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How Many Strings, part 1

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Stewmc5222, Feb 21, 2002.

  1. I’m not a flashy guy. Nor am I what people refer to as a world class player. But I’m a good musician. I love what I do. And because of my instruments I am part of an incredibly asinine debate. It starts simply and innocently enough when the question is voiced:

    “Why does your bass have so many strings?”

    Others follow. Do I play it like a lead guitar? Do I have some weird need to play a million notes in every song? If four strings were enough for Paul McCartney, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, and James Jamerson, why does someone like me need more? When is it enough?
    There are more, but what amazes me is that bassists not only join in the fracas, they get really worked up over it. And why? Isn’t art about personal choice and how the artist feels he or she is best able to convey a personal vision? Did Tony Levin have to field this kind of nonsense when he had his 3 string bass constructed?
    Extending the range of an instrument is nothing new. Wind instruments have been made bigger and smaller, pulled into different shapes and otherwise manipulated for ages. Drum kits vary from a single piece to dozens of percussable objects depending on who’s playing and in what context. Is Peter Erskine griefed for playing a 2 piece kit in an evening’s performance of avant garde jazz? Does Neil Peart have to defend his decision to bring a 22 piece kit on the road with Rush?
    So why is it such a big deal that bassists would want to expand their tonal palette? After all, the electric bass is one of the youngest instruments extant. It is continuing to redefine its role in contemprary music. Such writers and performers as Les Claypool, Michael Manring, and Mick Karn push the instrument’s boundaries in new and exciting directions and players like Victor Wooten, Billy Sheehan, Matt Garrison and Fieldy expand the existing vocabulary in unexpected ways.
    They’re heralded as groundbreaking. Visionaries. Yet those of us who’ve chosen to follow in the steps of Anthony Jackson, Jimmy “Flim” Johnson, and Jimmy Haslip are labeled as heretics. Upstarts.
    I fail to see the difference.
    Is the music of Laurence Cottle and Gary Willis less valid than that of Steve Swallow and Francis “Rocco “ Prestia? When rock legend Jack Bruce switched from a 4 string to a 5 string years ago did he have to put up with these bizarre grievances? Does Nathan East get less session work than Will Lee?
    To most people out who might read this, the names are all equally alien. Few could point to the artists who hired Leland Sklar or Bernard Odum. Fewer could name the significance of Bill Dickens’ or Percy Jones’ contributions to the recording and live music scenes. The bass most closely associated with the band the Presidents of the United States of America had two strings. The man who played for Government Mule was known to wield an 18 string instrument from time to time.
    Why is any of this worth arguing about? If you like the music, if the musician plays something that appeals to you, then it’s good.
    Certainly there are bassists who approach the instrument with the intent of playing busy lead and melody lines and throwing as many notes at you as possible. But it’s perpetrated by four stringers as much as anyone else. You will find these players on most instruments. But there are bass artists, who groove, who inspire, and who make music from 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, and 18 strings.
    I couldn’t tell you who the first individual was to detune the instrument or to extend the fingerboard beyond the 21 frets used in Leo Fender’s design. Chances are if I did that another debate would arise. I know that there were players in the 70s who liked the lower ranges of keyboard instruments and some of these individuals lowered their E strings to D. A few went beyond that and pioneered instruments which could be played down to a low B through the use of a fifth string. As the 80s dawned there was a tiny contingent in the bass community with these extended range curiosities. By this time Anthony Jackson had been playing his 6 string instrument for a while. In addition to its low string he had commissioned luthier Carl Thompson to install one at the high end of the spectrum.
    There is no arguing with Mr. Jackson’s artistry or his integrity. He is as articulate as he is fiercely intelligent. He is also, by his own admission, opinionated. And he can play a mean bass. I don’t doubt that his decision to play only the fretted six-string bass from that point on in his career brought hardship his way. But his commitment and his undeniable talent forged a career and laid the groundwork for so many who would come after.
    It seems inevitable that at this point others would pull the sonic tapestry in the other direction and experiment with higher sounds. The aforementioned Stanley Clarke had used a piccolo bass some, an instrument tuned an octave higher than a ‘traditional’ bass. Certain musicians saw the 5 strings and the new 6s and wondered why no one had pushed the envelope toward a more solo voiced bass. With Jaco Pastorius’ incendiary piece “Word of Mouth” and the rise of a young hotshot named Billy Sheehan in Buffalo who was putting the fear of bass into metal guitarists, the time seemed right. And so lead bass began to appear.
    As is the case in any community, there are artists, poseurs, and those who are more flash than substance. At points all along the spectrum you could find vaild music and garbage. But the 80s were a time of scrutiny. Recordings grew more precise with the advent of digital technology and it was possible to sequence bass parts through computer controlled keyboards. And bass synthesizers, which had come to prominence in the 70s, were now seen as a viable option to hiring another musician for recording dates: If you had a keyboardist already, why not just have him or her play the bass line on a special ‘board? Bassists realized that they would have to fight to stay viable in the recording and performing venues.
    And so we went back into the woodshed.
    Both the players and their instruments continued to evolve throughout the 80s and into the 90s. Anthony Jackson was joined by John Patitucci, Gerald Veasley, Andy West, Steve Bailey, and a host of others. The legion of 5 stringers grew exponentially. Custom luthiers appeared and disappeared left and right. Aside from Carl Thompson, Ken Smith, Fodera, Alembic, Pedulla, and Warwick established themselves. Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Peavey and Hohner were among the larger companies to branch into manufacturing and distribute what would come to be known as multistring basses.
    I remember my own thoughts on these instruments. Jaco played a 4, so what more would I ever need?Then I heard some of those low notes that Anthony Jackson, Jimmy Haslip, and Flim Johnson played, and I thought that more BASS couldn’t be a bad thing. I got my first 5 not long after that. I took it with me to music school where I started to write real music and play some sessions. It would be nice to voice some of those chords I was using more fully and clearly. It would also be nice to play through an entire chart in one position while reading so I wouldn’t have to worry about misfretting a note during an awkward position change, something not uncommon when one plays a four string. Then I saw one of the students playing a 6 on stage with such command and fluency that I was amazed. I talked to one of my teachers about it and he said that he had a new 6 he hadn’t even set up that he was parting with (it was fretted and he was moving to fretless primarily). I bought it from him. Then, within a few months, I sold it and picked up the bass which would become my main bass for more than a decade.
    There I was, a 21 year old living in Hollywood and playing the most beautiful instrument I’d ever seen. It was mine!! For the first twenty or forty minutes it was intoxicating if a bit disorienting. I put on some James Brown to play along with and help me find my footing. Once I was more comfortable I started to push and experiment. I was jamming long after the funk album had finished. Looking down at the monstrous neck I was playing, I mused -- what would it be like if I had one MORE low string and ANOTHER high string? I laughed, but the idea stayed with me.
  2. I kept my 6. I even got a few more of them. But from time to time I would talk to luthiers about the realities of building the 8 string I had daydreamed.
    I was told that it would need a 42” scale (about 8” longer than a standard scale), that the neck would have to be some sort of synthetic polymer to endure the tension of all those strings, that there was no way to create strings that big, that even if it was possible it would cost more than $12, 000. And I was assured that there was no way to reproduce the notes I was describing. In fact, in a range between 23 and 31Hertz, an audience would have a hard time hearing those notes.
    Then, more than a dozen years after the idea had come to me, I submitted an inquiry to someone that I knew built 7 strings. It had been so long since I’d gotten my hopes up, I was absolutely floored when it came back in the affirmative.And in an almost nonchalant tone! I sat and read it again and again. I got back to him immediately. He sent me some literature showing what he had already done and all of a sudden I was 21 years old again.
    That fervor has not dwindled since our correspondence began. Even though I ran into problems propagative before I finallly got to call the instrument mine, I am like a new musician: focused, dangerously inspired, exuberant, and open to the new.
    Rest assured, I have not become a crazed soloist. I am not playing all over the instrument any more than I was before. When I am playing, the song is the important thing. If I wanted to draw attention to myself I would not have become a bass player. Most of what I do stays in the lower registers. When I am asked to do something else, if the situation dictates I venture into different realms, or if I’m playing my own music, then you may have to endure some craziness.
    But this new range gives me options. As a composer. As a performer. As a technician. And I am challenged. I am constantly reminded that I am a student. I have perspective because I am as new to this thing as it is to me.
    Why are there so many strings on my bass?
    Because it sounds good to me. Because I think music should be fun. Because I don’t see things as written in stone. A bass isn’t by necessity a four-or-fewer stringed instrument. And if people occasionally look at it from time to time and are wowed by it or disgusted by it, or absolutely perplexed, let them hear me play it and decide for themselves. Maybe they’re right in their opinions.
    Maybe they aren’t.
  3. FretNoMore

    FretNoMore * Cooking with GAS *

    Jan 25, 2002
    The frozen north
    Q: How many strings?
    A: As many as it takes...

    ...to play what you want to
    ...to feel comfortable
    ...to look good
    ...to be inspired
    ...to develop
    ...(fill in your reason here)

    Any reason you can think of that works for you is a valid one, I think. Not many others have a right to decide for you.

    Q: Should I care what others think?
    A: Not really.

    JAUQO III-X Banned

    Jan 4, 2002
    Endorsing artist:see profile.
    I being a proponent of the 4,6,8,and 15 string bass can whole heartedly relate.therefor I would like to personally thank my low end brotha STEW for sharing with us,one of the most Informative pieces of ART Ive read in a very long time,on the MODERN ELECTRIC BASS.
    thanks again STEW
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Hmmm...not sure, I just thought it was a very long and rambling moan! ;)

    Still - if you want to have a good rant, who cares - I just skimmed it! :D
  6. Bruce - then why even respond? :confused:


    Very well said Stew. I'm only (;)) a 5 stringer, but I do get those questions from time to time. It's nice to have a little more ammo for responses. (Although at times if someone asks the purpose of my low B string I'll simply smack a nice low D - that usually answers their query!)

    This will be a great thread to point to whenever someone comes here asking that same tired question. Good work! :)
  7. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Well I like a good moan as much as the next person, but I don't think we necessarily want to encourage huge long tirades - after all this is Talkbass not RantBass? ;)

    To me,talking is a two-way process - a conversation; if somebody talked to me like the first post, I would probably just walk away, I don't disagree with any of the content, which is admirable, but I thought it deserved honest feedback. I think if you go on at such length you are more likely to "turn people off", rather than convince them of your point.

    I should know! ;)
  8. WE? Speak for yourself. And yes, It's Talkbass, and that's just what Stewmc is doing here: TALKing about BASS. I'm not going to degrade this thread any further. If you want to have the last word on the appropriate use of these forums, go ahead and send me a PM.

    Again, great post Stewmc, sorry for the interruption.
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Well I saw it rather as a rant, or lecture, which is why I mentioned it. You asked!

    I mean this place could be called Bass Instruction, Bass Lessons, Bass Speeches Bass lectures etc etc But if it's going to be called TalkBass then that ought to mean something.

    I just think if you rant on at people at great length or lecture them, it loses impact and doesn't necessarily get your point across as much as more pithy or structured comments.
  10. john turner

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

    Mar 14, 2000
    atlanta ga
    i think you misunderstand. i think bruce was responding in admiration


    nice, stew.
  11. well, thanks one and all. there was no intent one way or another. I wrote it on the suggestion of my wife after she listened to me go through the whys and wherefores of what I do. I appreciate the praise and the criticism both. I hope that no ill will of conflict comes out of this posting. Jauqo, Anders, John, Bruce, and Stingray5, thank you. take care and keep the music happening,

    from the low end,

  12. Dave Castelo

    Dave Castelo

    Apr 19, 2000
    whoa, one of the best posts i have ever read...
  13. Brendan


    Jun 18, 2000
    Austin, TX
    It's a keeper!
  14. Josh Ryan

    Josh Ryan - that dog won't hunt, Monsignor. Supporting Member

    Mar 24, 2001
    Very well put Stewmc5222!! A pleasure to read; usefull BASS content, Bravo! I don't know what Lindfield was complaining about, I got bored and just skimmed his post.....:D;)
  15. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    I caught a glimpse of this thread yesterday, but decided to read it when I had more time. It was worth the wait. This is one of the best threads we've had in Miscellaneous for a long time and I, for one, welcome it. This stuff is more helpful than a lot of stuff former "pros" have written. We need more threads like this.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Stewmc. It's threads like this that prove that TalkBass isn't about quantity, but quality.

    <font size=1> Well, I keep hoping Miscellaneous is, anyway.</font>
  16. I don't know what to say... I am absolutely stunned. thanks everyone for the comments. I'm glad for the chance to say something about what I love. no pun intended, but I'm glad it resonated with members of the community I most respect. thanks again,

    from the low end,

  17. Ty McNeely

    Ty McNeely

    Mar 27, 2000
    Does ANYBODY besides me see the incredible amounts of irony contained in this single sentence?
  18. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    Nah. I must have skimmed right over it.:D
  19. Ty McNeely

    Ty McNeely

    Mar 27, 2000

    Well, his argument was so well structured that I had to stop and read it.

    :D Just joshin' with ya, Bruce