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Category: Groove of the Week

The Gear Paradox (feat. Fight Club)

Uh-oh, it’s another post about gear. The main questions that you might have are: Why are you trying to use a Whammy pedal as a pillow? What the hell does…

Uh-oh, it’s another post about gear.

The main questions that you might have are:

  1. Why are you trying to use a Whammy pedal as a pillow?
  2. What the hell does this have to do with Fight Club?

Both of these can be answered by watching the following gear-orientated soliloquy:

T.H.Palmer’s famous self-esteem poem advises ‘If at first you don’t succeed then try, try again’, which is exactly what I’m doing in an attempt to confront my own gear addiction. For the back story on my struggles with gear hoarding, take a look at the post that started it all, The Gear Fallacy.

Having failed spectacularly to keep my 2016 resolution of not purchasing any new equipment I decided to give it another shot and, at the time of writing, I’ve been ‘clean’ for almost 6 months.

But I haven’t won my battle yet. I’m still confounded by what I’ve named ‘The Gear Paradox’.

What the hell is ‘The Gear Paradox’?

Just when you thought that I couldn’t be any more pretentious I drop this on you. I’m sorry.

Simply put, The Gear Paradox expresses the difficulty in reconciling the knowledge that fixating over gear is a waste of time with the desire to have an appropriate sound for every musical situation, which necessitates a certain amount of attention to detail when it comes to equipment.

I don’t yet have a solution to this conundrum, but here are some facts ideas that have helped me to work out how I feel about gear and manage my addictive, equipment-hoarding tendencies. Maybe some of these will ring true for you:

  • 90% of ‘your’ sound is down to you: your fingers, your technique, your sense of time, your harmonic knowledge and how ‘big’ your ears are. Gear accounts for only 10%. Many players invert these percentages and perpetually change their basses/strings/pickups/amps/pedals in an attempt to solve problems in their playing.
  • There is a perception that possessing rare or expensive gear somehow makes you a better player. This is exacerbated by the superficial nature of image-based social media platforms that allow us to engage in a perpetual show of one-upmanship and endlessly fixate on what others have rather than focusing on our own progress.
  • Your band and your audience don’t care about your gear – they want you to show up on time, play the right notes and make everyone in the room feel good; if you can’t fulfil those 3 objectives then the type of magnets used in your pickups really pales into insignificance.

One analogy about the importance of gear (or lack thereof) is from world class producer/arranger/writer/educator Richard Niles (I couldn’t find the original quote so I’m paraphrasing, but the essence is the same):

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re making music with a guitar, a bass or a computer – it’s the music that’s important. It’s like having a delicious meal in a restaurant and asking the chef what sort of spoon they used to stir the soup.”

Stop worrying about spoons and instead work out what ingredients are missing from your soup.

(Your soup might already have all the right ingredients, it just needs to simmer for longer).

What’s The Best Bass For Metal?

This nebulous question (and others in a similar vein) crops up again and again across the length and breadth of the internet. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the comments underneath virtuoso bass performances asking questions about what brand of strings or which pickups the player is using – the phrase ‘barking up the wrong tree’ doesn’t even come close.

Sax supremo Bob Reynolds deals with this far more eloquently than I ever will:

The War of Art‘ is well worth it, by the way.

Contrary to what the internet would like you to believe you don’t become a great Gospel player because your headstock has ‘MTD’ on it, you don’t get the bass chair on a show in a London theatre by owning an Overwater and having a multi-scale fanned-fret Dingwall won’t make your metal playing any heavier.

There is no substitute for doing the work; I say this as someone who, in spite of 17 years of playing, still has a TON of work to do and avoids doing it by writing blog posts and filming silly videos. Do as I say, not as I do.

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Groove of the Week #42: Herbie Hancock – ‘Palm Grease’

Everyone knows Herbie’s classic synth bass line on ‘Chameleon’, and plenty of guys can tear through ‘Actual Proof’ without breaking a sweat but for me, the real gem in the…

Everyone knows Herbie’s classic synth bass line on ‘Chameleon’, and plenty of guys can tear through ‘Actual Proof’ without breaking a sweat but for me, the real gem in the Head Hunters’ catalogue of grooves has always ‘Palm Grease’ (from 1974’s Thrust).

As soon as you hear Mike Clarke’s drum groove kick in, you know something serious is going to happen.

 

Paul Jackson’s bass line on ‘Palm Grease’ is a masterclass in how to develop and expand a groove, using just enough variation to keep the listener guessing while still retaining a ‘common thread’. After the initial statement, he begins to embellish the part – notice how the line unfolds with each successive iteration:

 

Rhythmic variation is only part of the equation; one of the most distinctive qualities of Paul Jackson’s playing is his mastery of articulation. The elusive essence of groove comes from how each note is played – check out how each note in every phrase is carefully sculpted for maximum impact.

Control of the left hand is key to being able to freely switch between different articulations; slides, hammer-ons and – most importantly – the length of each note all put a different sonic stamp on each phrase.

As an aside, I found this one of the most difficult grooves in this series – although other posts in the Groove Of The Week archive have required a greater level of conventional ‘chops’, Paul Jackson’s time feel on ‘Palm Grease’ was the hardest thing to recreate.

 

The heir to the (greasy) throne

 

One contemporary bassist who has clearly taken a lot from Paul Jackson’s greasy grooves is Me’shell N’degeocello*, who has been (and continues to be) a massive influence on my playing.

I unknowingly first heard Me’Shell on a tune by Joshua Redman called ‘Greasy G’ (from the 2005 Momentum album) and was absolutely floored by her time feel:

 

With both of these grooves, it’s the almost undefinable quality of feel that sets the head nodding or the foot tapping; it’s not necessarily what you play but how you play it that counts.

 

*If you’re not familiar with Me’Shell, get hold of Plantation Lullabies and Peace Beyond Passion for some serious groove education.

 

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On egos and octave pedals: putting the 'fun' back into functions

The reality of attempting to eke out a living as a professional musician in London (or anywhere else, for that matter) is that you have to let go of many…

The reality of attempting to eke out a living as a professional musician in London (or anywhere else, for that matter) is that you have to let go of many preconceived notions of what you will and won’t do for money (musically speaking, I mean…).

Credibility and artistic merit are all well and good until your rent is due, and subsisting on baked beans gets old pretty quickly.

Getting your bass to pay the bills can be a slow process, and there are certain avenues that make it easier to stay afloat; one of the main paths to financial stability (which is always a relative concept) for me has been playing in covers bands for weddings and corporate events. Whilst these gigs are always financially rewarding, many musicians are ‘down’ on function gigs because they can be musically mind-numbing; there are only so many times that anyone can play ‘Sex On Fire’ in a year before the rot starts to set in.

So how do you (or I) maintain any semblance of sanity and professionalism in the face of having to play musically nebulous mainstream pop nonsense week after week? The solution falls into two parts:

1. Get over yourself

Rather than being a snob about the repertoire, remember that this is your job. If you can earn enough to live by playing odd meter, polka-influenced death metal (or whatever your musical passion might be) then that’s great – sadly the fact of the matter is that you have to sell yourself at some point, but that doesn’t mean that you’re selling out by playing music that you might not feel passionate about.

I keep my ego in check by reminding myself that I’m getting paid to play an instrument, which is a ridiculous indulgence in itself. If you resent the music or the gig (or the people) then that carries over into your playing and reduces your ability to carry out your job description, which is to make people feel good by playing music that they want to hear. That’s not such a bad way to frame things, is it?

 

2. Find the ‘bright spots’

Part of the secret to finding joy in performing music that you feel indifferent about is treating it with the same respect that you would if you were gigging repertoire that you love. If you allow yourself to really get inside the music, even the blandest pop tune can present opportunities to access the more creative side of your playing.

For me, the ‘creative side’ of my playing in this context involves using an octave pedal as much as I can on a gig without getting dirty looks from the bandleader or making people on the dancefloor feel unwell. The overly processed and mechanical nature of modern chart music means that there are plenty of occasions when I have to play songs that were created without any real instruments and have to emulate a synth part.

So why don’t I just take a bass synth to the gig?

Chairman of the (pedal)board

Maybe it’s sheer bloody-mindedness on my part, but I made the decision some years ago to try and recreate any synth bass sound that I heard on a record using just my bass guitar and a handful of pedals; regular readers will just recognise this as an attempt to validate the purchase of lots of unnecessary gear, but I convinced myself that it was a worthwhile endeavour.

Here’s the thing – I already own an original Novation Bass Station synth, but I hate it. Attempting to gain the amount of knowledge on analogue synthesis necessary to program synth patches with any real authority was like being back in a school physics class (I say this a someone who was a total teenage physics geek) and I quickly abandoned the keyboard bass approach.

If the necessary nerdiness wasn’t enough there are other factors that made the prospect of playing synth on a gig a total ballache; keyboard skills, having to lug extra equipment to the gig and working out the logistics of onstage signal switching are just a few.

So I stuck to my guns and opted for the tap-dancing route.

Sometimes ‘good enough’ is good enough

After much experimentation with numerous octave pedals, overdrives and envelope filters I found that I could approximate most of the tones in a given setlist without having a pedalboard that weighs more than I do.

Here’s the thing: even though you might not be ‘nailing’ the exact tone from a recording the important thing is that the crowd doesn’t care and neither do your bandmates. Often being in the right ballpark is enough to get approving nods from people that you’re sharing the stage with.

I spent a long time trying to get my bass to recreate the synth sound from Maroon 5’s awful, glitter-rolled turd of a song ‘Moves Like Jagger‘ before realising that getting the exact tone would cost me a lot of time and money, but I could arrive at a perfectly acceptable ‘wob wob wob’ sound using octave, envelope filter and a volume pedal.

Other tunes have required the ubiquitous octave pedal with a particular technical approach; Clean Bandit’s 2015 hit ‘Rather Be’ absolutely refuses to die and I managed to keep myself amused by transcribing the distinctly un-bass-like synth line from the verse and using a combination of plectrum and palm muting to get somewhere near the tone and articulation of the original.

You can see my mangling of the aforementioned song here, complete with a breakdown of different pedal settings for various sections of the tune:

You can also find the transcription of my bass arrangement for ‘Rather Be’ RIGHT HERE

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All The Gear, No Idea: 18 Months With The Noble Preamp

Having previously documented my struggles with gear addiction (the post on my issue with hoarding equipment can be found HERE), I’ve decided to make 2017 the year that I do…

Having previously documented my struggles with gear addiction (the post on my issue with hoarding equipment can be found HERE), I’ve decided to make 2017 the year that I do something positive with the numerous bits of kit that I’ve stockpiled over the last few years. It seems that the most pragmatic approach to neutralising my urge to buy shiny new gear is to actually sit down and make full use of the things that I already own – I’ve definitely been guilty of testing new pedals for the first time on a gig, which is something I’d suggest that you NEVER, EVER do (my bandmates are very long-suffering).

Here’s my first attempt at an in-depth gear review. I chose to start with the Noble Preamp DI, which has been a staple of my setup since I bought it 18 months ago. It’s probably the piece of gear that I get asked the most questions about from other musicians, sound engineers and producers whenever I take it to a gig or record with it – which is pretty much all the time:

 

Built like a tank and with a number of very practical features for the working bassist, the Noble is by no means a ‘magic bullet’ but definitely falls into what I’d term the ‘Swiss army knife’ category for gear; it cuts down the time that I need to spend thinking about what gear to take on a gig, and actually reduces the number of items that I need to pack in the car or lug on public transport.

Noble Preamp Pros

  • Rugged construction (bonus points for the light-up power button and logo)
  • High impedance jack input handles electric and upright bass equally well
  • Extremely clean, noise-free xlr out signal
  • Simple but musical (and useable) EQ controls
  • Individual power supplies for up to 6 pedals
  • Analogue warmth provided by two REAL TUBES

Cons

  • Only for sale direct from Noble – hard to try before you buy
  • Price tag represents a fairly serious investment for most players

 

Interested in finding out more about the Noble Preamp? Visit the Noble Amps website or feel free to ask me a question in the comments section.

 

 

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