An Essay, August 2, 2009

Discussion in 'Ask Justin Meldal-Johnsen' started by jmjbassplayer, Aug 1, 2009.

  1. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Hey everyone. I've been meeting some very interesting people lately, particularly some young technical musicians with lots of questions. And I think I'd like to distill some thoughts about the role of the bass guitar (since that is the tool we are dealing with here) which I have been ruminating upon lately.

    To start, here's a little something for you to read. It speaks to my approach to listening to music from the vantage of bass, specifically:

    Do I agree with all of their entries? Certainly not. But so many of them are laser-sharp.

    For instance, consider "Boogie On Reggae Woman", "I Feel Love", and "Around The World". The most soul-stirring, body-moving, sublime SYNTH bass. HOT. Easily something you can become influenced by and embrace. That's the essence of what I'm trying to impart sometimes: that bass players need to be less conservative and cliche in their approach to their instrument, and certainly also in regards to what influences they take. Sure, every bassist should listen to Jaco. Was he great? Yes - beyond great. Incredibly real, lyrical, soulful, and iconic. How about Victor Wooten? Amazing. Saw him one time, and I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. Sure the chops were sick, but he was profoundly musical and soulful.

    But if I hear one more motherf*#$er with a jazz bass on the bridge pickup simply biting Jaco, I'm going to piss on their bass. Please: do yourself and everyone else a favor and step out of your rote, glib bass curriculum from Music School 101 and expand your mind before it's too late.

    Phew. This all may as well be titled "Open Letter to Shredders and Musos Who Would Actually Like to Play Some Real Music Before They Are Permanently Pigeonholed Into NAMM Show Hell". It goes like this:

    Stop slapping, put the bass down. You sound like a bag of popcorn in the microwave.

    Stop soloing on your seven-string. Lemme hear you lay down some F*#*ING FAT QUARTER NOTES FOR A FEW YEARS first.

    In other words: LET ME HEAR YOU GROW A G*#@AMN POCKET! Let me hear you gracefully and tastefully SERVE A SONG, regardless of genre.

    Now allow me to be more constructive, rather than railing on about my favorite pet peeves, which isn't ultimately doing anything but insulting a certain demographic:

    Try some dance music on for size. Get deep with old school funk. Rock & roll. Reggae. Folk. New wave. Hip Hop. Some garage rock. Blues. Punk rock. Rockabilly. Metal. Disco. Jazz. World music. Movie scores. Country. Get loose with Fela Kuti, MC5, Carpenters, Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Devo, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Elvis Costello, Aphex Twin, The Who, Marvin Gaye, New Order/Joy Division, Genesis, James Gang, Fleetwood Mac, The Zombies, Donny Hathaway, The Kinks, CSN(Y), XTC, Pixies, U2, Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson, Captain Beefheart, Woody Guthrie, Jackson 5, Supertramp, Jimi Hendrix, Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Bill Withers, Grand Funk Railroad, Sly and the Family Stone, The Cure, Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, The Animals, Talk Talk, Steve Miller Band, Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, Husker Du, Jethro Tull, The Doors, Nina Simone, Pink Floyd, Beastie Boys, Jeff Buckley, Chic, Prince, most anything on Motown, anything on Stax, Chess Records, Blood and Fire Records, Stiff Records, Factory Records, Warp Records, Matador Records, SST Records, Sub Pop Records, Blue Note (old school) Records, Atlantic (old school) records, Bill Withers, Yes, Funkadelic, Bob Dylan, The Clash, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, The Band, Creem, Afrika Bambaatttaa, PJ Harvey, Elton John, Al Green, Talking Heads, CCR, Run DMC, White Stripes, The Smiths, Quincy Jones, Beck, Aretha Franklin, Sonic Youth, Elvis, Zeppelin, Flaming Lips, Massive Attack, Robert Johnson, The Ramones, Tom Jones, Nick Drake, Aerosmith, Kraftwerk, Canned Heat, Eagles, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Radiohead, The Meters, Flying Burrito Brothers, Brian Eno, Stones, Ray Charles, Beach Boys, Hank Williams Sr., The Specials, Zappa, Queen, Gary Numan, Black Sabbath, Bowie, Otis Redding, etc. etc. ad nauseam. I'm just enjoying riffing here; there's 200 more great artists that YOU can think of where that came from.

    Can you play a Beatles song? Good - now go learn 30 of them! Go study every artist that played the original Woodstock. How about those FIRST EIGHT NOTES from "Running With The Devil"? How about some AC/DC, and lemme hear you throw down 8th notes like that! Try and play a Jamerson line with such melodic sophistication and fluidity - with one finger, no less! I personally cannot - but I will certainly enjoy the journey of the attempt!

    Any and all of these artists make up a portion of what all of us should be immersing ourselves in, in my not so humble opinion. We should NOT spend much time immersing ourselves in music for an ivory tower, a bedroom, or especially a clinic, God forbid. Not if we want to contribute to something cultural and social. Otherwise, what are you doing? You are possibly just mastering a skill. You might not, I dare day, actually be making music.

    Do all of my musical examples above have great bass playing? Of course not; who CARES? Some of them don't HAVE bass guitar. But what all this music above shares in common is a QUALITY of COMMUNICATION, by virtue of being true and real to itself and the artist(s) creating it. A transcendent purpose that cuts through "trivialities" such as musicianship or skill - honestly! (I'm being a bit facetious, because there is no argument here that jazz, for instance, REQUIRES considerably more musicianship and sophistication than, say, punk rock in order to communicate its particular language.

    In summary, I submit to, I INSIST: that having a diverse and rich record collection and appreciation of the wider landscape of popular music is vital to your own musical journey. Then after you dive in to some of this great music, try PLAYING some of it. You'll inevitably surprise yourself in terms of what you may like. That's all I'm really trying to impart here.

    Again, SERVE THE SONG, along with the greater aesthetic, emotional, and cultural "mission" that you, your artist, or your band is involved in.

    Ahem (adjusts tie, wipes face with handkerchief).

    That felt good. OK - start studying (myself included)! There's music out there for the taking - go get it. It is a life pursuit.

  2. ugly_bassplayer

    ugly_bassplayer Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2009
    +1000 on that
  3. iceberg


    Oct 30, 2006
    Silver Lake, CA
    preach! :) ...appreciating the insight, as always. thanks brotha
  4. ElMon

    ElMon Supporting Member

    May 30, 2004
    Oklahoma City, OK
    Sounds like you might have run in to too many 'musical athletes'. Training to be the fastest slappers on the block for that one glory moment where they can showcase their skills around fellow bassists so that we will all be hugely impressed. Trying to make sure that guitar players, singers, keyboard players, that all know that in fact the bass is JUST as valid as a lead instrument as is any other, and will in fact try to prove that with every performance. I"m kind of sick of it too.

    I got into this because of how great a thick, elemental bass line enhanced a song and made me as a listener have a physical reaction. There's a lot of these type of lines represented in that article. In particular, I remember my Dad playing Yes' Close to the Edge and being FLOORED by how cool and powerful Chris Squire sounded on that record. It moved me emotionally and made me have a definite physical reaction. Still does.

    I NEVER heard the bass and said 'gee, that would sound really great shredding bebop solos'. I was completely content with playing big fat notes that made everyone in the band feel good and perform better. Then, I finally got hipped to Jaco, and I'll be the first to admit that I busted my buttsky trying to play like him and even developed an attitude that I would study how to solo like any other melodic instrument so that I could also show people a different potential for bass.

    I started listening for material that had fast, intricate bass lines, even if the overall music produced was not that stellar. It didn't matter, and I wasn't paying attention anyways. I devoured fusion, Victor Wooten's CD's, any and all of the hot players I was reading about in Bass Player. I wanted to be in bands that would allow me to 'show my stuff', and the ones that wanted a more traditional player suffered greatly at my attempts to overplay, of that I"m sure. I thought I was doing 'what you were supposed to do' if you wanted to be a REAL bassplayer.

    Thank GOD I got over all that. I realized that while electric bass is a relatively young instrument and there are many trying to constantly push the envelope of how this instrument can be played as a solo instrument, the IDEA and FUNCTION of bass is MUCH older and is more rooted in a supportive role. It just is, and it seems that when I make a conscious effort to economize my lines to best fit whatever song I'm playing, I seem to have more gigs, if not more respect from the local bass shredders.
  5. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    I wish there was a deeper appreciation of music history in young musicians these days. When I got into music, I listened to everything...classical and schmaltzy big band stuff on my parents' old 78's...blues and Dixieland from the early 1900's, Django, Louis Jordan, early rock and roll (many artists of which I play with on a regular basis), R&B and country music...didn't like all of it but a lot of it was brilliant, and all of it added a level of depth to my playing that I didn't have before. There's a lot of cool music history on Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but there's a whole world of other stuff out there you should turn yourself onto.

    Also, don't just listen to bass players for inspiration. Check out other musicians on other instruments and try to get some inspiration from them as well. You can get as much out of listening to Carlos Santana or Little Richard or Louis Armstrong as you can from listening to other bass players.

    As for wanting to rip on bass, I can get behind it. I have a lot of respect for guys who can play anything you throw at them, no matter how complex or fast. But the thing about the best of them is that they will play 8 to the bar root notes or whole notes on the one if the song demands it, and they'll right on with them. I don't care how fast you are...if you can't play "Back In Black" without rushing, you need to go back to the basics. Gotta crawl before you run.
  6. rcarraher


    Dec 21, 2008
    I waas pretty young when I got bit by the music bug, I grew up on my fathers Glen Miller, Dorsey Brothers, Scot Joplin, Bing Crosby. My mothers Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Elvis and Johnny Cash, and yup, she liked Ray Charles.

    I found a kind of elation in all of it, even the stuff I grew to think of as "not cool". Then as I grew to young adulthood in the mid 60'2 early 70's there was the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Yardbirds, that lead me to explore where this stuff that excited me so much came from and I found Son House, Little Walter, Bo Diddly, Fatha Hines and Alberta Hunter, Charlie Mingus, Miles, Bird.

    I knew, I wanted to make music. Tried guitar, tried keyboards and finally found an instrument that would let me participate. The bass. I think my approach may have been good in the fact that I wanted to play the music, not be an instrumentalist. And maybe that was bad at the same time. because I still can't (and don't particularly want to) slap and pop. I'll never be a shredder, but I can play the stuff that talks to me, and not just the Beatles and Animals, I keep learning new bads, Cold Play, RHCP, Black Keys, etc...because they write music that speaks to me.

    I guess for me it was always about the music; the song, and not about being a virtuoso.

    Liked the rant!
  7. stingray5dude


    Jun 18, 2007
    Justin i agree dude. Music is meant to be an art, not a science. When did it start to become a science, where it was about speed and wankery??? Hey, anybody can work out on the "bass", just practice scales to a metronome everyday and just constantly work on ripping, solo etc. But what is the fun in that hey????
    I dig the groove. I dig songs that communicate on a level that touches the soul. I dig bands and gigs that just blow everybody away.
    People are trying to take the bass into the solo world, and sure that's great.
    But if you wanna be a solo artist, what about the piano???
    I would rather listen to a piano performance over bass anyday, and so would 95% of the population.
    Bass players will probably disagree with me, but i see the bass as a supporting roll, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a crucial part to a band, but imo it was never meant to be out front the whole time.
    Anyways enough of my rant, i'm off to play some ac'dc
  8. undeadbass


    Jun 27, 2008
    New York, NY
    And the worst part is, is they're taking the most derivative parts of Jaco, and completely ignoring the rest of the dude - the parts where he actually supported the rest of the band, while all the other instruments soloed. There's stuff on his solo records that he didn't even play bass on, showcasing his arrangements.

    Great, now I sound like a Jaco fanboy! I'm gonna go work on my whole notes.
  9. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Good comments, all.

    You know, we can flip this whole thing on its ear and make similar comments about apathetic other words, maybe an indie rock bass player who thinks music begins with Sebadoh and Pavement and ends with snobby Brooklyn hipster s*#t. The metal kid who can only get down with Metallica and similar bands, yet who still wants to have a fulfilling career. There are endless permutations....and it's ALL essentially conservative and orthodox, and consequently detrimental to creativity and innovation.

    With this essay, it may seem that I'm calling out only the bummer NAMM show/bedroom shredder/slapper types. In fact, I'm calling out anyone who expects the world, yet continues to wear their blinders to what the world contains.

    And Jimmy, thanks for chiming in on the OTHER instruments notion, something I've spoken about in this forum before. Vital. Get behind a kit and learn some beats, and make up your own. Figure out how to move the beat around in time and get that under your skin. Tinker around on a Rhodes and a monosynth. Play guitar and learn about chord voicings. Get Logic/Live/Reason whatever and start programming. These things are all huge and cannot be overstated.

    The time of bass players being stereotyped simplistic neanderthals is LOOOOONG since over, so let's do our job AND continue to break that antiquated mold. In other words, expand your horizons, become a writer/producer/programmer/multi-instrumentalist/arranger, continue to cull that great record collection, grow more and more savvy, etc. And all the while, STILL being sublimely good at supporting songs simply and effectively...that's the mission to never lose sight of.

    Oh, and one more thing:

    Agree or disagree, so many gems on there.

  10. Great thread. I'll add my 2 cents.

    I've always summed it up this way. Great Bass playing is a combination of Complexity and Simplicity - I like to call it ComplexSimplicity. Serving a simple Groove - and killing it is as much of an accomplishment as playing a very challenging and complex line (somtime more so to do it every day consistently).

    I also like to abolish Genre's per se - it is freaking Music first Period. Not to say the labels don't help in defining the style and heritage - but we as Musicians need to be so much more open minded, less critical and more open to all music. Not to say that I expect everyone to like everything - but there is some petty small minded stuff going on in music today.

    Music is a gift - when I play I feel great and thankful that I was afforded the ability and the priveledge of playing music - particularly when it moves others and inspires them.

    We need to be the Evangelists - to keep the History and to move forward to the Future and respect everything in the middle. I love what this thread is saying and hope I have added some food for thought.

  11. ElMon

    ElMon Supporting Member

    May 30, 2004
    Oklahoma City, OK
    Dig it. I've been thinking about this notion of somehow having to choose between being a groove/pocket player and a flashy soloist. In truth you CAN do both, and for the expansion of your knowledge as a musician SHOULD do both. If the music calls for constant 16th-note slapping and fretboard-spanning unison riffs, then you should be prepared enough and well-versed enough to do it.

    Still, I"ve noticed that other musicians will easily pigeon-hole you in one way or the other. If they only know you from your hard-hitting fusion band, IME they might be reticent to hire you for a singer/songwriter gig. That element of not knowing just who might come out to see you and how that might lead to more diverse musical opportunities, for me, makes me more focused at ALWAYS playing what the music NEEDS, not what I want to put over it that would satisfy my bass-jones. If the gig I'm playing requires playing 1/5 lines in whole notes, well I'm gonna play the #@$% out of those whole notes.
  12. ugly_bassplayer

    ugly_bassplayer Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2009
    I'm just really surprised that this thread is getting not that much attention.
    Kinda sad when you think about it.
  13. drasticDUB

    drasticDUB Guest

    Mar 13, 2008
    this thread is fantastic!! If only more musicians across the board thought about these ideas for just a second... music.
  14. rosstanium


    Jan 5, 2008
    Endorsing Artist: D'Addario
    thanks guys. good to hear these things said aloud.
  15. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    Not really...201 views...not a bad take for a day.
  16. Spencer!


    Jun 25, 2006
    Owner, Pike Amplification & 3Leaf Audio
    YES. One of my biggest influences is Kevin Eubanks, and yet he would be referred to as a "gui****" by much of the talkbass population. I think I'm more influenced by drummers than bassists.
  17. Thank you for this post. I read this when you first posted and immediately thought, "OH, SNAP!!" After I had some time to get my senses together, I remembered why I appreciate your playing style and your approach to bass. It's always tasteful and appropriate to the song.

    Many of the songs that have bass lines that I love aren't necessarily the ones where the bassist is shredding, but usually the ones where they're laid back, in the pocket, and grooving—allowing the main melody or vocals to shine. Of course, even the ones where the bass is up front, it requires the other instruments to support the bass. There's a give and take—a balance.

    Thanks again for a much needed and thoughtful post.

    And I will forever adore this quote:
    "Stop slapping, put the bass down. You sound like a bag of popcorn in the microwave."
  18. It's getting plenty of attention. JMJ has put thoughts into words which other people find very hard to express, or do so inarticulately or crudely - hence, there isn't much to say.

    I think it's better that there aren't a million vacuous replies.
  19. ugly_bassplayer

    ugly_bassplayer Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2009
    I was not looking at the number of replies, just the number of people who read it.
  20. john turner

    john turner You don't want to do that. Trust me. Staff Member

    Mar 14, 2000
    atlanta ga
    a lot of relevant points were made. and a lot of good ideas were shared.

    it's unfortunate, though, that that couldn't have happened without slagging other guys and what they want to do. sorta shooting fish in a barrel, no? especially from your vantage point, right? :).