stevelawson.net

Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Entries Tagged as 'bass ideas'

Masterclass tour finished – some thoughts on teaching…

March 21st, 2008 · 5 Comments

So the last four days have been spent touring the south of England giving masterclasses at branches of the The Academy Of Music And Sound – a chain of music schools that stretches the length of the UK, but is focussed around the south west and midlands.

Once a year they do a masterclass week, where they book two or three teachers in each of the instrumental disciplines they teach (bass, guitar, drums and vocals) to go round to the various centres and teach the students. I did it last year, they liked it, and so I was back doing it again this year.

I really love the masterclass format for teaching – being given a couple of hours in which to impart something of value to the students, hopefully something that’s different yet complimentary to what they are studying.

One thing that I decided years ago was that the ‘here’s how to play this song’ or ‘here’s how to do this technical thing’ approach was a bit of a waste of time, as it gave them one thing to learn, but because the situation is pretty much ‘hit and run’ it was a rather closed way to teach, as there’s no follow up.

So instead I look to help shape the way they think about the process of learning. How we learn is at least as important as what we learn, and I’m fascinated by what it is that makes a student want to teach them self. I try to impart a love of learning to my students, so that the question of ‘motivation’ is dealt with in their own practice room, rather than being something that is imposed in a lesson… Making people feel guilty for not practicing seems to be entirely counter-productive to me, given that a) there are loads of great reasons not to have practiced in any given week, b) it’s my job to inspire them to WANT to practice, not berate them when my ability to inspire falls short, and c) the consequences of not practicing are felt in the frustration of not improving, and the guilt of disappointing ME by not practicing is just a red herring…

So what do I talk about? Well, in this series of classes I started out be defining what I mean by ‘Bass 2.0’ in describing what I do – the idea that for much of the history of the instrument, the bass guitar has been defined by the role it takes in pop music, limiting it to what it ‘should’ do, rather than allowing your imagination to explore what’s possible. That’s Bass 1.0. Bass 2.0 detaches the lump of wood and magnets and graphite and strings that is ‘the bass guitar’ from any preconceptions about what it ‘should’ do and instead explores what’s possible with it, just thinking of it as a sound-source, albeit one where the craftsmen making a lot of basses have maximised its physical properties to emphasise that low end function…

The reason for that as a starting point is that it gets us thinking about music first – the instrument becomes a vehicle, a voice, a medium for channeling the music we hear in our heads.

And where does that music come from? What is it about the music that we love, that we’re proper FANS of, that amazes us, wows us, makes us buy t-shirts and posters, makes us dress like the band and pay lots of extra cash for the limited edition boxed set, rather than putting up with the phone-cam footage on youtube?

Thinking about music from that point of view causes us to consider the importance of music and to readjust our sights: It makes us want our music to have that significance. To write music that changes the world. Whether or not your music actually changes the world is moot, and certainly no concern of anyone else but you. The point is to aim to be to our audience what the music that changed our life is to us. To write and play music that makes them feel the way we feel when we’re willing to travel a hundred miles and pay £50 a ticket to see the band.

Why? Because anything short of that is selling ourselves short, and that kind of impact doesn’t happen by accident. You can’t MAKE it happen, any more than you can make yourself successful, but showing up is vital, being on the right journey, aiming in the right direction, focussing on the things that matter – it may well not happen even if you do all that, but it’ll definitely not happen if you don’t, and for us as musicians the journey is the goal. We can only influence the journey not the destination.

So we aim to change the world. We aim to soundtrack the lives of our audience. How on earth do we do that, given that it’s impossible to second-guess what our audiences want or need or will ‘get’. We soundtrack our own world and invite people to share the soundtrack. The only person in the entire world whose feelings I can assess with any level of accuracy or intimacy are my own. So my process for writing music is to write the music that I want to hear, that I need to hear, that soundtracks the world in a way that helps me make sense of it. And I then invite people to share in that.

Lots of people won’t get it, won’t like it, and that’s fine – I’m not really concerned with whether or not they like it. Marketing this stuff is about giving people an opportunity to hear it and an entry point to understanding where it’s coming from. Beyond that, you let go.

So given that as an aim, our approach to learning the instrument is two fold – we’re developing AWARENESS and CONTROL. An awareness of what music can do, how it makes us feel, how it relates to our world, and then the control to make that happen, to produce that music. To have an awareness of the nuance of a particular style/song/instrument/amplifier etc, and to develop the technical ability to utilise that nuance to make you feel the way that music should make you feel.. The sound with which we make music is like our language and accent – if I screw up the grammar when I’m speaking, it obscures the thought I’m trying to communicate. If my accent is so thick that native speakers struggle to understand me, they’re not going to be drawn in by my thoughts as easily as if I spoke in a clear and compelling style.

So our technical instrumental ability is about developing that clarity, skill, breadth and depth. About learning how to be compelling, convincing, and emotive. Impressing people with instrumental skill isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not everything, any more than long words carry any intrinsic importance. Great orators are wonderful to listen to, but stand or fall on the ideas they are communicating. Same with musicians – great technicians are a joy to hear, but if the music itself isn’t there, we’re going to switch off.

And our technical practice becomes more important, not less, it’s just no longer an end in itself. Context becomes paramount, dexterity and speed become subservient to nuance, control and expressive articulation. New technical ideas stand or fall on their ability to add to your sonic palette in a meaningful way.

Of course, none of this means anything – nor should it – to the people listening to what you do. They’re either going to dig it or not dig it. It doesn’t mean you’re a genius if they do dig it, and it doesn’t mean your shit if they don’t. It’s all about the journey not the destination, and you’re inviting listeners to share in that, to take from it that which makes sense to them, that which enhances the sound-world they live in.

So in a masterclass situation, I encourage the students to want to change the world, to love their instrument and its history but to remember that that’s vital to them but not to the people they’re playing to. I exhort them to listen and learn and play and improvise and write as though their life depended on it. To be mindful of what they want from music, what they want it to do for them, and to work towards that. To see the world of music as a big sand-pit to play in rather than a business venture to succeed in or a body of knowledge that needs ‘conquering’ before their contribution is validated.

What does music mean to you when you’re not playing it? How can you make music that makes you feel the way that music makes you feel? There’s a process in there, a journey, a whole load of exploration and mistakes and discovery and joy and frustration and great gigs and crap gigs and hours on your own in a room practicing and days spent wrestling with ideas in a band. Do it because you love it, because it’s too important to ignore, and don’t listen to the voices of those who WANT to dislike it. Screw ’em.

And somewhere in all that I demonstrate a load of right hand tonal variations, play a couple of tunes – on this trip, having Lobelia with me made SUCH a difference, being able to demo some of the concepts in a song rather than an instrumental. We played Black Hole Sun, looped the vocals, and I then talked about how we listen to music when we can’t see it – on the radio nobody cares that I’m playing a fretless bass. they’re only going to notice if I go out of tune. It just has to be ‘good’ – and make them laugh, answer questions and invariably explain how an ebow works.

And all that in two hours. :o)

Is there any of this you’d like me to expand on? Add it in the comments below. And if you were at one of the classes, feel free to contribute here, or over in the forum.

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

The Steve 'n' Jeff Show – podcast available now…

February 24th, 2008 · Comments Off on The Steve 'n' Jeff Show – podcast available now…

So the podcast is already up! – you can read Jeff’s take on it here – I had a listen to it last night, and it sounds pretty fun. We talk a fair bit about the relationship between technology and music (or more getting information out about being a musician), about some of the things that turn us off and on in the music world, how much ‘bassness’ there is in how we see what we do… It roams a little, but Jeff’s a sharp cookie, and fortunately interrupts me when I get to long-winded… He’s the ideal foil for this kind of thing, and I think I do the same for him…

I guess it’s worth noting that there’s some grown-up language in there (both in terms of hopelessly long words, and some ‘strong’ ones too), so if you’re overly bothered by such things, you might want to proceed with caution, though if you’ve ever had a normal conversation with Jeff or I, you’ll be in the same territory. :o)

here’s the download link, or via the player below –

or apparently you can find it on iTunes… not tried that yet…

Enjoy!

Tags: bass ideas · cool links · Music News

Thoughts on composition and improvisation

February 20th, 2008 · Comments Off on Thoughts on composition and improvisation

Went out for dinner last night with the ever-wonderful Theo Travis. Not only is Theo one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the good fortune to play with, but he’s a really inspiring person to spend time with, and I always come away with all kinds of new thoughts and inspiration whenever we hang out.

One of things we were talking about last night was improvisation. Theo made a couple of great observations; the first was about how lazy it is of reviewers to think that the highest praise you can give an improv record is that it’s ‘so good is sounds composed’. His second was that whenever you see a ‘what I’m listening to’ list from the titans of jazz, it’s almost invariably ‘classical’ (orchestral/chamber works) music that they are listening to.

Which sparked off a series of thoughts in me about structure in improvised music – the first point about reviewers is an important one, because it presupposes that the best structure and form comes for writing and refining rather than reacting. The record I recorded with Theo is, IMO, way better than it would have been if we’d composed it. The structures are too complex to be writable, the interaction between us way too intuitive to have been conceived of abstracted from us playing and reacting… There are things in it that felt wrong to one or other of us as we played them but turned out to be fantastic.

And to hammer the point home, every track on the album is a first take. There is somewhere a second take of every track, and none of them had the magic of the first takes. When we tried to turn them into ‘songs’ they lost something.

So onto the ‘top jazzers listen to classical music’ – I think this too is a matter of structure. I think it was Daniel Barenboim (might not have been, but it sounds like something he’d say) who said that ‘the best composed music sounds improvised and the best improvisations sound composed’ – meaning that in a composition one is hoping to inject the feeling that the performer is playing it because it’s the best possible thing to play right at that moment, not that they are settling for the shit that’s on the page cos that’s their job. There wants to be a relationship between the various parts that feels like it’s happening right there, like those lines are so meant to go together that all the players must be sharing a brain and thinking it up together…

Likewise, with an improvisation, the feeling that it’s the best you could possibly come up with even if you sat and edited it, that the strands running through it grow and evolve in the way you want them to, that the performer is in control of saying exactly what needs to be said with the most amazing level of skill – that’s what we’re aiming for.

So it stands to reason that great improvisors would spend time absorbing forms and structures and arrangements and ideas from the masters of form and structure – composers.

For the last couple of days I’ve been ‘rinsing’ Bartok’s string quartets nos. 1, 3 & 5. The music is so so beautiful, so deep and complex, and at times incredibly dark and dissonant but never without shape and form and beauty. It’s remarkable stuff, and I’m just letting it soak in and seeing what happens. I may end up having to get a book on Bartok, to try and get inside some of the harmonic ideas, but we’ll see how far I get by osmosis…

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

London Jazz Festival fun

November 25th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Yesterday’s gig at the Barbican with Corey Mwamba was all kinds of fun. As I’ve mentioned before, this was definitely the most difficult music I’ve ever had to play, and I was still a little under-prepared given that we’d had only two rehearsals as a band – there were a couple of the lines that I could play fine on my own, without the distractions of other musicians, but in the context of the gorgeous improv soup going on around me, I got a little lost. However, one of the very useful skills I’ve picked up from all the improvised music settings that I’ve played in is how to get lost in interesting ways. Learning what to do in a situation like that is your most important tool when it comes to winging it. If you’re underprepared, you’re very likely to screw up, and no amount of bravado or talking yourself up is going to make your playing any better. So instead, you try and give yourself markers through the tune to find your way again when you’ve lost it, and in between playing things that sound GOOD even if they aren’t RIGHT – after all, the audience don’t know the music. There were VERY few of the mistakes I made in the gig that anyone who was intimately acquainted with the music would have been able to spot at all…

At one point in the title track of the set – Argentum – the twinned power of Robert Mitchell on piano and Shaney Forbes on drums just blew over me like an unexpected storm. It was amazing, and beautiful, and a little scary, and I just tried to hang on to my bassline, listening for some clues in Shaney’s drumming for where the hell I was meant to be, but really just enjoying the ride. It’s a healthy feeling to be out of one’s depth with musicians who do their thing with a lot more confidence than you do their thing… I was off of home territory, but as a result was able to take something different to the gig… I don’t carry any of the machismo so often attached to anything possibly describable as ‘fusion’, and I think Corey was drawn to that – both in terms of my ‘sound’ and my approach to improvised stuff… I don’t/cant’ do twiddly clever solos over complex changes, so when I get in that situation, I tend to play atmospherically, shaping a sparse melody through the harmony, looking at it as a composition exercise – much the way I approach the Recycle Collective, just with a little more pre-ordained structure. And to my ears, it worked beautifully…

…there was a lovely moment at the end of the second last tune, where it had slimmed down to a drum solo, and we were all creeping back in to an improv section – I was using the ‘woodblock’ sound that I get by fretting the strings with my nails up near the bridge, and you could see the audience craning their necks to see where the additional percussion was coming from…. I like moments like that. :o)

It was a privilege to play with musicians that good – Corey, Robert, Shaney and Deborah are all incredible players, and delightful people, and I hope I get to play with all of them again v. soon!

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

Transparent Music Pt 1

November 21st, 2007 · 1 Comment

Nope, this isn’t going to be a review of the excellent BJ Cole album of the same name (though that always comes highly recommended!) – no, in this context, transparent music relates to making music that isn’t obscured by the technical and ego-laden concerns of the creator… It’s something that bassists seem to struggle with more than most, often content to label what we do as ‘bass music’ or to see other bassists as a target market. So many bass-led albums end up being largely displays of technical virtuosity and bass-ish gimmickry devoid of much musical content. Or even with plenty of musical content obscured by the techno-wank going on over the top.

I dispensed with the idea of targeting bassists as my primary market a long time ago. I did so not because I don’t like bassists listening to what I do (dear bassists of the world, I love you very much indeed), but because of how it affected the way I thought about making music. As I’ve reiterated here a number of times, impressing bassists isn’t that hard – indeed it’s often the stuff that is least musical by a particular artist that gets the strongest accolades from the bassists of the world – youtube is full of half-assed bass cleverness getting the ‘wow that’s amazing!!!’ treatment from the enthralled bass playing teenagers of the planet. But will it ever get airplay? Probably not. Will you ever see it on a gig of any kind? Probably not. That’s not to say that the people making it shouldn’t be doing it – of course anyone can make whatever noises they want and upload the vids to youtube without me policing it!!! – but it’s important to be aware of what’s at work, and how it affects YOU the artist.

If you find yourself thinking about your target audience when you’re making your music, in a ‘this’ll wow them’ kind of way, that’s going to affect the emotional range of what you come up with. Guaranteed. You’re narrowing yourself to ‘wow music’, and that’s not, for the most part, a particularly fertile furrow to plough.

So this is where the idea of transparent music comes in – music unobscured by the technical overload ladened on to leave teen bassist’s tongues hanging out. Music where the story, the emotion, the vibe, the scene that’s being set is foremost in the listener’s awareness when they’re listening.

So am I saying that technique isn’t important? Of course I’m not. Technique is doubly important because it has no real currency in and of itself, so it needs to be learnt, perfected and then set to work serving the greater musical picture. It needs to be much more highly developed given that the cleverness of it will be no coverup for a bunch of fluffed notes, when it’s meant to be conveying something else to the listener.

It requires mindfulness and maturity, clarity of thought and purpose, and is particularly difficult if you’re thinking about how you’re going to sell the end product when you’ve finished it. But no-one said make great music would be easy. It clearly isn’t, given how much risibly dire shit gets through the radio/magazine/tv filters – most music is at best mediocre. Which is all the more of a challenge to make something of substance. As Ellis Marsalis once told his son Wynton – “those who play for applause, that’s all they get.” – technique has to be at the service of something deeper, or it becomes circus performance.

And of course, it goes without saying that that deeper thing can be incredibly technically advanced – have a listen to Michael Manring, Don Ross, John Coltrane etc. etc…. It’s just that in each case, the music, the passion, the spirit is deeply evident in every note.

In the UK for quite a few years through the late 90s and early 00s the exact opposite of the flashness thing was true – musicians were actively shying away from appearing to be technically proficient, preferring to sound shitty and untrained as a way of appearing to be 4 REAL. Bollocks. It just meant that nothing grooved and a whole load of musical language that REQUIRES proficiency dropped off the musical map for a while.

One of the reasons that so many times of musical transition have been characterised by drug use is not that drugs make you more creative. It’s just that they shut off the voices that tell you what you CAN’T do. And very few people can be bothered to go through the process of shutting out those voices in a way that doesn’t rely on drugs. It’s tough. It’s really hard to filter through the thousands of messages we get from marketeers about how we should be, what we should like, what’s cool and why cool matters. And it’s all utter bullshit. Picking a path through it is a life long pursuit, and a daily one at that. A process of naming and disregarding the BS voices trying to get us to conform and consume.

It’s the same in the music world as anywhere else. Fads, fashions, new gear, new software, new models for this and that. Buy a new bass and your tone will magically compensate for the 10 years of half-assed non-focussed practice that you haven’t been doing. Picking through that, realising that there aren’t any short cuts, but there are efficient ways of doing the work, there are useful ways of thinking about what it is that we do that will help us cut down on wasted time and get to the place of creativity and clarity sooner, and without needing to get stoned to be there.

Feel free to post your thoughts and experiences in the comments, before I expand on this in Pt II. :o)

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

Steve Rodby interview from Bassist Mag, Aug 1999

November 5th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Steve Rodby was, without a doubt, one of the nicest people I got to meet when writing for Bassist mag. Along with Michael Manring, Lee Sklar, Jimmy Haslip and a handful of others, he was one of the interviewees that inspired me as much by his personality, grace and enthusiasm as by his wise words and exceptional playing. His thoughts on soloing in this interview were particularly enlightening…

He’s also, bizarrely, one of the most underrated bassists on the planet. I’ve had the ‘who could replace Steve Rodby?’ conversations with loads of great bassists the world over, and no-one has yet suggested another player that does everything that Steve does as well as Steve does it in the Pat Metheny Group. His jazz upright playing is exemplary, his bowing beautiful, his rock and pop electric playing makes him sound like he’s spent the last 40 years studying nothing but great rock/pop bass playing. He’s a proper low-frequency master of all trades. So here’s the interview – again, frustratingly, it’s an edit of a very long and involved conversation that I wish I had transcribed… maybe I’ll have to start an ‘in conversation’ podcast – could be a fun project for NAMM… Anyway, have a read of this, then go and listen to any of the PMG albums that Steve plays on, and be amazed at what a great player he is. One thing to keep in mind is that when Richard Bona joined the PMG, he joined as a singer. That’s how good Steve is :o)


For 20 Years now The Pat Metheny Group has been one of the biggest selling acts on the contemporary jazz scene. It has consistently filled concert halls and arenas the world over, and produced a series of critically acclaimed albums that have touched on almost every imaginable area of contemporary music, from Latin to industrial, drum ‘n’ bass to avante garde and freeform improv.

Since 1982 Steve Rodby’s upright and electric bass grooves have driven the band’s sound, helping to define the style that is now instantly recognisable as the PMG.

Bassist collared Steve for the low down on all things Metheny-esque while they were in London earlier this year for three nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire.

SL – You started out as a Classical bassist, but made the switch to Jazz fairly early on. How did that come about?

‘I always thought I’d be a classical bassist. My father is a classical musician, so that seemed the obvious direction. I went to college to study, but I don’t think I was ever quite at the level where I would have landed a really good orchestral post.

‘Very early on I started playing pop. When I was in college I got a couple of calls for studio work and I took to those sessions extremely well. Because orchestra playing was kinda boring, I played this game with my self when I was a kid where I would imagine that there was a mic in front of my bass recording every note that I played and that someone was going to say “Rodby, come in here!” and then play the tape back and say “What were you doing there”'”

‘So when I finally got in the studio, it was a fairly stress free process as I’d been playing for imaginary tape recorders for years!!

‘I also started to play electric bass, and made the switch to playing pop easily as that’s the music I was listening to all the time.

‘I finished college got my degree in classical bass, but by half way through college I was playing fairly regularly on the Chicago jazz scene.

‘My big break came when the great bass player Rufus Reid, who played in the house band at the Jazz Showcase (prestigious Chicago jazz venue), moved to New York, so the gig was up for grabs. The owner of the club seemed to like the way I played, and I ended up playing five nights, three sets a night with all these amazing visiting musicians like Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt and Joe Henderson. The drummer in the house band had played with Charlie Parker and the pianists were all 30 years older than me and knew so much about music. And here I was this nerdy college kid with a classical background and all I had going for me was my ear and a feel!’

How did you learn all the tunes?

‘When I first started playing bass, my dad bought would play guitar and we would play duets. To teach me a song, he would write the roots notes and bar lines down, with no information about what else to play, so I had to improvise from the very beginning.

‘On the gigs, I was doing the same thing – following roots and knowing instinctively what the rest of the notes were. The piano players would play the first few choruses very clearly until I had it. I learned on the bandstand rather than in the practice room or out of books. I never really studied as much as I wish that I had.’

How did you first hook up with Pat?

‘I’d met Pat at various jazz camps when we were younger, and had stayed in touch. He was looking to add acoustic bass to his band and was auditioning players. My name came up so he called me and I went to NY and auditioned. Shortly after that he offered me the job.

‘When I met Pat I was an unformed nobody from small town Illinois, who didn’t even know what chords were, and he was already the future of music – he was 18 and had it all figured out. He was so far ahead of the game it was unbelievable. But when we played there was something about the style of the music that I felt that I could understand that I couldn’t account for – It may have been similar backgrounds and a shared love of pop music, the Beatles. It just made sense. I used to listen to the first couple of PMG albums and say to myself – ‘that’s my music’. It really was my dream group.’

Was it intimidating to work with Pat after the succession of great bassists that he’d already worked with?

‘Mmm, not really. The only thing that could have freaked me was Pat’s relationship with Jaco. Not only because he played with Jaco, but he REALLY played with Jaco. Bright Sized Life was one of the best records ever made. The next time I saw Pat after he met Jaco he said, “Oh man, I just heard a bass player that is going to change music. He sounds like John McLaughlin and John Coltrane only better – and on bass!!” – Pat doesn’t say stuff like that lightly!

‘Once I heard Jaco I just said “forget it, I’m not even going to try!” I was one of the few bassists on the planet who loved Pat and Weather Report but didn’t get a fretless and transcribe Jaco’s licks. I’ve never transcribed a bass solo in my life! Hearing Jaco also kept me away from playing fretless. So I thought if I’m going to do anything, I’ll play acoustic bass and I’ll play fretted pop style bass. Playing acoustic bass with Pat gave me a lot of freedom because what I was doing was different to what Mark Egan, Jaco or Charlie Haden had done. That’s my way of being able to sleep at night, otherwise I would have shot myself a long time ago!!’

How did the group develop such a distinctive sound?

‘In the early days of the band, I think we had a feeling that we had to do something different from other bands, so we had a load of do’s and don’ts – don’t do fusion, don’t have a back beat. And then we spent a lot of time avoiding music that may have sounded borrowed. But now we’ve finally got to the place were we can play Happy Birthday and it’ll sound like us. So we can now do a tune like the opening track on Imaginary Day that sounds sorta Chinese, maybe a bit like Gamalan Indonesian music, but it still sounds like us.’

Live, on the standard, ‘How Insensitive’, you take the first solo that I’ve heard you play. Is this a new area for you?

‘For years I took some really bad solos, and then we started doing this tune and I began applying myself to soloing again. That’s the next thing to think about. Not just soloing, but maybe making a solo record. I’ve spent so many years not paying any attention to it, but now that I’ve finally started to do my homework, I’ve found a real satisfaction. I’ve managed to get beyond the plateau that I was on. I’m moving forward as a soloist, so maybe now’s the time to do my own record.’

What have you been studying?

‘Well, I’ve finally begun to realise that at the technical level – playing melodies and chord scales, playing faster, higher – that you need to be able to do it 20 times faster than you’ll ever need to in a song! My problem was that the fastest the highest the hardest that I ever played was in this little solo during the gig. I was always trying to reach so far over my head and it didn’t really work.

‘So I realised that I had to put in the time, getting my technique up to speed. Same with the chord scales – there is a set of musical materials that you need to know – with this chord, this set of notes are your primary musical material – you can do other things, but you need that reference point.

‘These are the things that beginning sax or piano players learn very easily, but bass players don’t seem to take to so well. Fancy bass soloists tend to learn a bunch of hot licks but often don’t learn the fundamentals of music. So I’m finally taking the time to learn what the chords are and be able to play them at soloing speed!

‘A great bass solo has to be a high quality melody that would sound like a high quality melody if it was played on another instrument. You’d go, “well, it’s down kinda low on the piano, and he’s playing a little slow, but that’s a great melody!” Most bass solos on any other instrument would sound kinda weak.

‘I have a million miles to go, but that’s what I aspire to, that’s what I’m going to work on for the next 20 years. I’m sat up there playing for myself and for the audience but I’ve also got Pat and Lyle, two of the finest melodic improvisers around, sat right behind me! I’m not going to get a smile out of them by playing fast, but my playing good strong melodies.”

Pat Metheny on Steve Rodby:

When you’ve played with the most highly respected bassists on the planet, the must be something pretty special about the guys that you keep in your band for 15 years. Here’s what Pat has to say about Steve –

‘The kinds of things I need in any musician who is going to be in the group, regardless of their role in the band, is a certain musical insight that includes, but hopefully transcends, a deep sense of what has happened on their respective instrument, particularly over the past 60 or 70 years of popular and improvised music, combined with the musical skill and vocabulary to sonically render their conception of what just what that history implies into a personal sound. Steve Rodby has the ability to do just that and so much more, and that is what makes him the perfect bass player for this band. His background in classical music combined with his extensive jazz playing and studio work has made him an exceptionally well rounded player with a genuine musical curiosity that transcends style. His relentless pursuit of just the right part, played with just the right intonation and sound are well suited for the basic musical aesthetic that our band aspires toward.’

Tags: bass ideas · journalism · tips for musicians

Bass 2.0?

October 21st, 2007 · Comments Off on Bass 2.0?

The “…2.0” suffix is being widely used to denote a significant leap forward from the first version of something, inspired by the description of changes in the way the web is used and perceived as ‘Web 2.0’. So we now have Media 2.0, Music 2.0 etc… It’s quite a useful shorthand, if a little nebulous, but it did make me wonder if it would work as a way of describing what I’m up to musically – Bass 2.0 – Bass 1.0 being the use of instruments within the bass family as defined by their role as ‘the bass’ within the music, and then the extensions on from that (taking that role and expanding on it, making it more twiddly, but still sitting well within the tradition of what’s expected of a bass instrument.)

Bass 2.0, as I see it, is where the role becomes something entirely separate from the instrument.

Q: What makes the bass an instrument distinct from the guitar, and why is that important?

The instrument is defined by it’s place within the lineage of bass guitar luthiery, the descendants of Leo Fender’s Precision and Jazz, which set the parameters for scale length and string spacing in place, no matter how many strings. String spacing can be tighter or wider, and scale length moves around, but even then it’s defined by it’s relation to the standard – short scale, long scale, etc.

So it’s a different family of instruments, originally designed with a particular role in mind, but now designed to be more of a blank slate, maximising the tone-shaping potential via electronics, and accentuating certain resonant characteristics via advanced building methods.

For quite a while, people playing bass as a solo or melody instrument did so very much within the lineage of the role – there was a continuum between what bass guitarists (instrumentalists) did as ‘bass players’ (music functionalists) – even Jaco stayed largely in that world, in that there’s very little of what he did that is unrecognisable as a bass as we know it (though I can’t even begin to imagine what it must’ve been like to hear ‘Portrait Of Tracey’ when his self-titled debut first came out…!)

The first person that I’m aware of to really take a ‘Bass 2.0’ approach to the instrument was Michael Manring – the redesign of the basic properties of the instrument that he and Joe Zon did to create the hyperbass have yet to be surpassed or even matched in terms of what possible in extending the possibilities of the 4 string bass (interesting the the most radical bass design ever is still a 4-string.)

There’s some stuff on his album ‘Drastic Measures’ that hints at what’s possible, but it’s his next three solo albums – Thonk, Book Of Flame and Soliloquy – that as a trilogy set the standard for Bass 2.0 – music conceived from the mind of someone who is very much a bassist, but who uses the instrument as a tool to create incredible music, rather than turning ‘bass playing’ into a circus trick or parlour game by just doing the same old shit faster and twiddlier than anyone else.

Where does my music fit into this? Well, i was deeply influenced by Michael’s ideas, even before I’d ever heard him, and took ‘Thonk’ as a green light to move away from the slapping and tapping I’d been doing before (even though there’s loads of slapping and tapping on Thonk) and do my own thing. It was a few years before I played a solo show, but as I’ve mentioned here before, the concept for my solo music was in place by the time I did my first gig (the track ‘Chance’ on And Nothing But The Bass is taken from that very first gig.)

And I’ve been trying to build on that ever since, holding in juxtaposition my love of the bass, it’s history, it’s place in the last 50 years of popular music with my desire to make the music i hear in my head. Tellingly, very few of my influences are bassists, because it’s always been about music first. Most of the ideas I take from bassists are physical ideas rather than compositional or emotional ones – the stuff that really counts.

And of course, within Bass 2.0 there’s an even deeper understanding of what the bass does when it’s being ‘the bass’ – I talk about this a lot when I’m doing looping masterclasses etc. – when I started playing solo, there was a fear projected onto me by some ‘older and wiser’ musicians who suggested that it would spoil my ‘normal’ playing, that I’d lose the joy of playing simple lines because i’d always be wanting to take solos and play melodies. In reality that couldn’t be further from the truth – because i spend my days thinking in layers, I’m happier than ever to just be one of those layers, to play the simple bass parts that hold everything else together. I haven’t had that many chances to do it of late, which made last night’s gig with John Lester at the 606 all the more frustrating, as I couldn’t hear John’s guitar at all, so wasn’t able to play with the level of confidence that his music really needs. It wasn’t rubbish by any stretch, just not as on it as it should’ve been… Shame, cos the rest of the gig was amazing.

Anyway, so, Bass 2.0 seems to be a nice way of categorising a desire to take the bass instrument to new places musically – there are certain tonal things that the physical size, shape and string length of the instrument allow that mean that even things that ‘sound like guitar’ or ‘sound like a synth’ have a unique quality to them…

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

Loop-Fests and non-music-specific music communities

October 18th, 2007 · Comments Off on Loop-Fests and non-music-specific music communities

It’s Loop Fest season again – firstly the daddy of them all, the Y2KLoopFest in Santa Cruz (Y2K7 this year). But this year, Andy Butler is doing a low-key thing in Norwich, which looks like fun. There have been others in Germany and other places in the states – generally smaller affairs, but seemingly most enjoyable.

Rick Walker, the organiser of the Santa Cruz fest, has done an amazing job of turning it into An Event – taking what was originally a way for he and I to do a show in Santa Cruz back in 2000 (with Michael Manring, Max Valentino, Scott Drengen and another guy who’s name completely escapes me, sadly…) and turning it into an annual event that this year has big name headliners in the form of Arild Andersen and Henry Kaiser.

A lot of the momentum for this came out of the rather-wonderful-and-at-times-all-too-serious Looper’s Delight community; a mailing list of people using looping in their music. Lots of great friendships have come from the list, and some fab collaborations (for me, I doubt I’d ever have played in California outside of the NAMM show if it wasn’t for the connection with Rick, and I also met the fabulous Luca Formentini on there too, with whom I’ve recorded a duet album that should be out some time next year).

I’ve always been a little uneasy about the idea that looping is its own genre – it clearly isn’t, any more than ‘repetitive music’ is a genre, or ‘german music’ or ‘music by freakishly tall people’. It has certain characteristics, but those are more to do with the limitations in the imagination of the user rather than any stylistic quality inbuilt in the technology. (though, thanks to the ever-wonderful Robert Fripp’s role as part-pioneer part-populariser of looping as a performance medium, a HUGE number of the loopers around are guitarists doing soundscapes, to varying degrees of success)

But that’s no bad thing – what Rick understood years ago is that audiences like a peg to hang their hat on – it doesn’t matter if it’s a loop fest or an acoustic music fest or a celebration of the music of italy or an electronic music fest – it gives the person marketing it an angle. My own hyper-sensitivity to being pigeonholed means that I bristle at the idea that what I do is defined by the technology, or that there’s some style attached to the instrument (as though solo bass is also a style or genre), but for the audience, it’s just an in road, an opening, a narrowing of focus that allows them engage with what we do, and crucially gives the media something to grab hold of.

Rick has managed to get press coverage for some pretty esoteric music, and even get the clearly-mad-mayor-of-Santa-Cruz to declare each festival day as ‘international live looping day’ (I have a mayoral proclamation hanging on my wall from the inaugural one, that most people think is some kind of weird ironic home-made christmas present. :o)

The point being, these are good things. The role of the curator is to make sure that whatever weird set of assumptions people come to these events with, the music they hear is great. There’s no such style as ‘loop music’ but that doesn’t mean that you can’t put together a coherent program of excellent music featuring looping musicians. The line up at Rick’s fests has gone from being a bunch of bassists who loop at the first one, though a period when it was largely about loopists getting together to ogle each other’s gear, to a place where he’s booking internationally known musicians (albeit from pretty esoteric scenes) for a festival of quality music. Hat’s off to his tenacity, long may it continue.

As I said a couple of weeks ago here looping is no longer a gimmick that will cover the lameness of your music but it can still work as a hook to get people through the door to hear great music.

BTW, It’s also Bass-fest season, though thus far, for the first time in years, I’ve not been invited to play at any of them… we’ll see if that changes, but it might make a nice change to be doing normal gigs at this time of year rather than playing to rooms full of bassists… They are generally enjoyable events, though meeting the people involved is mostly more interesting that listening to a lot of the music…

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

A false sense of entitlement – the flaw in the new distribution models?

October 17th, 2007 · 1 Comment

In all the thinking that’s going on about new ways of distributing music, one thing is rather bothering me, and that’s the inferred/assumed entitlement of audiences to access to music. There is, built into most of the discussions on how we move forward, the taken-as-red assumption that if musicians don’t provide music in the way that the audience wants it, they’ll just steal it. Fuck you, Mr musician, how dare you think you can limit my access to your work.

If a baker decides that he’s going to make less bread and charge more for it, either he needs to convince his customers that it’s worth the extra money and effort to get it, or he goes out of business (or finds another business to support his baking, if he does it for the love of it). What doesn’t happen is his customers decide that they’ll just go into the kitchen, make bread for themselves and take it home, or help themselves to the bread in the window of the shop, and set up a table outside the door giving it away to passers by because he had no right to do that, and is clearly a selfish bastard who needs to be taught a lesson.

But with music, the option to limit access to your music is assumed to no longer exist. Because everyone feels like they have a right to it. So if Madonna’s new album is too expensive, or only available as a download at low res and with DRM on iTunes, instead of saying ‘well I won’t get it then’ the assumption is that it’s somehow legit to take it. As though access to that music is a right, not a privilege. As though the music I write, and record and make – using my own money and time – is then no longer mine. The recordings aren’t mine, the songs aren’t mine. They’ve become public property without me even being consulted.

Likewise, the whole notion of user-generated content – YouTube videos, live bootlegs, etc. Completely unregulated, and liable to change live music for ever. Jonatha posts a beautifully worded response to the whole question of unsolicited filming at gigs and the effect it has on her in the discussion forum on her site – well worth reading. Basically, it creates a permanent document of something that is essentially of the moment, and filming it turns it into a recording session, losing something of the spontaneity. My response on the forum, when I was asked whether I minded being filmed was ‘normally no’, but I do a) like the be asked and b) like the chance to vet it before it gets uploaded. No-one wants a permanent online record of an off-night (though there is that entire recording of the gig I did with no pedals with Lo. in September!)

So, do you need to have the video of the gig you were at? Do you assume your ticket price also includes some kind of innate recording rights? If a record is too expensive, or not available in the format you want, does that give you the right to download it for free from somewhere else? Clearly, I think that’s a heinous situation, though it’s one that much of the industry seems to have resigned itself to. The biggest own goal seems to have been that the arguments have centered around money, and particularly when someone like Lars Ulrich – a multi-millionaire – complains about it denting his income, most people aren’t really going to give a shit.

However, entitlement isn’t about money, it’s about the right to negotiate with your audience, and your audience then being able to choose to not spend the money by not buying the product, and therefor not owning it! So you cut yourself off from income, but also from your audience. So you negotiate, by way of dropping the price, making it available in other ways or whatever, but it’s your product and you do with it what you like… Just like the baker with the bread.

The video I linked to earlier about media megatrends characterised the shift in slightly more euphamistic a-moral terms by talking about it being a move from scarcity to ubiquity as the driving currency – in an age when you have a physical product, the distribution of which you have control over, the value therein is in it’s scarcity – independent record shops survive because they stock things you can’t get elsewhere. Record labels can do exclusive deals, or even just sell direct. Artists can just sell at gigs, making their product even more desirable by the difficultly of finding it. Even if you sell in mainstream shops, you can set your wholesale price at the point where the price stays up, if that’s what you want, and the the competition is with other recording artists – will people pay £15 for one of my CDs, when they can get someone else’s that they like just as much for £8?

The ubiquity model says that the artist should relinquish control over the proliferation of their work in exchange for a shot at ubiquity – being everwhere, and making money through the exposure, be it profit-sharing on youtube, increased live attendance, sales of premium product (which is what CDs are now becoming, given that the default in a very short time from now will be the download) and radio, tv and film royalties.

I think there are ramifications to this that are anti-creative, and rapacious in their treatment of the creative output of a the artist – especially if you value the mixed-media product that you’ve assembled (be it artwork, sleeve notes, video, collage, pop-up book, whatever…) There’s a hyper-capitalist, spectral Friedman-esque element to the terms of engagement that negate the value of scarcity or the more esoteric value of specific and particular artistic expression, and remove any rights of the artist to negotiate or explore the notion of the work having greater or lesser monetary value in relation to any other work. Instead, it’s about rushing to make your product as ubiquitous as possible in order to turn that ubiquity into cashflow just by being everywhere instead of by being valuable/important/’good’. It’s a pretty unique and depressing scenario… Where next?

My bottom line thesis – you/we don’t need the music. You/we aren’t entitled to the music, it’s not yours/ours to take, it’s the artists to sell, or give away as they see fit. And if you don’t like the terms, you don’t need to buy, and they can starve if they choose to be stubborn. Or sell 30 CDs for $1000 a time.

DRM is a crock of shit, but with its removal comes a social contract between the artist and the audience, one that I think should, if adhered to, help both. The removal of DRM makes it easier for the listener to share tracks as a way of spreading information about an artist around, and also to play the stuff on different systems, copy from computer to mp3 player to phone – being cross-platform is vital, and is why iTunes is now having to change it’s shitty DRM policy (and up its resolution), but it does leave musicians vulnerable… with over 50% of all web traffic being filesharing, the vast majority of it illegal, the idea of the social contract is not getting across. The feeling that somehow it’s fat cat record company execs and multimillionaire rock stars who are losing out seems to absolve the conscience of the file sharers. But the artists still are making art. The judgement call that says ‘this person has sold out already, therefor i can download their stuff with impunity’ isn’t anyone’s to make.

The consequences of all this in creative and artistic terms are things I’ve blogged about a lot recently… it’s a really murky world, and I’m fascinated to see where it goes. I’m going to keep mulling this one over, and see where it leads… your thoughts are much appreciated in the comments, should you wish to share them :o)

Tags: bass ideas · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

It's ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it…

October 17th, 2007 · Comments Off on It's ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it…

There’s been a fairly long discussion on one of the bass-geek e-lists I’m on of late about phrasing and patterns and such – it started out with a guy who was feeling stuck in the patterns that he played, and was asking for a way out.

My answer to that is always the same – learn more patterns. Not wanting to use any patterns in music is like not wanting to use grammar when talking – it inhibits your ability to communicate (non-idiomatic free-improv notwithstanding). The problem – as with language – comes when you know so few patterns (or expressions) that their repetition reveals your lack of familiarity with the subject (style/tune/key/chord progression) – in Italian, I know about 6 phrases, which I repeat ad nauseum in an attempt to sound slightly less like a typical doesn’t-speak-any-other-languages Brit. But it’s clear from my limited range that I really don’t know the language. My accent isn’t bad (especially not when I’ve been there a while), but I still don’t have the vocab to sound even like an ex-pat, let alone a local.

If I could even vary the phrases I knew slightly, it’d make for a broader base from which to converse. Same with music – start by mixing up what you already know. Change one element – could be the last note, or the first note, or putting a rest in the middle, or starting the phrase in a different part of the bar… It really doesn’t matter, the point is to get away from the tried and tested, and start to branch out into newer areas.

Anyway, the discussion on the list moved away from that to what ‘phrasing’ is all about, and why (in the opinion of some of us) bassists are particularly bad at expressive, fluid phrasing. Here’s what I wrote in response, with particular reference to the quote from Stig at the top (he’s wise, very wise)


>>”also in my view, this is something that most ebass players do not do.
they tend to favor the instrument’s percussive or shreddable qualities,
and neglect the more “expressive” aspects. << Which is utterly baffling given what a phenomenally expressive instrument the bass - and particularly the fretless bass - can be... I guess that the tendency towards metric subdivision and testosterone-driven displays of dexterity is somehow related to the requirement in so much rock music to play things in a consistent, steady, non-varying way. Multiply that up to a solo and it becomes the same thing at 2, 4 or 8 times the speed one or two octaves higher... Easier to do that than to move away from seeing rhythmic 'correctness' as being about a dualist 'in time/out of time' binary equation, and instead see the emergence of a rhythmic or textural, um, gestalt (?) as a consequence of observation and awareness of what makes music connect, and then working on developing the control to execute that, based on what it is you want to play in relation to what your awareness tells you should be happening, however seemingly complex, random, a-rhythmic, poly-rhythmic or whatever that may be. There aren’t many rock/pop basslines that require you to change the tone-shaping effect of your right hand technique from one note to the next, whereas expressive shaping of a melodic line often demands that in order to set up the kind of question/answer phrase-logic that Stig alluded to.

It’s clearly a much bigger issue for improvising musicians and solo musicians than it is for bands operating solely within an idiom that has readily defined parameters – if I suddenly got the gig playing bass in Green Day, I wouldn’t be quite so aware of the benefits of understanding the influence of fluctuations in the rhythm of a loop on the listener, or how palm muting a single note in the middle of an improvised melodic phrase might make it sound more like a question than a statement, and would be far more concerned about where to place the bass notes on the beat in order to produce the kind of urgency required by the music. (something that would be much better learnt by playing lots of punk music, going to punk shows and listening to punk records than my studying rhythmic placement in any other context…)


there you go. :o) Any of this stuff could be equally applicable to any musician, it’s just that bass players are particularly geared to not play tunes well (in the same way that guitarists from a blues background often struggle with anything that needs to be rhythmically precise – their training just hasn’t focussed on those elements). Ultimately, it’s all about control and awareness, but that’s a whole other book.

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