The Musical Mechanics of 'Feeling': Wordless Story Telling

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.

Doug Pinnick interview from March 1999

I’ve just been listening to King’s X, which reminded me I’ve yet to re-post my interview with Doug Pinnick. Doug has been one of my biggest bass heroes since I first heard Out Of The Silent Planet back in the late 80s – I was and still am a massive King’s X fan, so interviewing him was a bit of a dream come true. And it was made all the more enjoyable and memorable by the kind of conversation we had – he’d just come out as gay, which had massively upset the conservative end of their christian fanbase in the US, but on the upside had inspired an amazing album in Dogman… So we talked about all kinds of stuff – american culture, theology, bigotry, etc. etc. for hours. And with about half an hour to go i remembered that i was supposed to be getting a load of information for bass geeks, and that’s what this bit is! I’ve probably got the tape somewhere with the rest of it on, and maybe one day I’ll get round to typing it up, will run it by Doug and put it up somewhere if he’s OK with it… But for now, here’s the bassy bit of the interview, which is still pretty interesting! :o)


At the tail end of the 80s, the rock world underwent a bit of a shake up, as a handful of groups arrived on the scene, combining hard rocking guitars with such disparate elements as soulful vocal harmonies, funky bass lines and a sharp line in observational lyrics that were a far cry from the sword ‘n’ sorcery stuff that most of the HM fraternity were prone to churning out.

Bands such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Living Colour, Faith No More and, of course, Kings X, took over the pages of both the metal mags and the ‘serious’ music weeklies, hailed as the saviours of hard rock, and, for the most part, made a sizeable dent in the charts.

However, despite combining crushingly heavy guitar riffs with radio-friendly three-part harmony vocals, and enjoying some very favourable reviews, Kings X have so far managed to skirt round the edge of the mainstream without yet finding that elusive crossover hit.

Now, with a new King’s X album, ‘Tape Head’, in the shops and ‘Massive Grooves” by Doug’s solo project, Poundhound available, Kings X are finally coming back to the UK.

‘I always wanted to play bass, for as long as I can remember,’ begins Doug. ‘Eventually, I got lucky – a friend of mine gave me a bass. I grew up in the ghetto, and we were pretty poor. I never even thought I’d be able to play but this friend of mine loaned it to me and I wouldn’t give it back to him! I started playing and I was so happy! I mean, just one note made me ecstatic, and from that day on I’ve just played and I love it! I don’t remember learning how or really working at it because, even though I did, it was so much fun. Every new lick, every new note, was like “yeah!”‘

Thus begins the tale. But what kind of things were you playing along to back then?

‘It was the early 70s when I started playing bass, so I jammed along with records by Led Zeppelin, Sly And The Family Stone, Deep Purple, Yes, Kansas – that kind of stuff. I was a music-aholic! Anything I bought I would put on and play along and try to learn the licks. I did that for about two years and then started playing in bands. After that I never tried to copy anybody else – I was too busy having fun, writing music and stuff.’

What were those first bands like?

‘They were all pretty much garage bands. I wanted to just play bass but ended up singing in all of them. I thought each band was going to make it, but they all sucked! It was a good learning experience!’

How did you make the jump from garage band to Kings X?

‘I moved to Springfield, Missouri, to look for work and I met Jerry (Gaskill: KX drummer), and Ty (Tabor: KX guitarist). We formed a four piece with another guitarist for a couple of years, but it soon became evident that we were meant to be a trio!

‘After that, we played cover tunes for about five years, and then moved to Texas. We had dealings with a couple of small Christian labels before signing to MegaForce/Atlantic and releasing the first Kings X album. Since then we’ve been making records, doing gigs and going through everything everybody else goes through.’

That is, if “everything everybody else goes through” is releasing seven critically acclaimed albums, and doing regular arena tours both as headline act and as support act to some of the biggest names in rock!

There was a big change in the Kings X sound with 1994’s “Dogman” album. What happened?

‘Sam Taylor, who produced our first four albums, had a big influence on our sound, but he never managed to capture on record how heavy we are live. When he left us after “Kings X”, we got Brendan O’Brien in to do “Dogman”. He’s one of my favourite producers. He gets a really dry mix, and that’s what I wanted to go for. There’s one song on “Dogman” called Black The Sky, that is now my standard to mix to. That’s the sound on the Poundhound album – big and fat – more like our live sound’huge!’

Anyone doubting just how huge the Kings X live sound is should take a quick look at Doug’s live rig. Any queries will soon be laid to rest:

‘I use 6 Ampeg SVT 8×10 cabinets and I’ve got two double stereo Ampeg power amps – you can hook eight speakers up to each amp. They’re split in half with two electrical plugs on each amp, to cope with the power! I use an SVT pre-amp for my low end and a Fender Dual Showman for the high end, then run them both into a little mixer, through an EQ and into the power amps. Then I turn it up!!

‘People ask why I use so many cabs. It’s mainly because I like to get 40Hz and lower, to get that church organ kind of sound, so that when I hit a low note there’s that rumble that just shakes the building!’

You’ve been long associated with Hamer basses, and particularly with their 12-strings. I guess you were a Cheap Trick fan?

‘Yes, Cheap Trick was one of my favourite bands, and Tom Pederson is still one of my favourite bassists. We opened for them when “Out Of The Silent Planet” came out, and he let me play one of his 12-strings. Even though it was right-handed, it felt and sounded amazing, and he said, ‘just call Hamer up and get one.’

‘Hamer wanted to work with (King’s X guitarist) Ty’ and I said ‘What about me?!’. They replied, ‘We’ll make you some basses too, Doug!’, so I started using the 12-strings. The company started getting calls from people saying they’d see us play and were interested in them, so Hamer were quite happy to keep the thing going.

‘Ever since then, I’ve been using Hamers. They’ve made me about 12 basses, all of which have been custom-built for me. I have really long hands so I go for wide but shallow necks. I also have Seymour Duncan pickups with a power booster inside, so anything I plug into distorts. It’s my sound. The bass, the amp, the strings – which are DRs – and my hands’that’s my sound.’

Recently though, you’ve reverted to four stings’

‘On the last two Kings X albums, and even the Poundhound album, I’ve used predominantly a four-string. The 12-string is a weird animal to play, it didn’t quite fit with some of the Kings X stuff. Ty felt that it weakened the sound of his guitar, and I finally got tired of the power struggle and gave in for the sake of the overall sound. If I write a song on the 12-string then I can work the rest of the sound around it. Like Jeff Ament did on Jeremy with Pearl Jam – the 12-string carries the whole song. Human Behaviour on “Dogman” and Faith Hope Love were both written and recorded on the 12-string. I can actually play the whole of Faith Hope Love with the harmonics and arpeggios and everything on the 12-string, I don’t even need the guitar!!’

Kings X have always been known as a musicians’ band, and have been more influential than your record sales might suggest. Is that frustrating?

‘Not really. It’s great to be recognised by other musicians and we’ll always go down as the musicians’ band. It’s amazing how our name comes up in the strangest places. All across the board – jazz musicians, pop musicians and everything. But we’ve still never sold that many records. I think that was down to bad promotion. When ‘Dogman’ was released, New York radio stations were playing the title track all the time and we sold more records there than anywhere, but there still wasn’t a major single release of any of the tracks.

‘Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam was quoted on MTV as saying that as far as he’s concerned, King’s X invented grunge! When “Out Of The Silent Planet” came out, no-one else seemed to be doing D-tuned riffing like that. Then we went away for 18 months touring, got home and everyone was D-tuning, which was weird. We’re just one of those quirky weird bands, like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Faith No More that were around in the late 80s, so I feel we were inspirational somewhere along the line.

‘As far as influencing bassists is concerned, I think my tone is what I’m known for, which is fine by me. Chris Squire from Yes is my hero, and he had such a great tone. Roundabout and America were two of the first tunes I ever really sat down to work out all the way through.

‘I’m not really impressed by fast players any more. I don’t cut them down, because that takes a lot of work. I admire someone like Yngwie Malmsteen who can sit and play like that, but I’ve stopped writing to be clever, the gigs were ending up too much like hard work!’

With Kings X signed to a new label and things looking rosy for the band, why choose now to start a solo project?

‘I’ve written about 100 songs in the last two years, and when I write for Kings X there are usually a few songs that don’t work in that format, so as an outlet I decided to do my own record. The album is out on Metal Blade, with me playing bass and guitar and do all the vocals with a few different drummers. It’s the dark side of King’s X.

‘Most of the material is real heavy but melodic as well. I’ve gone for something between Sly Stone and Hendrix, using the C-tuned/B-tuned Kings X style riffs, but with a kind of Neil Young approach too, sometimes. I’m making it real rootsy. I’ve got all the guitars tuned down to C, so it’s real low but with my usual Gospel-y vocals. It’s completely me, this is my record. I’m a control freak and this is my way of doing everything.’

Return of the King's (X)..

Went last night to see King’s X at the Mean Fiddler. They don’t play in London all that often, and their last gig here was one of my all time favourite gigs. And last night was no dissappointment. The sound was a bit ropey for the first few songs, but after that, ’twas amazing. Such an incredible band – it’s odd how a band can seem so un-cool on paper (odd time metal riffing with beatles-esque harmony vocals) and yet be perhaps the most timeless band I’ve ever heard. It’s testemony to this that their latest album, Black Like Sunday is all tracks that were written before 1986, and still sounds as fresh as any of the recent stuff!

Doug Pinnick, the singer/bassist is 53 and looks about 30 on stage, and only about 40 up-close – definitely the best advert for prolongued canabis useage that I’ve ever seen!!!!! He’s got a remarkable stage presence, and a vocal with more soul than just about any rock vocalist ever… and can scream like Aretha Franklin.

I interviewed Doug years ago for Bassist magazine, and spent about 3 or 4 hours chatting over dinner – most of which was totally unusable for the interview but a great time nontheless. It was nice to get a chance to say hi last night, though they were flying out of Heathrow at some ungodly hour this morning, so no aftershow party…

Anyway, the gig confirmed why they are still one of my alltime favourite bands, even though I’ve listened to precious little metal for the best part of a decade. An utterly unique band, and one that have never even got close to the commercial success they so richly deserve.

Soundtrack Frogwings, ‘Croaking At Toads’; Hank Jones/Charlie Haden. ‘Steal Away’.