News from Hacker City: Some Considered Opinions on the Electric Bass

Richard Gess

1. Intro. It's been three years this June that I've been playing the bass, and after three long years of attempted music-making I am still not a musician. I do not expect to become one, either. A musician, by my definition, lives and breathes music, just as a writer should live and breathe writing, a painter painting, and a preacher God. A certain element of obsession is necessary to do anything truly well. I could very easily become obsessed with the bass, but I cannot allow myself. I'm 24, and the moment for obsession (in the musician's compressed time scale) passed when I was 13. Before I got anywhere close to good I'd be 30, and 30 is no age to set out to be a rock-and-roll hero. So I am not a musician; I am, instead, a hacker. Just hacking around. I flirt with the bass, but I will not be seduced. What follows are some musings about that flirtation.

2. Looks. My romance with the bass is partly physical. The damn things are beautiful. Sometimes I just open up their cases and look at them. I have two basses: a Gibson EB-3 and a Fender six-string. Each represents an opposite school of design. The Gibson is a Musical Instrument; its dark heavy woods are lacquered in such a way that the grain, under the right light, appears incandescent. The body is carved so subtly that some of the edges must be searched for. Each screw and knob is placed deliberately. The controls are laid out with careful regard to ergonometrics; the pickup selector, for example, is a four-position switch that's wired so that you never need to flip it more than one stop at a time while playing. The consciousness behind such thoughtful construction is Old World; intelligent craftsmanship and good taste speaking for themselves. The esthetics of the Fender are radically different; it is a Machine, late-'50s American-type. In its own way it is very attractive, but it is attractive more as an expression of a style than in and of itself. It is the embodiment of Guitar Rococo. Each corner of the swoopy body juts out in a different direction, and the total effect is of some ornate Sci-Fi starship straining upward against gravity. The finish is "sunburst"--simulated flame--and encrusted over its reddish glory are three pickups, four toggle switches, a pop-up mute, two lab-variety knobs, a huge imitation tortoise-shell pickguard, and no fewer than 40 shiny Phillips head screws to hold everything in place. Almost ever metal part is chromed. The flesh-tone maple neck is capped by the classic glans-like Fender peghead, and each of the six chrome tuning machines has a big "F" stamped into it. One suspects this device of being hallucinated rather than designed, but I find it curiously lovely. If the Gibson is the Old World, then the Fender is Americana. Owning them both is like having a guitar gallery. When the electricity goes out for good, I will hang them on my wall and admire them by candlelight.

3. Sounds. The Gibson is a bass: four strings, bass viol style. The Fender is a bass guitar: six strings, tuned an octave lower than the standard guitar. The history of the Gibson merges backward into the history of the bowed bass, but the Fender's bastard lineage goes back only as far as the Stratocasters, Jazzmasters and Jazz Basses that were miscegenated to make it. The sounds of the instruments faithfully reflect their backgrounds. The EB-3's notes are fathomlessly deep and sonorous, with a bowed-sounding sustain. The sound is natural; the music seems to originate in the heart of the wood. The Fender's voice, conversely, is pure technology. Its pickups seem to synthesize the notes instead of amplifying them. Mysterious resonances abound; the body is as solid as a coffee table, yet the notes ring with sourceless harmonics. Playing the six is sometimes disorienting, because it can be difficult to connect the sounds with the instrument. One feels one's fretting and picking have nothing to do with what comes out. This synthetic quality makes the Fender ideal for use with add-on gadgetry. It can be plugged into wah pedals, fuzz tones, bass boosters, dynamic compressors and envelope followers to create a menagerie of sounds limited only by the adventurousness of the player. Such distortions of the Gibson's sound would be unseemly, but with the Fender they're quite all right. The natural direction for technology is toward more technology; that's the electric Tao.

4. An Esthetic. A reed-playing neighbor of mine recently explained the prevailing concept of the bassist to me. "You play the root," he said, "and you play it on one and three." Bass players are often told to just shut up and keep time. Amazingly, most of them acquiesce. Why? A bassist with any melodic ability at all can transform an ordinary rock or jazz group into an electric chamber ensemble--assuming, of course, that his or her colleagues are interested. Most of the time, they won't be. In the playing-for-a-living world, counterpoint takes a back seat to danceability. if you can't rock 'em (or at least sway them gently), you don't work. Working bassists have not yet been liberated from the rhythm section, but their hacker counterparts are free to play as they like. As a hacker, the only standards I must ultimately conform to are my own. My esthetic: the electric bass is the full equal of any other instrument. Properly played, it can simultaneously provide both a solid rhythmic punch and a complex countermelody. Look: any note you play through multiple 15" speakers at 50-plus decibels minimum is going to have rhythm. The task of the bassist should be to transcend mere metronomics and push his/her playing out in front. Where it be1ongs. The best bass players--the transcendental bassist (TBs)--are up front every time they plug in. Consider some of my heroes . . . .

5. Heroes. Whoever it was in the Cyrkle (remember the Cyrkle?) who played those nifty little two-bar breaks in 'Turn Down Day." And whoever tightened up with Archie Bell and the Drells. These were the first bassists I ever noticed. They weren't truly transcendental, but they stood out because they were given a bit of space for themselves. No one else impressed me very much until I heard Douglas Lubahn on the Doors' Strange Days album, floating hauntingly through "You're Lost, Little Girl," and defining transcendental bass in the two breaks in the title song. Dust off your copy and listen: in the first break he holds back, coolly laying the equivalent of foot-tapping, waiting. Then in the second break he explodes into double-time, sliding for his life and playing--mirabile!--a lead line. Terrific stuff, except that Lubahn wasn't really in the band. In his own group, Clear Light, he was just another bass player. His Doors work is important as definition, but to experience transcendental bass at its best you must experience Jack Casady's work with Jefferson Airplane. Jack Bruce (Cream) was more accessible, and Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) was more cerebral, but neither they nor the other trail-blazing TBists (Chris Hillman of the Byrds and Rand Forbes of the United States of America) can compare with Casady in terms of being so consistently fascinating for so long. None of them ever recorded anything to compare with "Spare Chaynge"; this cut on After Bathing at Baxter's is the perfection of the rhythm/lead bass concept. All of the instruments, in fact, are functioning as coequals here. Guitar, bass and drums are balanced, and not locked into a hierarchy. Paul Williams (the critic, not the singer) aptly compares the players' interaction to ballet. This loosened structure allows Casady to let his imagination run, and the range of moods and genres he explores is dazzling. There are Fado progressions in these bass lines, and heavy-metal power chording too; there are slide runs, call-and-response episodes, counterpoint tag games, stretched measures, squished measures--an entire encyclopedia of TB techniques. Casady is the quintessential TBist, and the Baxter's album is his peak. Six years after I first heard it, I went out and bought my first bass, and Casady was on my mind as I plunked down my money. If I could do half of what he does, I thought-- chord half as effortlessly, play half as fluid lead, make half as much booming thunder for rhythm--if I could get half as good as Casady, I thought, I'd be more than good enough for myself. Three years, three bands, and five basses later, I'm no closer to that goal than I was when I took home bass number one. This confirms my faith in Casady; what good, after all, are approachable heroes?

6. Yggdrasil. Hackers, because of their resistance to commitment, seldom cross the line to become musicians. To be a hacker in the hopes of becoming a hero is delusion. Hackers can play the bass, but heroes have to live it. One must choose, so I've chosen to hack, because in hacking there is the hero's freedom. No bars, no boogie, no "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" (ever played in a Holiday Inn?); just the simple high of sound-making, without any compromises. And there's something more--something spiritual. In the liner notes of Crown of Creation Casady is listed as the Yggdrasil bassist. The Yggdrasil, in Norse mythology, is the tree of life; to play the Yggdrasil bass is to play the low notes of existence. And the low notes are the sweetest. When I hit a good low-bottomstring A and shake the ground and force wind from the speakers, I'm playing the planet through my bass. No one's cheering or writing me checks, but it doesn't really matter. In these moments I'm wired into deity.

7. Dichotomies. If bass playing, then, is playing the earth, then writing is just as surely playing yourself. One frets one's neurons as facilely as one can and then strains to hear what's produced. The earth's note is that bottom-string A; the mind's notes are these sentences. The difference is in feedback intervals. A clinker on the bass is obvious in the instant it escapes the amp, but dissonance in prose sometimes isn't heard until a good while after it's written. It now occurs to me, three afternoons into writing this, that I've been dealing in dichotomies here. Hackers vs. heroes, wood vs. chrome, rhythm vs. lead, the natural vs. the synthetic--everything I've pondered has emerged in polarities. And all those polarities eventually boil down into the nagging old dualism of emotion (rhythm) vs. intellect (lead). Which is not what bass playing is about. Remember the TB ideal: rhythm and lead. Spirit and mind cooking together. Being a TBist is being someone who lives and creates as a whole person. Academics cannot be TBists; neither can the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Or myself; if I'm still thinking in twos instead of ones, then I can't qualify either. I'll be here in Hacker City until the obvious finally dawns on me. Gotta practice more. . . .


8. If You Get an Outfit, You Can Be a Hacker Too. Phil Lesh, in The Dead Book, notes that the first time he played something electric, he couldn't put it down; he played for seven hours, and then couldn't sleep. Electric playing is immediately addictive; electric basses make thunder with lightning, and forces that strong are very hard to resist. Maybe you should pick up something electric. If you think you'll like it, you probably will. My only advice would be to please be sure. This is because your minimum investment, new or used, will probably be in the neighborhood of $400 for a decent bass and bass amp. If you spend that on new equipment, you won't be getting much; you'll do better for your money with used instruments, but only if you or someone you know knows enough to avoid getting burned, Be wary, because you have no way of knowing where all those fingerprinty old basses have been before they got across the counter from you. Rent or borrow first, if you can, and then go at it for at least a month. Your first week will be depressing; your fingers will want nothing to do with those sharp-edged strings. The second week, after you work up a little callous, will be all overconfidence; the logic of the fingerboard will begin to reveal itself; and you will play along loudly with your punk-rock records and begin to think about gigging. Disregard, these moods. When your month is up, you will only have learned two things: the immensity of what it will take to get good, and the depth of your desire to continue. If you're hooked at this point, your next step will be obvious. You will abandon your vices, drain your bank account, and buy yourself an axe. Good luck; don't forget to eat.

9. Fade. Sound is the audible variety of the energy which moves everything from our heart valves to the galaxies. To coax it from wood and chrome and tubes is to celebrate it. Every song is a hymn--even the rough songs of the hacker. In church, as a child, the only thing that interested me was the organ. When our would-be-Biggs choirmaster stomped on his pedals to begin the postlude, he shook the whole block. Now with my basses I can shake my own block, and when I do I think: ah. Worship. And I reach out and crank up the volume. Loud. To hack is sometimes to pray.


[First published in The Sun]

 

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