Walking the Bass Line #5
It's been a while since I last wrote about my bass guitar journey. Today's article is all about the pocket, good technique, recording, tone, gear, geeking out and most importantly, enjoying yourself!
It seems like an eternity since I wrote my first article as a new bass player - eight years to be exact.
A lot has happened and thought I would revisit this post and tell you what I have been up to: it’s been a fascinating, challenging and rewarding few years.
I have written a few other bass-based posts, which can be found in this very blog and if you fancy taking a look, have listed them all at the foot of this article.
The engine room
My father was an agricultural engineer based in Ross-on-Wye which is in the wonderful county of Herefordshire, England - the land of Hobbits. With this DNA, it should have been obvious that my musical adventures would lead me to work in a band’s engine room!
I really like working with drummers and guess that comes in handy as between us, we are the engine that drives the band.
One of the most essential things I’ve learned as a bass player is that you really do have to listen to what the drummer is doing and Jedi mind-groove-meld together.
It still surprises me today how many bass players don’t listen, or work together as a team, playing away in their own low-end bubble, perhaps not being aware that the music is missing out on its wonder-mojo-moment!
A good analogy I like to use is the engine in a motor vehicle.
Sometimes an engine develops a fault and stops running smoothly; you can hear it ‘spluttering’ or as we say in England ‘misfiring’. This is usually caused by timing issues, where the moving parts are not synchronised properly.
In the halcyon days of motoring, the skilful mechanic would adjust the different elements until they heard and felt a harmonious engine purr. Nowadays, the engine can be plugged into a computer which highlights and corrects the issues. Another skill lost - but that’s another discussion.
It’s exactly the same with the bass and drums - it could be one of you is out of sync or you’re just not listening to each other and it’s your job, as a team, to work out what’s happening, why and then sort it out.
Rule one in the bass player manual: stick to the kick like shit to a blanket
Taking the analogy to its conclusion, the engine (aka rhythm section) must work in the vehicle and once tight and grooving, the other musicians have a great bed to work upon.
But, who is the driver? The singer? No, the song of course, because serving this is the most important job for us as musicians.
OK. We are synced with the drummer and band now, but what does it feel like?
The most important thing about playing bass in the engine room is finding what we call ‘the pocket’.
The pocket is the specific place in time when you should pick a note. As the name implies, the pocket has a certain “size” or should we say timeframe. When you play ‘in the pocket’ means that you are hitting the notes at just the perfect time to groove well with the drums and the rest of the band.
I think this ability defines whether or not you really are a bass player.
Can you teach it? I’m not so sure…
Can you feel it? Abso-fuckin-lutely!! The Pocket is feel!!
Above all else my bass playing has been defined by working in the studio and recording from day one. This experience has taught me what I really sound like.
That may appear obvious, but do you remember the first time you heard your recorded voice played back to you? Most probably you sounded quite different to the way you imagined: I know I did, and it’s the same with bass.
The importance of good technique
I’ve learned a few harsh lessons from recording.
It’s crucial that I really listen to my sound, how the bass line is sitting in the track and whether it’s serving what the song needs.
Am I crashing the vocal? Is this major third working with the bass synth? Do I need to play that note an octave up or down? All these are vital but fade into the cheap seats if you have poor technique.
If you are a real low-end dweller, mostly below the seventh fret and working in a typical live rock band, it’s really tricky to hear the real detail of your playing; ringing notes, clacking and buzzing strings are all camouflaged by the overall sound of the band but when recording everything is revealed - warts and all.
Keep it clean
OK, you think you’ve recorded a really groovy take but something isn’t quite gelling! The producer is trying to work out what’s going on and through a process of elimination, listens to all the instruments separately until that fateful moment arrives when they solo the bass track!
Yeah, baby - bass solo. It’s just the bass - usually heavily compressed which brings out every tiny detail - and you, on your own! It feels like you are standing there naked for that moment of truth.
Oh shit!! That doesn’t sound at all like I thought I’d played it - there are strings ringing here and there and a sort of growling, humming low-end dissonance and unwanted harmonics in places because I’d not always managed to dampen/mute the other strings.
Learning to play and record in the studio is a fabulous discipline
The bass is unforgiving and the thing is, you don’t always hear it and need to train your ear to listen out for this stuff.
Muting or dampening strings is an essential technique that I am working on with every new song we write, play and record. I think that’s what I like about growing as a musician and bass player, you never just arrive - it really is all about the journey.
The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90? He replied, “Because I think I’m making progress.”
I try practicing a groove with a metronome playing ahead, on and behind the beat, then adding a drum machine to spice up the groove a little then, if rehearsing a set, playing around with the stems of the tracks, with and without bass.
And a top tip - using headphones and a compressor really helps.
If your ears and muscle memory are conditioned, you have a good chance of keeping your shit together in the heat of battle on stage when it’s very easy to lose concentration.
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Listen with your ears
My husband Simon and I have a saying in the studio ‘Listen with your ears’ and before the advent of digital recording, that was all we could ever do.
Now, it is almost inescapable to see the data and waveforms on screens to inform you about what your instrument ‘sounds’, or more accurately ‘looks’ like - and many musicians, engineer and producers ‘listen’ with their eyes’…
For various logical and practical reasons, most people now record to a click track (an electronic metronome) which is played back to the drummer. Once an instrument is recorded, the individual instruments are displayed on-screen in a grid-like format showing bars and subdivisions thereof. You can see where in the bar the beats or notes fall and it’s very easy to slavishly look and move stuff around so it matches this grotesque grid!
The recording process is not a painting-by-numbers, tick-box exercise so most of all, be authentic. - authentic to yourself.
Dare to be you and find out who you are!
That’s where the studio is a precious transformative space. A place for sonic alchemy, experimentation and adventure. Of course, every project is different but when we can, that’s how we choose to spend our time in the studio.
At the end of the day it’s all down to you
A producer or fellow band member can help you to think about a track in a different way or make suggestions but at the end of the day use the force! Your force and be prepared to argue your corner!
What does it sound like to you?
How does it make you feel?
Do you have a vision for the sound and if so, are you there yet?
If you don’t know, why not play it again until you feel it’s right?
Alternatively, come back the next day, listen again and see what you think.
It’s all about the tone
OK, we have covered stuff about what and how you play, but the third critical element is your sound. Does it sit mellifluously in the track and should it sit mellifluously in the track?
This all depends on what the band is trying to achieve. The likes of Carl Radle, Adam Clayton and John McVie generally sit in the track, whereas Peter Hook, Mark King, Chris Squire and Flea are up there in the lead instrument territory.
So once you have decided where you want the bass to sit, there are a number of choices involved in order to achieve the tone you are looking for.
It’s essential to experiment and get to know your gear - playing different basses, pedals and amp combinations plus messing around with the knobs - whilst listening and understanding their sonic chemistry.
This is the essential list:
What bass guitar are you playing - the tone you need will inform what to choose
What strings are you using? Flats or round-wound really change the atmosphere of the instrument
Are you playing with your fingers or using a pick?
Whereabouts on the bass are you playing? Closer to the neck or the bridge
What amp (if any) are you using?
Are you miking up your bass cab
Are you using a DI and playing straight into the desk?
All these things affect the way you sound before you put your groove into the equation.
Over the next few weeks and months I will cover all this with real life examples, sound clips and videos.
I love my bass
Nothing has changed about the way I feel about playing bass. As soon as I put that guitar strap over my shoulder and get a hold of my bass in my hands, plug in and turn up - that’s it - I’m away!! Something spiritual and perhaps even chemical happens to me.
I do play quite a few instruments and don’t believe that playing bass defines me, but it is an essential part of my creative language and I guess you could call it my spirit instrument.
Simon and I are working hard at the moment rehearsing and prepping for our two-week Starlite & Campbell UK headline tour at the end of September to support the release of our new concept album STARLITE.ONE.
So next time, I thought it would be fun to write about the process starting with the bass guitars in my stable - especially my new custom Mike Lull Starlite T4, then building my new pedal board and learning how to use the different bits of electronic wizardry needed for our new sonic adventures.
To give you a low-end flavour of my bass playing, songwriting and musicianship - have a listen to the lead single Saving Me from the new album.
Warning: for geeks only
Because this is a geek-oid kind of post, I might as well go through what gear I used on this particular track, Saving Me.
Mike Lull T4 Starlite bass guitar fitted with Curt Mangan nickel wound light 100 round wound strings
Dunlop Tortex 0.73mm triangular pick (happy yellow)
Rupert Neve Designs RNDI into our CADAC J series analogue console then direct to Pro Tools at 24/96
Re-amped - very loud - through a 1974 HiWatt DR201 (normal and bright channels linked) and Bergantino 610 cabinet using a Hudson Broadcast Germanium pre-amp pedal
Mic’d with a Neumann U47 FET and Sennheiser MD421 then both channels compressed in the mix with two vintage DBX 165s**. Some of the DI signal was mixed in parallel with the two compressed channels.
** We don’t do plugins
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As promised here are the other articles I wrote when I was just kicking off as a bass player.
See you next time!!