Like many bass players, I became infatuated with the sound of harmonics on hearing Jaco’s iconic ‘Portrait of Tracy’ for the first time; somehow JP had managed to transform the mumbling, monophonic plank of wood that is the bass guitar into a rich tapestry of shimmering harmonic (in both senses of the word) textures:
Imagine the horror of being a bassist in 1976 and hearing THAT. Luckily I grew up in the era of TAB books and Hot Licks videos, so I was able to ‘cheat’ my way into executing a sloppy approximation of Jaco’s harmonic vocabulary without too much effort. Thanks, Stu:
(I would love to have been at the meeting where they agreed on the title, the cover shot and wardrobe for this)
Playing ‘real’ bass using harmonics
While many players are comfortable with natural harmonics, few can incorporate them into everyday musical situations and most of the time they tend to remain in the ‘solo bass’ realm; I thought that Groove Of The Week should focus on at least one line that uses harmonics and fretted notes in more practical, supportive role.
Enter Squarepusher’s ‘Iambic 9 Poetry’:
This is a real gem – a self-contained contrapuntal line with two distinct voices (fretted bass notes and a melody built entirely from natural harmonics) that provides a real workout for the left hand; dump your finger independence exercises and give this a go instead.
Everything in its right place
As if playing the thing wasn’t enough, notating natural and artificial harmonics is another headache altogether.
Most natural harmonics have a completely different sounding pitch to their position on the fretboard and because we tend to learn harmonics by their location on the fretboard rather than their actual pitch name it’s easy to get lost if we use conventional notation. We have a few options when it comes to writing this stuff down:
- Write out all harmonics at sounding pitch, using 8va and 15ma markings to keep things as close to the stave as possible
- Notate harmonics using the location of the fretted note where the harmonic is located
- A hybrid of the above methods
Let’s discount option 4 immediately since TAB is scientifically proven to weaken your sperm and significantly increase your chances of knowing less about harmony than most guitar players (don’t ask me for citations on the first part).
After much head scratching and hurling expletives at Sibelius, I opted for option 3. Here’s the most legible thing that I could come up with:
Good luck, and if you have an alternative means of notation for harmonics then PLEASE get in touch.
Do You know Squarepusher?
If you’re unfamiliar with Squarepusher (real name Tom Jenkinson), then ‘Iambic 9 Poetry’ is one of the more accessible cuts from the reclusive English bassist’s back catalogue. His recorded output ranges from intense, glitchy electronica with live bass (Hard Normal Daddy and Big Loada) to melodic 6-string bass explorations (Solo Electric Bass), and his current project Shobaleader One provides a live band take on his earlier electronic works: