Basspiration Friday – 8/07/2015

mayer_trio

The power trio has a long and distinguished lineage in rock music. Cream provided the initial guitar, bass, drums prototype that was picked up and continued by other seminal groups like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, The James Gang, Rush, ZZ Top, The Police, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Nirvana, and Green Day. Since there is no keyboard and no secondary rhythm guitarist in the group, each member of the power trio is expected to wear many hats and carry a heavy musical load.

One of the finest latter-day power trios is the one formed by guitarist John Mayer in 2005 with drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino. Prior to the formation of the John Mayer Trio, the popular perception was that Mayer was a bubblegum heartthrob artist who wanted run through the halls of his school screaming at the top of his lungs that his girlfriend’s body was a wonderland. The Trio introduced Mayer as a guitar player of remarkable skill who had paid some serious dues in the woodshed listening to guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mark Knopfler.

The following is a video of the Mayer Trio from a 2005 concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. It is a multiple-camera video with excellent sound. The performances are tight and quite energetic. Mayer, who is considerably younger than his bandmates, did well in hitching his wagon to the likes of Jordan and Palladino. They lent Mayer’s music a certain weight and gravitas that was lacking prior to the band’s formation. I’m sure Jordan and Palladino were compensated handsomely for their efforts.

My favorite Palladino will always be the fretless Pino that I grew up hearing on pop radio. But I gotta say, Pino with a Fender P Bass through an Ampeg SVT-VR head into an 8×10 cabinet makes a righteous noise all its own. Basspirational!

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Ack! The return of Bloom County

bloom

I rejoiced yesterday upon hearing the news that my favorite cartoon from high school had rebooted. Yes folks, cartoonist Berke Breathed has re-discovered his mojo and Bloom County is back and hotter than ever. More hi-jinks from Milo Bloom, Mike Binkley, Steve Dalls, Cutter John, Oliver Wendell Jones, Portnoy, Hodge-Podge, and of course, Opus and Bill the Cat. All in time for the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. Golly, it feels like 1985 around here again.

I was a big fan of Bloom County during my high school days. No, you don’t get it. A really big fan. How big? I owned all of the Bloom County cartoon strip books that were released at the time. I owned several Bloom County t-shirts. My stuffed Opus went to every gig and sat upon my guitar amplifier. I spent time in class daydreaming and drawing pictures of Opus to pass the time. The above picture is a snapshot of all of the Bloom County books that remain in my possession from my high school days. I was big fan, indeed.

Bloom County ended in 1989 and that seems altogether fitting. For me, no comic strip more perfectly embodies and critiques the 1980s than Bloom County. The references are so completely “of their time” that it is difficult to read them in any way other than as an 80s time capsule.

People wax rhapsodic over Garry Trudeau and his Doonesbury comic but, for my taste, Bloom County was always so much more enjoyable. Trudeau always seemed like he was aggressively grinding an ax in every strip. Breathed was grinding an ax too, but also did so with more levity, absurdity, and winsomeness. After all, no comic strip displayed the absurdity of the Cold War than when Oliver Wendell Jones hacked into the Pravda computers and changed the headline to read, “Gorbachev Sings Tractors: Turnip! Buttocks!”

bloom_pravda

Welcome back, Mr. Breathed and Bloom County. I’m looking forward to a Billy and the Boingers reunion tour and a resurgence of hair metal any day now.

Basspiration Wednesday – 7/8/2015

In Memoriam Chris Squier — 1948 – 2015

squire_triple_neck

 

I began playing the guitar in 1982 and, by the time I entered my last two years of high school and began really noticing bass players. At that time there were three bass players that completely knocked me out — Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report, Geddy Lee of Rush, and Chris Squire. By that time Yes had already made their triumphant comeback with the 1983 album 90125 so much of my appreciation was filtered originally through the lens of “Leave It,” “Changes,” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Appreciation for 90125 begat appreciation for appreciation for The Yes Album which begat appreciation for Fragile which begat appreciation for Close to the Edge. The Squire of 90125 was a smooth, capable bassist sporting brief flourishes of brilliance. The Squire of the so-called “main sequence” of Yes albums [1] was a raging avatar of sound and fury. And I am excluding Squire’s immense contribution as the vocal yang to singer Jon Anderson’s yin.

At the  beginning of the 1970s, the preferred electric bass guitar sound preferred by the vast majority of record producers was that of a deep, throbbing “thud.” That thud was commonly produced by a Fender Precision bass strung with “deadwound” (flatwound) strings and a piece of foam stuffed under the strings near the bass’ bridge. The sound was a luxurious, sensual tone best exemplified by bassists like Carol Kaye (“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys), Bob Babbitt  (“The Rubberband Man” by The Spinners), Joe Osborn (“Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” by The 5th Dimension), “Duck” Dunn (“Green Onions” by Booker T and the M.G.s), and most gloriously by James Jamerson (“Darling Dear” by The Jackson 5).

Reacting against the deadwound Precision bass sound, several electric bassists went the other direction and opted for a sound that was heavy on the treble side, somewhat distorted, and sounding more like piano strings being struck by a mallet than dead strings on an upright bass. On the rock music side the two bass players most responsible for blazing a trail toward a brighter sound were John Entwistle of The Who and Chris Squire of Yes.

It is easy to take for granted now the electric bass sound of a song like “Roundabout,” but in the “deadwound” context of 1971, it was positively revolutionary. In fact, when one hears the bass isolated from the rest of the track on “Roundabout,” there is simply no way that a bass tone like that should be useable. Too much treble. Too much clank. Too much buzz coming from the strings rattling against the frets. A Rickenbacker 4001 bass strung with Rotosound strings played with a pick running through a Marshall 100 watt guitar amp? Are you kidding?!?

But that was Squire’s recipe for greatness and the trail that he blazed is still being followed by countless bass players to this day. Just like a country guitar player wouldn’t dream of showing up at a gig without a Fender Telecaster, no self-respecting prog rock bass player shows up without a Rickenbacker 4001 bass, Rotosound strings, and a plectrum. That is the magnitude of the shadow of Chris Squire.

These days my musical tastes trend much more toward jazz, funk, and smooth R&B bass playing. But every once and a while I have to pull out a Yes album and travel back down the music path blazed by Squire and his bandmates during their heyday. During one such time a few months ago I was struck anew by the joyful, searing beauty of Squire’s bass while listening to the Steven Wilson remix of The Yes Album. The epiphany came at the 2:40 mark of “Yours is No Disgrace” just after the words “Lost in losing circumstances, that’s just where you are.” The band suddenly modulates to the key of Bb and Squire’s bass line comes alive in a way that I find difficult to express in words. It is a sound that reminds me of why I find so much joy for God’s gift of music. It is a sound that reminds me of the power progressive rock music and why I decided to lay down the electric guitar in favor of the electric bass as my main instrument.

I am exceedingly grateful that I grew up in a musical atmosphere that allowed easy access to the music of Yes and the revolutionary sound of Chris Squire’s bass. I’m humbled that he paid no attention to the naysayers who swore that his busy, clanky bass sound would never work. I love the fact that that sound will live on through the gift of recorded music. Stubborn individualism married to prodigious technique can leave a mighty wake behind it. Such is certainly the case with Mr. Squire.

My selfish hope is that the powers that be at the otherwise despicable Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will sense a publicity moment (don’t they always?), glom onto the renewed interest in Yes’ music at Squire’s passing, and grant the band their long-overdue induction. Yes has sold in the ballpark of 30 million albums. That is a whole lot of product moved, especially for a band as exploratory as Yes. Of course Yes’ music was, is, and always will be aggressively out of step with the nincompoops that run that farcical hall. They would rather find a loophole in the process and induct Madonna a second time before allowing Yes to receive their rightful place of honor. But I’m a Yesfan and I’m allowed to hope for such meaningless trinkets. Nevertheless, a Yes induction into the hall will from now on be (at best) a bittersweet affair with Squire no longer around to enjoy the acclaim and fruit of his labors.

In many ways, 2015 has been a difficult year for the electric bass community. In March we lost Toto bassist Mike Porcaro. In May came the news of the passing of Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson. The passing of Squire continues the same sad trend. Time refuses to stand still and the greats of our instrument aren’t getting any younger.

Rest in peace, Chris Squire. May your low vibrations go on and continue to touch our hearts and minds.

—-

1. The albums from The Yes Album (1971) through Going for the One (1977).

Bass modification time

I had a good time spending a few hours yesterday with my bass buddy Joshua Pickenpaugh. Josh is a bass playing savant with mad skills and rapier wit. He and I have been buddies for the better part of 20 years and so any chance to hang out with him is time well spent.

However, today’s get together was all business. Bass business, that is. After purchasing a few replacement parts online, I invited Josh to bring his tools over so that major surgery could commence on my beloved 1995 Fender Jazz bass of mine. The instrument is a gift from a friend who will remain anonymous. This friend knew I was getting back into bass playing a while back and gifted the instrument to me. The instrument plays just fine, but just needed some more oomph. Here is a picture of the instrument as it was before today’s surgery.

j_bass_stock

The first thing to go was the stock Fender bridge. It was replaced by a Babicz bridge. The Babicz retrofits perfectly onto J basses and there was no addition routing or screw holes needed. The eCAM saddles are a little daunting, but the thing is built like a tank and is highly adjustable.

babicz_bridge

After that we worked on replacing the tuning mechanism on the low E string with a Hipshot BT7 Bass Xtender. Again, the retrofitting was spot on and turned out to be a piece of cake.

hipshot

After that we turned out attention toward swapping out the pickups. The bass was given to me with a pair of Fender Samarium Cobalt Noiseless (SCN) pickups installed. On the plus side, the pickups are dead quite. Zero noise. None. Very impressive from that angle. However, they aren’t the punchiest pickups in the world and I love my basses to have considerable oomph. So a new set of pickups was in order.

Toward that end I ordered a set of Aguilar AG 4J-HC pickups for the swap. My main amp is an Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 and so I figured that the two would play quite nicely together. Here is a look at the bass just after the soldering was completed.

aguilar1

With all of the surgery done, here is what the completed project looks like.

pbass

I kid! That’s Josh’s yellow “Tweety bird” Fender Precision strung with tapewound strings. Good golly, what a bass that is. Here is the actual finished project on mine.

jbassdone

It looks amazing and sounds beastly. The resonance on the bass is 100% better than what it was. I can’t say enough good things about the Babicz bridge. If you are looking for an aftermarket bridge upgrade on your Fender Jazz or Precision bass, look no further than the Babicz. The eCAM saddles are a glorious piece of technology and the bridge just seems to allow the strings to ring so freely.

As for the Aguilar pickups, my hunch was correct. They do play so very well with the Tone Hammer amp. The bass now has oomph for days and I can easily see me taking this bass out for gigging in the near future. I love my Ibanez 6 string and it is my main axe, but this Fender will now have a wonderful place in my gigging toolbox.

Basspiration Wednesday – 6/24/2015

Usually in this space I offer something that is inspiring my bass journey — a bass-related story, a gear review, or a video. This week I turn the tables and offer some of the fruit of all of that inspiration. This is video of me playing bass with the Jack Korbel Confluence. I’m using my Ibanez BTB686SC through a Carvin MB10 Micro Bass amp. Unfortunately the bass was mixed very quiet here, so you’ll need to listen through headphones to hear my contribution to the music. Enjoy!