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Category: Lessons

Essential Posture for Bassists

How to Practise, Part 1: Posture There’s an almost infinite amount of content out there on what to practice, but very little in the way of how to go about…

How to Practise, Part 1: Posture

There’s an almost infinite amount of content out there on what to practice, but very little in the way of how to go about it with maximum efficiency and efficacy. I’m going to kick this one off by absolving myself of any responsibility whatsoever:

DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or physical therapist, nor do I claim to be one. Any suggestions towards specific movements, exercise routines, alternative therapies or diets are based on personal experience and may not be suitable for everybody; please consult a qualified medical professional before making any significant lifestyle changes.

The following are some ideas that I’ve arrived at over the last 18 years of playing the bass and roughly a decade of teaching; I’m pretty badly constructed from a physical point of view and have had numerous back problems and other soft tissue injuries over the years including tendonitis, so I’ve put a fair amount of time and effort into optimising my posture and movements for playing bass (and life in general).

Whilst it’s not generally top of of most bassist’s to-do lists, posture is the first essential element of interacting with the instrument and it comes before technique; the physical aspect of playing the bass is often taken for granted (if not ignored completely) by many players and teachers.

This video gives a brief rundown of the seated and standing postures outlined in this post:

New Kid in Town

The main issue when discussing posture is that the electric bass has only been around for 67 years and, as such, we haven’t quite reached a consensus on the best way(s) to play it – contrast this with more elderly instruments, like violin or piano, which have well-established teaching methodologies and definite guidelines for best practice that have been refined over hundreds of years. If you look at five different bassists that you’re aiming to emulate, chances are that you’ll see a huge amount of variation between them in their stance, strap height, neck angle and hand position.

First port of call is realising that playing the bass is a fundamentally unnatural and asymmetrical task for your body to perform – we’re placing a load of between 3 and 5 kilos on one shoulder for an extended period of time. Playing will always be a compromise between what is natural or comfortable for your body and what is necessary to get around the instrument in a relaxed, musical fashion. No one particualar posture is perfect – all have pros and cons – but some make more sense than others.

Most of us have to deal with the fact that we sit down to practice but are forced to stand up when it comes to gigs – sitting on a gig basically out of the question unless you’re in a theatre pit or you happen to be Anthony Jackson. Because of this, we need to make sure that our sitting and standing postures are complementary rather than contradictory, otherwise we’re sending our body mixed messages about how to play and our practice time will have been wasted.

Here’s the first essential element of the posture checklist: your strap height needs to be the same whether sitting or standing. Why? If you spend hours sitting and practising without a strap and then get on a gig and have your instrument slung low then your hands will suddenly be in a completely different position relative to the bass. Get over the fact that having your bass somewhere around where your abs ought to be doesn’t look particularly rock ’n’ roll; if you sound great then nobody will care how you look.

Seated posture: option 1

Choose a seat that allows your thighs to be pretty much parallel to the floor – my preference is to use a drum stool, as I find that almost all chairs are the wrong height for my long limbs. Practise with a strap, even when seated, so that your arms aren’t having to do the work of balancing the bass and are free to deal with the complexities of whatever you’re working on. If you’re reading music, then make sure your music stand is at a decent height and you’re not dropping your head forward and looking down to see the dots.

Pros: upper body position is almost exactly the same as standing posture, bass balances easily on the strap, comfortable enough to sustain long periods of practise.

Cons: I find that as the practice session wears on I tend to collapse over the bass, slumping forward with my head, shoulders and upper back.

Seated posture: option 2

I stole this from the classical guitar – here you use a footstool under your left leg (reverse if you’re left handed…) and sit the bass between your legs; this means that you can get rid of the strap and the bass will balance by itself by leaning the top horn against your chest. I find that this allows me to maintain a more erect upper body posture (you at the back, stop giggling!), maintaining balanced shoulders and an open chest without collapsing forward.

Pros: Arms, shoulders and chest are not encumbered with the weight of the bass, all areas of the instrument are within easy reach.

Cons: The bass is in a more ‘diagonal’ position compared to how most people play when standing, I also find that I get pins and needles and the occasional dead leg if I practise for too long without a break as my feet and hips aren’t balanced – this might well be due to my dodgy physical construction.

Get up, Stand up: Standing Posture 101

Think you know how to stand up? I certainly thought I’d got the hang of it after 30 years of being vertical on a daily basis, but spending time in various health professionals’ treatment rooms brought up some things that I’d been ignorant of. The main point that I’d missed is the importance of spreading your weight equally through your feet – if you don’t properly ‘ground’ yourself then it’s hard to maintain a decent posture with neutral position for your pelvis, spine and head.

Regardless of the posture that you happen to adopt, the main thing to focus on is being relaxed – if you’re holding tension in your muscles, or holding your breath when you play (a surprisingly common occurrence) then your playing will sound tense. Your posture is your sound and your sound is your posture.

Alongside relaxation come the ideas of balance and symmetry. A common problem that I was guilty of for years is allowing my left shoulder to rise up over the course of a gig in response to the weight of the bass – I wasn’t aware of this until I saw pictures of myself onstage looking rather unbalanced. As much as possible, we want to reduce (or eliminate) harsh angles in the wrists – having the bass relatively high up means that we can keep the wrist of our fretting hand relatively straight, but this posture tends to emphasise an acute flexion of the plucking wrist. Having the bass lower down reverses the problem; the plucking wrist can straighten out, but the problem is now transferred to the fretting hand.

Life outside of bass playing will have a huge impact on your postural habits as well as your general health and wellbeing; if your day job involves long hours sitting at a desk, driving or hunching over a laptop, then chances are that your range of motion is less than optimal (when was the last time you were able to touch your toes without fear of tearing something?). To paraphrase the great Russian strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline, your body most readily adapts to the positions that you spend the most time in – spending an hour a day in a good bass playing posture will not undo the countless hours that you’ve spent at your desk, in traffic or slumped in front of the TV. Having some sort of regular movement practice is vital for counteracting the poor postural positions that life often puts us in.

What’s a movement practice? These are all movement practices:

  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Gymnastics
  • Strength training/weightlifting
  • Rock climbing
  • Martial arts
  • Dance

The importance of movement cannot be overstated – your physical health is intrinsically linked to your mental wellbeing and your musical output; whilst we can all cite many players that are obviously not taking care of themselves physically it’s important to remember that they’ve succeeded in spite of this rather than because of it.

Books/Resouces

Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett – brilliant book, stupid name. If you need to restore mobility to any part of your body, then this is for you.
The Bassist’s Guide To Injury Management, Prevention and Better Health by Randall Kertz, D.C.
Relax into Stretch by Pavel Tsatsouline – yes, he is half-naked throughout, but this is the most effective stretching method I’ve ever encountered
Anatomy of Stretching by Brad Walker
The Mindbody Prescription by John Sarno – I’d been suffering from tendonitis for over 18 months and then fixed it in a week by reading this (some injuries, it seems, are psychosomatic)

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Your Brain is Rotten

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it) January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally…

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it)

January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally sort everything out. For me, the main focus of my January life-purge is my practice routine – or, more accurately, the distinct lack thereof.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to really make the most of the time that I spend at the instrument; I had a lightbulb moment when listening to a podcast and the interviewee said something along these lines (I can’t find the episode in question to be able to provide a verbatim quote, but still…):

“Things like maths or foreign languages are like apps that we ‘install’ in order to increase our knowledge or improve our skill set in a given area. Most people spend all of their time and effort on installing or upgrading their apps instead of attending to their operating system, which is how they run their brains.”

Jackpot. How can I expect to get the greatest possible benefit from practising when my brain is perpetually distracted? Why have I been focusing on upgrading my mental ‘apps’ when my operating system is full of bugs?

If you also feel perpetually overwhelmed, or that your attention is fragmented, if you struggle to concentrate, or are always ‘busy’ but never seem to get anything done, then this is for you:

The Myth of Multitasking

We’ve been led to believe that the only way to cope with the relentless demands of modern life is to do lots of things at the same time, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has allowed us to be able to chip away at our never-ending to-do lists regardless of where we are or what the time is.

Over time, the ability to be permanently connected has gradually morphed into a necessity. Many of us have become habitualised to permanent digital stimulation to the point where one device is not enough; we browse multiple internet tabs while watching TV, we can’t make it through a film or a concert without checking our phone – the hyperconnected life has left us incapable of being alone with nothing but our own thoughts for company.

Here’s the inconvenient neurological truth: multitasking is bad for you. Whilst it provides the illusion that you’re being efficient and productive, the fact of the matter is that you’re actually just doing two (or more) things badly at the same time.

The crux of the problem is that the very region of our brain that we depend on to keep us on task is easily distracted by novelty; the prefrontal cortex is where all the action is – this part of the brain governs ‘higher order’ behaviours, including:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Impulse control
  • Long term planning and goal setting
  • Maintaining socially acceptable behaviour

The neurons in this part of the brain are sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward; when you’re about to complete a task your brain gives you a hit of dopamine which acts as a precursor to reaching your goal and is designed to keep you on track – a biochemical motivator, if you will. The problem is that the brain can’t distinguish between the relative sizes or values of the tasks that you might be performing, so every time you send or receive an email, text, tweet or other digital notification your ancient brain senses that you’ve achieved something significant and rewards you accordingly. This leads to what scientists term a dopamine feedback loop, in which we’re constantly trapped in the cycle of pursuing low-level tasks to feed our sense of productivity.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind offers a comprehensive insight into the numerous perils of multitasking and the damage it has on your brain’s capacity to focus. His view on multitasking can be summed up as follows:

“Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system”

Attentional switching comes at a high neurological cost – constantly chopping and changing between tasks burns up oxygen and glucose, increases the production of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and reinforces the dopamine addiction feedback loop in the prefrontal cortex.

Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford, had this to say on the matter:

“It turns out that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

By contrast, scientific research has shown that sticking to one thing at a time (‘uni-tasking’) has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s; older adults who participated in training sessions to develop their attentional control began to display brain patterns similar to those of younger adults after just 5 hours.

It’s not just the scientific community that are alerting us to the dangers of technology; some of the most vocal critics of the hyperconnected lifestyle are those who helped to create it. Recently, a couple of former Facebook employees have publicly spoken out on the deleterious effects of the social media platform:

ex-VP of ‘user growth’ at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya said that:

“The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem… this is a global problem.”

Sean Parker, ex-facebook president, said the thought process behind building the social media giant was:

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Parker also confirms that the site’s creators understood the impact that they would have on users’ psychology:

“…we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Add to this the news that two of Apple’s major investors are pressing the company to do something about smartphone addiction among young people and we’re starting to get an idea of the extent of the problem. But what can we do about it?

6 Ways to Fix Your Rotten Brain

1.Learn to Concentrate

The most effective method of rewiring your brain and improving your ability to concentrate is by developing a regular meditation practice. If you’re turned off by the religious or ‘new age’ connotations that tend to get lumped in with the typical depictions of meditation then fear not – apps like Headspace offer a totally secular route into improving your ability to focus. I’d also recommend Sam Harris’ excellent, no-nonsense book Waking Up, which focuses on how to cultivate secular spirituality. My own experience with meditation is that it offers a subtle, yet powerful technique for coping with everything that life throws my way. I stumbled into the practice of insight meditation (often referred to as ‘vipassana’ meditation a decade ago and have found it to have numerous benefits, including (but not limited to):

  • improved concentration
  • better sleep
  • increased recovery time after workouts
  • a more consistent emotional state
  • increased sensory awareness
  • effective management of symptoms of depression/anxiety

Numerous high-functioning individuals swear by a dailly meditation in some form or other – bestselling author, lifehacker and meta-learning guru Tim Ferriss has interviewed almost 300 top performers across a range of fields and estimates that around 80% engage in some sort of regular mindfulness practice – this includes distinctly non ‘floaty’ individuals like super-producer Rick Rubin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock has been meditating since the early 1970s (at the suggestion of bass great Buster Williams) and the late sax legend Michael Brecker was also a practitioner.

2.Reconfigure your devices to reduce distraction

The most obvious cure for being constantly interrupted by digital distractions is to delete the offending apps from your device; if this is unthinkable then there are still several steps that you can take to reduce the damaging effect they have on your productivity:

  • stop your email automatically checking itself every 5 minutes (more on inbox management later)
  • turn off notifications from social apps that alert you to every single like, comment or retweet
  • put email and social media apps on the 2nd or 3rd ‘page’ of your device and bury them in folders

A more comprehensive guide to optimising your phone by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris can be found here

3.Start and Finish the day away from screens

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? If the first thing that your eyes see is your newsfeed or your inbox, then you run the risk of burning through all of your attentional energy before the day has even started; your brain has a limited capacity for processing new information and maxing out your mental bandwidth first thing can lead to lack of focus and diminished impulse control. In short, starting your day with screen time can impair your ability to make decisions and sabotage your creative endeavours later in the day.

If you enforce a morning ‘buffer zone’ in which you don’t look at your phone for the first hour of the day, then you’re giving your brain the chance to wake up naturally, without the barrage of data offered by the internet. Doing the same thing with the last hour of your day prior to going to sleep allows you to wind down without the stimulation of technology, resulting in an improved ability to get to sleep.

One of the easy traps to fall into is checking email every few minutes – whenever you have to wait more than 5 seconds for anything, out comes the phone and habit pulls us straight into our inbox. One way around this is to allocate specific blocks of time for checking and responding to email (this can be applied to social apps as well). I find that I’m happiest and most productive when I check my email twice a day – at roughly midday and 4pm – when I stick to it, this policy results in precisely zero people getting upset because I haven’t attended to their email; if something is truly urgent, they will call me. I can get a few hours of quality work done in the morning before dealing with my inbox, then the second check allows me to process any responses that might have come in before the end of the working day.

4.Use Social Media as an Output

Most people use platforms like Facebook primarily as an information input – they scroll through the endless treadmill of other people’s status updates, processing huge mounts of data, most of it useless. But how about using social media solely as an output? If your business or creative endeavours demand that you have to interact using social media then there are steps that you can take to ensure that the technology is working for you and not the other way around:

  • use post scheduling software like Hootsuite or If This Then That to ‘batch’ updates for specific times; this allows you to get all of your daily/weekly/monthly updates done in one dedicated block of time, rather than multiple fragments of several minutes each. This prohibits the spontaneity that social media is predicated on, but it’s amazing how many users give followers the illusion of a ‘real time’ feed through carefully planned, well-timed updates.
  • Use browser plugins like Leechblock to limit the time that you can spend per day on social media and other websites.

If you want to really increase your productivity and improve your mental health, then it’s very easy to kill your news feed. This is what I see when I log into Facebook:

Kill facebook news feed

 

Isn’t that great? No hairloss ads, no people celebrating that they’ve gone to the gym today, no temptation to stalk people that I went to school with.

I can still keep track of notifications, manage this site’s page (you’ve already given the page a like, right?) and pretend to remember birthdays without getting sucked into the whirlpool of useless status updates. The real benefit – aside from not expending time and energy processing superfluous data – is the positive impact of not being perpetually bombarded by the artificial awesomeness of the lives of others; seeing the carefully edited highlights of those in your networks without having insight into their failures can create a distorted sense of reality in which everybody is doing better than you, which can fuel feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.

The obvious criticism of this approach is that it’s cynical, manipulative, insincere and means that you miss out on important events in your friends’ lives; my argument is that you still participate fully in the relationships that matter most to you by seeing your friends and family IN REAL LIFE. Rather than attempting to maintain superficial, surface-level interactions with 1000 people it might be more worthwhile expending the same cumulative amount of time and energy on cultivating deeper relationships with 50 or 100 people that you genuinely care about. Scientists have actually quantified the maximum number of social relationships that any one person can effectively maintain – it’s known as Dunbar’s number (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar) and is 150, surprisingly small in comparison to the number of ‘friends’ that many of us have on social platforms.

5.Screen Sabbaths/Digital Sabbaticals

The idea of a screen sabbath is to take one day a week on which you abstain from social media usage and email checking (you can still use your phone for texts, calls and modern-day necessities like Uber); the effect of this is that you gradually come to realise that the world doesn’t fall apart if you miss one day of your digital life, which can help to reduce time spent on devices during the other days of the week.

A ‘digital sabbatical’ is a longer timeframe, typically ranging from 3 days to one week, where you go totally ‘off grid’ and get away from all forms of technology – set up emergency contacts and an email autoresponder so you’re not paranoid that something is happening while you’re unplugged.

6.Use The Brain’s Dopamine Addiction To Your Advantage

We can actually harness the prefrontal cortex’s dopamine-seeking tendencies to our advantage and effectively play it at its own game – for the last 6 months, I’ve been using an app called Forest to keep me away from my phone and get more work done. The app rewards the user for spending a set amount of time away from their phone, and plants a tree as a reward for focused time – if you use your phone at all during the allotted time, then your tree dies:

forest productivity app

 

Now, this sounds ridiculously childish, but you can’t argue with biochemistry – I’ve found that planting a digital forest has been the single most effective trick in monitoring and increasing the amount of time I spend practising or doing other important things (like making content for this site). Because I’m slightly competitive, I find myself going to great lengths to try to beat my previous day’s score – playing a game doesn’t make it feel like work, and I get my digital dopamine fix from doing something useful.

These measures might seem extreme to some people, but to quote Mark Twain:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

So there we are – I’m still trying (and ofter failing) to confront my internet addiction and break away from screens, but I’m doing my best to make sure that 2018 is the year that I finally get of the hamster wheel and spend more hours in the real world doing things that matter to me. If you’re interested in reclaiming your brain, then I’ve found the following resources to be extremely valuable:

Book/Resource List

Deep Work by Cal Newport (the best productivity book I’ve ever read by a long way)
The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
How Multitasking Is Affecting the Way You Think Clifford Nass
How To Meditate by Sam Harris
Two guided meditations by Sam Harris
Mindfulness meditations by Tara Brach (a little more ‘out there’, but be patient…)
Forest App
Headspace App
Leechblock
Hootsuite
If This Then That
Kill Facebook News Feed Plugin for Firefox|for Chrome (If you’re still using Safari or Internet Explorer, then have a quiet word with yourself).

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Learning By Stealing

Learning How To Learn Learning a new skill can be a daunting task, especially if you’re pushed for time – which, let’s face it, we all are. The good news…

Learning How To Learn

Learning a new skill can be a daunting task, especially if you’re pushed for time – which, let’s face it, we all are. The good news is that there’s a straightforward, repeatable process for skill acquisition that works regardless of whether you want to learn to juggle, cook or play decent walking bass.

Let’s stick with the last of those items; I was raised on a solid diet of classic rock, singer-songwriters and classical music – basically all the genres that don’t swing – which meant that developing the skills necessary to play jazz with any sort of competence has been (and continues to be) something of an uphill struggle.

It turns out that the solution to learning anything effectively is actually about learning how to steal.

Steal From The Best

To outline the process of assimilating walking bass vocabulary from a pro, I’ve enlisted the help of John Patitucci (I’m fairly sure that he’s completed jazz on expert mode).

Important note: This process can be used to learn anything musical (or, actually, anything non-musical, too). If you’re averse to jazz then you can still get results from applying the method to any style of music that you’re learning. What we’re actually doing is:

  1. Modelling a professional by transcribing their playing in a given context
  2. Analysing their strategy in order to tease out the underlying concepts
  3. Creating an etude that succinctly incorporates the methods of a master musician
  4. Imitating these phrases until they become ingrained in our playing
  5. Building new vocabulary based on the previously learned phrases

 

Here’s how I used the process of transcription to teach myself about walking bass concepts and develop my own vocabulary:

The source material was this John Patitucci masterclass – I’m guessing from hair/jumper combo that it’s from the 1990s:

JP discusses different approaches to walking through standards, playing ‘Stella by Starlight’ (he later plays through ‘Alone Together’) and mentions some key concepts in playing effective walking bass in both a 2-feel and playing 4 notes to the bar.

What Did I Do?

1. Transcribed 5 choruses of John Patitucci walking on ‘Stella’

The actual transcription process was quite straightforward thanks to the setting of the clinic – it’s just bass and guitar, so there’s no piano or drum kit to obscure the low end. The audio quality is also pretty good compared to many recordings from the 1950s where it’s often difficult to accurately isolate the pitches of a walking bass line. Other must-hear recordings with a similar duo lineup include Jim Hall & Ron Carter Alone Together and – one of my favourite albums ever – Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden Beyond The Missouri Sky

The transcription reveals that JP plays some changes differently as the tune progresses choruses; bar 12 of the form is outlined as Gm7 – C7 in the head, then Bbm7 – Eb7 for solos (as per the changes in most real books).

The transcription is available for download here: John Patitucci – ‘Stella By Starlight’ pdf

2. Created a ‘transcription graph’ in Sibelius

What’s a transcription graph? This is a transcription graph:

This is something that I’ve stolen from saxophonist David Liebman (there’s a pdf kicking about on the interweb detailing his very intensive transcription process). Aligning the choruses vertically makes it easy to spot phrases that appear multiple times as the tune progresses.

3. Analysed the harmonic content of the lines

Each note was labelled according to its function relating to the harmony – either a chord tone, scalar approach note or chromatic approach. Some notes have dual functions, where they are both chord tones and act as an approach note into the next bar.

4. Highlighted phrases common to multiple choruses (‘licks’)

Any phrases that had similar harmonic content were highlighted to easily spot JP’s favourite walking bass licks; I opted for the rather attractive hue that Sibelius calls ‘salmon’ to make things stand out:

 

5. Created composite choruses

I copied and pasted the most frequently occuring line for each successive bar of the tune in order to create a composite walking bass etude that features the essential elements of John Patitucci’s walking bass concepts – one chorus of a 2-feel, another with ‘regular’ walking bass.

Some octave adjustment of pitches was necessary in order to preserve the contour of the lines and make things feel less ‘cut and paste’.

So here you have it – 2 choruses of small, easily digestible fragments that have been distilled from a larger pool of source material:

‘Stella By Starlight’ – Composite Walking Bass Etude pdf

The next steps look something like this:

6. Learn the lines

Memorise the etude. I’d suggest learning this in 12 keys, but few people ever bother to do that. Personally, I’d rather transpose it into 3 or 4 keys and then…

7. Apply to other tunes

Write out etudes based on this one for other tunes in your repertoire

8. Write your own variations

As you play through the lines, you might find that your ears suggest other routes for navigating the harmony; write them down and create your own ‘licktionary’.

 

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Jaco Left Clues

September 2017 marked 30 years since the untimely death of Jaco Pastorius, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest bass player of all time’ who completely revolutionised not only the instrument itself but also…

September 2017 marked 30 years since the untimely death of Jaco Pastorius, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest bass player of all time’ who completely revolutionised not only the instrument itself but also the way that it was played – Jaco pioneered the fretless bass and helped to make the electric bass a more legitimate jazz instrument (this may or may not be a terrible thing, depending on your point of view).

So why is everyone still talking about Jaco 30 years after his death? The fact is that he has influenced every single prominent electric bass player that has come through in the ‘post-jaco’ era; it doesn’t matter who you’re into – Pino Palladino, Mark King, Me’Shell N’degeocello, Gary Willis, John Patitucci, Marcus Miller, Will Lee, Richard Bona, Flea, Laurence Cottle, Stu Hamm – all of these great players have stolen a ton of stuff from Jaco. In fact, even if you’re keen on more modern players then Jaco is still relevant, as his influence can be clearly heard in the playing of Evan Marien, Joe Dart (Vulfpeck), Michael League (Snarky Puppy) and Hadrien Feraud.

What made Jaco So Great?

In order to understand why Jaco’s playing had such a profound impact on the history of the instrument we’re going to dig into his first commercial recording as a sideman, R&B guitarist Little Beaver’s ‘I Can Dig It Baby’, which was released in 1974, before Jaco’s infamous debut solo record, his appearance on Pat Metheny’s ‘Bright Size Life’ or Weather Report’s ‘Black Market’.

You can find a pdf of the transcription HERE

This wasn’t Jaco’s first recorded outing as such, he appeared on a record released under Paul Bley’s improvising artists label, originally titled Pastorius/Metheny/Ditmas/Bley (now widely referred to as ‘Jaco’) on which he can be heard playing some utterly ridiculous things in a not particularly accessible electronic free jazz setting. ‘I Can Dig It Baby’ represents Jaco’s first recording that would reach the ears of most mainstream listeners and allows us to study the key elements of his unique style in the context of a 6 minute pop song.

The credit for bass on ‘I Can Dig It Baby’ went to Nelson ‘Jocko’ Padron, but after a handful of notes it’s clear who’s in charge of the low end. What is most significant about Jaco’s recording debut is that it clearly demonstrates that he was a fully formed musician with a unique voice at the age of 22 or 23, which is an extremely rare thing. By examining the transcription of Jaco’s part on ‘I Can Dig It Baby’ we can isolate the fundamental elements of his style that would become so influential in years to come – it’s as if Jaco left us clues as to what he was going to unleash in the future as his career progressed.

5 essential ‘Jaco-isms’

1. Outlining Chords Using Harmonics

Bar 2 of the tune (Jaco’s fourth note of the piece) features a double stop harmonic which outlines the Bm7 chord. Harmonics don’t seem particularly out of the ordinary to us in the present day, but if we go back 30 years the story was very different; although Jaco doesn’t get sole credit for ‘inventing’ the harmonic vocabulary that we have nowadays he was definitely a pioneer of using both natural and false harmonics in order to expand the bass’ ability to convey extended harmony – Jaco totally changed the game with tracks like ‘A Portrait of Tracy’ and ‘Okonkole Y Trompa’ from his self-titled debut, and even managed to integrate them in a singer-songwriter context on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Coyote’.

Voicings like which combine fretted notes with harmonics have become mainstays of the electric bass, and it was Jaco that brought them to our attention.

2. Propulsive 16th note lines

Although Rocco Prestia is widely considered to be the king of relentless 16th note funk grooves – Tower of Power released ‘What Is Hip?’ around the same time as this record came out – Jaco was no slouch either and many of his signature lines, including the chorus to ‘Come On, Come Over’, consist of rapid fire funk motifs interspersed with ghost notes. The 2-bar groove that serves as the main line for this tune is no exception:

Here Jaco begins by outlining the Em7 harmony before descending into open position and using a combination of chord tones and ghost notes to create the rest of the line – he alternates figures on beat 4, first landing on the 5th and then resolving to the open E; this helps to give the groove a more ‘composed’ feeling compared to a constant 1-bar vamp.

Sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared) readers might have spotted that the main groove is almost identical to that of ‘Kuru/Speak Like a Child’ from his debut album, albeit at a slower tempo. The melodic contour of the line is also very similar to that of one of Jaco’s most famous grooves, the chorus of ‘Come on, Come Over’, with the highest note placed on beat 2 of the bar and the introduction of ghost notes in the second half of each bar:

Come One Come Over Chrous Groove

(for a more detailed look at ‘Come On, Come Over’ check out Groove of the Week #34)

3. Chromatic Approach Notes

Another of Jaco’s frequently used trademarks is the chromatic approach, either as a single chromatic approach from a semitone below a chord tone, or a double chromatic approach from a tone below.
These first appear in bars 9 and 10 of the transcription – the sections  labelled as ‘chorus’ and ‘bridge’ on the transcription are also littered with these approaches.

Bar 21 of the transcription shows the use of a double chromatic approach at the end of the second verse, where Jaco targets the major 3rd of the D7 chord and uses the open D string to create a double stop:

He would use throughout his later compositions most notably ‘Continuum’.

The chorus figure that uses root- 5th with single chromatic approaches actually hints at the infamous ‘Jaco Samba’ pattern that forms that basis of his lines on ‘(Used To Be A) Cha Cha’ and ‘Invitation’.

4. Rhythmic Displacement

As the song progresses, the verse/chorus/bridge structure gives way to a lengthy, less structured outro section. Here, Jaco leaves his opening groove behind and gives us another great 2 bar vamp that combines propulsive 16th note playing with chromaticism and some simple, yet effective rhythmic displacement:

Displacing the opening of bar 1 ahead by a 16th note transforms this from a stock Em funk groove into something special.

After 12 bars of this, Jaco cranks out a variation on this line that gives a nod towards what would become a cornerstone of his style…

5. Pentatonic Sequencing

Bar 97 of the transcription shows Jaco playing this line:

The first 2 beats are comprised of a minor pentatonic scale sequenced in 4ths and 5ths – after beginning with the root note he plays 4th to flat 7, 5th to root, then 5th to flat 7; This sort of thing was unusual at the time, with most scale sequencing being of the linear variety (typically using consecutive notes in the scale played in 3 or 4 note groupings).

Jaco was one of the first to employ wider interval skips, which became features of his landmark solos including Continuum, Port of Entry and Havona.

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