the musical relationship between teacher and student, the shared journey towards the student playing the music they love, and being able to express the music they hear in their head.

How we start to break down those aims is part 2…

Feel free to post your own experiences – good and bad – with music education, in the comments!

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians

Kickstarting Creativity

July 3rd, 2008 · Comments Off on Kickstarting Creativity

My 2nd post is up on the Creative Choices blog.

It’s entitled Kickstarting Creativity, and addresses a misnomer in the way people think about the creative process. Please feel free to comment over there too!

click here to read Kickstarting Creativity

Tags: bass ideas · Geek · tips for musicians

email disasters

July 3rd, 2008 · Comments Off on email disasters

So our internets at home is down. Currently jacking wireless from some thankfully un-security-conscious neighbour, while I delete 150 THOUSAND (YES, THOUSAND) emails off my server. Some spamming bastard has cloned at least one of my domain names, and I’ve got 150,000 replies. Brought my email server to its knees, not surprisingly.

I’m going to have to make some serious changes to my email set-up to stop this from happening again. So if you’re using any email address for me that doesn’t begin ‘steve@’ it’s quite possibly not going to work in the near future… worth changing it now…

Normal service should be resumed, after I’ve wasted an entire day sorting this crap out. At least I’m playing some bass while I do it…

Tags: bass ideas · Managing Information Streams · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Design Museum gig last friday…

May 27th, 2008 · Comments Off on Design Museum gig last friday…

About two weeks ago, I got an email from electronic drum-monkey extraordinaire, Andrew Booker, asking me to do a gig with his improv collective Improvizone, at the design museum. This appealed on a few different levels – firstly, Andrew’s a fantastic musician and top bloke. Note that the first time I saw Andrew live, I was stood next to Brian Eno who’s comment on Andrew’s playing was ‘have you got his phone number?’… yup, he’s fab. Secondly, I’ve been reading about Improvizone for a long time on his blog, and love the idea – it’s quite Recycle Collective-ish in its concept, but tends to be a little more electronica-led and not quite as structurally defined [Recycle gigs are always 3 sets, 3 musicians, 3 lots of solo/duo/trio performance].

I then find out that while the gig doesn’t pay (I knew that, no problem), the event we were playin at was a ticketed thing, with peoples paying money to be there… uh-oh. That’s not so great: I’m working on a ‘creative commons’ type manifesto for these kind of gigs (more on the blog soon), and that clearly went against that idea – offering my music free to soundtrack someone else’s money-making didn’t sound good at all… Quick chat with Andrew, and it seems there’s some expenses available, so not completely free and that, combined with the enticement of great people to play with and some connections at the venue for further gigs makes me stick with the gig.

I’m rather glad I did, as it was musically a hugely satisfying experience – the line-up was completed by laptop twiddler Os, who, as well as triggering and manipulating samples of guitarist Michael Bearpark (some great sounds there!), would be processing and looping me, in Ableton Live.

Now, after a chat a few years ago with David Torn about group loop-infected improv, I generally take Torn’s view that it makes most sense to have a ‘master looper’ in a band, and have them take the most responsibility for that side of things. This doesn’t preclude other looping, it’s just like having a producer on a record… the Recycle Collective usually works like this, even with all the other musicians looping and processing up a storm…

The nice thing about Os looping me is that a) he’s very experienced with looping ideas b) he had headphones available for previewing stuff rather than just randomly processing things that may or may not work and c) Ableton Live is a pretty versatile platform on which to loop things.

So the upshot was that I played less than usual, often tossed a bassline and some ambience in Os’ direction at the beginning of a tune and then had him grabbing snippets of melody as we went on. If I was playing a ‘normal’ bassline, he’d quite often tell me he’d grabbed that, and I could move on and do all kinds of interesting Looperlative mangling of my own, while he looped and processed what was coming out… All kinds of fun. And his Ableton set up was sending a click track to Andrew on drums…

All lots of fun, and it made for some fabulous, enjoyable, freewheeling and at times downright funky improv!

And, what’s more, the venue loved it, and want us back. We’ll have to negotiate on money, clearly, as their expectations may well be tainted by the ‘freeness’ of the first gig, but they know what we do, how well it works in that setting so we have known skillz to bargain with. Hurrah!

And, once again, I’ve got another gallery show experience to throw into the pot for the new album ideas, to combine with all the twisted country stuff that came from the Rob Pepper Gallery show… twisted country electronica, anyone?

Tags: bass ideas · Gig stuff · looping · Music News · Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Finding inspiration – improvisation on a theme.

May 10th, 2008 · Comments Off on Finding inspiration – improvisation on a theme.

Last Thursday, I had a hugely enjoyable gig, playing at an art exhibition opening, of drawings by Rob Pepper. Rob is someone I’ve known for a while, and I really like his style and approach (you can check out a load of his work on his blog at dailydrawingdiary.com).

This latest exhibition at the SW1 Gallery in Victoria, titled ‘To There And Back Again”, is of drawings Rob did in Texas and in London. The London ones are mainly large canvas works of London Landmarks and views, while the Texan ones are a mixture of the large and some smaller more intimate portraits. Both sets have an off-kilter sensibility to them that says something way more about the subjects than a straight realist portrait might have.

Anyway, from a musical point of view, the discussions beforehand with Rob were really interesting. His first instinct was to suggest some kind of literalist mashup of England and Texan themes – banjos and folk songs, country music with east end cockney songs… So we talked a little around the theme, and he seemed more settled with me understanding what he wanted but filtering it through what I do…

The SW1 gallery is a fantastically resonant space – all hard surfaces and wood floors, so I only needed my studio monitors to play through. Stylistically, I drew quite heavily on Bill Frisell’s art-inspired music – where he used Jim Woodring and Gary Larson’s art for different pieces – and also on the feel of Rob Jackson’s mashup up of Americana and a more reserved English feel.

Those influences were then filtered through the strangeness of some of Rob’s drawings and blended into that thing I do – looped ‘n’ layered lush mellow bass stuff. Lots of slow swing country rhythms and chord progressions, overlaid with the kind of ambient shimmer that works so well in galleries and twisted just enough to reflect something of that quirkiness in the art.

The result was almost 2 hours of music that was at once very obviously ‘me’ music, but had taken on a whole other slant as a result of the focus that the gallery gave me.

It’s a worthwhile experiment, whether or not you’ve got a gallery opening to play at – just being able to get away from focussing on yourself as the centre of a project, and see how your skill set and musical vision can be applied to soundtracking and contextualising someone else’s work/world. The combination of the two can be a great launch pad for new ideas, and it also shows up the elements in what you do that are just there because you always do them – there were a lot of the usual StevieSounds that didn’t make it into the music for the show just because they didn’t fit the vibe. I played way more fretted bass than I normally would (fretless bass is neither a particularly ‘country’ sound, nor intrinsically english) and used the fretless in ways I wouldn’t normally, or to give a degree of obfuscation to a particular idea (looping and layering ‘dueling banjos’ on fretless, in a minor key, for example… OK, so Deliverance was set in Georgia, not Texas, but it still worked 😉 )

Anyway, the lesson is, sometimes is good to mix it up a bit, focus your skills and soundworld on someone else’s challenge. I got loads from it musically, and Rob was delighted. (The bit in the middle when I took a break and they put a CD on felt really odd following on from an hour of music shaped by the room and the art…)

Go! Experiment! …and go and see Rob’s show too –

Friday 9 May – Thursday 29 May 2008
Opening hours: Tues – Sat 10am – 4pm
020 7963 4024
www.sw1gallery.co.uk

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

April 20th, 2008 · Comments Off on Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

Been having some fantastic conversations with creative people of late on the subject of originality. It’s a subject that seems to lead to wildly different comments and responses from creative people, but rather too often seems to become deified or fetishised to the detriment of the resultant art.

With solo bass being such a niche musical pursuit, I often end up with people thinking that what I do is ‘completely original’, in that listeners outside of the solo bass/looping/etc. cognoscenti have probably never heard anyone doing anything quite like what I’m doing before. It would be very easy for me to claim that I came up with the whole idea and convince people – at least in the moment – that I’m some kind of pioneer in a way that I’m not.

But, it’s also worth noting that some of what I do has been described as ‘pioneering’ and even folks within the ‘scenes’ from which I draw most of my influence have recognised bits of it as being in some way ‘original’.

So what is one to do with that? In both situations the result is that the people involved have another level on which to engage with what I do, but it’s one that holds precious little ‘real’ value.

The first question that comes from this is a) ‘how many records have you ever bought just because the artist was flagged up as ‘original’?’ – and part b) of that question is: of those, how many did you stick with just because it was ‘original’?

The answer to the first bit is probably – if you’re an early adopter and enthusiast like me – ‘a few’. There are a few things I’ve checked out (though these days more via downloads/myspace etc.) that I’ve being pointed to because the persons approach to music making was in some way novel. However, it’s the second half that concerns us – Long term engagement with an artist’s output is based on quality, value and integrity, not gimmick.

This is something that we’re all too aware of when it comes to the marketing aspect of what we do – trying to rebrand dogturds as caviar isn’t going to make people enjoy the taste of dogturds – but originality is trickier because it’s a) less easy to quantify and b) it feels like an artistic consideration first and not a marketing gimmick.

So, here’s the question that will help you to gauge your own reaction to concepts of originality – if everyone in the world did things the way you do, would what you do still have value? In otherwords, when your schtick ceases to be a schtick and just becomes a creative model like ‘being in a band’ or ‘taking photographs’, what is the innate value in the way your story informs the output?

For me, it becomes this – if all the world were solo bassists, would my music as a solo bassist still be worth anything? Or, to frame it in now, ‘what’s the value of what I do to an audience saturated with looped solo bassists?’ This last question is a key one when it comes to putting on ‘branded’ gigs – if I put on a solo bass night, does it water down my brand to the detriment of people’s perception of how ‘original’ I am, or does it just remove the ‘originality/novelty’ element from how they engage with it, and cut to the storytelling?

The reality for me is, as I’ve been telling my students for years, it’s way more important to be ‘good’ than it is to be ‘original’ – a whole load of the willfully obscure experiments that one can end up with when looking for a ‘new sound’ are things that other people have tried and dismissed before inflicting them on an audience.

Influence seems to be the dirty word in so many discussions about originality. The equation seems to go thusly –

Being original is key to my success, therefor I mustn’t experience anyone else’s art that may shape what I do in an overt way because if I hear them, I’ll want to sound like them, and that will ruin my USP (unique selling point), and I’ll be finished as an artist. So as a result, I’ll live my life in seclusion from talented people operating in the same field as me.

This, dear bloglings, is what’s known in the trade as UTTER BOLLOCKS. I’ve seen a few people’s musical paths really messed up due to their phobia of influence. I’ve seen people torture themselves when another band came up with a title similar to the one they wanted for their next album! It’s crippling creatively, but more than that it bears no relation at all to how we relate to art on any non-superficial level.

So from my observation of my own and other people’s reactions to these questions, here are a few thoughts on the creative process as it relates to originality and influence:

  • We are all aggregators: or as Bono put it (possibly quoting someone else) ‘Every artist is a cannibal’. Very very little in the development and progress of human existence has appeared in an intellectual vacuum. Our progress on a macro and micro level is way more often than not evolutionary rather than eureka-moment-driven. We take in our observations of what’s going on around us, filter them through eachother, through the world as we see it, through a complex-but-contained set of experiences and ever-growing opinions and tastes, and decide what to do, what to create, how to create, how to tell our story. Those Eureka moments that do happen are too random to be factorable in steering our creative path. What influences we choose to subject ourselves to is something we’re very much in control of.
  • Influence is influence, whether the influence is from within your own discipline or outside: If I stopped listening to all music, I’d still be shaped in my music making by politics, art, comedy, love, life, illness, nature etc… Everything I do as a musician is shaped by influences, millions of them. Influences won’t negatively impact my art, only unhealthy obsessions will.
  • The problem isn’t influence/no influence, it’s self-awareness or the lack-thereof: People who make great music in isolation won’t suddenly start making crap derivative music if they open themselves up to influence, and likewise people who are so unable to figure out what they want that they just ape someone else’s process to the point of plagarism aren’t suddenly going to discover their creative focus by not listening to their main influences. The problem with obsession is bigger and more fundamental than whether or not your music sounds like another band.
  • Influence is like a diet – it’s the mixture and balance that keeps us healthy: Obsession is not a healthy state to be in. Like eating only potato, or drinking nothing but tea, listening to one artist is going to mess you up. I have for a long time viewed my music listening as a diet, and as such cherish my music listening time like a meal. I avoid junk-food, and crave sumptuous filling meals that meet my dietary requirements. I don’t like eating the same thing day after day, and definitely enjoy the effects of seasonal variation.
  • Style is a medium, not a message – how you say something IS important. Vitally so. But talking shit with a soothing voice is still talking shit.
  • Speaking someone else’s language doesn’t make you think like them, it just makes you able to communicate with the same people they communicate with – this blog doesn’t come across as derivative just because it’s in English. None of us trawl the interwebs looking for ‘new languages’ just because they’re new. Language is there to communicate ideas.
  • Storytelling is an artform that exploits shared history and narrative form: If you’re telling your story through music, things that are familiar have a different resonance from things that are completley alien to both artist and listener. This is one of the reasons why so many creative musicians still find so much to stay within the confines of ‘blues’ – despite the restrictions of the form, there’s still so much great original music that’s coming out that is blues-based and blues-influenced. The language, imagery and resonance of the blues still provides a channel for so many people’s unique stories.
  • the quest to be original might actively prevent you from soundtracking your world: If I attempted to do away with my influences, most of the stuff that makes my music important to me would vanish; the melodic forms, the chord progressions derived from folk, pop and jazz idioms, the phrasing that I’ve absorbed from Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell or Michael Manring, the bass techniques that I’ve nicked from Trip Wamsley or Victor Wooten. What makes me sound like me is the combination of everything that goes into my music. I throw it all into the mixing pot, and out comes my music. I practice to learn more about how to channel the feelings and emotions that those independent influences bring out in me, and look to find the right amount and blend of ingredients to make me feel the way the combination of all of them makes me feel.

So, where does all this leave me? Well, right now, I’m working on a new album, or at least, I’m getting ideas together to start working on a new album. Some of that involves working out what’s physically possible with the Looperlative, but a lot of it is working out what I want to say and how best to say it. So I’m putting myself on a fairly strict diet. A diet that will contain a whole range of music that generates the kind of response in me that I want from my own music. I’ll be listening to a lot of The Blue Nile, Joni Mitchell, Eric Roche, Rosie Thomas, Theo Travis, Alan Pasqua, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and then a whole bunch of extreme stuff in as many directions as I can to help me push back the walls that define the stylistic parameters of what I’ve done up until now.

And how I deal with notions of Originality and their value or otherwise impacts every minute of my practice time – do I get frustrated when I play something and it reminds me of some other musician, or do I use that as a model for saying something in their language? Do I get fixated with listening to other solo bassists because I am one, or do I realise that solo bass is in the grand scheme of things nothing to do with whether my music is any good or not, and look at developing the component parts of my musical narrative via influences that are best at those bits – for example, looking to singers for melodic influence, pianists for harmony, and classical guitarists for phrasing and shaping chord/melody ideas?

The end result of this is whether or not you hear those influences, the music is 100% me. It might be a different angle on me that hasn’t come out in other ways before. It might be me as expressed through the playing of other musicians on music that I’ve written for them, but it will be a combination of all the various influences that make me want to do what I do, and will at the same time be both entirely derivative and completely original.

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Downloading made easy, the Reverb Nation Widget way!

April 6th, 2008 · 5 Comments

Not sure why I didn’t think of this before, but you can download all of Lessons Learned from An Aged Feline Pt II from the widget below. It’s a four step process, as follows:

1. click the word ‘songs’ at the top of the widget.
2. click on ‘What Was Going On’
3. put your email address into the box that appears (you have to sign up for my mailing list to get the download)
4. while the track is playing, click the little download arrow to the right of the play-timeline, underneath the tracklist.

Then repeat steps 2 and 4 – click on each song and click download. And you’ll have a shiny digital loveliness copy of LLfaAF Pt II.


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One of the fun things about doing this experiment with the free downloads has been listening back to two albums I’ve not listened to of mine for a long time. LLfaAF Pt II is the record where I fell in love with my fretted 6 string bass – The majority of the tracks on it are recorded with that bass. Melodically, it’s probably the most ‘jazz’ thing I’ve done, as I was quite consciously experimenting with more ‘outside’ lines and some bigger intervals in the melodies. It was nice to go back and rediscover a few things I was doing then that I haven’t done since, and am now wanting to reincorporate into my playing.

For those of you who are musicians wanting to make your music available in different places, Reverb Nation widgets are a great way to do it – if you go to my page and click on the widgets tab, you’ll see all the ones available. You can even make the one above the main music interface on your blog.

It’s a good way to manage collecting mailing list subscriptions in exchange for the free stuff, rather than just giving it away AND having to play for the bandwidth from your own server.

And of course, your legions of fans can include your widgets on their myspace page, blog, facebook page, bebo page. etc etc.

As the user-base of Reverb Nation grows, it may increase in native currency. For now, it’s largely about traffic you send to your page, and the widgets it makes available.

Though the nice thing about it being pretty small right now is that I’m at Number 2 in their jazz charts! – that’s 2nd out of 1789 ‘jazz’ artists. And that’s without even being proper jazz. Good work.

Tags: bass ideas · Music News · New Music Strategies · site updates · tips for musicians

The Musical Mechanics of 'Feeling': Wordless Story Telling

April 5th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Right, here’s a blog post I promised on Twitter at the beginning of the week, but have only just got round to writing. Here were my original ‘tweets’ –

solobasssteve “Blog post idea – the musical mechanics of ‘feeling’: ambiguity, journey, wordless story-telling and narrative/soundtrack quality…”
solobasssteve “Gifted singers routinely sing like they’re still discovering the unfolding tale of the song. Instrumentalists rarely play like that…”

One of the things I work most hard on in my music is developing the relationship between phrasing and feeling. Learning how to play a tune as though it has words and is telling a story. For that reason, most of my biggest influences are singers; the musicians I try and emulate are those whose music strikes me on an emotional, feeling level rather than a technical, heady one.

I often find myself left cold by instrumental music that on the surface I’m impressed by, but which doesn’t seem to soundtrack any part of my life, does reflect anything about the way I think or see the world. And I think I know why…

The big problem with most of what gets lumped together as ‘fusion’ or ‘electric jazz’ is that the way the music is played makes it sound like the artist has all the answers. Like there’s no search, no journey, just an arrival point. And that arrival point is one of dexterity and chops, with the compositions often stemming from a similar place. Or even with the compositions actually being pretty deep, but still being played from a position of having it all sown up before the tune starts.

Great singers never do that. They tell stories, the adopt characters, they emote according to the narrative. They often sing like they are discovering for the first time the unfolding tale of the song. It’s way more important to communicate than it is to show of their wikkid skillz. Having a big range in your voice is part of the singers emotional palette, and is rarely used for shredding (Maria/Celine etc. aside…)

So it’s no coincidence that my favourite instrumentalists also play like that. Bill Frisell is a fantastic case in point – a phenomenally gifted guitar player, who has leant his wide ranging guitar skills to a whole load of different projects, but who always digs deep emotionally. He plays guitar like a world-weary country singer, or a heart-broken torch singer. He does the full range of emotions, rather than sticking with the slightly smug, self-satisfied gymnastic displays of many instrumentalists.

Nels Cline is the same – he can be sad, angry, playful, child-like, inquisitive, tearful, tender… all in the same solo.

And of course there’s John Coltrane, the Godfather of story telling improvisors, unfolding the story of his spiritual quest on the stage each night via his sax. Phenomenal technical skill, completely at the service of the music, or the story, and always stretching, searching, telling stories as they occured to him, risking the blind allies, crying and screaming through his music when it was required.

Q – “So how do I as a bassist head in that direction? What are the mechanics of feeling? How do I move away from dextrous but lifeless technical cleverness and start telling stories?”

The start point is listening and a little analysis. Take a singer you love, a singer that moves you, a singer that connects – what are they ACTUALLY doing? What’s happening in terms of dynamics and phrasing? Where do the notes sit on the beat? Take 16 bars that you really like and learn them. Start by singing them, then play what you sing. Not just the notes, but the dynamics, phrasing, articulation. The whole works. As close as you can get. How far is that from how you usually play?

Here are a few musical elements that aid us in sounding a little more ambiguous, discursive, narrative:

  • stop playing everything on the beat: Bassists are the worst for this, but a lot of jazzers too – we end up drawing a metric grid in our minds and stick to it. Divide the bar into 8/16/32 and play those subdivisions. Go and have a listen to Joni Mitchell and tell me how often she’s on the beat. How often her phrasing is metric. Pretty much never.
  • Start using dynamics: I’m amazed at how few melody players in jazz – particularly guitarists and bassists – rarely vary the dynamics of what they do.Have a listen to this Bartok solo sonata for violin – hear what’s being done with the phrasing and dynamics? It’s incredible.

    Alternatively, have a listen to Sinatra, to the way he pulled the melodies around, and used his amazing control of dynamics. Remarkable stuff. In the rock world, check out Doug Pinnick’s vocals with King’s X. He’s closer to singing in time, but exploits the variation in being ahead of or behind the beat beautifully to spell out the emotion of a song.

  • Vary your technique – again, very few singers sing in one ‘tone’ through everything. Those that do usually get tiresome pretty quick. Most of them use tonal variety the way we do when we talk. Getting louder will vary the tone automatically. Same with your instrument. The number of bassists who play with their thumb planted on top of the pickup, using their first two fingers in strict alternation even for playing tunes is bizarre. Bassmonkeys, Your right hand is your primary tone control – forget EQing, and work with the source, where the subtle variations are from note to note. moment to moment, phrase to phrase. Experiment, keeping in mind what you’re trying to do – tell a story!
  • Play less notes – At NAMM every year, I get other bassists – often pretty famous ones – coming up and asking me how I play so ‘soulfully’, or so ‘deeply’ or whatever. Admittedly, their reaction to what I do is going to be exaggerated by the lunacy of all the shredding going on, but the simplest answer is often that I play less notes than most of what they are used to listenin to. Again, it’s a singer-thing. Very few of my favourite vocal melodies are technically hard to play. Some have some pretty big intervals in them (Jonatha Brooke, one of my favourite singer/songwriters on the planet, writes some of the most amazing melodies, and has an incredible way of delivering them. She uses really unusual intervals but never sounds like the cleverness of the tune is getting in the way of what’s being said…) So just learn some vocal tunes. Actually, not just ‘some’, learn loads! Get deep into what singers do. Take songs and listen closely to how the tune develops from one verse to the next. Again, great story tellers adapt the phrasing to the emotion of the story, they don’t feel the need to add more and more notes as it goes on…
  • Play simply… even the super fast stuff! – the genius of Coltrane was that he very rarely sounded like he was struggling with his sax. He was wrestling with music, and emotion through his sax, he was digging deep to find the soundtrack to his inner journey, but his horn was at the service of that journey, not directing it in a ‘check out this clever shit’ way. Dexterity is a wonderful thing. There’s nothing at all wrong with being able to sing or play really fast. It’s just that it’s not an end in and of itself. Some things sound fantastic when you play them really fast. There are tracks by Michael Manring and Matthew Garrison that have an incredible energy rush to them because of the pace. They wouldn’t have that if they were slower. But neither player sounds like the tunes are a vehicle for a load of mindless shredding. Im always looking to improve my technique by deepening it. Speed is definitely part of that. But it’s just one aspect of control. And control is the key.

I find it really odd when I hear musicians that site Miles Davis as a big influence and then proceed to play like the entire story of the tune was set in stone years ago. Like there’s nothing to add, nowhere new to go, no need to dig deep. Miles is the Yin to Coltrane’s Yang. Miles was a pretty good be-bop trumpeter in the late 40s/early 50s, but he didn’t really have the chops of Dizzie or Chet Baker. And yet he had a quality to his playing, even on crazy-fast bebop stuff, that drew you in, that took you with him… That got deeper and deeper as his life went on. With a cracked and broken sound, he told stories, and wrung out old melodies to find new tales. He also never went backwards, constantly searching for new things in music. The narrative of each solo was reflected in the meta-narrative of the arc of his career. No resting on laurels, lots of progressive work, and not a few false starts along the way. But he was integral to just about every new thing that happened in jazz from the early 50s onwards.

We need to dig deep to find this stuff. It’s not something you just do. Its not something easy, it’s not a lick you can learn and regurgitate, or a solo by such and such a player that you can transcribe. It’s a desire and a search and a longing to tell stories that comes out in our playing, that shapes the way we practice, the kind of musicians we choose to work with, and the risks we take. If you want some inspiration, try looking up some of the following on last.fm:

Guitarists: Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, David Torn, Mark Ribot
Bassists: Michael Manring, Matthew Garrison, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden
Pianists: Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Jez Carr, Alan Pasqua
Singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Gillian Welch, Jonatha Brooke, Lobelia, David Sylvian, Kelly Joe Phelps, Robert Smith (The Cure), Frank Black (The Pixies)

Music is about way more than impressing other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with musicians being impressed by what you do, any more than there’s anything wrong with people thinking you’ve got a cute accent when you talk… but what you say is what will sustain the value in the long run… Dig deep.

Tags: bass ideas · cool links · Musing on Music · tips for musicians