Bass Players and Influences

Let me start with myself. How humble of me.

I had no idea about music as a kid beyond what was on the radio in the late 60s to mid-70s (of course the radio, like a lot of other things, was far more amenable then).

Neither of my parents played any instruments. My dad hated rock and roll, preferring Simon and Garfunkel or Benny Goodman. I knew “String of Pearls” but not “Close to the Edge.” My mom liked Elvis, so we had a stack of Elvis records (I remember hearing an Elvis song called “Bossa Nova” where he sang, “… give me a dollar so we can buy some gas so we can go for a little ride.” I thought, “Gas is a dollar?”). She got to see the Beatles in Memphis, I believe, in August of 1966. Wow.

I was interested in art. I painted and drew. I loved sketching with pencils. I was too careless to use charcoal, which went everywhere, or grease paints, which seemed like drawing with lipstick.

I also wrote, having written a story for my Principal in the 3rd grade, and a book about Godzilla, with my still friend, fellow bassist, terrific artist and good guy, Bob Kimball. I also wrote a speech in school on the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa that had apparently impressed luminaries sufficiently that I was invited to present it at the University of Tennessee debate club, which I did. I remember my dad driving me there.

Music? I had heard of bands like Jethro Tull, Three Dog Night, and Yes but I never really listened to them apart from what I heard on the radio. The Jackson 5 were huge when I was in elementary school – I remember having one of their albums and liking songs like “Ben,” “Funky Chicken,” etc. I liked their music after elementary school, enjoying songs like “Dancing Machine.”

Of course the Osmond Brothers were popular as well – especially among the girls, who all LOVED Donny Osmond. I remember “Down By the Lazy River” and “Go Away Little Girl” and the perfect Ken doll hair – it was enough to convince me that the Jackson 5 did it better.

Beyond that I cannot say I really liked any groups. I was a casual radio listener, whatever was a hit (whether it was Al Stewart, Foghat, or Black Oak Arkansas I might like it, I might not, but the band behind it seemed irrelevent.

That all changed in the sixth grade, when through an unfolding tragedy, I met the guy who would introduce me to music, the person we are to all blame for this entirely tedious waste of time – Gary Buck, Jr. (it’s a Southern thing. Chill ya’ll, and oh, I won’t give away his middle name – I legally can’t until either of us has been dead at least 75 years and 1 day).

I started Mt View (something) School the second half of sixth grade. I still recall the names of our home room teachers (it was a large room that held us all like the common area in a prison). Gary was quiet, but so was I.

One fateful day, we were on the bus together going home from school. We were sitting on the passenger side, he was one seat ahead of me against the window. It was raining, as it often is in Nashville in March. He was wearing a pancho with the Minnesota Vikings on it while I had one on with the Miami Dolphins (I liked the Dolphins because, well, I liked dolphins). We talked about football, and talked and talked… and I missed my stop.

I exited the school bus at my next opportunity, 3 stops later and slogged it out home over swollen creeks and soggy yards.

His father was a professional singer (I won’t divulge his name here. I did it just above a moment ago) and fairly well-known in certain country-music circles. He sang at the Opry every Saturday matinee and at his supper club nearly every night of the week. He sang backup for Elvis, and was actually at Graceland for a couple of days about 2 weeks before Elvis died. And he had a beautiful voice – and he knew how to use it. They made a pretty good living then – luxury cars, boats, vacations. It was great.

His step mom was 26, amazingly sexy, and… somewhat famous as well as a professional singer and musician, with a famous family as well. So music was everywhere.

Gary played harmonica – the one instrument I knew I DID NOT like. He had a University of Alabama crimson tide colored bag full of them – different keys, chromatic ones, broken ones, huge ones, small ones – all equally awful sounding. But he also had a Yamaha acoustic guitar…

Gary discovered the Beatles, and I did too. He wanted to be John and play guitar, I wanted to be Paul and play the bass. And that is how I got my start – I’ve always and only ever been a bass player.

The first bassist who caught my ear was Geddy Lee. The first thing I learned was the “Overture” to 2112 (which is quite easy to a point). Gary and I sat with the record and worked it up.

Geddy. I saw them first on this, the Hemispheres tour.

Geddy Lee is an incredible bassist. His amazing playing introduced me to the instrument, and from the very beginning I saw that the bass was meant to lock in with the drums – especially the kick. It gives a melodic voice to the percussive heartbeat. When the kick hits, a bass note is hit (often a root). OK. Got it. Really, that’s the bottom line. Now it’s not the sort of thing you want to do all of the time (the classic Earth, Wind and Fire song “October” has the most incredible off-beat to the kick bass line that makes the whole song bounce in a fun way). But Geddy and Neil do it quite a bit, and I did too.

I also learned what harmony notes sounded like – ESPECIALLY fifths and then fourths (Porcupine Tree wear out thirds and fifths) from Geddy. Sitting on an E? Reach up a whole step and down one string to the B. Yeah, Just try it. CHECK IT! I’M GEDDY LEE! YYZ IS NEXT! Wanna sound heavy? sitting on D? Just go one string up, stay in the same fret position, and bounce that low A off that D. Run to the Hills, baby.

Mhm.

I learned from the beginning that bass was loud, prominent and could riff all over the place – just tear off into something (countless times in “Hemispheres”). And this really is the sweet spot of prog bass.

I can play bass in the back, or in the front, as much or as little as I want. I can solo. Chord. Tap. Slap. Thump. Shred, Finger pluck. Break out Funk Fingers for funk’s sake. There’s nothing in prog to hinder any approach except the players lack of imagination and local decency laws (which are frequently flouted by us low-enders. Just sayin.)

I can also solo if I want, play the root, play a fourth over the root, come in on the and-e-of, fade in, fade out, double the guitar, double the drums (if not already), double them both, solo in, come in under the radar, low and groovy… or not. Again, there are no musically imposed limitations at all.

It’s why I love to play prog – the world is wide opened. Steven Wilson used a banjo to great effect in “Trains.” Your move, now hippity-hop to the barber shop.

Thank you, Geddy.

To this day that is how I play – lock in with the kick and I am not ever put off by what the kick is doing; grab those fourths and fifths and I love to riff all day long – like Chris Squire.

Chris and his legendary 1964 Ric

As I sit here typing “Tempus Fugit” is playing and what a blast to play. I’m going to have to cover that. Chris was enormously influential as his bass would not be contained. It reached over into all parts of the song – rhythm, melody, harmony, ambience, solo, lead – it’s all there.

Consider “Siberian Khatru” – the bassline is in it’s own world for much of the opening section, but then he locks it down with the drums tight as Jon begins, “Sing, bird of prey”. From up in the air and melodically/rhythmically dense, to a straightforward half note pound-it-out in the next section.

And he scores big for my favorite bass solo – it’s at the end of “Does it Really Happen To You?” on Yes’ “Drama.”

The evening Chris Squire died in June of 2015, I was playing an outdoor gig with my Porcupine Tree cover band, Cloud Zero. I found out the following morning Chris had died. I knew he was diagnosed with leukemia, but I thought he was responding well to treatment, so his death seemed sudden.

My 2016-Celebrity-Death-A-Day would prove to be off to an early and tragic start.

Thank you, Chris, and RIP.

I was never really a Van Halen fan. They were too straight forward, and in Nashville, a little bit too redneck for me. And Michael Anthony’s bass playing was the never ending source of easy humor.

Billy Sheehan.

I knew Eddie obviously was and is a fantastic guitarist, but that wasn’t enough on its own to hold my interest. Maybe I’d feel different if I had a Camaro in high school.

Despite this, “Yankee Rose” was making the FM radio rounds in Nashville and everyone thought it was pretty awesome, Steve Vai played on it (ZAPPA!) but when I heard “Shy Boy” my first thought was, “That’s a bass?”

The low sounding guitar was in the right register to be a bass, but it wasn’t doing bass-y things. To be sure, Geddy sometimes doubled Alex (“YYZ,” which is the other way around actually – Alex doubles Geddy, Geddy never doubles Alex in it), but this was bass doubling guitar solo with tapping and hammer-ons at full guitar speed (here too it’s the other way around: the guitar is doubling the bass solos in “Shy Boy” as in “YYZ.” (You guitarists need to start writing your own damned solos for once and stop copying us bassists and develop your own stuff).

Soooo… bass doesn’t have to be the slow kid in the class? Bass doesn’t have to simply play roots, riffs… it can solo…? It can double guitars like that? It’s not too slow? Too cumbersome? Too fat? Bass can dive-bomb?????

Wow, thanks Billy.

My next big paradigm shift came from John Myung of Dream Theater (Yeah, bad and mixed up pun). What I loved so much about John’s playing was the speed and clarity – every note is there and nothing missing – no matter how crazy it gets.

John Myung

I was fortunate to join a prog guitarist and drummer/multi-instrumentalist through a Craigslist ad. It was 2007 and I was looking to start a prog band. Someone responded, a keyboardist who had been in a Genesis tribute band for a number of years. We talked and were interested in jamming together sometime – then I heard from a guitarist and drummer working together without a bassist and trying to get something going. They’d auditioned a number of bassists but were still looking when they were alerted to my CL ad by someone else. So I learned Ytse Jam, and asked them to learn Free Will, packed my P-Bass, my crappy Crate amp, and off we went. Two weeks later, the keyboardist I met earlier was invited to audition and she joined – and we had guitar, bass, keys and drums. We went through a few vocalists, having some good ones, but nothing really permanent.

Anyhow, one of the bands we wanted to cover was Dream Theater (we were about 80% originals), so we rehearsed and worked up Ytse, and then we talked about working up a Steve Vai piece but went with Metropolis Part I for some reason.

So being a huge fan of John Myung’s precision and speed (he doubles Petrucci often), I was very happy to be able to express that in a live band setting. That was awesome.

Thanks, John.

Apart from the influences of these giants, I have to say some of the bassists who have been inspiring and have had something about them that I’ve chased in one way or another include monster players like Mihio Dey (who inspired me to incorporate more multi-finger plucking style), or Simon Grove (who is changing the way I play, making my sound darker, and more aggressive), or Jimmy Haislip, or Jeff Berlin, or Jon Camp. I could go on and on, but the point is that there are a lot of incredible players out there who I owe a debt of gratitude,