All About That Bass

I don’t know exactly when I first fell in love with the guitar.
I remember when I first wanted to be able to play music. I grew up in Ireland. My Irish dad came from a Protestant family but had never been particularly religious: his US Army dog tags gave his religion as ‘EPISCOPALIAN’, which for the early 60s US Army was by way of saying ‘[INSERT RELIGION HERE]’. Nevertheless, when I was a small boy he began to show signs of having faith, which was and still is a bit baffling to the rest of us, who didn’t. We used to go to church on Sundays and I was too shy to sing hymns, but I liked the predictable sound of the music, and I used to sit there working out what you could sing as well as the melody; what else would sound good, besides the boring old tune that everyone else was singing? I didn’t know it at the time, but my instinct was to harmonise.

Later, we would go round to my grandparents’ house for Sunday lunch and I would hear my grandpa’s Oscar Peterson LPs, and I liked the smoky, intimate, predictable-but-not-too-predictable sound of the music. I soon found out that that was called ‘jazz’, so I decided that I wanted to learn to play jazz. I liked the Beatles, but I couldn’t figure out how you played a guitar, so I expressed a wish to learn piano because I thought it’d be easier. The fact that we didn’t own a piano did not strike me as much of an obstacle.

So, when I was nine, we bought a piano from a family friend and schlepped it to our house. It got tuned, and I was sent off to have piano lessons with another family friend who was a professional piano teacher. I didn’t know at the time that my teacher loathed jazz. It was more that we couldn’t very well have me taught the basics of piano by anyone else, because she was the only person we knew who taught piano, and it would have been rude not to ask her to teach me.

My piano teacher’s daughter was one of my best friends from school, and she in turn was learning the guitar. I used to look at her big acoustic guitar on my way out from lessons, and wonder how you made a note with it. Compared to a piano, it looked ferociously complicated. But I soon found that learning piano didn’t agree with me. I realise now that if I had had a teacher who sympathised with my desire to be able to make stuff up on the piano, things might have been different. But my teacher was more about showing me how to sit and how to hold my wrists and how to play simplified versions of ‘Hall of the Mountain Kings’. I don’t blame her. She taught classical piano, not jazz; we just didn’t realise that, or my parents didn’t notice, or something, anyway, but she was never the right teacher for me to be the kind of musician that I might have become. She drilled into me the basics of scales and harmony, and after a few months of me being increasingly bored at never being taught how to improvise, I asked if I could stop.
The piano sat in our living room for a few more years and my mum figured out some tricky Scott Joplin pieces on it before we eventually got rid of it. In the meantime, I discovered rock.

I followed my brother’s taste. He liked Status Quo, to begin with; not the relatively tame Status Quo of the early 80s but the somewhat rougher Status Quo of the early 70s. I wasn’t all that taken with the songs, but I liked the sound of the records. I realise now that what I responded to was the coarse, blunt sound of twin overdriven Fender Telecasters.

At some point I started obsessing about guitars and their shapes and what they sounded like. Aged 14, I did a work placement in Eason’s newsagent in Dublin city centre and they rewarded me at the end of it with a £15 Eason’s voucher. I spent it on the first edition of Ralph Denyer’s The Guitar Handbook, still one of the most massively useful guitar tuition books you can get. It contained jewel-like pictures of some of the more famous guitars; scale diagrams; brief biogs of great players (it was where I first heard of Robert Fripp); information about setup, maintenance, and even basic electronics. I befriended the guys in my school that played instruments and quickly began to annoy them by not wanting to talk about anything else, whereas to almost all of of them it was something that they did for fun. By that point, I was listening to Cream, Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker — musicians that, in early 80s Dublin, meant little or nothing in the mighty shadow cast by U2 and their clones.

I decided that I had to learn to play guitar. But then I made a fateful decision.

I reasoned that I had not shown any great talent as a pianist, and the only person who was encouraging me to play music was my mother, who did so not on the grounds that I had any talent, but on the grounds that I didn’t have many friends, and she (rightly, as it turned out) thought that this would be a good way of making some. I wanted to be a great guitarist, but there were already half a dozen guitarists in my school.

However, there were no bass players. 

If I learned bass, I thought, I would be in demand. Plus, only four strings. Two less to learn.

I had some money saved up, so one Saturday I went to Walton’s in Dun Laoghaire and bought an East German Musima knock-off of a Fender Precision, and a 10 watt East German bass amp called Sound City, no relation to the much more famous and better brand. I also bought a strap and a cord. But not, for some reason, a gig bag. I think I didn’t have enough money.

I took my black-and-white Musima home, plugged it in, and spent an hour or so figuring out where to put my fingers. Then I spent the rest of the weekend learning how to play the bass line for ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. By Monday my fingertips were raw and bleeding, but I could play it in such a way that my older brother could recognise it and give me an approving nod.
I started to listen to everything with an ear on the bass line. In so doing, I made one of the biggest ever leaps in my own musical education. I learned to appreciate the solid, laconic style of Phil Lynott; the ominous, dramatic style of Jack Bruce; the clipped, classic style of 60s Motown, which was then having a bit of a mid-80s revival. I bought Stanley Clarke’s School Days and marvelled at it; I got given Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Jaco Pastorius blew my mind.

Over time, my taste broadened, especially when I discovered Talking Heads and realised that everything didn’t have to be virtuosic. I first heard ‘Psycho Killer’ in the Stop Making Sense version, but when I heard the original I loved it all the more for Tina Weymouth’s fantastic, implacable bass line. 

But I was putting off the inevitable. I had to learn guitar. I had to learn to make the sound that had made me fall in love with rock music: the entire gamut from David Byrne’s weedy clang to Jimi Hendrix’s Cinemascope Armageddon. In 1987 I had saved up enough, and I went to Musician Inc in Dublin and paid out cash for a black and white Squier Stratocaster with a rosewood fingerboard.

By that point I had a respectable 30w Vox bass amp, but not enough money to get a guitar amp. I compensated by getting a ridiculously complicated Digitech programmable distortion pedal with two channels, one a fat valve-like overdrive, the other a screaming metal fuzz. That was my only effect, for years. It served for me. I learned about true valve distortion when I experimentally plugged my Strat into my parents’ Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder, a legacy of their shared professional past in TV production. I wasted my late teens in failing to study enough to earn decent places in university, preferring instead to learn how to imitate Adrian Belew. I named my guitar Kathy, after the American writer Kathy Acker, and when I would get frustrated at a plateau in my learning curve I would hack at it with a screwdriver, then covered up the scars with black duct tape. I dive-bombed so hard I snapped the tremolo arm; I used the screwdriver instead. I wore out picks so fast that I made my own metal ones, hammering out Irish 20p pieces on the concrete floor of my parent’s cellar and then filing them into a pick shape.

I sold my bass to a schoolfriend and wasn’t sorry to see it go. My bass-playing apprenticeship was behind me.
Over the years, I sold the Vox amp and somewhere or other I acquired another one – I forget what, now. I stopped playing for a few years in my early 20s, but I kept the Strat. In my mid-20s I took it up again, and soothed that I-need-a-new-guitar itch by buying an Epiphone LP 100 that I couldn’t quite afford. For a while, I loved the fact that I could sound like a low-rent Robert Fripp. But the Epi was fragile, and when one Christmas the flat below mine caught fire, I had to move all my stuff out and store it in the hallway of my flatmate’s boyfriend. He was a classical guitarist and he looked down on my lowly Japanese Les Paul copy. When I got it back, it was temperamental and I sold it to a friend who’d coveted it for years.

In the 2000s, I decided that I deserved a new guitar. I didn’t, but I had a bit more money. Influenced by the fact that Fred Frith in Massacre had played a Burns, and the fact that Musician Inc had some gnarly-looking Burnses in their shop, I got one. I told myself for some weeks that it was great and I loved it, but I didn’t. It was fiddly and it misbehaved and it sounded weedy. I went back to the shop and pointed out that it was less than perfect quality. Plus, by that point, I already had my eye on another guitar.

It was a display model, a black and white Standard Telecaster, Mexican-made, slightly grubby, slightly scuffed. It was about €600, more than I’d ever paid for an instrument. I’d never played a Tele, being in love with the elegant, eloquent Strat, but this thing was hanging there staring at me, defying me not to take it home, and I’d never owned a guitar with a really cool name on the headstock. I asked the shop if they’d part-exchange my almost-new Burns for this grubby Tele, and they said yes.
That was how I got my main guitar. I immediately had problems with it.

The strings on a Tele are noticeably further apart from each other than on a Strat or a Les Paul. You can no longer just place your right hand there and make gentle moves with your fingers. You have to play the damn thing. I was used to five pickup selection options; now I had three, and let’s be frank, the neck pickup on a Tele is more like a condiment for the other pickup, than a sound source in its own right.

Ah, but the bridge: that is the soul of the Tele, that resounding clang. Telecasters don’t have much natural sustain. They were designed for country music. But turn them up and give them some grit, and they are among the filthiest guitars. I reconnected with that shabby, seedy sound I knew from early 70s Quo albums. Then there was the fact that it worked equally well for Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison was the resident Tele player in that band) or early Zeppelin or Bill Frisell. A Telecaster produces one of the purest electric guitar sounds you will get; what you do with it, having obtained it, is entirely up to you.

I love my Tele. It’s called Marcos, after Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. It sits in my office on a stand, waiting to be picked up, which I do often. Of course, as time went by and I earned a bit more money, I wanted a completely different guitar. I ended up getting a lurid orange-red Ibanez AF-75D, a cheap but very well-made jazz box with pretensions as a rockabilly instrument; it’s faster than the Telecaster, although much bigger, and on it I managed to unlock such secrets of bebop as I’ve been able to get into my fingers. It was after doing this that I met my old piano teacher in my parents’ house, one day, at a party. I told her I’d been studying jazz.

She looked at me intently, paused, and said “Why?”

That was when I realised what had gone wrong with my piano lessons.

Which brings us to the present. I now live somewhere else, with a full-time day job and two kids aged nine and two, and I get to play from time to time with very much better and more experienced musicians than myself. I bring the Tele and my Digitech Whammy and an E-Bow, with which I can cover most of the registral and timbral ground that I want to cover.
And then, one day about six months ago, having time to kill which I don’t normally have, I wandered into Red Dog Music on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, just out of curiosity. And I saw, hanging on the wall among the basses, something I’d never expected to see.

Remember how, before I’d ever owned a guitar, I’d owned a book about guitars? That’s typical of me: I tend to read about experiences before I ever have them. In that book of cool guitars that I knew I’d never, ever get to own, there was one that had grabbed me.

Fender invented the bass guitar. It was the greatest single innovation they ever made, in that it was an entirely new instrument. There had been electric guitars before the Telecaster, and there had even been solid-body ones, but nobody had ever made a guitar that played an octave lower than a regular guitar until Fender brought out the Precision in 1951. They followed it up nine years later with its classier, slinkier, more versatile sister, the Jazz Bass.

Then, in 1962, they brought out the Fender VI, popularly known as the Bass VI. It was tuned like a bass guitar, an octave lower than a regular guitar, but it had six strings, was shaped like Fender’s ineffably cool Jazzmaster and Jaguar models, and had a slightly shorter neck than the Precision or Jazz. Denyer’s Guitar Handbook has a picture of one, with the withering comment ‘however, the Bass VI was never very popular and Fender discontinued it early in the 1970s.’

But I knew, even as a teenager, staring at that picture of a scuffed, sunburst, heavy-looking six-string monster, that I wanted one. A six-string bass? Hell yes! All the low end of a bass, but you could go higher! Plus it has a whammy bar! Jack Bruce played one in Cream! He then painted it in psychedelic colours and it never dried properly so he had to switch to another guitar, but still!

Of course, in 1984, it was all academic: I knew I’d never find one, or if I did find one, be able to afford one. I didn’t reckon on the marketability of nostalgia. By the early 2000s, Fender Japan was bringing out a replica VI and in 2013, Fender brought out two: a Fender model which was pointlessly messed-about-with, and a much cheaper Squier model which was essentially an Indonesia-made replica of the original instrument.

It was one of these Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI’s that I found hanging on the wall in Red Dog Music. I asked them if I could try it. The assistant enthusiastically took it down and plugged it in for me, and as soon as I started playing, I fell in love with an instrument in a way that I hadn’t done since I first picked up Eoin O’Brien’s Squier Strat in Sefton Lucas’s front room in 1986 and wanted one for myself.
It so happened that both my birthday and Christmas were on the far horizon. I suggested to my dear wife that the ever-present problem of what to get me for birthday/Christmas could be put aside, basically forever, if everyone in the family who wanted to get something chipped in some cash towards a Squier VI. She replied, basically: Of course, lovely, but you’re going to have to go and get it yourself, because we’ve all got more important things to do than mess around in guitar shops trying to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.

And so, a few weeks ago, I went back to the shop. I’d expected to have to order one, because their website said they were out of stock. I was surprised to find the exact model I wanted still hanging on the wall, probably the very one I’d tried out back in March. I tried it out, and while I was at it, I tried out many other basses, within the same price range, just to be sure: a Squier Jazz Bass, a fretless model of the same, a five-string Jazz Bass with a low B string.

None of them made the grade. Apart from anything else, it’s so long since my fingers had to handle regular bass guitar strings that I’ve lost the strength in my right hand needed to play one. I had a last fling on the VI, took it to the counter and paid for it. It is currently sitting in its box under my office desk, where it will remain until Christmas, screaming at me to take it out and plug it in. But for the sake of ceremony, I will leave it there until I officially get given it.

My late encounter with the VI has shown me something that I’d forgotten: that although I have learned to be able to operate a guitar to a certain extent, I still think like a bass player. I love the way that bass can change the way you hear other instruments. Bass players steer arrangements in a way that guitarists simply can’t. Also, the VI is an unusual instrument in that there is no definite agreement about what kind of instrument it is. It occupies a liminal space between guitar and bass: some people regard it as definitely a baritone guitar, albeit lower than normal, others as a bass with an unusually high range, but nobody seems to be willing to say that it’s definitely one or the other. Plug it into a bass amp, turn the treble down and the volume up, and it’s very much a bass. Plug it into a guitar amp, engage the so-called ‘strangle switch’ (one of the four switches on the guitar’s body, a high-pass filter) and it’s the twangy guitar from hell.

So that’s how I’ve come to fall back in love with bass playing. I’ve owned the thing for three weeks; I am honour-bound not to play it till Christmas. But I can’t wait. Except that I can, because honour, etc. Incidentally, apart from my lollipop-coloured Ibanez, the VI is the first guitar I’ve ever owned, and plan to keep owning, which isn’t black and white. Its colour scheme is, in fact, factory sunburst.

If you read this post hoping I was going to say something about the Meghan Trainor song: cute song, smart production, great sentiment, and I fully endorse and applaud the message decrying body-shaming. But it’s not a song that reveals more depth on repeated listening. I say this because my two-year-old son has an iPod and a dock ,and he sometimes puts that song on repeat. Bless you, Meghan Trainor. But I have heard your song plenty of times, now. Thank you.

All About That Bass