I’m sure you’ve all seen them. They wander around the campgrounds in search of a good jam. But unlike most other would be bluegrass jammers, they are heavily burdened by a very ponderous and unwieldy instrument. If they do a lot of jam hopping they’re sure to have some sort of a wheel or a cart to make the process easier. But they still appear to be trudging with some difficulty, like Sisyphus rolling his massive stone to the top of the hill.
While I’m grateful to be able to jam with a much more portable instrument, I’ve always had an admiration for those bluegrass stalwarts who play the bass. Bluegrass music just wouldn’t be bluegrass music without the bass. Jams with basses generally sound better than jams without basses, even if you don’t necessarily notice the bass or if the bass player is just an average player. And that’s not only true of bluegrass music. Think of jazz, classical, rock or just about any music. They all need the solidity of a bass.
Back in my college days, I gravitated to jazz as my favorite music to sit down and listen to. You could always find good music at Paul’s Mall or the Jazz Workshop and the DJs from the Berklee School spun jazz records all night long on WBUR. I listened to it almost every night into the wee hours. John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett: i loved those guys. And I loved it when a bass player would step out of the shadows and play a solo on that otherwise strictly back up instrument. In my mind still, the bass takes much more of a solo role in jazz than its companion rhythm instrument, the drum set. Not that drum solos aren’t a cherished feature of jazz, it just seems that the bass solo is a more prominent feature of jazz, while the drum solo is a more prominent feature of rock and roll.
Jazz bassists can be big stars. What jazz fan of the era doesn’t know the name Charlie Mingus? Or Paul Chambers? Or Stanley Clarke? Or Neils-Henning Orsted-Pedersen? (Well maybe that last name isn’t as familiar to as many bluegrass fans as the other three, but you have to admit the name rolls off the tongue like no other name since Cedric Rainwater) Guys like Mingus made the jazz bass solo just about the coolest thing on the musical planet at the time.
My love of the jazz bass sound inspired me to actually buy a bass, just after college. It wasn’t the big stand up acoustic bass I really wanted, but a friend of mine was anxious to get rid of an electric bass he never played anymore. It had a slightly bent neck and came with a guitar amp instead of a real bass amp, but I figured I’d give it a try anyway.
I bought an instructional book and practiced in my spare moments. Since my new bass was a hollow body Hoffner “Beatle Bass” (like Paul McCartney used to play), I was able to practice off amp without disturbing the neighbors in my apartment building. I learned how to “walk” the bass between chord changes and i learned how to play along with recordings on simple rock and roll tunes. Eventually, I could do a reasonable job on an easy bass line, for example the one on Santana’s Black Magic Woman. But I never got much better than that. Sadly, I never put enough work into learning the bass to get good at it, so I eventually sold it.
Many years later I caught the bluegrass bug. That’s the affliction that all of you readers who have stuck with me to this point probably also have. For some reason, when the bluegrass bug struck and it came down to choosing an instrument, I chose the mandolin. Only after several years of study did I even consider branching out a bit, to at least dabble in some other bluegrass instruments. By then I had discovered that it was a very useful jamming skill to be able to fill gaps in instrumentation with one’s musical versatility. So I started fooling around with a guitar. Then after several annual sessions of mandolin at music camp, I signed up as a new guitar student last summer.
One thing I discovered by experimenting with the guitar was that I really loved putting in those bass runs. I found that I definitely gravitated to those top four strings on the instrument, which correspond in tuning to the four strings of a bass. I began to think that maybe I could fall in love with the bass again.
Not long after that, I went to my regular local jam and I saw my friend Phillip there. I hadn’t seen Phillip for quite some time but I had always enjoyed hearing him play his Dobro. He’s always been one of the best players at our weekly session. The surprise for me that day though, was that Phillip hadn’t brought his Dobro. He was playing a bass instead. And he was brand new to the instrument. I scratched my head and wondered: ” Why would anybody THAT good on such a cool instrument, forsake it all to start over again on a totally unfamiliar one?” So I asked him. “Because the bass is really fun to play!”, was his reply. I thought about that and i realized he was totally right. It had been really fun to play the bass twenty or so years back. Maybe I should give it another try.
So what instrument did I sign up for at music camp this year? You guessed it, the bass. Lisa Burns was such a great teacher. I’m pretty sure all of her students learned five tunes, as I did, that first lesson. How does that sort of thing happen? I can assure you I’ve never learned five tunes the first day of mandolin class. Maybe Lisa is a great teacher or maybe the bass is just a great instrument or maybe a little of both. At any rate, I was inspired and after I got home my friend Lorraine let me borrow her spare bass and I continued to practice.
I thought very seriously about cramming that big bass into my car as I went to the weekly jam last Saturday. You always need a bass and sometimes we don’t have one there. I now have a bass, and I definitely want to feel needed at a jam, but I took the mandolin instead. Fortunately, Phillip was there with his bass. He knew I had taken bass classes at music camp, but I was surprised when he asked me to take his bass for a while so he could play some Dobro. It was a treat hearing Phillip play the Dobro again, but even more of a treat to play his bass! I played that thing for over an hour and I still have the blisters to prove it. When my turn came to call a tune, I called for the Sweet Sunny South. I had been working on a bass solo for it and, although I sort of flubbed it, there’s always a next time.
Like Phillip says, playing the bass is fun!