Bass Guitar: the influence of design, industry, genre and

technique on performance practice.

P.W.Farrell

 

Introduction.

In this paper I wish to examine the evolution of bass guitar, the different influences on the design of the instrument and the effect of electronic development on the range of capabilities; also the perception of electric bass in the music industry and how this has determined two divergent styles of bass playing.

The merging of electricity and string bass design has affected the performance practice of the instrument. When he created the Precision Bass in 1951, Leo Fender transferred the burden of generating volume from the input phase (the performer) to the output phase (amplifier) and redefined the relationship between performer and sound. In doing so Fender liberated the bassist technically: it suddenly became possible to comfortably play rapidly occurring notes of a loud or soft dynamic, which has in turn introduced unique challenges to performance. The role of the instrument, once congruent with its physical/acoustic limitations has remained static in most genres of music and no longer delineates its expressive potential. From the performers perspective the kinaesthetic relationship to audible output has become malleable giving rise to new issues in practise and performance. Most notably this plastic relationship with volume has created an inconsistency in ‘touch’ (how hard a bass guitarist plucks the strings) amongst bassists. This is an extremely important subject in the world of pedagogy yet no literature on the subject could be found. If one considers the recent discovery of mirror neurons (Gallese 1996) and their hypothesised existence in humans, the function of perceived outcomes in performing motor actions (ideo-motor response) and common coding theory which proposes a parity between perception and action (whereby the same code is used by the brain to perceive events and trigger motor actions) the importance of a deeper understanding between the physical and sonic relationship in electric bass playing becomes clear. For example if two young bass players, early in their study of the instrument are encouraged to either turn their instrument up very loud and develop a light/soft touch or have the instrument amplified with less volume and develop are heavy/hard touch their overall kinaesthetic image of playing the instrument would eventually differ greatly. Even the act of listening to other bass players would reinforce their own perception of how to generate tone (Kohler 2002). Initially the first approach would seem logical and even more musical (Willis 2001), however the timbre of strings set in violent motion from a heavy touch is preferred in many genres of music in which professional bass guitarists perform. Due to the psychological phenomena cited previously, the more extreme a performer’s adoption of either approach, the more ‘unnatural’ switching between them can seem. Finally, this new relationship between performer and volume can obscure the message being presented (or rather the signal being transmitted) by the performer to the audience. From the audience perspective, the visual signals (physical effort and gestural affects displayed by the performer) received can seem to contradict with the aural signals. The most common example is that of the music sounding strenuous (loud and complex) yet appearing effortless. While effortless playing is advisable for safe, efficient and accurate technique, perhaps consideration should be given to developing gestural affects in performance which support the music being played.

The Science and Philosophy of Electric Bass Sound.

When a double bass string is set in motion it generates sound waves which are heard by the performer and audience. This means there is a direct connection between the energy heard and the energy exerted by the performer. On a bass guitar an electro magnet is affixed to the body beneath steel strings. When these strings are set in motion they generate a disturbance in the magnetic field of the electro magnet which runs in reverse and generates an electric current. This current then runs through two or more amplifiers which boost that current and finally power an electro magnet affixed to a large plate like surface. This last device is the speaker and converts the electric energy into mechanical energy and creates sound waves. In this case the connection between performer and sound is plastic and can be manipulated in a variety of ways. The most dramatic consequence of this electronic signal chain is that the audible dynamic range is not indicative of the mechanical dynamic range of the musician’s hands. For many modern bass guitarists (particularly in the jazz/fusion tradition) the ff range of their playing actually exists at about the 60-70% mark of the physical force with which they are capable of attacking the string. By necessity their pp dynamic range would be inaudible if they were to perform on acoustic instruments. This approach is known as the ‘light touch’ approach and can be seen as the antithesis of ‘digging in’, where the player’s ff range is closer to their actual physical limit. Gary Willis has established himself as the leading proponent of the light touch approach in a career which has spanned over 30 years working as a sideman and solo artist. His playing exhibits a pin point accuracy in rhythm and intonation on fretless bass guitar and a quality of tone which is strikingly ‘thick’ or ‘strong’ on studio recordings. This thick tone is essentially a trick of volume. By playing softly Willis matches the attack (or front) of each note with the volume that the string will naturally sustain at afterwards, essentially removing the attack-decay quality of note that most stringed instruments produce when plucked with a more synthesiser-like attack-sustain note. This means that not only does the dynamic of the attack last until the next note or rest is played, but the full spectrum of frequencies generated when plucking the string also sustains giving rise to the thick quality of tone. On the subject of sustain Willis states:

 

“Turning your amp up and playing softer will make the speaker act as if there was a big attack, but the note that follows immediately afterwards will be much louder, have more fundamental, and sound bigger for a much longer duration.” (Willis 2001)

 

 

 

Heavy attack.

 

 

 

Soft attack.

New Instrument, New Aesthetic.

Initially most bass guitarists did not conceive of using volume in this way. With the invention of the instrument in 1951 volume was instantly increased and music literally got louder from the bottom up, however the idea of developing a light finger-style technique which utilized the technology of amplification to afford a more dexterous and nuanced playing style was not in the minds of the first generation of players. These musicians were converted double bassists or guitarists and as such transferred their existing techniques to the new instrument. No two bass players define each of these strands more than Carol Kaye and James Jamerson. While not the earliest musicians to embrace the instrument (each began their career around 1960) they both converted from guitar and double bass respectively and recorded on enough mainstream sessions to be accurately documented both musically and biographically. They can both be heard on mainstream radio to this day, Carol Kaye (who appeared on over 10,000 recording sessions) provided the bass part on ‘Good Vibrations’ and many other Beach Boys hits and James Jamerson performed on almost all the Motown hits including ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye.

The case of Carol Kaye is important because she was one of the first bass guitarists to be hired on mainstream west coast recording sessions without tracking in unison with a double bassist. In fact before Carol Kaye many producers didn’t use the standard bass guitar at all but preferred to pair the sound of double bass with that of a Danelectro 6 string bass guitar. This instrument was invented a few years after the Precision Bass and was essentially a guitar tuned down an octave. It was not deep enough in pitch or tone to replace the double bass but was often paired with it (performing in unison) on sessions to add a crisp, bright attack to the bass track. Kaye was able to blend the bright Danelectro sound and the warmth of the double bass sound by using various picks and picking techniques with such skill those producers eventually realised that they could save money and achieve a greater result by hiring her alone (Roberts 2001).

James Jamerson is of even greater significance than Kaye in that he pioneered the sound and technique of a truly ‘bass-guitaristic’ approach. He was a converted double bassist who played with a heavy touch on a bass guitar considered unplayable by many of his contemporaries; his strings were never changed and the action set extremely high. Jamerson possessed in his double bass style a syncopated approach to bass lines that when performed on bass guitar became even more distinctive because the nuances were easier to hear (Licks 1989). Through the 60s this highly rhythmic style, coupled with his creative use of chromaticism went from a focus on 8th notes and 8th note triplets into 16th note territory, inspiring many other bassists to do the same. By the mid to late sixties his double bass playing and bass guitar playing display unique qualities and a respect for the character of each instrument. The bass part on ‘For Once in My Life’ (Stevie Wonder, released in 1968) could only work on the bass guitar just as his part on ‘My Guy’ (Mary Wells, released in 1964) is perfect for the double bass. Despite the complexities of some of Jamerson’s bass lines, he preferred to pluck the strings with only his index finger in a manner similar to that employed by many double bass players. The sound of the bass guitar was emerging as a unique character yet the technique at this stage still largely represented borrowed approaches from guitar and double bass.

Influence of Design on Performance Practise.

The great fork in the road for bass guitar design philosophy occurred around this time. In 1969 while working as an ‘electronic consultant’ for ‘The Grateful Dead’ (a highly influential psychedelic jam-band from San Fransisco) Ron Wickersham developed a new type of amplifier which could be installed into the body of a bass guitar in order to give the performer more control over the sound of the instrument (Roberts 2001). While external amplifiers are capable of manipulating various frequencies and overall volume, the internal system, called ‘active electronics’ altered sound at the source. This gave the performer more control on stage and introduced new factors which I believe encouraged more bass players to adopt the light touch approach which became popular years later. These factors include the ability to hide unwanted neck noise by boosting mid range frequencies (allowing players to set their string height close to the fretboard) and to increase instrument responsiveness (by boosting frequencies and/or volume).

The most distinctive characteristic of active electronics is that they sound bad when played too hard because the onboard pre-amp becomes over powered and distorts. When this is compared to the old style of electronics (passive electronics) which many musicians believe sound more colourful when played hard, it becomes clear that the invention of active electronics played an important role in the emergence of light touch and heavy touch approaches to bass guitar playing. Ron Wickersham’s company Alembic began building basses with active electronics and to this day bass players can choose between active basses or passive basses. The active instruments were particularly popular in the 1980s and early 90s when the attitudes of progressive rock and jazz/fusion promoted clarity on the instrument. Pop music was also recorded mostly on active instruments giving rise to the ‘thick’ bass lines heard in that era. The sound of active instruments dominates the bass tracks of artists such as Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel and can be contrasted with the more ‘open’ sound of passive bass used on today’s recordings by the likes of John Mayer and Powderfinger.

The Rise of Bass Guitar-istic Technique: Finger Style and Slap

The link between light touch and active basses is strong but not comprehensive. Some of the most influential bassists of all time contradict this hypothesis, however the extremely light touch preached by the likes of Gary Willis is problematic on passive instruments. The two most notable exceptions to the light touch/active electronics rule are Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius. A legitimate jazz double bassist, Clarke was one of the earliest Alembic devotees and has continued to record and perform on these instruments throughout his career. Unlike many double bassists who also play electric, Clarke fully embraced the metallic ‘twang’ of the steel string and frets combination and developed a plucking technique which emphasised this quality. Playing towards the neck end of the plucking area with a traditional upright bass style two finger technique Clarke was able to tease out a sound all his own. Using the active electronics to emphasise the treble frequencies his sound ‘cut through’ the band and heralded a new era of bass guitar.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Clarke’s playing was not his plucking technique but rather his adoption of the slapping/popping techniques which Larry Graham had developed through the 60s. Graham who came to prominence performing in ‘Sly and the Family Stone’ developed the technique through circumstance. He had been performing on organ, guitar and vocals with his mother and a drummer at a local club. Graham would play a bass line with the organ pedals, strum guitar and sing all at the same time. Fortunately, for the future of bass that organ broke down and Graham rented a bass guitar the next day. Expecting the organ to be repaired in the near future Graham never received formal training on the new instrument and developed his own technique. When the drummer failed to show up for gigs Graham attempted to emulate the propulsion of a kick drum and snare drum on bass by slapping the low strings with his thumb and plucking the high strings with his index finger (Roberts 2001). This new sound would eventually enter the lexicon of electric bass playing in most genres but it was Stanley Clarke who presented slap in the ‘serious’ world of jazz music. He was one of the first bassists to blend finger style and slap techniques into the one voice and his use of active electronics allowed him to present his ideas in the greatest of detail.

As the bass guitar community was adjusting to this new standard the bar was raised even higher with the seemingly overnight sensation that was Jaco Pastorius. Often cited as rivals due to their close proximity in age and genre Pastorius and Clarke were in many ways opposites. Pastorius developed his medium to light touch on passive Fender instruments (the Fender Jazz Bass), never slapped (though he did occasionally ‘pat’ the strings with an open palm), plucked as close to the bridge as possible and disliked the sound of frets so much that, using a butter knife, he tore them out of his instrument. He did not invent the fretless bass but he was the first distinctly recognisable voice on the instrument. His debut album released in 1976 was “the single most important and influential solo recording ever made by an electric bassist” (Roberts 2001). Bobby Colomby who signed Jaco to Epic Records tells of his earliest impression of Jaco’s playing:

“I had heard hundreds of bassists in my time, but none of them even approached the facility that Jaco showed that afternoon. I was absolutely stunned by what he was doing on the bass. He was definitely coming out of the James Jamerson and Jerry Jemmott style of playing, but he went well beyond their scope. He was doing things on the bass that I had never heard anybody do before– harmonics, chording, impossibly fast lines… He was truly a phenomenon.” (Roberts 2001)

The most distinctive quality of Jaco Pastorius’ playing is that he understood how to support the music as a bass instrument and how to function melodically and even ‘chordally’. His scope is so broad that most musicians cannot grasp all of it; his understanding of time-feel alone can become a lifelong study for most bass players. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida he was surrounded by Calypso rhythms and his father’s influence as a professional drummer instilled in him a respect for time keeping which permeated even his most complex solos. In fact Jaco was first and foremost a drummer, only picking up the bass after a football injury prevented him from developing a strong drumming technique. Many bass players who followed Jaco embraced his techniques, tone and soloing facility without his grasp of time and consequently much of what they were trying to say on the instrument lacked purpose.

 

 

Music Business Shapes Musician and Luthier Aesthetic

It was five years after Jaco’s debut that the sound of active electronics came to dominate the world of bass guitar. Again the driving force was a bassist who blended finger style and slap techniques. By the ripe old age of 20 Marcus Miller was active as a session musician in New York City. In 1981 he made two incredibly bold statements. By successfully auditioning for Miles Davis jazz/funk band he announced to the world that he was a bassist to be reckoned with, and by doing so on a Fender Jazz bass which had been retro-fitted with active electronics, he ushered in a new age of bass tinkering. The pre-amp installed in Miller’s ’77 Jazz bass gave him ‘sparkling highs’ that were truly a revelation. The clarity of his tone sent shockwaves around the music industry and by the mid 80s bass players were winding more and more treble into their bass sounds. Groups like Level 42 placed bass on centre stage and the active bass played by Mark King (of Level 42) was equalized to highlight every detail of his complex bass parts and solos. When compared with James Jamerson’s sound, created by mounting a piece of foam against the strings (strings which were never changed) on a bass equipped with passive electronics run through an amplifier with the treble rolled off, it would seem that bass sound was evolving. In fact when one considers the dull thud of early swing era bass, the muffled punch of Motown bass, and the sparkling tone of Miller, bass sound could be described as a path toward clarity.

However, as the ‘back to basics’ sound of grunge exploded onto the popular music world in the mid 90s the passive Fender instruments came back into vogue to such an extent that musicians began to lose work if they didn’t play these instruments (Roberts 2001). One of the most important of all electric bass players, Anthony Jackson, had already established himself as a high profile session musician when he began developing his ‘6 string contra bass guitar’, an instrument upon which he developed many techniques which have expanded bass playing. When asked how producers responded to his new bass Jackson writes:

“One of the most negative comments got back to me second-hand: ‘You tell Anthony Jackson if he wants to bring his ‘science experiment’, then let him book his own sessions. I want to see the Fender!’” (Jisi 2008)

Anthony Jackson is a Grammy-nominated musician whose reputation precedes him. With such criticism concerning his choice of instrument, it is understandable that less prolific musicians are not willing to go against the grain in terms of instrument choice. As the link between instrument choice, playing style, and tone has already been established it would seem the working bassist is left with little room for personal preference. In the Melbourne music scene it is extremely hard to find a working bassist who does not perform on a Fender bass. Yet the preferred instrument of Jeremy Alsop, perhaps Melbourne’s greatest studio bassist of the 1980s and 1990s was the Steinberger bass, an extremely modern sounding instrument with active electronics and a body made of composite materials. In Jeremy’s words “the thing with Fender basses is they are less of a ‘characterful’ [colourful] sound” (than other brands of bass available). Jeremy believes the proliferation of Fender instruments says more about the state of the art than the instrument. In his opinion the use of instrumentalists in popular music has become a symbolic gesture more than a musical one, representing the ideal of authenticity as deemed by the music business (i.e. Fender instruments are the look of rock music). He also believes that in today’s popular music the only musicians allowed to create new music are the anonymous keyboard/programmers creating music unseen.

Clearly this resistance to new instruments has dramatic consequences for those designing instruments. Convincing the public to embrace exotic body shapes and timbres is an unenviable task, just as convincing pop music to embrace exotic playing is next to impossible. There is however, in both circles, another way. When Jamerson’s Precision bass was made, a strip of foam mounted inside the chrome pickup cover was standard issue. This was intended to dampen the strings and create a double bass like sound, as Leo Fender’s earliest motivation in creating the instrument was to provide an alternative to the cumbersome double bass. By the time of Marcus Miller this cover remained but the foam was no longer installed, the first indication that Fender designers were conscious of the cosmetic legacy they had created. This fixation on cosmetics has been seized by some designers as an opportunity to create new instruments which merely look like Fenders. Roger Sadowsky, the luthier who installed and modified the pre-amp in Marcus Miller’s bass is one such an individual. When formulating the design principles for his own company Sadowsky realised that appearances mean a great deal in the music business. He realised that the studio bassists in New York (where he was based) did not want instruments that didn’t look like a Fender “because they knew what the producers would say”. Rather than create a new body shape and pickup placement, Sadowsky built guitars which looked almost identical to the Fender instruments but featured improvements in design, wood choice and electronics.

I saw what my market was and who my clients were, and I wasn’t willing to spend ten years beating my head against the wall, trying to give them something they were going to resist. I made a commitment to make the best [Fender] Jazz-style bass I could and to offer any refinements I could to the design. I’m comfortable with that…Creatively, it’s frustrating because it limits what I can do – but looking at it from the business perspective of giving people what they want, it’s worth it to me.” (Roberts 1996)

His observations are confirmed by Janek Gwizdala, a phenomenal young jazz/fusion bassist who is active in New York’s session scene:

“As far as the instrument goes…. a bass player must have a P-bass and a Jazz bass in their bag if they’re in a serious session scene. If you’re being hired for the first time by someone, a Fodera Monarch or any kind of high end custom bass will turn a producer off for sure. We’re talking about basses that have been around for a very short amount of time (Fodera, Tobias, Ken Smith, etc…) compared to a Fender bass that’s been on 30,000 hit songs. You may well be able to get any sound out of your Fodera (as I have learnt to over the last 18 months) but it’s the Fender that’s going to keep you the gig and get you re-hired again down the line. “ (Gwizdala 2006)

 

Attitudes towards bass guitar in jazz and popular music

It is interesting that jazz music, one of the few modern genres in which the electric bass has not usurped the double bass, remains a bastion of progressive bass guitar design and playing concepts. It is in the wake of Miles Davis’ jazz/fusion explorations that electric bass playing matured and assumed a dynamic role. As the instrument came to realise its full potential a new vanguard of jazz/fusion bassists emerged who considered themselves disciples of melody, harmony and time-feel in equal measure. It is in this wave of post fusion bassists that a distinct aesthetic came to develop which was not wholly compatible with trends in popular music. While the jazz trained James Jamerson was able to bring his advanced harmonic concepts to the Motown sound, the technical virtuosity of modern day jazz/fusion bass playing and the regressive simplicity of the bass lines in modern pop music have partitioned each role more than ever before. Many students of modern bass find themselves in this unfortunate position: the exciting legacy of jazz/fusion bass playing, the music which they care about so deeply, demands a mastery of techniques and concepts which are unwelcome in pop music. If this seems dramatic compare drumming with bass playing. The aesthetic of pop music drumming and jazz/fusion drumming is quite similar. Detail, accuracy, speed, tone, flair, all these qualities are embraced in pop music drumming and jazz/fusion. Likewise the list of high profile jazz/fusion drummers who have toured or recorded with major pop acts is extensive: Dennis Chambers (Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern, Parliament Funkadelic, Carlos Santana etc.), Vinnie Colaiuta (Chick Corea, Frank Zappa, Barbra Streisand, Steely Dan, Sting etc.), Dave Weckl (Chick Corea, George Benson, Madonna, Paul Simon etc.), Keith Carlock (Wayne Krantz, Sting, Steely Dan etc.) and the list goes on. Meanwhile there are very few examples of ‘superstar’ fusion players touring with ‘superstar’ pop acts. To my knowledge there is only one example of a technically exceptional bass guitarist famous among jazz/fusion circles for his mastery of the instrument who has also toured with a major pop act. That was Victor Bailey who replaced Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report and went on tour with Madonna. There are other bassists who have recorded on important recordings in both genres but very few who have explored the ‘soloistic‘limits of the instrument. An obvious example is Darryl Jones, who toured with Miles Davis and currently plays bass with the Rolling Stones. He is an exceptional bassist with incredible time-feel but not in the same league technically as many of the fusion players.

Luthiers and bassists alike have more freedom in the jazz world than they do in the more financially rewarding world of pop music. Bassists working in jazz use all brands of instruments and all methods of playing them, then routinely switch to Fender instruments and adopt a more traditional approach to bass playing for pop gigs. In the final analysis it would seem that the reason why bassists with high profile jazz/fusion careers seldom appear on high profile pop gigs is that the two worlds are just that, two separate worlds or networks of musicians. In a context which has no need for any skills except perfect time-feel, tone, presentation and social graces, there is no room for new faces who have spent hours practising ‘needless’ techniques rather than working their way up the music business ladder. Most high profile pop bassists have spent their careers developing musical and even (perhaps especially) social sensibilities to get their gig. The situation is comparable to the limited positions available in professional orchestras where regardless of the exceptional skills required, who you know is almost as important as what you know. In this light it would seem that the modern bass disciple of the jazz/fusion school must be mindful of networking if they intend on developing their career beyond the small sphere of jazz. The ‘blow them off the band-stand’ bravado which permeates jazz is not appreciated in the music business because in the world of contemporary pop music the spotlight is well and truly off the bass player.

This is not to suggest there are not incredible musicians working in pop music. Some of the most musical bass players, with the deepest understanding of their instruments are session musicians working in pop music. In fact unlike most fusion bassists many of the pop/session musicians have mastered both heavy playing and light playing as they are less concerned with developing an effortless technique in favour of serving whatever musical context they are functioning in. Welsh bassist Pino Palladino is a fantastic example. In the 1980s Pino was one of the most distinctive session bassists in pop music, appearing on albums by Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Gary Numan and Chaka Khan, just to name a few. His instrument of choice was a fretless Musicman Stingray, an active bass with a large, warm, almost synth-like sound. Then in the 90s, Pino suddenly began using fretted Fender Jazz and Precision basses. At around this stage his career blossomed again, long after the acts mentioned above had waned. Performing with RnB star D’Angelo he used a smooth light touch to get the warm sound heard on ‘Chicken Grease’, and playing with John Mayer (in the John Mayer Trio) he uses a much harder technique to suit the music he’s playing. Palladino is an incredible musician not because he can adapt to so many situations, but because despite these adaptations his own voice permeates. Regardless of instrument or attack used there is a quality in Pino’s playing that remains constant.

Mixed Signals in Performance.

The focus on efficiency of technique has not only affected the ability of some jazz/fusion bassists to adapt to different musical settings, it has also influenced the entire performance aspect of the art. Performers on electric instruments are susceptible to sending mixed visual and aural signals because they are capable of performing complex, loud music without the visual display of effort one would expect to see. When a conga player performs fast passages the whole body is involved and in ‘tune’ with the sound being generated. When a singer ‘belts’ the effect is over whelming, not solely due to the notes, but because the audience can see that every fibre of the performer is engaged in the act of creating that note. Understanding the unique interference created by electricity between visual affect displays and aural affect will better equip bass guitarists in performance. Highly trained bass guitarists should be particularly mindful of this interference as their training often highlights the need for economy of movement in technique, an approach which often influences their body language. As a case study Hadrien Feraud’s performance at ‘Bass Day Uk 2008’ is ideal. Feraud is a prodigious talent who at only 25 years of age has already worked with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin and released a critically acclaimed album. It is safe to say his virtuosity on the instrument is relatively unparalleled. When viewing the footage of this performance the contradiction between the music being heard and the visual presentation of that music is almost jarring. Viewing the performance with the sound off quickly becomes tedious as the distracted, bored manner of performer stimulates a similar response in the viewer. The lack of eye contact with the audience (characteristic of most jazz performances), the understated body language and plain facial expressions convey an indifference which defies his music. As soon as the sound is turned back on the sheer musicality of the aural affect does much to restore interest for most viewers. However many concert goers expect more than pure aural stimulation and it is those audience members who Feraud and most jazz musicians fail to entertain. This is not a study in the nature of art verses business but rather a study in what happens when stage presence is inconsistent with the music coming from that stage. The antithesis of Hadrien’s performance is a video of Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo performing at ‘The Big Day Out 2004’. In my opinion this footage is considerably more enjoyable with the sound off. Trujillo engages the audience and uses his facial and bodily affect channels to much effect, framing his musical content in a coherent context. The most significant difference between these bass players on a technical level is that Feraud is coming from a tradition which emphasises efficiency of technique and Trujillo is not. Feraud has mastered his instrument and Trujillo has not, and yet Trujillo is one of the most financially successful freelance musicians of all time. He has toured and recorded with Suicidal Tendancies, Ozzy Osbourne and Infectious Grooves but it was his one million dollar signing bonus upon joining Metallica which catapulted him into a financial league few musicians experience. Key to Trujillo’s success is that in the genres in which he performs, sound is only part of the criteria. In the world of rock music there is no separation between playing and stage presence: a good rock player ‘rocks out’ or they are not a good rock player. In reality ‘rocking out’ is an attempt to transmit visual signals congruent with the aural signals of the performance. One final video can be used to illustrate the unique challenge of stage presence which bassists face. In this footage from Tribal Tech performing in Israel one can instantly see the animated Kurt Covington behind the drum-kit. Covington is a naturally animated performer who often augments his colourful facial expressions with ‘extra-musical’ vocalisations such as yelling or screaming. His animated stage presence serves his animated drumming style and he ultimately becomes the highlight for many concert goers despite the fact that he is sideman to one of the most important fretless bassists since Jaco Pastorius: Gary Willis. In this same video the incongruence of visual and aural affect becomes more apparent as one observes guitarist Scott Henderson, bassist Willis and finally keyboard player Scott Kinsey who despite being one of the most exciting musicians to play the instrument musically speaking, is among the most boring to watch.

Conclusion

The observations above may seem to meander between aspects of design, technique, performance and the state of the music business, however they converge in a very real sense in my own experience of music. At a formative stage I was introduced to jazz/fusion and immediately fell in love with improvising. To facilitate a more accurate connection between my musical ideas, ears and hands I studied the bassists who excelled in this area. Bassists such as Victor Bailey, Gary Willis, Kai Eckhardt and Jaco Pastorius encouraged me to explore light touch approaches to bass playing. Willis was particularly influential in my adopting a low string height and minimal pressure with the fretting hand. As I studied these bassists on a technical/soloistic level I remained very much enamored with genres of music outside the jazz/fusion school of bass playing, and as my professional music life began I found myself working in these genres, attempting to fuse a ‘fusion-centric’ conception of bass guitar with these genres. The consequences of this ‘fusion-centric’ conception extended far beyond technique; instrument choice, wearing of the instrument, stage presence, tone, all these elements were affected. In the past two years these elements have been scrutinised using a broader conception of bass guitar. Relocating to Melbourne, seeking greater performance opportunities as a bassist and exploring new timbres on the instrument are all factors inspiring this scrutiny. It has become my opinion that technique should ultimately facilitate musical flexibility and not become an end unto itself. There are however concessions, which as an artist I am not willing to make. Rather than redefine my conception of bass guitar I am merely broadening this conception to facilitate musical growth. 

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