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Here come the dots

Category: Gear / Advice

Groove of The Week #35: Tribal Tech – ‘Face First’

More New Gear, No New Ideas – Confessions Of A String Tickler – R.I.P Rod Here’s where we left off last time. Meet the latest family member: Oops. So much…

More New Gear, No New Ideas – Confessions Of A String Tickler – R.I.P Rod

Here’s where we left off last time. Meet the latest family member:

Oops. So much for the self-imposed gear ban, then. I also made sweeping statements in an earlier post about how I’d never go fretless. So how am I going to justify the purchase of an Ibanez Gary Willis fretless?

Well… It was cheap. The Ibanez GWB35 has a strong reputation for being a good value fretless, and I felt like it was a worthwhile investment. Given my recent conversion to Jaco-ism it was only a matter of time before my resolve weakened and I gave into the lure of the fretless bass, although I won’t be gigging it anytime soon – whilst previous owners have made some positive alterations to the bass, such as stripping away the original ‘none more black’ finish (so it closely resembles the more expensive GWB1005), the nut was re-cut at some point and the action got set so low that the strings were practically touching the fretboard. In spite of my best setup efforts, the bass isn’t playing as I’d like it to so it’s heading off to my local tech for some serious attention.

But hang on, isn’t low action a desirable thing? Surely it means that our fretting hand has less work to do and prevents our plucking hand from wasting energy – doesn’t Gary Willis himself state that digging in too much is “the worst thing you can do on a fretless”?

I agree, up to a point. But if it’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s ‘string ticklers’.

Let’s get one thing straight: Gary Willis is, in my opinion, a total genius. He has one of the most highly evolved right hand approaches around, is an absolute master of playing across a huge dynamic spectrum and (to my ears, at least) is one of the few fretless bassists who doesn’t stand in the shadow of Jaco.*

But I disagree with his views on tone production – Willis advocates playing with a light touch and cranking the amp to get appropriate onstage volume, while I believe that giving the string more energy (notice I didn’t use the phrase ‘playing harder’) results in more authoritative playing and a superior tone.

Tone is in the ear of the beholder, as it were.

*For reference, the late Percy Jones is pretty much the only other fretless player who really grabs my attention. Sorry, Pino.


The Right Stuff

This was crystallised for me during a clinic given by Todd Johnson when I was at university (some readers will already be aware that Todd Studied extensively with Gary, so their right hand philosophies are similar). Todd was discussing the ‘floating thumb’ technique and advocating playing with a light touch and letting the amp do the work, and he demonstrated this by playing an Earth, Wind and Fire groove. Whilst there was no debating that he was playing the right notes in time and in the correct order there was something missing – it didn’t groove in the same way that Verdine White’s version does.

The reason? In my opinion, the right hand wasn’t being viewed as the principle source of the sound.

I say this as a reformed string tickler. Check out my mark sheet from an assessment at university:


Nothing makes you go home and get your shit together quicker than seeing the words WEAK TONE used to describe your playing.

Never again.


Fusion, With A Capital ‘F’

Anyway, here’s Groove of the Week #35, which features yours truly playing one of Gary Willis’ most famous lines with a not-so-light touch:


And here is the ‘Face First’ transcription:


As with the groove from Jaco’s ‘Come On, Come Over’ that was transcribed in the last post, Gary’s line on ‘Face First’ features frequent use of right hand raking to play ghost notes. I’ve chosen to notate the open strings that I rake rather than attempting to pitch the muted notes.


Rest In Peace, Rod Temperton

On Wednesday we lost Rod Temperton. Who? Keyboard player in 1970’s disco outfit Heatwave and pop writer extraordinaire. He wrote this:

And this:

AND this:

This one, too:


Probably the funkiest man to come out of Cleethorpes. You’ll be sorely missed, Rod.

MJ’s ‘Off The Wall’ album is one of my go-to CDs for driving to and from gigs – expect to see a few of Louis Johnson’s classic lines appearing on the transcriptions page over the coming months.


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Received Wisdom: 3 Pieces of Advice I Should Have Listened To

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am? While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:   Over…

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am?

While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:


  • Over the course of 2015, I taught roughly 1200 one-to-one music lessons
  • That’s in excess of 600 hours spent telling other people what I think that they should do to improve their playing.
  • That’s the equivalent of 25 whole days of dispensing advice about music. 



Why is this important? It shows that the amount of time I spend giving advice is wildly disproportionate to that which I allocate to receiving advice from others about my own playing (or teaching). 

This got me thinking about important lessons that I’ve taken in the 15 years since I first picked up the bass and reflecting on the pearls of wisdom that have had the most significant impact on my musical development. 

The most worrying fact is that the most valuable pieces of advice are the ones that I’ve actually paid the least attention to.


The 3 pieces of advice I should have taken on board


“Don’t party until you’re 25”


If (like me) you’re over 25, don’t panic – this can still be applied to a degree. Some readers will see this as a rather hardline approach, but for aspiring professionals it’s worth thinking about. 


The source: This nugget came courtesy of the owner of the only live music venue in the small town where I grew up. I was 18, and on the night in question I was helping out my teacher at the time as guitar tech for his band. I got chatting with the venue’s owner after the gig, and mentioned that I was getting ready to go to music college and wanted to make a career from music. The above was his only piece of advice on how to succeed. 


The meaning: Your teens and early 20s are when you will form the foundations of your musical identity. They are also the years in which you will (most probably) have more free time and fewer responsibilities than at any other age – devoting this free time to working on your musicianship will pay huge dividends later when ‘real life’ starts to eat into your practice time. 


Why it didn’t stick: I deluded myself into thinking that I was working hard enough and let other areas take equal priority over playing – the fact that the music college I went to was above a pub didn’t help matters… In short, I partied. 


What you can do about it: Sleep less. Watch less TV. Spend less time on social media. Have two drinks at the pub rather than seven. Stop wasting time reading blogs like this one and do some practice. This article by pianist James Rhodes is a wonderfully savage introduction to cutting out the rubbish in your life and getting back to what you love.


“Go after the sound you love”


The source: The venerable Richard Niles, award winning producer, arranger, guitarist and all-round musical übermensch. The quote itself is actually attributed to Pat Metheny, with whom Richard has worked with on frequent occasions. 


The meaning: Make the distinction between what you want to learn and what other people tell you that you should be learning. Embrace the music that you are passionate about and steal as much as you can from it – don’t shy away from your musical heritage. Don’t get distracted by people telling you that you should really listen to Miles Davis if the sound you’re after is bluegrass-meets-Squarepusher (I’d love to hear from anyone who is actually after that particular sonic equation). 


Why it didn’t stick: The short answer here is decision paralysis: presenting myself with too many options and failing to pursue any one of them to the level required to really absorb the sound into my playing. 


What you can do about it: Adopt the Helsinki Bus Station Theory (yes, really).



“If you have to practise* for the gig, you shouldn’t be on the gig”


*It’s important to note that I mean practise in the sense of developing mastery of a musical concept through persistent effort, rather than playing through new material that you might have to memorise for a gig. 


The source: Renowned bass educator (and No Treble contributor) Joe Hubbard


The meaning: Have the humility to realise that there are certain gigs that you should say ‘no’ to because they lie too far outside of your current comfort zone. Because of the many external (not to mention internal) sources of pressure that are present during any live performance situation, your musical ability has to be sufficient so that you can have a ‘buffer’ to absorb the distractions without your playing being compromised. 

Let’s say you have to learn a tune with a taxing unison line or ‘bass feature’ in it (‘Spain’, ‘Got A Match?’, ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ are just a few off the top of my head) and you’re struggling to get it up to tempo in the practice room. There is NO WAY that you’ll be able to execute that same part at tempo on stage in front of an audience – you need a technique buffer of roughly 10-20bpm that will allow you to absorb distractions and still play the part properly. 

This isn’t just a chops thing. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is saying ‘yes’ to a gig which involves playing music that puts you out of your depth stylistically – if you have no real interest in listening to and studying jazz then don’t pitch up on a standards gig with iReal Pro on your iPad and hope you can survive the evening. Don’t say ‘yes’ to the progressive metal gig if you’re not comfortable with odd time signatures – there’s no shame in being honest about what you can and can’t do musically. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be constantly striving to improve your playing and getting better gigs – there are plenty of opportunities to work on the performance aspect of music without being on a gig where the audience and the other musicians expect you to be on top form.


Why it didn’t stick: It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll turn down certain work until you realise that you have to pay your rent this month. Learning how to say ‘no’ to work also takes time for both financial and psychological reasons – it’s an ego boost to be called for a gig, and you might not want to have to pass on work to other musicians for fear that you won’t ever get called for anything ever again.


Do you have any wise words to share?

If there’s a piece of advice that has really helped you in your musical development then why not share it by commenting on this post?


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Reality Check: You Are Not Your Gig

Almost every week of the year I play function gigs; weddings, parties, corporate events, fundraisers, product launches – the occasions are varied but the music is largely the same. Regardless…

Almost every week of the year I play function gigs; weddings, parties, corporate events, fundraisers, product launches – the occasions are varied but the music is largely the same. Regardless of whether I’m working with bands that I play with regularly or depping (usually at short notice and always without rehearsal) in an unfamiliar band there are always tunes that crop up on every single gig.

Some of these songs are great, while others are thoroughly loathsome. The challenge is treating them all the same.

When I left music college some years ago, I was naive and principled in thinking that I’d be able to forge a career as a musician through only playing music that I liked, and I even had a list of gigs that I’d never ever do.

Seven years later and I’ve done almost all of them.

So what changed? Firstly, it’s easy to be idealistic about what you deem to be musically credible until your rent is due.

Reality Check: Realising That Your Job is Not Your Career

Attempting to make a living through music in London (or anywhere else, for that matter) is a tall order, and if it’s a choice between doing a musically dubious gig or having to take a non-musical ‘day job’ to make ends meet then the former will always trump the latter.

The second change was that I grew up (well, a little…) and accepted that part of being a professional involves treating all music equally regardless of personal tastes. The audience members at every gig deserve your respect, the other musicians deserve your respect and, crucially, the music deserves your respect.

One of the items on my list of gigs that I’d never do was anything related to tribute acts – then about 5 years ago I accepted a corporate gig where one of the sets was entirely of ABBA tunes. Whilst I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to dress up for the gig, I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the prospect of learning 20 songs by a band that I wasn’t remotely keen on.

The process of transcribing a number of ABBA songs forced me to reconsider my viewpoint of music that I’d previously deemed to be cheesy, lightweight pop nonsense – the bass playing (courtesy of the late Rutger Gunnarsson) is creative and melodic whilst always serving the songs, with many of his lines bearing the influence of Paul McCartney and James Jamerson.

The charts that I made for that gig have been tidied up and are now available for download from the transcriptions page.

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Groove Of The Week #28: The Weeknd – 'Can't Feel My Face'

Following a request to include something more contemporary in the series, I scoured mainstream radio for something bass-heavy to transcribe: View this post on Instagram Had requests for a more…

Following a request to include something more contemporary in the series, I scoured mainstream radio for something bass-heavy to transcribe:

Here are the dots:

GOTW Can t Feel My Face

In order to emulate the original sound from the recording I used one of my favourite pedals, the Boss OC-2. Although my gear hoard includes a bass synth (an original Novation BassStation for the gear nerds), I rarely take it out on gigs as it’s a hassle to pack the extra gear for one or two songs in a set.

I find that an octave pedal, such as the OC-2, provides a decent approximation of many bass synth sounds found on recordings*. If there’s song that originally had a bass part played on a synth then I’ll tend to use an octave pedal with the dry signal turned down and the effected octave-below sound close to 100%. This results in a tone which makes the attack and envelope of each note closer to that of a keyboard and less like a bass guitar.

It’s not just a case of using the pedal to reach notes that are below the range of a 4-string bass – I’ll often use an octave pedal on gigs rather than use a 5-string because of the tone that it provides.

*for the curious, other function tunes that I give the octave pedal treatment include ‘Superstition’, Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Shake Your Body’, Florence + The Machine’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’ and Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger’.

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