Aces of bass: A look at rock's oft-maligned musician Jon Bream Star Tribune Published Sep. 22, 2002 BASS22 Try walking in Brian Ray's shoes for a moment. It's his job to fill in for rock's most famous bass player when that giant is still onstage with him. Factor in that Ray, a guitarist, hasn't played bass in public before. Is it intimidating to sub for Paul McCartney in his own band? "Hell, yeah," said Ray, who switches to bass whenever the bandleader/bassist moves to guitar or piano, as will be the case Monday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. "He's the best bass player on the planet." Try walking in Pino Palladino's shoes for a moment. It's his job to fill in for the Who's John Entwistle, who died of a cocaine-induced heart attack in June two days before the scheduled start of the grand band's reunion tour. Palladino, a top British session player who has worked with everyone from Eric Clapton to Erykah Badu, had two days of rehearsal before hitting the road with the Who as the replacement for the Jimi Hendrix of the bass, as Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman called Entwistle. "Pino is his own man," said Who singer Roger Daltrey, whose group rocks Tuesday in St. Paul. "If he wanted to, he could mimic everything John did. He plays the essence of what John did, and he's got his own thing that he brings to it. His sound is different; it's got much more low-resonance than John used to use. Pino is very solid, very much like John. The only difference is he's sober, and he can hear." In the Who, the Beatles and just about every rock band, the singer and guitarist get all the attention. But the bassist is "the glue of the band," said session bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye, a veteran of more than 10,000 recordings, including "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "The Beat Goes On," and "Good Vibrations." "With the type of line you play, you help define the style of the tune and lay a foundation for the chords, and help a drummer groove," Kaye said. "Usually, the drummer should follow your pattern, not the other way around." Less technically, "The bass is like the cake under the icing," said Victor Wooten, bassist in Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, whose playing embraces everything from funk to bluegrass to jazz. Bass lines dominate classics in many styles -- the Temptations' "My Girl," the Police's "Every Breath You Take," the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends" and the Who's "My Generation," to name a few. Sometimes the bassist plays the melody while the guitarist or keyboardist provides that tasty icing that Wooten talks about. But most often in rock, the bassist and drummer provide the rhythmic foundation. No matter what the role, bass players don't get much respect. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted only one bass player -- Motown great James Jamerson -- in the recently created "sidemen" division, compared with three guitarists. Rock giants Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and now the Who continue to tour without the original bassist who put the stamp on their sound. Neither the enduring Metallica nor current favorites Creed and Gov't Mule have a permanent bassist. Besides singing bass players such as Sting, Rush's Geddy Lee, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and McCartney, bassists are fairly anonymous. Silent and unanimated onstage is the stereotype, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea notwithstanding. The only time the Stones' Bill Wyman got attention was when he married a teenager 34 years his junior and when he quit the band. The Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh was invisible until he needed a liver transplant. And who but the most hardcore fans can name the outside bands that bassists Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana have been in? A 'lead' bass guitarist In rock, Grand Funk Railroad drummer Don Brewer says, the bass can define a band's sound. That Michigan power trio set out in the early '70s to craft a distinctive bass sound in a Cleveland studio. "We wanted to come up with something unique, and we kind of discovered it there," bassist Mel Schacher said. "I went down with this little magic box [effects box], not really knowing if I wanted to use it." He played around and came up with a fuzz tone on his bass, which dominated over Brewer's less-than-huge drum sound and Mark Farner's technically limited guitar sound. But it was McCartney and Entwistle who had paved the way for prominent bass in the mid-'60s. "Entwistle was the first guy to put a little growl on the bass and stick it out in the [sound] mix," said Les Claypool, a gonzo bassist known for his work with Primus. Rush's Geddy Lee, a favorite of today's hard-rockers, was influenced by Entwistle. "He was a pioneer in terms of tones," Lee said. "He had this bright, ballsy, very aggressive bass sound. He dared to turn up the treble on his bass and have the bass kerrang as well as the electric guitar. He dared to poke in and out of everything in the song. His melody was more apparent. He helped drive that band. He was critical and ostentatious, which was really not the role of the bass player before that." Entwistle explained the evolution of his approach in a June interview with the Sacramento Bee. "I'd been used to playing melodic instruments, so by the time I took up the bass, I found it very boring," he said with a chuckle. "[In the Who,] I was playing sort of rhythm-lead and bass at the same time. When [guitarist] Pete [Townshend] changed the chords up, I'd play melodic. When he played lead, I'd change to rhythm. And then there was playing with [drummer] Keith Moon, who used so many notes. A lot of things dictated the way I played." Said Daltrey: "He was a lead bass guitarist. He could put out really plaintive melodies as well as really thundering, roaring rock 'n' roll noise. His was an extremely unusual sound -- a lot of bottom end and also a lot of top end as well with distortion on it." Musically, the adventurous Entwistle was hyperactive, filling in -- and out -- the arrangement, but his stage manner was stoic. "When the dynamite goes off on the drum set, Entwistle is the one who keeps standing back there playing," said John Munson, bassist for Minneapolis hitmakers Semisonic. Paul's violin bass McCartney is widely regarded as the most lyrical -- or melodic -- bass player. Perhaps it comes from the influence of his hero, Motown's Jamerson, combined with being a songwriter. While Claypool composes mostly on bass, McCartney writes on guitar or piano. Kaye -- who in the 1960s was playing on all kinds of hits for producer Phil Spector as well as the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel, Glen Campbell, Nancy Sinatra and Ray Charles -- admits that she didn't pay attention to McCartney's playing in the Beatles' heyday. She got a chance to analyze his work while watching a TV documentary. "It amazed me -- his taste, his groove and his choice of notes," said Kaye, who teaches classes and markets bass instruction books and videos. "Not splash; you don't want splash in a heavy singing group like that. He played full support. I don't know of anyone who could play better than he did. I'd say he really did it, better than people know really -- but bass players know." Said Ray, his current replacement who has worked with Etta James and Smokey Robinson: "His time -- his inner clock -- is so deep and so good. "In the mid-'60s, in terms of innovation and originality, he was playing these unbelievable countrapuntal and melodic lines. He was very forward-thinking." But with the Beatles, it was the sonics as well as the bass lines themselves. The key might have been McCartney purchasing a Hofner bass in Hamburg, Germany, in 1961. Symmetrical and violin-shaped, it's about three-fourths the size of a standard electric bass, the Fender Precision. And a left-handed model was available. "It's got a big, round sound," said Semisonic's Munson, who has a Hofner and played it on a McCartney tribute CD. "It seems louder and fuller because it's a little bit higher [in frequency]. It probably sounded better on small speakers." Ray didn't even consider getting a Hofner bass when he prepared for the McCartney tour last spring. (On the current leg of the tour, Ray is playing bass on about half the songs.) "I wanted to stay away from the Hofner," Ray said the other day during a break from tour rehearsal in Los Angeles. "I wanted something unusual. I sought out a bass ['70s Guild bass M-85] I'd seen Sheryl Crow playing recently. It had maybe the biggest sound I've ever heard on the bass. I wanted to bring something that warm, and that intonated the sound that Paul used to get with all the compression and tube amps they used to use in the studio." McCartney still plays the Hofner he bought in Hamburg. "It's got the original strap on it," Ray said. "I understand that he just removed the set list from the last live Beatles show about a year ago because it was finally starting to crumple up a little bit. He wanted to preserve it. The set list was written on the top side of his bass, taped over many times. "In the show, he throws that Hofner bass in the air across the stage to his guitar tech -- who has been with him some 27 years -- for him to catch. "And Paul laughs about it."