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  • I am a Bassist

    Originally published by Lane Baldwin

    I am a Bassist.

    When I first picked up a bass, it was love at first thump. That poor bass - a copy of a rip-off of a re-make of a Fender, played through an Ampeg guitar amp - was to me the ultimate instrument.

    It seems that, even then at the very beginning of it all, I knew instinctively that while lead singers and lead guitarists might be the center of attention, I would be the center of the music. I would be the thread sewing all the pieces together into the fabric of the music. I would put one arm around my drummer and the other around the rhythm guitarist (or the occasional keyboardist) and guide my section mates through the coolest groove we could groove, coordinating each's work with the other's as well as my own.

    I would enhance the vocalist's melody, provide the foundation for the chords, and be the keystone of the rhythm. All at once. All the time.

    It came to me in a cosmic flash: the entire nature of the universe and my place in it, exposed to my malleable young mind for one brief instant. And I knew what I had to do. I had to thump. I had to groove. I had to move the earth.

    "And the Lord said, 'Let there be BOTTOM.'"

    Okay, now what? I begged my parents. I pleaded. I groveled. I promised that I would do my chores, mow the lawn every week, be nice to my sister. I swore that I would continue to practice my Euphonium (Baritone Horn, if you prefer) every day and do all my homework. Take my allowance, take my bike, take my dog but please buy me that bass.

    And buy it they did, probably to shut me up. Along with the amp and accessories. And lessons. With a guitarist!?! EEEEEWWWWW!!!!!!

    Why couldn't I study with a bass player, I wondered? Well, at the time, the only bass players that taught were upright players and only taught orchestra or maybe a little jazz. So I studied with my sister's guitar teacher (another strike).

    To his credit though, he was extremely talented and well rounded, playing everything from classical to Jimi Hendrix. He taught me the basic scales and rock & roll riffs in about three months. Even more important, he taught me how to learn from records. Then he kicked me out of the nest and told me to fly.

    At my now ex-teacher's recommendation, I joined a band. Then another. Then another. There weren't many opportunities for high schoolers to play professionally, so I took every gig I could find.

    I looked everywhere for information, educational material, etc., but it was slim pickings. I do remember Carol Kaye's books, however. Not only did I learn some very cool lines from them, they also helped me improve my reading. It was a major highlight of my career when, many years later, I had the opportunity to study with the venerable Ms. Kaye. (We're not worthy, we're not worthy!)

    My mom and I spent many hours in the den, she playing the piano, me facing away from her trying to play along by ear. I practiced, I read, and I listened to music whenever I could. My grades fell, I slowly dropped all my other activities (homework was the first to go) and I lived, ate and breathed music. And, well, *** - but only on the weekends.

    Mostly though, I played. Everything. With anyone that would have me. I played every kind of rock, country, show tunes, rag time, polkas, youth choir. I even played with a marching band on one gig, years before Fleetwood Mac did.

    The first time I heard a demand for my union card before a club owner would pay me, I was fourteen and backing up a blind, Greek guitarist playing ethnic tunes in a seedy restaurant. (Whaddaya mean, union card? I gotta join a union?!?)

    Three and a half years later, I played with two Turkish immigrants and a Turkish-American drummer pal of mine. Want to learn concentration? Try playing behind an amply breasted, skimpily clad, over-***ed, ultra-talented belly dancer while her husband is playing guitar five feet away and laughing at you. In front of 1500 very rich Turkish people at the tender, hormone infested age of seventeen. In 9/8 time. 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2-3, 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2-3, 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2-3. I wish you luck. (Note: Female bassist's might try a male super hunk for the same type of training. Brad Pitt in a G-string, for instance.)

    At present, I have just under thirty years on my instrument of choice. And, like many of you, I still have more to learn, more to accomplish, maybe even more money to make. During my "long and winding road", I have toured and recorded with bands of many styles, including country, blues, ******ian Contemporary, light jazz (or jazz lite, if you prefer), as well as every type of rock from 50's to grunge and folk music from every continent save Antarctica.

    Many times, I have filled an open night by backing a solo guitarist for a small cut plus tips. I've loaded in through the kitchens of more hotels than I care to count, for more weddings, awards dinners, etc., than I care to admit. (And, NO, I won't touch the darn food! Just tell me where to set up, ok?)

    Lately, in addition to the paying gigs that help pay the rent, I've been working with a casual association of musicians attempting some very unusual blends of music. My own contributions to this menagerie combine Native American, African, Celtic and Latin influences with my favorite styles, blues and rock. We're even looking at bagpipes from around the world to add to this mongrel music we're breeding.

    The point is that I've always thought of myself as a bassist and a musician. (No, the two terms are not contradictory.) I play bass. Not rock bass. Not jazz bass. Just bass. Can you see where this is going yet?

    To me, you are all my brothers and sisters; grunge puppies and jazz cats alike. Not because I like all kinds of music but because we all carry the bottom line. Believe it or not, we are all in this together. We can help each other, encourage each other, even learn from each other.

    If you slap it, tap it, pick it, pluck it, bow it or finger it, you are my brother. Electric, upright, Contrabass Balalaika for Jack's sake, you are my brother.


    I don't quite get rap or go-go but I sure get Me'shellwhose father I have been privileged to work with). I can't play upright to save my soul but I just worship Mingus. Fretless? No. Jaco? Yes! And as Jack Bruce said, "Bach is gov'ner of all bassists." I spent one entire summer analyzing Bach's basslines because of that comment.

    It's all the same when approached from a certain point of view. Sure, we can each concentrate on the styles that most interest us. But we can also open our minds and cross-pollinate. After all, some of the coolest music is a mixture of seemingly disparate styles. Check out Me'shell and you'll see what I'm talking about. Or Rob Wassermann with Lou Reed.

    The late Jaco Pastorius, certainly one of the most important people in the history of bass, was a voracious cross-pollinator, gobbling up ideas from seemingly anywhere. Stanley Clarke, a virtuoso on upright and electric bass, has demonstrated (more than once) the possibilities available when you're mind is open to playing in different styles.

    Carol Kaye can play anything she wants. I know; I was blessed with six months of private lessons with the all time studio master and saw her do it repeatedly - she can play anything she wants.

    So, be just a little open-minded, OK? I mean, if you can't even tolerate a fellow human bottom liner, just what are you going to do when you meet your first Andromedan Bafoomba player all geared up with his/her/its octophonic, spherically placed, spatial imaging defrabumolator? Not to mention his unibreasted, three-legged Zartoonian teenage groupie girlfriend. Open your mind and expand your horizons. And by all means, KEEP THUMPIN'!

    I AM A BASSIST. What are you?

    ©1998 - Lane Baldwin, Reprinted with permission of the author from laneonbass.com
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