Hello. My name is Leon and I’m a bass player.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s something to be proud of.
Being a bass player, I’ve learned, is something innate, hard wired into the brain.
Some bass players start out as bass players and know they are bass players. Others, like myself, and a few more notable players (such as Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman plus many more) start out on other instruments and end up on bass. This can be due to many different factors, but if you are destined to be bass player, there is no escape.
I, like so many other musicians, started off by learning the guitar. I had a false start at the age of ten when my well-meaning parents paid for guitar lessons. My dad would drop me off at Foulds on Iron Gate with my rented classical guitar and I would wait for the tutor to take me upstairs for my lesson. Once there I would be instructed on the rudiments of reading and playing sheet music using examples such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Frere Jacques.
I hated it.
I loved music, but this seemed to be a thousand miles away from what I loved and what my ten year old concept of being a musician was. Surely my musical heroes didn’t have to go through all this to get where they were?
I eventually gave it up as bad job and spent the next four years just listening to, and enjoying music.
When I was fourteen my family and I were visiting one of my dad’s old schoolmates. He played guitar in a band and had a Fender Stratocaster set up in a box room with a little practice amp. I expressed an interest in this so we went upstairs, he plugged the thing in and then played the riff to ‘Oh Well’ by Fleetwood Mac. Bang! That was it. Some kind of lightening bolt from the Musical Gods hit me between the eyes and I was hooked. I spent the rest of the afternoon up there on my own trying to master the five notes of that pentatonic scale in E.
With this renewed interest in learning to play again, I begged my parents for an electric guitar. They were a little wary after my abortive attempts previously, so the compromise that we reached was that if I started on a classical guitar and taught myself to some degree of proficiency then I could get an electric guitar. So, back we went to Foulds, scene of my previous failure, and bought a cheap, nylon strung, classical guitar. I can still picture it now. It was dark brown ( as opposed to the usual light brown of most classical guitars), had a colourful binding pattern around the sound hole and sounded, to my ears, like the Archangel Gabriel blowing the Trumpet of Truth. It also had an action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) about the height of a Derby Corporation Blue Bus. A double decker at that. But not to worry, it was a start, and it was mine.
We scoured the instructional books section of the shop and (more by luck than judgement) bought Volume 1 of Russ Shipton’s Complete Guitar Player series. Russ, judging by the accompanying photos, wore a hairpiece, liked sitting on a stool and devoted a page and a half to holding the guitar in the correct way. There were the usual introductory pages on how to position the fingers for 2 or 3 basic chords and how to strum, but the best bit was this: he showed you how to use these chords in recognisable songs! Genius!
By the end of the week I could do a passable version of ‘Bye Bye Love’ by The Everly Brothers. OK, my left fingertips were a mashed pulp of bloody flesh and my left forearm ached like a navvy’s back from pressing down the strings the required inch and a half to the fretboard, but I was making progress. As I worked my way through the book and subsequent books, the great thing was that he included some (in my opinion) really great songs. The Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ were in there along with other stuff by The Who and The Eagles. Mind you, he would sneak some of his own songs in there (‘Going Where The Action Is’ anyone?), but I’ll let him off.
I think that the most important part of this learning process was developing a ‘good ear’. By learning (through Russ) to play songs that I knew already, I could then move on to working out how to play songs from the records that I loved. I learned how to hear changes and melodies and harmonies within those changes. Now, I don’t profess to be an accomplished musician, by any stretch; I can’t read a note of music and know very little about music theory, but I know that I do have a good set of ears, and that, I think, is invaluable.
By now, I’d convinced my parents that I was worthy of an electric guitar, so nights were spent scouring the classified pages of the Derby Evening Telegraph. Finally, a suitable prospective purchase was found, a phone call made and an arrangement for the vendor to come round to our house one evening was sorted out. I remember not being able to concentrate at school that day and the last lesson (Business Studies with the interminable Mrs Edge) seemed to last a lifetime. At around 7pm there was a knock on our front door and a middle aged man with a neatly trimmed grey beard came in with a bergandy soft vinyl guitar case in one hand and a small practice amp in the other. He unveiled the guitar from it’s covering and I stared in awe at the hunk of maple before me: a Westone Thunder 1A in natural finish.
For the princely sum of £89 ( I still have the handwritten reciept from the Mr Glydn-Davies who sold it) I was now the proud owner of the above guitar and case, curly grey lead and ten watt ‘Badger’ practice amp. I still own the guitar and amp (and curly grey lead) some twenty five plus years later. That cheap, Japanese chunk of maple, ash and rosewood was my main guitar for the next fifteen years and still sounds great when you crank it up.
I spent the next ten years or so in various bands playing guitar and very occasionally bass ( does anyone apart from the two other members remember The Dangerous Jazz Brothers…?). I got myself a bass to tinker about on due to an inexplicable obsession with Level 42 in my mid teens ( I still have a soft spot for their early jazz funk orientated stuff) but ended up selling it as I was skint before going to University. I never really studied the bass properly or took it seriously, I just faffed about on it.
From the mid to late ’90’s I took a bit of a hiatus from bands and playing fell by the wayside. An opportunity for a bit of a blues jam with some friends came up with an opening on bass. So, I got myself a cheap bass and amp and went to the session. Wallop! I’d been kicked in the nether regions by the Doc Martin of fate. It was if a switch had been turned on in my brain; this was the instrument I was meant to play. There was this indescribable feeling of holding down the rhythm and the harmonic aspects of the tune whilst moving so much air with the speaker cone it made your trouser bottoms flap.
It suddenly all made sense.
Looking back, I realised that all this time, whilst singing along to my favourite songs or albums, I had usually been singing the basslines. Not the lead vocal line like most normal people but the bassline. Whether it be Nathan Watts’ grooves on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’, Norman Watt-Roy’s beautiful fluid lines on Ian Dury’s ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ or Wilton Felder’s fantastic parts on ‘I Want You Back’ by The Jackson Five, I was hooked on basslines. Bass players are often maligned as the talentless one in the band, only able to bash out root notes, and yes, that may be true to a very limited extent (and some music may dictate that that is what is required of the song), but listen to ‘For Once In My Life’ by Stevie Wonder and try and tell me that James Jamerson’s bassline is not a thing of beauty. The whole performance is like a fantastic counter melody to Wonder’s vocal line but still holding down the rhythm and the harmonic elements of the song. Absolute perfection.
I also realised that this was not a recent habit. I played one of the favourite albums of my youth, ‘Complete Madness’ ( a best of Madness compilation from 1982 featuring their early hits that I used to play religiously) and realised that I could sing all of Mark Bedford’s bass parts without even trying (Bedford is a seriously underrated bassist, by the way. Try and listen to his basslines the next time you hear a Madness song…)
Many of my musician friends (and non-musician friends) may well be shaking their heads and wondering what the hell I’ve been going on about. Many of them may not have even made it this far and would have bailed out at the mention of Level 42. But I would like to think that a few are nodding their heads in appreciation and understanding (and maybe some in pity…). Those that are may well be bass players too. Some may not even have realised they are bass players until now…
So, like I said, my name is Leon and I am a bass player.